Worldbuilding: the shimmering refulgence of dieselpunk

A fair number of writers can be said to be ‘world-builders’. Few, though, can also be said to have built an entire genre – the one Star Wars was homage to. Space opera. The man who did it was Edward Elmer Smith, PhD – E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith to his fans. His family called him Ted.

Smith gained his PhD at a time when few people had more than a bachelors’ degree. His day job was in food chemistry for the Dawn Doughnut Company – but by night he was a writer of colossal imagination who basically invented the genre of space opera. As I pointed out in the last post, Smith could not match his creativity with styling skill, but I think he knew it – and that doesn’t diminish his contribution to twentieth century story-telling and pop-culture, which was simply huge.

Put it this way; without Smith, there would probably not have been a Star Wars. His stories began appearing in pulp SF magazines in the 1920s, starting with The Skylark of Space, which he started writing around 1916. They were astonishing tales filled with awesome super-science, framed by a consciously written backdrop of cardboard cliché characters, ridiculous plots, and logarithmic scales of action that expanded to epic proportions with each new story. He was not called ‘Galaxy Smasher’ Smith for nothing.

Smith’s Skylark series gave way to the classic ‘Lensman’ series that made his name synonymous with the genre. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were homages to it. So was Star Wars – the movie that mainstreamed the genre. So when you watch the adventures of Messrs Skywalker, Oobie Doobie Benoobi, and the rest, don’t forget – Smith did it first.

My favourite was always Smith’s 1930 novel Spacehounds of IPC, originally published in Amazing Stories. It was an attempt at a new series, terminated after the first novel-length sequence on the back of fan dislike of its solar system setting. A pity. Smith was determined to make it ‘scientific’, insofar as was known in the 1930s, a step up from the science whimsy of the Skylark stories. Today we might call it ‘dieselpunk’ or perhaps ‘decopunk’– the future of the 1930s, filled with scientists in white coats, their thick X-ray goggles pushed up on their foreheads, a world of copper-coloured streamline moderne.

Spacehounds itself is quintessential Smith, a romance of hopeful 1930-era science in which the solar system is filled with habitable worlds – even Jupiter, which Smith imagined split between good and evil races of super-scientists living on opposite poles. Into this crash the peoples of the inner solar system, starting with the action hero he-man scientist ‘Steve’ Stevens who is cast away on an Earth-like Ganymede in a fragment of a spaceship with his girlfriend Nadia. To save her (this is 1930, remember), Stevens has to engineer a high-tech rescue from scratch, while she keeps house (see what I mean). Which means cutting wood to smelt steel to build a water race to drive a hydro plant so he can get power for a radio, to make which he needs a transmission valve that he has to build by first finding sand and making glass and – and – you get the picture.

Along the way Stevens and Nadia end up on Titan (don’t ask) where they make friends with the Titanians, who are fighting a relentless war against the evil Sedlor.  They are made a present of Titanian space torpedoes with pentavalent nitrogen warheads (a grossly unstable structure that degrades with significant energy release, as in a mildly sub-nuclear explosion). The whole novel finishes in a typical Smithian uber-battle between the Jovian super-scientists, filled with his hallmark ravening rays.

Cheesy? Absolutely. The slang was execrable, the writing style not so much purple as ultraviolet, the dialogue wooden. But make no mistake: Smith knew what he was doing. Highlights? He used ‘computer’ in its original sense – meaning ‘somebody who does computations’, as in Stevens. Robert Heinlein reputedly had Smith on about the plot, particularly Stevens’ apparent ability to rebuild Earth super-science from stone-age cast-away tech. Smith insisted that he himself could do everything he’d attributed to his character. And that was possibly true. Smith was a smart engineer – and he enviegled hard science into his work along the way.  The spacesuits he described in Spacehounds had been well thought through in the practical sense of protecting humans from vacuum. Men and women also needed the same gear – something not obvious from some of the science fiction art of the era.

Smith also portrayed his ‘rays;’ at least in Spacehounds, as something close to what was known about electromagnetics – meaning that it involved frequencies and energies. The real ‘war of the rays’ took place just a decade after Spacehounds, of course, when the British not only used radar to help win the battle of Britain, but also deployed the BBC’s first TV transmitter to upset Luftwaffe navigational radio signals (‘beams’).

I think Smith knew his stories stretched credulity with their absurd plots and characters. Spacehounds was tongue in cheek in many respects, and in some ways it seems Smith was playing up to it. But why not? Smith drew pleasure from writing it, and he knew his audience drew pleasure from reading it. He was a very, very smart guy. Back then, America was sliding into depression; the midwest was drying out, people were getting hungry. His stories, for a few brief hours, let readers enjoy something other than the gruelling realities of their everyday existence. A welcome escape from hardship – back in that golden age of wireless, ravening rays, and brass bikinis.

Have you read any of Smith’s books? What did you think of them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


11 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: the shimmering refulgence of dieselpunk

  1. Doc Smith was always one of my favorite writers despite everything you say above about plot and dialog being absolutely true. Robert Heinlein knew him and said that Smith was a product of the “Mauve Decade” between 1900 and 1910 — and Heinlein also believed the Smith could have built an advanced radio starting from a Stone Age tech base!

    Doc may not be great literature, but he’s fun and a good read. How much more do you want?

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    1. Well, I wish I could build tech from stone-age… 🙂 Absolutely agree – and thanks for your thoughts. One of my favourite things about Smith was the utterly fearless way he tackled ever-larger scales of action, a vaulting scale of imagination that seldom seems to happen these days.

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      1. “A vaulting scale of imagination” — I like that. I’m in the process of reading the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the world of Barsoom that he creates is pretty much in the same mold. I don’t think much of the writing or the plot, but my wife reminded me that, at the time they were written, these books were what we would refer to as “mind-blowing.” Nobody, even Jules Verne, had really done that sort of thing before.

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    1. In some ways it’s easier, in that the author has total control over the environment in a fantasy. Not possible in ‘real world’ fiction. However, the author then also has to build the environment, and that’s a lot of work. Tolkien set the bar very, very high.

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  2. Good write up on Smith! From what I’ve read up on him, he seemed to try to make his works as incredulous as possible.

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  3. I loved Spacehounds of the IPC. It is too bad that Smith didn’t continue it into a full blown series.

    Sure, the man wasn’t the world’s best writer, but I still re-read his stuff regularly. I don’t re-read “literary” fiction that way, it just isn’t any where near as much fun.

    And that is where Smith, and Heinlein for that matter were masters. Their books were fun.

    Wayne

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  4. Absolutely agree – fun is the word. I think Smith thought so too. Heinlein – also fun, but he was also a consummately capable writer, one of the best by any measure.

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