Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 1: Isotope X

I've written before about my Dad's collection of science fiction books which fascinated me as a boy. Along with Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet and The Rolling Stones and Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr series, one of the first science fiction novels I ever read was The Skylark of Space, by the impressively-named E.E. Smith, PhD.

"Doc" Smith was one of those early giants who have now been largely forgotten, but who established the boundaries of science fiction; which in Smith's case were: there are no boundaries!  He is probably best known for his Lensmen series, about a galaxy-spanning police force granted telepathic powers by mysterious alien patrons and which is part of a secret eons-old war between these aliens and a race of malevolent aliens from another galaxy. Lensman was a major influence on the Green Lantern Corps; and come to think of it, there are echoes of it in Babylon 5 as well.

The Skylark of Space was his first novel, written between 1915 and 1920 while he earning his PhD in chemical engineering and getting his first job as a food engineer designing better donuts. It took him several years to find a publisher, finally selling it to the magazine Amazing Stories in 1928. Skylark was wildly successful and led to three sequels as well as his Lensman series.

The hero, Richard Seaton is a scientist working at the Rare Metals Laboratory in Washington, DC. Like Smith, Seaton had a rugged boyhood growing up in the mountains of Idaho, but his roving intelligence and fascination with science led him to pursue a college degree.

We meet Seaton in the middle of a lab accident. One might almost call it a eucatastrophe, a "good disaster", except instead of being a sudden reversal at the end which brings about the Happy Ending, this is the dramatic random event at the beginning which sets everything in motion. He is analyzing some of the leftover waste ores that have accumulated in the lab over the years, extracting out the more valuable metals, like platinum. There is a small remnant that he cannot identify, a mostly-stable isotope where no mostly-stable isotope should exist. While electrolyzing a solution of the mystery isotope, some of it sloshes out of its beaker and it comes in contact with a piece of copper wire and BAM! The piece of lab equipment he was using goes flying out the window.

This is not normal behavior for a steam bath. It didn't just fly out the window; it kept going in a straight line as far as Seaton could see with a pair of binoculars. After checking all his instruments and going over everything that happened, he comes to the conclusion that his mystery isotope, when excited by the electrical current from the wire, had somehow converted the copper of the wire directly into energy.

The ramifications of this are so boggling. But not nearly as upsetting as the realization that he was supposed to be at his fiancee's house three hours ago.

Dick Seaton is engaged to Dorothy Vaneman, a beautiful and strong-willed redhead from an upper-crust family. Smith had a thing for red-heads; just as Dick Seaton was an idealized version of himself, he based Dorothy on his wife, Jeanne. Dorothy is pretty steamed when Dick shows up sheepishly on her doorstep at 10:30 pm. but he is so penitent and so enthusiastic about his scientific discovery that she can't help but forgive him. Seaton spends most of their date talking about platinum wastes; but they are just engaged and Dorothy doesn't seem to mind. Smith was not terribly comfortable writing romantic scenes, and in Skylark he had a woman named Lee Garby, the wife of a friend, write the love interest.

The next morning, demonstrates his discovery to his buddies at the lab; but inexplicably, nothing happens. His co-workers have a good laugh at his expense, but Seaton is puzzled, until he remembers that the previous evening, another of his co-workers, DuQuesne, had been using a particle accelerator in the lab next to his. Seaton waits until he hears DuQuesne fire up the "whatsitron", and tries his experiment with the wire and the isotope solution again. This time it works, and a fragment of the copper wire again shoots out the window.

Instead of calling his friends back -- they wouldn't believe him anyway -- Seaton leaves work to call on another friend, Martin Crane. He has an idea that he hasn't even shared with Dorothy yet. He wants to use his discovery to power a spaceship; but for that he'll need help.

M. Reynolds Crane is the heir to a large aeronautics firm and a highly competent engineer in his own right. He's sort of like Tony Stark, only without the boozing and womanizing. In fact, being one of the most eligible bachelors in Washington and having been pursued by most of the debutantes and matchmaking mothers on the Easter Seaboard, Martin is decidedly skittish about women. He's only comfortable around Dorothy Vaneman because she's solely interested in Seaton.

Dick met Martin when the two of them competed against each other in an amateur tennis tournament some years back, and they became close friends. Crane plays Oliver to Seaton's Roland; where Dick is enthusiastic and impetuous, Martin is cool-headed and practical. Seaton wants to buy a lab and start working on developing his discovery right away. Crane needs to be convinced that Seaton really has something; but once he is, his first thought is to incorporate; establish a board of directors and get things set up on a sound business footing. "The organization of our company comes first -- suppose I should die before we solve the problem? I suggest something like this..."

There is the small problem that Seaton's mystery isotope is still technically government property. Since the solution is waste material that was going to be thrown away anyway, Seaton suggests just pocketing the bottle and taking it home. "Not good enough," Crane says. "We must have clear title, signed, sealed, and delivered." So instead, Seaton fills out the paperwork to have his bottle sold at the weekly auction where his department gets rid of much of it's surplus. This is still ethically dubious, but legal enough to satisfy Crane. They buy the bottle of Isotope X at the auction that afternoon for ten cents.

