When I first began obsessively reading science fiction, at about the age of ten, all sf writers were as gods to me. Some, however, were bigger gods than others, my holiest trinity being Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. G. Wells and Edward Elmer Smith, Ph. D. — with Doc Smith at the top of the heap because he was the one who wrote the Skylark novels.
In those days, I couldn’t afford the exorbitant cover price of an sf magazine, which could run as much as 25¢ apiece. I got my fixes in a second-hand magazine store. These were Depression days, remember, and there were second-hand everything stores all over the place. There the magazines might sell for a dime, and the storekeeper would buy them back from you for a nickel when you were through if you liked. (But what fan would sell off parts of his collection?) The trouble with getting your magazines that way was that you spotted issues you hadn’t read in no particular order in the bins, which was an annoyance when you were reading serials.
And serials were what Doc Smith was good at. First there was the Skylark trilogy, then the Lensman novels. Every couple of years, Doc would give us another masterpiece of interstellar adventure, with heroes in vast machines going even vaster distances to find bizarre aliens — to befriend or, if they were evil, to triumph over. Does that sound at all recognizable? You bet it does, because it was in the fertile mind of Doc Smith that the very first space opera was born, and every episode of Star Trek, Star Wars and a host of others owe him a debt they can never repay.
Doc first wrote The Skylark of Space as early as the teens of the young 20th century, just for the fun of it. He did try it on a publisher or two, who had no interest in this weird tale — perhaps, his bride, Jeanie, conjectured, because the story was all big machines and strong, single men with little human interest. Doc conceded the possibility but disqualified himself from trying to repair the gap.
However, there was that nice Mrs. Garby down the street. When approached, she agreed to write the necessary pages of romantic chat between the fictional inventor of atomic energy, space travel and much else, Richard Ballinger Seaton, and his beloved longtime fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman. Doc inserted her episodes of love stuff where appropriate, and that is why the appropriate byline for The Skylark of Space is “by Edward E. Smith, Ph. D., and Lee Hawkins Garby.” (In the later books Doc plucked up his courage and wrote the boy-girl material himself. I can’t tell the difference.) But, alas, even with human interest no one seemed to want it, so Doc retired it to a bottom desk drawer. There it stayed, almost forgotten, for years. . . .
Until, one day, Doc stopped by the general store to pick up some necessities. He noticed a new magazine called Amazing Stories. On inspection, it appeared to be publishing stories about the future. He hastily exhumed the rejected story and sent it off to them, they bought it at once … and a new kind of fiction was born.
Over the years, many another sf writer tried to copy Doc’s style of celebration of not-yet-existent science and super-technology. None really succeeded, perhaps because they were not naïve enough to believe in the stories they were writing. John Campbell, in the years before he turned to editing Astounding/Analog, perhaps came closest, though his attempts, like Doc’s, didn’t seem to concern real, live people. Perhaps what he needed was his own Mrs. Garby.
Of course, the simple concept of Mankind’s vast super-weapons duking it out with other, alien super-weapons all by itself was easier to borrow and there’s plenty of that still around. Fortunately for all of us, because if we didn’t have that what would we watch on television?
Doc’s doctorate was in chemistry. His particular specialty was in food chemistry, with particular attention to the chemistry of the doughnut, but wheaten edibles of all kinds were within his purview.
I know this because Doc’s wonderful daughter, Verna Smith Trestrail, with her nearly as wonderful husband, Albert, became good friends with Betty Anne and me. How good? Well, when the Trestrails complained that we always stayed at a Holiday Inn instead of at their house when we drove to central Indiana for our once-a-summer visit with them, and we said it was because the Holiday Inn had a pool, what did they do? Why, they put in a pool for the next summer.
Albert’s special claim to our affection came in several parts. One was that he had built in his basement the finest privately owned model railroad layout I have ever seen, complete with a lake, a steel mill and tracks for four or five trains at a time. Another was his history. He and Verna had met when he was her high-school teacher. Albert was very proper with his student, but as soon as Verna was 18, he swept her off her feet and married her before she could get away. Not that either of them ever regretted it. They had as perfect a marriage as any couple I have ever known until Verna died and Albert followed.
Verna looked like any pretty, middle-aged — and empty-headed — Hoosier housewife until you found out that she had a towering measured IQ, higher than either my own or Isaac Asimov’s. Quite a few of the highest-IQ people I’ve known (no, not Isaac. Or, for that matter, me) have been somewhat quirky or stand-offish, but Verna was as sweet as apple butter. She was also a great cook and, as mentioned, owned a stock of her father the baking and frying chemist’s personal recipes. Perhaps formulae would be a better term, because they not only specified what kind of wheat to use and how to grind the flour, but even at what time of year the crop should have been planted. And when Verna made his flapjacks for us, they were worth the trouble.
Doc retired not long after World War II. The kids were grown, and Doc and Jeanie moved to Florida, where they took up residence in a double-width trailer, in a park near Tampa. They actually lived in that trailer only nine months of the year. When Florida began to warm up for summer the two of them would transfer to their other trailer, slimmer and more roadable, and drive clear across the country to their summer stamping grounds on the Oregon coast.
Around that time, local science-fiction cons began to spring up all over the place. Doc discovered that he enjoyed them. So did I. We met pretty often at one or another of them, and we became friends.
Although the super-high-tech, atomic-powered spacecraft that Doc wrote about were the size of ocean liners and flitted from one star system to another at considerable multiples of the speed of light, their creator was modest in his modes of travel. A light pickup truck was good enough for the Smiths.
When, having been invited to the Cape to watch the launch of America’s mightiest space rocket, the Saturn 5, I decided to make a detour on the other side of the Florida peninsula for a visit with the Smiths, I was sure Doc would want to hear all about what the space agency was planning for this new titan. He did, and that gave me an idea. My invitation included a guest if I chose to bring one, so why shouldn’t that one be Doc Smith? I mentioned to him that it was only a short hop from Tampa to Orlando; he could share my hotel room that night and see the launch in the morning.
But Doc looked startled at that idea, then firmly negative. Jeanie didn’t like the idea of him going up in airplanes, and, no, he had never flown in one
Reluctantly I gave up the idea, but it would have been fun.
(End of Part One. Part Two will follow as soon as I write it.)