Skylark Duquesne (Skylark #4) (1965) by E. E. Smith

SkylarkDuquesneI’d like to preface this by pointing out that this book was first serialized in 1965. I know that doesn’t mean much to a lot of SF readers who assume that everything old is “bad” and everything new is either fresh, progressive, or in some way worth reading, and who balk at the minor suggestion to dip into the vintage pond occasionally, if only to gain a new perspective on the modern things they’ve been reading and perhaps expand on the historical timeline we have in our heads, but reading old SF will at least confirm that yes, a lot of old SF is not very good, though for a variety of reasons and to varying degrees, but it will also likely demonstrate that it isn’t much different from a lot of the stuff being churned out and popularized today.

The thing is, this story feels like it should have been published in the 1930s. Although the ‘60s gave us plenty of stilt and cringe, it’s a different kind of stilt and cringe, and Skylark Duquesne just isn’t that, er, hip. As Doc Smith’s final installment in his decades-long Skylark series, the story style doesn’t mature along with its fans (assuming they matured) and the rest of SF, but I guess fans were fine with it because it was nominated for a Hugo award (never a sign of quality in any year, as you know from my constant bitching, but this one feels more like a retro Hugo contender, i.e. an old fan favorite based on unreliable, fuzzy memories and childhood sentimentality).

The story’s big hook is that longtime enemies, Dick Seaton and Marc Duquesne (whose name is not Skylark, apparently), must collaborate to defeat the evil Chlorans who are hellbent on conquering and enslaving the entire universe. Seaton enlists the help of friends (and his doting wife, Dottie), while Duquesne pulls on the strings (and sexual attentions) of alien humanoids formerly enslaved by the Chlorans. Universe-crossing psi-power helmets and galaxy-hopping transport are the norm, as is a galaxy-spanning triggering of supernova suns to rid humanity of this pesky Chloran threat.

It’s also important to note that the women of this novel all know exactly when to be sexy, smart, kick-ass, and conveniently subservient to the men. It’s a delicate art! Although there are some tongue-in-cheek moments of commentary on this sexism, it’s not convincing, even by 1960 standards. Additionally, Smith enlisted the help of a female neighbor to help the “feminine” aspects of book writing–whatever those are– giving her credit on the first novel, only to excise her contributions in later editions of the following novels. Boo.

Oh, also, there’s racism, in the form of stereotyped inclusiveness and white default superiority. It’s cringe city.

I’ve been half joking and half serious when I suggest sampling SF series in the middle, rather than the beginning, because you can skip all the unnecessary and contrived exposition SF is too often known for (yes, even today) and get to the heart of the action. It works, so far, but for the Skylark series, I skipped to the final book. This tactic did require a little bit of online background reading just orient myself because, unlike my experiences with Burroughs, Hamilton, and other Doc books, Skylark lacks those nifty little editor-recommended asides that catch up new readers to the ongoing story. Instead, the story skips over major explanations, like the source of the rift between Seaton and his temporary frenemy, Duquesne, what those helmets are all about, and what the hell a Skylark even is.

Not that it matters! Skylark Duquesne is nothing more than engineering heroics about inventors who gain power by making things harder, better, faster, stronger and save Earth’s humanity from crazy aliens by completely annihilating those crazy aliens. It fits perfectly within Clute and Nicholl’s label, “Edisonade,” and you know the how the saying goes: “When life gives you Edisons… you commit genocide.”

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15 thoughts on “Skylark Duquesne (Skylark #4) (1965) by E. E. Smith

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I tried to read Smith’s Triplanetary (expanded from a 1934 version in 1948) and quit. What a pile of bland, dull, mind-numbing (if you actually think at the implications of what happens) crud…. Never picked up another one of his novels.

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  2. His influence does seem to pervade from beyond the grave.

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  3. The 1960s aren’t “old” in the modern vernacular of the word.It was the time of the “new wave”,whose members’ and near outsiders’ books,are still cool classics,and devoured by new readers today.The fact that this novel was published then,doesn’t mean that it’s old,but it is a sort of throwback by the way you described it.

    I haven’t read “Doc” Smith.He just of the old “pulp SF” I assume.Not worth reading?You still on your Hugo binge?

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    • I don’t think I’m familiar with “the modern vernacular” definition of the word “old.” To me, old just means old, but I tend to assign degrees of oldness by decade. Seems reasonable, no? 2005 seems old to me now, but not as old as 1985, etc. etc.

      I like history and I love old books and these old books are like primary sources into the history of fandom. But Smith is a ’30s writer no matter the decade. Definitely of the old pulp tradition and I don’t think he was capable of or interested in changing. Definitely not worth reading if you’re not an eleven-year-old boy from 1938.

      Yes, I’m still on the Hugos, and yes, it is a fool’s quest. It’s a long, fruitless project borne of ignorance that I started a few years ago and it soon revealed itself as completely irrelevant now that I’m comfortable enough in the genre to know where to go for good fiction. But, being a person of habit, I just tend to finish things. It’s there, I’m halfway done, so why not? If anything, it is an exercise in finding out how many creative ways I can say something sucks? (or is good, because, as you know, I do adore some of these books).

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      • By saying that books that were written only about ten years ago are old now,I assume it means they’re no longer fashionable.Of course,new fashions come and go very quickly.Much of what was thought to be cool in the 1960s,started to become unfashionable by the end of the decade.That included some if not several works of SF first published then that are no longer in print.When the novelty value wore off,the lack of intrinsic depth I’ve previously mentioned,was exposed,so they didn’t last,but the “new wave” or radical authors of the decade,have endured.They will probably still last longer than books published ten years ago,or even the 1980s.

        I hope some good comes out of your Hugo quest.I’ll have to compile a list one day of all the Hugo Award winners and nominees up to the early 1980s that I’ve read.

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        • “Old” varies between contexts. I find the old books of Stapledon, Russ, and Butler to be very fashionable and relevant, while Scalzi’s books are “old” the day before he writes them.

          Absolutely no good will come out of my Hugo quest. But my Hugo on the sixes posts happen next week 🙂

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          • I’m glad you brought-up Stapledon,because I’ve been meaning to mention him.He was of the same generation as “Doc” Smith, who unknowing wrote SF alongside him,but the similarity between them was almost entirely superficial.His is a largely forgotten voice though,to readers of general literature and SF,who both once regarded him so highly.He endures however,because of an inner circle who have recognised the quality of his work,because,as you say,it’s “very fashionable and relevant”.He will be ignored by those who read the “modern” novels,who regard him as “old and unfashionable”.

            I look forward to your “Hugo” post.

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  4. […] Skylark Duquesne by E. E. Smith – Two rival inventors have to team up to stop an imperialistic alien race and ultimately decide to blow up an entire galaxy in order to get rid of them. Based on the writing style and pulpy aesthetics, this would be better suited for the bottom of a 1930’s ballot, but alas, the Hugos weren’t around yet and neither was this puerile book. […]

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  5. […] on Mute,” which I said I wasn’t going to apologize for but did, a few last minute book reviews, and then August SF Book Awards Extravaganza began. I blogged my opinions on the Hugo Best Novel […]

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  6. Greg Allan says:

    “Additionally, Smith enlisted the help of a female neighbor to help the “feminine” aspects of book writing–whatever those are– giving her credit on the first novel, only to excise her contributions in later editions of the following novels. Boo.”

    That was Lee Hawkins Garby. She withdrew prior to completion of The Skylark of Space due to her own disinterest.

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