E.E. 'Doc' Smith Triplanetary (1934)
Prior to tackling E.E. 'Doc' Smith, I'd been primed with conflicting opinions of the chap's work. My friend Gareth rated the Lensman series quite highly, whilst I got the impression that Carl viewed E.E.'s oeuvre as being on par with Bernard Manning or perhaps The Mission in their respective fields of racist comedy and po-faced sixth form poetry set to music with far too much echo. Being as Gareth had a habit of dropping words like yonder and behold into casual conversation, and Carl was usually on the money about most things - much as I sometimes wished it were otherwise - I approached Smith's 1920 novel The Skylark of Space with great trepidation; and against expectation it turned out to be great - also fairly stupid what with the constant pipe-smoking, ships travelling seven-hundred times the speed of light, and giggly women rushing off to fetch their coloured pencils - but it read like the work of someone who had a lot of fun writing it, and so was difficult to dislike.
1934's Triplanetary is a little more earnest, and quite conspicuously a forerunner to the space opera of Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton and those guys. It's competent, with convincing descriptions of protons and the like, and much closer in both spirit and execution to the sort of fiction one associates with Asimov than the Flash Gordon dynamic that informed Skylark. That said, it's a little long-winded in places and not particularly engaging. There's a possibility that Edward Elmer may have addressed this when he came to revise Triplanetary in 1948, adding new material so as to make it a prequel to the Lensman books - all very exciting, or least it seems that way from the blurb on the jacket of my copy which describes all manner of things that don't happen in the story because they've screwed up and printed the earlier 1934 version inside this edition.
Compensation might have arrived in the form of the supplementary novel length Masters of Space, a 1961 collaboration with E. Everett Evans, another guy with initials suspiciously biased towards the fifth letter of the alphabet. The only problem is that Masters of Space is pure shite. I read thirty or so pages before bed, then another thirty as I woke next day - as is my habit - gradually realising during this second stint that I was unable to recall a single detail of what I'd already read. On close investigation this turned out to be because it doesn't really have a plot as such, just page after page of inconsequential conversation apparently written by someone who didn't quite get to grips with why Some Like It Hot was such a great film. Another emergent trope is that of the brilliant female scientist with massive tits who has had the additional foresight to be blonde - and we all know what blondes like, right guys? In fact there's a whole troop of nubile and knockery female theoretical physicists here; and even a planet full of realistic lady automatons with no inhibitions, if you know what I'm saying - and being automatons their function is to make men happy any way they can, and I mean any way.
Masters of Space is soft porn with space exploration standing in for the more traditional washing machine repair, and it's the soft porn of an era in which Dragnet was considered edgy - all veiled references to bosoms and coming across like a faintly sinister uncle smirking to himself at a teenage niece's sixteenth birthday party; which is why it took me a while to actually identify it as such. One kind of expects porn fiction to incorporate anatomical detail, a few rude words, or at least some sort of reference to things going in and out of other things, but here it's all knowing winks and mildly stomach-churning observations about how such and such a gal could pass for seventeen. It may sound side-splitting, but actually sitting down to read this shit is another thing entirely. I managed fifty pages, and that seemed like more than enough.
Looks like Carl was right after all.