This note was last modified Wednesday, 28-May-2014 20:36:31 PDT.
This note contains spoilers for the series.
By E.E. "Doc" Smith.
The Skylark of Space was Doc Smith's first published work. That was back in 1928; although the book had been written in 1918. It took 10 years to sell, but when it did, it hit the field hard. It's widely cited as the first book to feature interstellar travel, and as having greatly expanded the playing field of the genre.
Smith's last book was also part of the Skylark series; the first part of Skylark Duquesne appeared in Worlds of If magazine in June of 1965.
I'm using the covers from the 1960s Pyramid paperbacks, since that's what I grew up on.
The Skylark of Space
Seaton discovers a new rare metal, up in the platinum group, while re-working wastes at the government's Rare Metals Lab in Washington DC. Due to a lucky set of coincidences, he both discovers that the metal catalyzes (under certain conditions) the atomic dissolution of copper with a huge energy release, and survives the experience (the bad guys, later, blow up an entire town working with just a teaspoon of watered-down solution).
They go from there to starting to build big electric power plants, and developing a spaceship, and the object compasses (which is how they could be sure of finding their way back, but which also have other useful abilities) and the X-explosive bullets (which let them put seriously high-explosive projectiles in a .45ACP).
But Marc "Blackie" Duquesne, the only other person really smart enough to deal with this kind of breakthrough, and who by remarkable coincidence also works at the Rare Metals lab, gets a whiff of it, and goes to his partners in crime at the World Steel Corporation to help him steal the solution, kill Seaton and Crane, and take over the world. That fails to work out fairly spectacularly a couple of times, and Duquesne then uses his own spaceship to kidnap Seaton's fiance, Dorothy Vaneman. This goes wrong when Dorothy manages to kick his accomplice as they get her aboard the spaceship, and they take off out of control and run until the power bar is exhausted—which has them moving hugely faster than light, to the point that when Seaton eventually catches up and rescues them, they make it to the center of the galaxy before they can stop.
"But nothing can possibly go that fast, Mart, it's impossible. How about Einstein's theory?" "That is a theory, this measurement of distance is a fact, as you know from our tests." (Apparently he didn't expect the readers to recognize "relativity", but they would know Einstein's name.) I like a book that doesn't take half-measures. He needed to go fast to get between stars, so he simply declared that we could do so with sufficient power, and the apparent theoretical objection was simply wrong. (Since then, special relatively has been tested to an amazing number of decimal places, and is now an observed fact itself. But this book was published in 1928, and written considerably earlier.)
They run into one chlorine-atmosphere planet, but don't meet anybody there. In the last book, "Chlorans" are going to be important as the final adversary.
This book exists in two major versions; the original magazine text, by Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby, and the later version revised for paperback publication (by Smith only). There are large textual differences between these versions. The original version is public domain in the United States, and thus available from many sources including Project Gutenberg. There is also a beautiful fancy Easton Press edition.
Lee Hawkins Garby was the wife of a good friend. Apparently the Seatons are based on Doc Smith and his wife, and the Cranes are based on the Garbys.
The Fenachrone. Oh, what evil guys they are! And they're humanoid; nearly all humanoids in the Skylark universe are friendly (the Mardonalians, and one other Central System race, are the exceptions I remember). But the Fenachrone have this crazy idea of themselves as the Master Race (in 1930), and that's never good. (Mein Kampf was published in 1925, and was written while Hitler was in jail for a failed putsch in 1923, so this could be an early reference to what was then the upcoming unpleasantness.)
Even more amusingly, the Fenachrone have multiple layers of slightly smarter people who are ready to send out "save the race" expeditions when they see the emperor dooming them. One of them escapes and isn't dealt with until the last book of the series; and in fact there are living Fenachrone left, in the end.
The Skylark of Valeron
They run into the "pure intellectuals" again, and have to rotate into the fourth dimension to escape them. When they finally pop back, they're so far away they have to build a really huge ship to search for home (mapping nebular configurations).
They make friends with the people on Valeron, who are being conquered by chlorine breathers from a captured planet. The Skylarkers now know enough to put the chlorans in a time stasis and move their planet back to its original solar system. But this definitely establishes chlorans as the bad guys.
This huge ship has an "electronic brain", basically a computer, except it thinks and organizes itself rather than having to be told everything.
(Cover shown at top of page)
Sequels written long after the original books are so rarely a good thing; but this one is. Published in 1965, with the previous book in 1949.
There's great stuff here; the humanoid Jelmi, and their relationship with the monstrous Llurdi who consider themselves completely rational. The planet of Ray See Nee that they visit for repairs after the Chlorans whittle down the Skylark to nearly nothing. And the emerging sciene of magic; just what is in those preserved berries, anyway? (This was published by Frederik Pohl, not Campbell, who has been claimed to be the source of the fascination with psionics.)
This one finally allows Duquesne, the villain of the previous books, to grow up some. At least he's thoroughly given up his idea of ruling Earth (mostly because that's too small), and he's willing to work cooperatively with Seaton so save the galaxy from the Chlorans (a whole galaxy, run as a Chloran empire). It is, on the other hand, one of the largest-scale genocides ever described.
Duquesne also finds his proper mate, and goes off to start a family. However, he intends to start an empire, run on "rational" and "scientific" principles; I really wonder if his empire will last much longer than the new administration on Ray See Nee (or whatever it was called) did after Seaton left (in the previous book). That story might be worth telling. It would be a classic tragedy, I think.
There's just the slightest hint of a connection to David Weber's Honor Harrington universe (the name of a base there, as I remember it). I think that's just a name-check rather than a suggestion that the People's Republic of Haven is the descendent of Duquesne's empire.