Friday, November 30, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Galactic Patrol

E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, 1937-38

Last time, we looked at Italo Calvino, one of the most playful and intelligent writers of the 20th century; now we move to E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, which the uncharitable might regard as the sublime to the ridiculous. Certainly Smith’s writings are humour-free zones, and his undoubted intellect (he is reputed to be the man who worked out how to get icing sugar to stick to doughnuts) is not always on display in his fiction: but his Lensman series, of which Galactic Patrol is the best, has been immensely influential on generations of young, invariably male, readers—including this one.

The Lensman series is one of the first space operas. As the seven books unfold, ever larger space battles (sometimes involving millions of ships) occur, harnessing ever more potent technologies. Smith gives us action, and plenty of it. There are strong-jawed incorruptible heroes, intelligent and beautiful heroines who nevertheless recognise that their role is essentially subservient to the men. You couldn’t write it today, and you probably wouldn’t want to. But what Smith loses in nuanced characterisation—which, let’s face it, is just about everything—he gains in sheer sweep of imagination. It’s hard to imagine the infinitely richer space operas of writers like Iain M. Banks without Smith.

Smith’s prose is overheated, as the extract below shows:

"You are wrong, Conway; all wrong," Clio was saying, very seriously. "I know how you feel, but it's false chivalry."

"That isn't it, at all," he insisted, stubbornly. "It isn't only that I've got you out here in space, in danger and alone, that's stopping me. I know you and I know myself well enough to know that what we start now we'll go through with for life. It doesn't make any difference, that way, whether I start making love to you now or whether I wait until we're back on Tellus--I've been telling you for half an hour that for your own good you'd better pass me up entirely. I've got enough horsepower to keep away from you if you tell me to--not otherwise."

"I know it, both ways, dear, but...."

"But nothing!" he interrupted. "Can't you get it into your skull what you'll be letting yourself in for if you marry me? Assume that we get back, which isn't sure, by any means. But even if we do, some day—and maybe soon, too, you can't tell--somebody is going to collect fifty grams of radium for my head."

Triplanetary, 1934

It’s hard to imagine an adult modern reader failing to find the passage unintentionally amusing—even at the age of thirteen I suspect I found it pretty risible (although oddly engaging nonetheless – and the fifty grams of radium is cracking). But no doubt I was thrilled with:

The Nevian vessel--the sister-ship, the craft which Costigan had seen in mid-space as it hurtled earthward in response to Nerado's summons—hung poised in full visibility, high above the metropolis. Scornful of the pitiful weapons wielded by man she hung there, her sinister beauty of line sharply defined against the cloudless sky. From her shining hull there reached down a tenuous but rigid rod of crimson energy; a rod which slowly swept hither and thither as the detectors of the amphibians searched out the richest deposits of the precious iron for which the inhuman visitors had come so far. Iron, once solid, now a viscous red liquid, was sluggishly flowing in an ever-thickening stream up that intangible crimson duct and into the capacious storage tanks of the Nevian raider; and wherever that flaming beam went there went also ruin, destruction, and death. Office buildings, skyscrapers towering majestically in their architectural symmetry and beauty, collapsed into heaps of debris as their steel skeletons were abstracted. Deep into the ground the beam bored; flood, fire, and explosion following in its wake as the mazes of underground piping disappeared. And the humanity of the buildings died: instantaneously and painlessly, never knowing what struck them, as the life-bearing iron of their bodies went to swell the Nevian stream.

Triplanetary, 1934

That’s the end of Pittsburgh, and it’s what Smith does best: space opera in its undiluted form. The prose may be purple but it’s not inappropriate in the context. As I said earlier, you couldn’t write this stuff today. Part of me can’t help thinking that’s not altogether a good thing.

How has it influenced me?

Smith is not by any standards a literary writer. What he does have, though, is an imagination on the grand scale and prose of a fiery energy. In the decade when my reading tastes were formed, the Lensman series was a consistent favourite, and for a long time I yearned, in a pretty callow way, to write space operas. Soon after, I discovered Jack Vance, and the realisation that these stories are even better if you can control the language you use to write them. But in the same way I would not have become the writer I am without Vance, neither would I without Smith. He is in every sense a dinosaur, left behind by literary evolution, but a part of all our pasts, and a source of fascination and wonder to this day.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If your imagination has sufficient scope, it will cover a multitude of stylistic sins

No matter how futuristic your plots, you are always a child of your times

Sometimes purple prose works…

…but almost certainly not in love scenes


David Isaak said...

Well, frankly I could never quite get on with Smith's stuff...

But I understand your point. I was a big fan of Ian Fleming when I was that age. (And they had sex, too! Well, sorta...)

I do agree that sometimes one can learn a good deal from revisiting the works of just-tell-the-damn-story writers.

Tim Stretton said...

Smith certainly gets the story told...if not much else.

He is a resolutely unsophisticated writer, which is why I thought it would be fun to put him on after Calvino.

Next--just to show these things really are planned--another Smith, but several notches up the sophistication dial...