What? You say. You’re not going to devote any attention to an out-of-date, poorly written, politically incorrect novel, are you? The protagonist even commits genocide!
Well, yes I am – with a focus on what it has meant to me rather than its flaws. You can find out what others think of the book by looking at the reviews in Goodreads.
First, some background on the story. What you will read here is not even slightly accurate, even more over the top than the original, but it is the way that I choose to remember things.
Skylark Three is the second volume in the Skylark trilogy by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, first published in 1930. It features as the hero, Richard Seaton, earth’s most intelligent man — and fastest draw. The villlian of the series, Blackie Duquesne, is as fast as Seaton with his right, but a shade slower with his left, and that made all the difference.
Seaton, being earth’s most intelligent man, uses 1920’s technology to build the Skylark, a spaceship in which he zooms all about the galaxy. In Skylark Three, he discovers the bad news. The Fenachrone are coming! These guys are so evil they even blow up entire planets just for target practice.
Being earth’s most intelligent man, Seaton realizes that our technology infrastructure of the 1920’s is not sophisticated enough to produce a weapon to stop the Fenachrone. So, for roughly the first two-thirds of the novel, as I hazily recall, he visits planet after planet, searching for the advanced technology base that he needs.
Finally, he arrives at what looks like a promising one. The inhabitants are ecstatic. Richard Seaton has come to save them! They give him a lab to work in. Early in the morning of the first day everyone watches on TV Seaton enter the lab to start.
They stay glued to their sets the entire day, seeing the exterior of the lab and nothing on the inside. Finally, around 5PM, Seaton emerges. The entire planet goes wild in celebration. They knew that Seaton was good, but to build the weapon to defeat the Fenacrone in only a single day — unbelievable!
The reporters swam him. “What is the weapon?” they ask? “A brain liquefier?” “A transmorgrifier?” “An incredible shrinking ray?”
“It has only been one day,” Seaton says. “I don’t have the answer yet.”
“What, are you crazy?” “What are you doing out here?” “The Fenachrone are coming! The Fenachrone are coming! They blow up entire planets for target practice!” “You should be back in the lab working harder. What are you doing out here?”
“Well, first of all I am going to relax with a few cocktails while my wife serenades me with a violin concerto or two. She is quite accomplished, you know. Then, a quiet dinner with her, and after that, off to bed for a good night’s sleep. I will be back in the lab the first thing tomorrow morning.”
“But the Fenacrone are coming!”
Seaton paused for a second. “You just have to pace yourself,” he said.
[Spoiler alert] Surprisingly (?) Seaton does come up with a weapon and almost single-handedly blasts into atoms every last Fenacrone, man, woman, and child.
Anyway, that is how I choose to remember the book. I don’t dare reread it because I know I will be disappointed.
So what does this book mean to me personally? Well, for thirty years I worked at an aerospace company, helping to build data processing software for some of our national assets. These systems were one-of-a-kind, doing things that had never been done before. As such, there seldom were models to copy. Everything was new from the ground up.
The process started with a Request for Proposal (RFQ) sent out by the government to companies that seemed to be qualified to build a brain liquefier or transmorgrifier, or whatever.
To respond, each competitor assembled a team of engineers whose specialties covered one of the technologies possibly needed for a solution. Nobody had a Richard Seaton on their staff.
Each of the engineers wrote a first draft of what he thought would contribute to a final solution. Everyone’s writings were posted on the wall for everyone else to read. (This was decades ago. