Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 3: Into Space

Continuing our look at E.E. "Doc" Smith's seminal space opera.

Scientist Richard Seaton and his friend, wealthy industrialist and inventor Martin Crane, are building a spaceship using an unknown metal Seaton discovered in a batch of platinum wastes, which is capable of liberating tremendous amounts of energy from copper. But a rival scientist, Marc C. DuQuesne, has conspired with an World Steel Corporation, an evil conglomerate, to gain control of the X metal. They have stolen a quantity of the X solution and some of Seaton's notes, and they will not rest until they have it all.

One afternoon a huge copper sphere descends from the sky and lands on the lawn of Dorothy Vaneman, Seaton's fiancée. It's the Skylark, the upgraded spaceship Dick and Martin began building in secret when they discovered that Steel was sabotaging their original model. "We've been around the Moon!" Seaton boasts.

He and Crane give Dorothy and her parents a tour of the Skylark. We've seen this kind of thing before and it's a classic feature of science fiction: a lovingly detailed description of a fantastic invention with just enough technical detail to make it seem plausible. Jules Verne did it with Captain Nemo's Nautilus, now "Doc" Smith does it with Seaton's Skylark. We get to see the massive supports for the ship's interiors; the anti-acceleration padding, and the heavy object-compass which is the core of the ship's navigation system. And since Dorothy and her mom are starting to get bored with all this guy stuff, Dick also shows off the living accommodations they've worked up; how they'll eat and breathe and other science facts, as the the song goes.

Mr. Vaneman is mostly convinced that the Skylark is safe for his daughter to go skylarking off in, but asks Dick and Martin a few questions in private about the "few bugs" Dick mentioned. Crane assures Vaneman that the problems are minor and have no effect on the ship's safety. "The optical system needs some more work; the attractors and repellors are not at all what they should be in terms of accuracy or delicacy." The worst problem is that the water reclamation system isn't working at all -- it delivers sewage instead of pure H2O -- but since the Skylark carries enough water for three months, this is a minor inconvenience.

Just the next day, another spacecraft lands on the Vaneman lawn. This one is smaller, identical to "Old Crip", the dummy ship Seaton and Crane have been using to distract Steel from the real Skylark. It is a duplicate, built by Steel from the stolen plans. The occupants of the ship grab Dorothy and carry her, kicking and screaming into the ship.

The abductor, of course, is DuQuesne, aided by Perkins, a middle-management thug working for World Steel. Oddly enough, the thuggish Perkins seems to be the best at devising these cunning plans, like abducting pretty girls, but the brainy DuQuesne is better at actually carrying them out. Perkins seems to lack nerve, and an ability to anticipate and improvise. Which is why he is caught off guard when he's trying to secure Dorothy's feet and she kicks him in the gut.

Perkins staggers backwards into the control panel, and his arm knocks the lever regulating the power to the engines to its maximum position. Immediately, the craft shoots straight up into the air at full acceleration. Fighting against the tremendous G-forces, DuQuesne manages to reach the cut-off switch, but the sudden cessation send him crashing into the control panel, altering the craft's direction, and causing him to release the switch, activating the engine again. Now all four people on board the sphere are pinned to the floor by the crushing acceleration, unable to reach any of the controls. They pass out.

Wait, did I say there were four people? We'll get to that.

Seaton had just dropped Dorothy off at her house after a date and was riding his motorcycle back to the lab when he heard Dorothy's screams and saw the other spacecraft take off. Too late to prevent the abduction, Dick hurries back to Crane's lab.
"Mart!" he yelled. "They've got Dottie, in a ship made from our plans. Let's go!" 
"Slow down -- don't go off half-cocked. What do you plan?" 
"Plan! Just chase 'em and kill 'em!" 
"Which way did they go and when?" 
"Straight up. Full power. Twenty minutes ago." 
"Too long ago. Straight up has moved five degrees. They may have covered a million miles, or they may have come down only a few miles away. Sit down and think. -- use your brain."
Seaton remembers that he has an object-compass fixed on DuQuesne. Wherever DuQuesne goes, the compass will point in his direction and give his distance. Dick checks the compass and it points nearly straight up, confirming that DuQuense is the culprit; but when Crane calculates the distance, he gets an impossible result:
"Three hundred and fifty million miles. Half way out of the solar system. That means a constant acceleration of about one light." 
"Nothing can go that fast, Mart. E equals M C square." 
"Einstein's Theory is still a theory. This distance is an observed fact."
This is probably the biggest scientific howler Smith commits in the entire novel. But before we howl too loudly, let's remember that when he began writing the story in 1915, Einstein's Theory of Relativity was still new and fairly controversial. Even in 1928, when Skylark first appeared in print, Relativity was new enough that Smith could get away with handwaving it. Later, when Smith wrote his Lensman series, he devised a better way around the "light barrier" with his "Inertialess Drive". It is fair to point out, however that "E equals M C squared" is not the formula for Relativity; and that in fact that formula is the reason why matter can be converted into energy and why doing that to copper as Seaton does would produce a mind-boggling amount of power.

There's a comics legend that once a reader wrote a letter complaining about a story in which Superman travels faster than the speed of light. The editor replied with a paraphrase of Crane's remark: that Relativity was a theory but Superman's speed an observed fact. That editor might well have been quoting Skylark. Julie Schwartz, one of the most influential editors of the Silver Age, was a member of Science Fiction's First Fandom, and lifted ideas from the Lensman books for his revamping of the Green Lantern. Several other writers of the pulp era doubled between cheesy science fiction and comic book heroes, including Gardner Fox, Otto Binder and Alfred Bester.

