Under The Influence: E. E. “DOC” Smith

Share

 

 

I deliberately waited for a while before posting this one. This essay is very similar to the one posted on my original website for Grand Central Arena, and I wanted to have time for other influences to be posted before returning to Doc Smith.

 

I first encountered the work of E.E. “Doc” Smith in sixth grade, in Shaker Junior High School. My homeroom and English teacher, Mr. Dickinson, knew I was a reader of science fiction, and was responsible for introducing me to two great SF writers of the old days. The first happened when he handed me a battered, slightly cigarette-burned paperback with strange stylized spherical ships on the cover, and said “You might like this.”

 

What he had given me was the third (publication order) or the fifth (internal chronological order) book in Doc’s greatest work, the Lensman series: Second-Stage Lensmen.

 

There is no way to overstate the impact of that novel on me. It changed me. For the first time I was encountering space opera in its purest, most powerful form, and it was all between those covers: the prologue that described the cosmic, two-billion-year war of shadows and deception that led to the founding of the Galactic Patrol, the rise of Civilization, and its dark mirror, Boskonia, and the eventual defeat of Boskone… that turned out to be merely a prelude to a war that would span two galaxies and millions of lightyears, fought with spies and misdirection as much as with mobile planets, fleets of millions of ships, weapons that could shatter worlds, and all of it culminating in a single mind-to-mind conflict that even the hero himself could not entirely comprehend.

 

Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith was, in essence, the true founder of space opera, and the single greatest influence in my writing life. Born in 1890, Doc died in 1965; he did not live to see men fly to the moon, but he did see us take our first halting steps into space, after being born in an era when horseback was still the fastest mode of travel for the ordinary person.

 

This did not prevent him from seeing far beyond where we had gone, or have gone, and perhaps ever will go. His Skylark series was the first to take us beyond the solar system; his Lensman series – generally considered his greatest work, although Doc, himself, often mentioned Spacehounds of IPC as his favorite – inspired the later generations of SF writers from Robert Heinlein to David Weber.

 

Coming to his novels today, a naïve reader may see overwritten purple prose filled with clichés; but the truth is that Doc Smith made the clichés – and shattered others. He was the first to take modern science fiction beyond the solar system. He was the first to depict a multi-species cooperative government, in which humans were neither masters nor inferiors, and where aliens were fully our equals – despite being, in many ways, alien. His stories, while using technologies that didn’t exist – and in many cases which could not exist – still treated those technologies as technology, not magic. He recognized the essential progression of war as not merely one of men and weapons, but of words and ideas, and described a propaganda war before the concept was ever clearly articulated in the real world. His science-fictional description of a method for controlling and directing a massive fleet of vessels efficiently, accurately, and effectively became the blueprint for the U.S. Navy’s Combat Information Centers.

 

His stories were also the first to reach a scale of power that, to this day, few writers can handle well, and he tried in many ways to take into account the effect of that level of power for a civilization; what does it mean when you can shatter worlds with your weapons, turn out the Sun as though flipping a switch? That he failed to find all the effects and implications is not surprising; what is surprising is how much he managed to get right, if not in specific scientific detail, but in its essence.

 

Most importantly, his stories – especially for their era – were and are some of the most purely-distilled essences of wonder that have ever been written, living declarations in the faith of the writer that human beings can be good and noble and courageous, despite all the evil we may see in the world; that striving is worth the cost, that victory is possible, that against all the darkness within our own hearts and in the universe beyond we hold an imperishable and irresistable sword of light, if only we have the will to reach out and grasp it.

 

I never met Doc; he died when I was three, nine years before I would ever meet Kimball Kinnison, Mentor of Arisia, or all his other creations. So I was unable to thank him for the unending inspiration he has given me. The homage in Grand Central Arena is the closest I can get to doing so – by trying my best to do for someone else what he did for me.

 

Thank you, Doc Smith, for creating the dream that made Grand Central Arena possible.

 

Comments

  1. John Wagner says:

    I love E.E. Doc Smith. I started reading him at age 9, 1967. If I remember right, it was Galaxy Primes. That caused me to seek out everything he’d written. It then pushed me onto Ole World Wrecker Hamilton and his fantastic books. I love Space Opera because of those two writers (and Williamson [Seetee series esp], and Campbell and…). Heh. Your GCA does a fine job of evoking the ‘Golden Age’ in me (I feel so old now). Sequel please (I’ve bugged you on the Bar before.. I know. You can run, but you can’t hide!!! Bwahahahaha! Sorry. I’ll be good.).

    basset

    • The sequel, Spheres of Influence, is nearly done.

    • I have been a SF fan almost before I could read! I was first exposed by the movie, THE THING From Another World…the first movie I can remember seeing (1951), I was 7. The first SF I read was in the 3rd grade in Literature Class (Verne’s 20,000 LUS). The next SF I can remember reading was the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series. Then I discovered Heinlein…Have Space Suit Will Travel, the first. But I think it was Campbell where I was first exposed to “Space Opera.” Wanting more (how I don’t remember) I discovered the SKYLARK series. After that the LENSMEN series. I have them all in paperback. The Lensmen series is my favorite SF series of all time (sorry about that, Isaac)! SF FOREVER…Live Long & Prosper!!

  2. I think it was Lester del Rey who said he once tried rewriting one of Doc Smith’s works in more modern prose, and found that it didn’t work that way. The gaudy language of the original was necessary to it.

    But yes, the Skylark series, the Lensman series, and the standalones like Spacehounds of IPC deserve to live. Boy, did they move.

    • You’re forgetting the Family D’Alembert books (starts with Imperial Stars). Of course, they were co-written with Stephen Goldin (IIRC), so some purists don’t consider them “real” Doc Smith books. The heroes were a brother-sister pair raised in a 3g environment to be superior athletes in a circus. They then became super-spies, and so began the books.

  3. Stephen M. St. Onge says:

    Btw, SECOND STAGE LENSMEN is the fifth in internal chronology. The sixth is CHILDREN OF THE LENS.

  4. Glad to hear it from another E.E. Smith fan. He was great, I enjoyed all his books. It’s too bad his style has not aged well. None of my children got into Smith at all, although they got deeply into yellowing paperbacks by Heinlein, Asimov, Andre Norton, and ER Burroughs.

    • I have tried to emulate Smith, or what he would have done had he been born in this era rather than the end of the 1800s, in Grand Central Arena, hoping to reach more modern audiences with a similar sensawunda.

      Nothing wrong with the other authors you list, either (in fact RAH and Asimov will get their own Under The Influence posts).

    • I don’t know if this is true for you or not, but the people I’ve spoken to who love Doc Smith were all introduced to his books as pre-teens/early teens.

      Those who tried them as adults judged by a different standard, so we lucky ones love his work for life, while the others see only the “bad science” instead of good story. (The comment about science was made by some of the adults I tried to get into these books, NOT by me.)

  5. Manuel Stock says:

    It is amusing to see how closely your experience matches mine – E.E. doc Smith was introduced to me by my secondary school teacher – he lent me his “Galactic Patrol” and “First Lensman” paperbacks.
    It is nice to see that there are a few other fans out there.

Your comments or questions welcomed!