Enter Marc C. DuQuesne. We've already heard mention of him as the fellow scientist operating the "whatsitron" in the lab next to Seaton's. He is tall and powerfully-built man, much like Seaton, and is highly-respected in his field. He's called "Blackie" by his friends -- no, make that "colleagues"; DuQuesne does not make friends -- because of his raven-black hair and his dark penetrating eyes. He is also cold-blooded, ruthless and amoral without the slightest atom of sentiment in his being.

DuQuesne is one of the reasons I like the Skylark books better than the Lensman series. The Eddorians of Lensmen may be more evil and their Boskonian minions more despicable, but DuQuesne is a better villain by far. Despite holding moral values in contempt, he possesses a peculiar type of honor. He's honest, brutally so. And he's scrupulous in his science. He toadies to no man. He got where he is through sheer unalloyed competence. DuQuesne was without question the most popular character in the series, and by the final book he had largely taken over the spotlight as Smith had him joining forces with Seaton against a greater cosmic threat. But that is far, far in the future.

DuQuesne was present at Seaton's failed demonstration that morning, but thought little of it, until he hears about Crane's visit to the lab and the auction. DuQuesne knows Crane by reputation and realizes that if he is backing Seaton, then there must be something to Seaton's crazy story. He puts things together quite rapidly. Like Seaton, he realizes that this discovery has vast potential; and like Seaton, he knows that he will need help to exploit it.

He contacts a fellow named Brookings, who is the head of the Washington branch of a vast multi-national corporation called World Steel. How DuQuesne is able to speak with a powerful executive of a major conglomerate, Smith does not precisely spell out; but apparently DuQuesne has helped World Steel in various ... ahem ... matters.

"Say it, Brookings. 'Deals' is right."

All right, deals. DuQuesne lays it out for him. Seaton has discovered a source of virtually limitless power at an extremely low cost, and World Steel can control it. "It should be easy -- one simple murder and an equally simple burglary -- and it won't mean wholesale murder, like that tungsten job." DuQuesne's idea is for Brookings's people to kill Seaton and steal the X solution. Brookings will provide the capital to develop the stuff under DuQuesne's direction.

Brookings is hesitant. World Steel Corp. has committed murder before, but Brookings prefers to call them "accidents". DuQuesne sneers at his squeamishness.
"Bah!" DuQuesne snorted. "Who do you think you're kidding? Do you think I told you enough so that you can sidetrack me out of the deal? Get that idea out of your head -- fast. There are only two men in the world who can handle it -- R.B. Seaton and M.C. DuQuesne. Take you pick. Put anybody else on it -- anybody else -- and he'll blow himself and his whole neighborhood out beyond the orbit of Mars." 
"You're very modest, DuQuesne." 
"Modesty gets a man praise, but I prefer cash."
DuQuesne barks out his demands like a character from a gangster movie -- and despite Brookings's pretensions of respectability, World Steel Corp. really is a company run by gangsters -- but Brookings refuses to be pressured. He thanks DuQuesne for the advice and bids him good-day. He then assigns one of his minions to steal the X solution and arranges for one of Steel's labs to analyze it.

Meanwhile, Seaton throws himself into the task of figuring out the properties of his X isotope and how to utilize it. He has holed up in a private lab on the Crane estate and not seen the light of day for a week. Dorothy hasn't seen him since the night of the lab accident and is becoming worried. Crane visits Dorothy and explains what is going on; but he admits that Dick is overworking himself. "He has to take it easy or break down, but nothing I can say has had any effect."

She shows up that evening at the lab and gives Dick an ultimatum.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking this last week, especially today. I love you as you are. I can either do that or give you up. I can't even imagine giving you up, because I know I'd cold-bloodedly strangle with her own hair any woman who ever cocked an eye at you ... Come on, Dick, no more work tonight.. I'm taking you and Martin home for dinner." Then, as his eyes strayed involuntarily back toward the computer, she said, more forcefully, "I -- said -- no -- more-- work -- tonight. Do you want to fight about it?"
Dick concedes, and Dorothy drags him back to her place, where she plies him with good food. As he's relaxing after dinner, she asks if he minds if she practices her violin; she hasn't had time to practice that day. After a week of barely eating or sleeping, the combination of a heavy meal and soothing music is enough to knock Dick out.

He awakens the following afternoon, feeling thoroughly embarrassed. He promises not to ignore Dorothy again and to take time off to rest. He even admits to Crane that having a good night's sleep has helped him get a fresh look at one of the problems he was having with his theories. Seaton never does completely shake his workaholic habits -- In one of the later books he encounters aliens who do their scientific research strictly by a rigid schedule and it drives him crazy -- but Dorothy does provide a mitigating influence that keeps him from burning out.

NEXT:  What happened to Bankerville, WV? Testing aplications for X; building the spaceship; and DuQuesne declares war.

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