Saturday, March 07, 2009

Amazing Stories

In compiling my stream-of-consciousness list of 25 writers who have influenced me, I found it a little odd that E. E. 'Doc' Smith found his way onto the list so easily. I do remember spending a happy summer when I was about 10, curled up on the couch with his Skylark and Lensmen series, but these aren't books I would have thought of as "influential." I also realized I knew almost nothing about Smith or his books beyond a few fond childhood memories, so I've done a little nostalgia-based online research and what I've learned has me even more intrigued by this unlikely influence.

The books are much older than I ever knew. The first Skylark stories were published as a series in Amazing Stories back in 1927, but he had begun writing them in 1915. These are available online, complete with artwork I've never seen before, from Project Gutenberg. Since I've consumed all the paperbacks I brought with me on sabbatical, I've started to reread some of these Amazing Stories. I'm amazed alright.

The prose is both wonderful and horrible. Here is the start of the first story:

Petrified with astonishment, Richard Seaton stared after the copper steam-bath upon which he had been electrolyzing his solution of "X," the unknown metal. For as soon as he had removed the beaker the heavy bath had jumped endwise from under his hand as though it were alive. It had flown with terrific speed over the table, smashing apparatus and bottles of chemicals on its way, and was even now disappearing through the open window. He seized his prism binoculars and focused them upon the flying vessel, a speck in the distance. Through the glass he saw that it did not fall to the ground, but continued on in a straight line, only its rapidly diminishing size showing the enormous velocity with which it was moving. It grew smaller and smaller, and in a few moments disappeared utterly.
And the dialogue is equally wonderfully-horrible:

"Great balls of fire!" he exclaimed. "What've you been celebrating? Had an explosion? How, what, and why?"

"I can tell you the 'what,' and part of the 'how'," Seaton replied thoughtfully, "but as to the 'why,' I am completely in the dark. Here's all I know about it," and in a few words he related the foregoing incident. Scott's face showed in turn interest, amazement, and pitying alarm. He took Seaton by the arm.

"Dick, old top, I never knew you to drink or dope, but this stuff sure came out of either a bottle or a needle. Did you see a pink serpent carrying it away? Take my advice, old son, if you want to stay in Uncle Sam's service, and lay off the stuff, whatever it is."
I still seem to be highly susceptible to the lures of space opera. Even though it makes me cringe a little, I'm going to read more. What worries me most, though, is that I'm going to still like it.

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