Doc and Jeanie Smith, 1958.

Doc and Jeanie Smith, 1958.

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.)

13 Comments

  1. Robert Nowall says:

    I’m delighted with this segment. By the time I came along, most of these “titans of the SF field” were gone, and what I know about them *as people* comes from what I can mine from the reminiscing of those who knew them. Very few SF writers will ever have massive doorstopper biographies in every library and bookstore. I still have copies of their works (though they’re getting harder to find as each year goes by). But unless somebody does something like this, I don’t know who they *were.*

    (And I appreciate the sense of bygone times—I guess I-4, Tampa-to-Orlando-to-Daytona (and then down to Cape Canaveral on I-95) hadn’t yet been built.)

  2. Mike Woodhouse says:

    Oh my – E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith had never been in a plane? Fabulous. Reading the above, I was suddenly hurled back to the 60s. I wanted to be Kimball Kinnison. That, with a healthy (?) dose of Tom Swift books, was my introduction to SF. Pretty significant stuff.

  3. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    Doc Smith captured my heart early, about the only one of his generation of SF writers to really click for me (Campbell’s authors were mainly who I imprinted on), and I still read his books a lot. I love to hear about him, since he was solidly gone from the scene before I got into fandom, I don’t know many people who knew him.

  4. Stefan Jones says:

    The above essay has told more about Smith than I’ve picked up in the last 30 years. I’m looking forward to Part II.

    Smith’s work was well on its way to being Cornball Anachronism stuff by the time I read it, but I still loved it.

    Last year I loaded a public-domain copy of “Triplanetary” (w/o the Lensmen tie-ins) on one of those one-laptop-per-child computers and read it during a plane trip. Perfect way to pass the time.

  5. Scott Hauger says:

    Fred:

    Thought you would be interested to know — I just got back from 2 weeks in China. All of my usual websites that I visit were available there except one. Yep, The Way the Future Blogs is apparently blocked in PRC.

    Scott

  6. Dr. Psycho says:

    I enjoyed Doc Smith’s novels immensely, and wouldn’t mind if there were another one out there for me to discover [Skylark of Arisia, perhaps?], but now I have a real hankering to try his doughnuts, made from recipes that “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.”

    Goodness me, the secrets of the ancient ones which we have allowed to slip through our fingers….

  7. Jim Meadows says:

    I didn’t catch Doc Smith at the right time of life to really enjoy him. But when I read “The Skylark of Space”, I saw what he brought to science fiction — the concept that space travel could be a given, allowing writers and readers to get past the we’re-going-to-the-moon business, and get down to some real adventures.

    I think the key breakthrough point comes in “The Skylark of Space”, where Richard Seaton, having gotten his backyard rocket ship off the ground with the help of the radioactive mystery element X, casually looks at the speedometer and is surprised to see that he actually traveling several times the speed of light. “I guess Einstein was wrong”, he exclaims, if my memory serves. It’s a small step over any complaints about scientific plausibility, but a giant leap to all the space opera we’ve been enjoying for the last 90 years.

  8. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    \"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.\"

    The late fan who went by the name \"Gharlane of Eddore\" told me that he once heard Doc Smith speak at an SF convention. Someone asked Doc about his favorite achievement in the food-chemistry business.

    He was proudest of a formula he\’d invented for a doughnut mix made from potato flour.

    So his purview extended beyond mere wheaten edibles…

    (I was led to investigate whether Doc had any connection with a chain of potato-doughnut shops named Spudnuts. The answer turned out to be \"no,\" but that\’s a story for another time.)

  9. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    Robert Nowall writes:

    “Very few SF writers will ever have massive doorstopper biographies in every library and bookstore.”

    Speaking of which, William Patterson’s biography of Heinlein is due out from Tor this year– half of it, at least. Amazon gives the title as “Robert A. Heinlein: Volume 1 (1907-1949): Learning Curve.”

    Publication date is listed as 17 August 2010. No word on when the second volume might be published.

  10. Robert Nowall says:

    “Robert A. Heinlein: Volume 1 (1907-1949): Learning Curve.”

    Great! I’ve been waiting for a biography of Heinlein for years now. (But I’m suspicious of multi-volume biographies unless they’re published all at once—Robert Caro promised the next volume of his Lyndon Johnson sometime in the next century, and the second volume of of Gary Gidding’s biography of Bing Crosby apparently crashed in a publishing dispute.)

  11. Stephen Lucchetti says:

    Doc never had anything to do with Spudnuts BUT he did work for Dawn Donuts our of Jackson Michigan for a number of years. Somewhere I’ve got a FAX copy of at least one of his the recipe cards that he reused when sending book comments to a friend.

    — Stephen Lucchetti
    Ypsilanti, Michigan

  12. Christian Nau says:

    I loved the lensmen series when I was first introduced to them around the age of 15. I actually have an embarrassing memory of me writing up, very earnestly, a description of the physics used in the lensmen universe for a 9th grade physics assignment. For example, some of the ideas I wrote about were: inertial dampers, multiples of the speed of light, teardrop designs because at those speeds even spaceships needed to be aerodynamic. I don’t know what my teacher thought of it, but I didn’t score very well on the assignment.

  13. Michael Walsh says:

    Egads! Need more Smith!

    How about how you managed to land \"Skylark Duquesne\" ?