In 1915, Edward Elmer Smith, a young chemical engineer, and his wife Jeanne, were visiting with their friends, Carl and Lee Garby. Edward and Carl had been classmates at the University of Idaho. Somehow the two couples began discussing outer space and how mankind could conquer interstellar travel. The Garbys loved Edward’s ideas and urged him to write a story about interstellar travel. While Edward was interested, he thought a successful novel would require such things as a love interest for the male (naturally) hero and romantic dialogue between the characters and he did not think he could write such stuff. Mrs. Garby offered to write the fluffy part of the story if Edward wrote the science and adventure part. Edward and Mrs. Garby began their collaboration by creating two fictional couples based on themselves and their spouses: the Seatons and the Cranes. They worked through 1916 and managed to write about a third of their book but never finished it. A few years later, while babysitting his oldest child, Edward was bored and took another look at his book. He finished it by 1920 but had no luck finding a publisher until 1927 when he sold it to the science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, for seventy-five dollars. The first novel by Edward Smith (and the only story Mrs. Garby collaborated on), The Skylark of Space, was published as a three part series in the August, September, and October 1928 issues of Amazing Stories. It was a huge success, the publisher demanded more and the SciFi career of E.E. “Doc” Smith was born.
Doc Smith went on to write many other tales of outer space adventure but is best known for his two series: The Skylark books and the Lensman books. These are some of the earliest tales of interstellar travel and what later became known as “space opera”. Skylark is considered the first space opera and gave Doc his nickname as the Father of Space Opera. Doc Smith’s books are classic SciFi with fast plots, rousing adventure, interplanetary scale, aliens who are more than just unusual looking humans, and larger-than-life heroes. His stories influenced many later SciFi authors. But for all the exciting and imaginative adventures, Doc Smith’s books are not great literature. The dialogue is wooden and often amateurish and really dated by today’s standards. The characters are so perfect, so smart, so strong, so capable, so honorable that they are almost unbelievable. Doc Smith also preferred to let his imagination run riot. In his own words: “the more highly improbable a concept is …. the better I like it.” Some SciFi fans objected to Doc Smith’s scientific impossibilities and his popularity died off a bit but then re-surged after his death. He became so popular again that publishers reprinted all his original books as well as new books “conceived” or “inspired” by Smith and books continuing his series written by other authors.
The Galaxy Primes by Doc Smith is a stand alone space opera written after Doc’s professional retirement in 1957. It was originally published as a three part series in the March, April, May 1959 issues of Amazing Stories. Like his more famous series, this book is full of rousing adventure as “four of the greatest minds in the universe”, two men and two women with “Psionic” abilities take flight on Earth’s first spaceship, the Pleiades, an experimental and un-steerable spaceship. They won’t know where they are going until they get there and they won’t be able to get back to Earth until the men work out some way to steer the ship. And it is definitely the men who are the heroic inventors and adventurers in this story. The gender roles are really really dated and the two “girls” are definitely second class citizens. In their first meeting at the very beginning of the book, one of the girls and one of the men, even though both are supposedly well educated scientists, insult each other like little kids. She (Dr. Bellamy) rattles off his (Dr. Garlock) titles like a list of misdeeds and adds the title of S.O.B. He (Dr. Garlock) then accuses her (Dr. Bellamy) of being “swell-headed” and flaunting her sexiness and threatens to “take you over my knee and blister your fanny.” She retaliates by calling him a “big, clumsy, muscle-bound gorilla” and threatens to break both his arms. The other hero and heroine step in but the second man (James) then proceeds to call their boss “fatso” and gets fined and demoted by the boss himself. Way to act like professional scientists embarking on a world-altering journey. But if you can get past the sometimes juvenile dialogue and antics and the really really dated gender roles and if you can suspend belief at some of Doc Smith’s implausible science, the story is really one huge and rousing adventure. Where are we going, what will we find, and how do we get home? One critic once claimed that the secret of Doc Smith’s success was the way he “mixed elements of the spy thriller and the western story …. with those of the traditional cosmic voyage” You can see some of that in this story: it is a thriller and a mystery in the wide open vastness of outer space. Doc Smith had a grand sense of adventure and a huge imagination that was hampered by a sometimes very wooden writing style. If you want to get a taste of classic space opera by the man who invented it, E.E. “Doc” Smith is the way to go. And to top it off, The Galaxy Primes is FREE in the Public Domain. You can download it or read it online at The Internet Archive as well as Librivox and Project Gutenberg just click the following links. Internet Archive has two versions available to read: Version #1 and Version #2. You can also get the book at Project Gutenberg and at Feedbooks. Librivox has an audio book version and so does Internet Archive. Enjoy!