All this is irrelevant to Seaton. He just wants to hop in the Skylark and get his girl back. But they only have four of the massive copper bars made to power the ship. They'll need at least one to catch up with DuQuesne; another one to stop again, and the remainder to get back home. That leaves precious little margin for error.

Steel has forestalled them there too. Nearly every supplier of refined metal in the city is inexplicably short on copper. It will take at least a week to get the bars they need. With Crane's connections and diplomacy, they are able to scavenge what they need, but by the time the extra bars are fabricated and the two are ready to set off, DuQuesne has a two-day head start on them.

And what of DuQuesne?

Unable to shut off the engines, DuQuesne's ship just keeps accelerating. About forty-eight hours later, it finally runs out of fuel and begins to coast. DuQuesne is puzzled as he tries to get his bearings. "Since the power was on exactly forty-eight hours, we should not be more than two light-days away from our sun." But if that were the case, he would still be able to recognize the constellations around them. He concludes that they have been accelerating all the time and that they must be about six quadrillion -- that's six thousand million million -- miles from home.

Perkins never had much nerve. He tries to attack Dorothy, blaming her for their situation; but DuQuense slaps him down. "None of that, louse... One more wrong move out of you and I'll throw you out."

Despite the crisis, DuQuesne is cool and quickly comes up with a plan of action. At the moment, his ship is coasting, but still traveling away from earth. He has a few more copper fuel rods. One he'll use to stop the ship. He'll use the rest to backtrack the way they came, burning half of the remainder and coasting until he can recognize enough stars to navigate by. In the meantime, he tells Dorothy to take the other girl to the galley.

Dorothy notices that when DuQuense and Perkins remove their flight jackets, Perkins neglects to remove his pistols from the jacket pockets. While Perkins isn't looking, she filches the pistols before helping the other girl out of the control room.

Who is this other girl? Earlier, when DuQuesne and Brookings were discussing plans with Perkins, a "Spencer girl" was mentioned, whom Steel was holding prisoner. They brought her along on the abduction job, intending to keep her and Dorothy in the same place. In the galley, Dorothy gets to meet her and the two get to know each other.

Her name is Margaret Spencer, and her father was an inventor who had been swindled by World Steel. Margaret got a job with Steel as Brookings's secretary in order to find proof. She did manage to dig up some incriminating evidence before she got caught, which she has hidden in a safe location. For the past month she's been a prisoner, as Steel has been trying to coerce the evidence out of her.

Margaret at first seems like more of a 2-dimensional character than Dorothy is. Her main role in the plot is to be a "best friend" character for Dorothy, (and ultimately a fourth for the Seaton-Crane bridge table). When we first meet her, she seems on the verge of a breakdown; but she has been through a lot. For a month now, she has endured psychological, if not physical torture -- because of the era, the story is vague about this -- on top of finding herself now stranded out in space. She is dreadfully afraid of Perkins, who has threatened her, and considers DuQuesne to be even worse. But Margaret perks up considerably when Dorothy gives her one of Perkins's guns.

DuQuesne reminds Perkins that he is to leave Dorothy alone, and that includes being rude to her. Miss Vaneman is a valuable hostage, and DuQuesne doesn't want her harmed, but I suspect that the coolness with which she has acted under the circumstances have impressed him. Actually, she admits to Margaret that she is scared witless, but is forcing herself to remain calm because DuQuense is.

"How about Spenser, then?" Perkins asks.

"She's your responsibility, not mine," DuQuesne shrugs.

That's when Margaret pulls the gun on Perkins. Now that the tables have been turned, she shows that she has quite a bit of spine, and that Perkins has none.
"Doctor!" Perkins appealed to DuQuesne, who had watched the scene unmoved, a faint smile upon his saturnine face. "Why don't you shoot her? You won't sit there and see me murdered!"
"Won't I? It makes no difference to me which of you kills the other, or if you both do, or neither. You brought this on yourself. Anyone with a fraction of a brain doesn't have guns lying around loose. You should have seen Miss Vaneman take them -- I did." 
Dorothy broke the silence that followed. "You did see me take the guns, doctor?" 
"I did. You have one in your right breeches pocket now." 
"Then why didn't you, or don't your, try to take it away from me?" she asked wonderingly. 
" 'Try' is the wrong word. If I had not wanted you to take them you wouldn't have. If I didn't want you to have a gun now I would take it away from you," and his black eyes stared into her violet ones with such calm certainty that she felt her heart sink.
Margaret takes Perkins to his cabin to make sure he doesn't have any other weapons stashed away. We don't know what happens next, but when they return, Perkins is thoroughly cowed and Margaret quite pleased with herself. As DuQuesne expected.

For the next few days, the ship continues on DuQuesne's course; first decelerating to a stop, then proceeding back towards home. But after a while, DuQuense notices that they are being pulled off course by a powerful gravitational field. As Crane had observed previously, the ship's optical system could use improvement, but DuQuesne has a pair of powerful binoculars and after some searching discovers the problem:

"Good God! It's a dead star and we're almost onto it!"

NEXT:  The dead star; death in space; Seaton and Crane to the Rescue! and what do we do with DuQuesne?

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