E.E. Doc Smith has been on my radar for a while. Considered the father of Space Opera with admirers like Heinlein, Lucas, and Strazynski and a major writer in the pulps, he seemed to perfectly fit the niche I’m currently interested in. While I’m sure others are groaning that I didn’t start with his Lensman or Skylark books, I still rather enjoyed his Spacehounds of IPC (1931). And it’s free from Amazon, so…
The Nuts and Bolts
The story is a little disjointed, but charmingly so. The three parts, divided for original publication in Amazing Stories, tell interlocking stories, but the whole reads far more like a travelogue of adventures rather than a single tale. There’s one event which starts everything in motion – an attack by an unknown menace from Jupiter – but Smith takes off from there to recount the survival of the protagonists first in the ruins of a spaceship, then in the wilds of Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter. The second portion recounts the interaction with new aliens species – from Titan, a moon around Saturn, and Callisto, another Jovian satellite. The third shifts main characters with the addition of rescuers from earth going to war with the belligerent Jovians. This variety could be annoying for those wanting a specific thread to follow, and it definitely has some slogging moments, but the whole is rather charming.
The writing is definitely something out of the early 20th century adventure genre. The prose is as purple as you get, with over the top adjective and adverbs galore, but used unironically which is it’s own sort of breath of fresh air. The dialogue can also be over-the-top with overly wrought hip-scientist lingo – you might get sick of hearing “all x” by the end of the book.
A final critique before some of the thematic stuff. Smith’s romantic plots just make you want to smile in their naivete. I’m sure some will scream about sexist simplicity, but to me these types of plots are heartwarming. Women are attracted to strong, confident men. Men are attracted to beautiful, confident women. Crash them together, and you get a married couple. Other tales can deal with the emotional complexity of these matters. Sometimes you just want to see heroic men and women marry off in heroic bliss. It’s fun.
Science, the glory of man, but not his salvation
Smith definitely has the early 20th century optimism about science. The great discoveries are just around the corner and will be jettisoning us into a future of space exploration and mighty marvels!
But he doesn’t give science this veneer of salvation that pervades our current culture. This is cool stuff, sure. And there’s definitely a bit of making fun of the superstitious. But ultimately it is men who save the day, not science. If someone is not human and attains great scientific skill, like the Hexans of Jupiter, you become monsters.
Smith is all about making the science serve the humanity of his heroes, especially as this is an adventure yarn. After spending a year to build a powerplant, using the wreckage of their life-boat and building many a thing from stone-age technology, the protagonist Stevens, about to run off to look for his missing love interest, reveals that he has become a Conan-life figure in his physicality:
“Swiftly he came to a decision and threw off his suit, revealing the body of a Hercules—a body ready for any demand he could put upon it. Always in hard training, months of grinding physical labor and of heavy eating had built him up to a point at which he would scarcely have recognized himself, could he have glanced into a mirror. Mighty but pliable muscles writhed and swelled under his clear skin as he darted here and there, selecting equipment for what lay ahead of him.”
-Smith, E. E. (Edward Elmer). Spacehounds of IPC (Kindle Locations 902). Kindle Edition.
But Smith is no Robert E. Howard, disdainful of civilization. He recognizes that a bit of engineering ingenuity can turn a brawny warrior into an unstoppable hero. The science here expands what Stevens is capable of, magnifying his own humanity:
“He donned the heavily armored space-suit which they had prepared months before, while they were still suspicious of possible attack. It was covered with heavy steel at every point, and the lenses of the helmet, already of unbreakable glass, had been re-enforced with thick steel bars. Tank and valves supplied air at normal pressure, so that his powerful body could function at full efficiency, not handicapped by the lighter atmosphere of Ganymede. The sleeves terminated in steel-protected rubber wristlets which left his hands free, yet sheltered from attack—wristlets tight enough to maintain the difference in pressure, yet not tight enough to cut off the circulation. He took up his mighty war-bow and the full quiver of heavy arrows—full-feathered and pointed with savagely barbed, tearing heads of forged steel—and slipped into their sheaths the long and heavy razor-sharp sword and the double-edged dirk, which he had made and ground long since for he knew not what emergency, and whose bell-shaped hilts of steel further protected his hands and wrists. Thus equipped, he had approximately his normal earthly weight; a fact which would operate to his advantage, rather than otherwise, in case of possible combat.”
-Smith, E. E. (Edward Elmer). Spacehounds of IPC (Kindle Locations 899). Kindle Edition.
Passages like this reveal an intense appreciation of humanity, something that can be lost in a lot of science-fiction writers as they fall into philosophical abstractions or the glories of science. Science is not about controlling the world or remaking our nature. Rather, the technologies we can develop are the ways in which we perfect our dominion over creation – protecting ourselves from our enemies and aiding our friends and allies. They maximize our humanity, not change or save it.
This emphasis on the way science maximizes may be a scary prospect for some, especially those of us in an age of scientism which denies that humans have natures, but I think Smith’s view here is important and enlightening. Science is not a problem. Rather, it’s that we’ve given up on the kind of optimism in human nature these sorts of science-stories relished in. The scientist heroes like Stevens and the later Brandon and Westfall are not out to change man or enforce their will by their intellect. Rather, they seek to reveal the glory that is man by his exploration of the universe.
It’s a modern and heroic vision that was present in the old philosophers and scholastics – to study the world is the glory of man, and to be fully man is to give glory to God. Smith doesn’t go that far, but I don’t mind reading into it.
The definition of human
The second portion of the story shifts as the heroes make their way off Ganymede in search of needed materials to build a super-radio. In the midst of this, they are attacked and then saved by another group of humans, these from Titan. The Titanians are humanoid in shape, but with a biological development radically different from our own – their bodily temperatures are incredibly low and they have low tolerance of high gravity. Even with all these differences (and Nadia’s distaste for their looks!), they are recognized as human.
Here’s another very interesting point that Smith hones in on – humans are not defined by biological structure, but rather their intellectual capability. How very aristotelian of him! This is something you also see in Lewis’ Space Trilogy as he encounter humans biologically very different from earth-men, but still fundamentally human. It is not DNA which makes us what we are, but that we have the capacity for reason.
Smith doesn’t get into the scientific how, but he’s also pretty clear that all these humans come from some similar source. Either a similar evolutionary development, or some original stock which evolved differently on different planets. He leaves it up in the air. More important is the recognition of the “other” as one who is “intellect of my intellect” in some fashion.
There are limits, of course. The heroes will soon encounter the six-armed Hexans (ha!) and snake-like Vorkulians which are wildly different from humans not only in biology but psychology. They are, properly, not human. Smith doesn’t get deep into this, but it’s an interesting little exercise – encountering races different from us, but still are us; and races similar to us, but still not us.
Who is the monster and who is the man? It’s fascinating stuff.
I commend the book. It’s got its slow moments and jerking the reader around as to what sort of story it is could annoy some. But it gives a good model of scientific speculation that doesn’t deify science, but does highlight how it reveals the true glory of man. And it’s fun! Those of us with a streak of snobbery will be bored at time, but the 13-year old in you will love it. Let him love it.
Smith is definitely a writer I want to come back to sooner rather than later. His Lensman stories are calling my name. If anyone can recommend a specific ebook edition, I’m all ears.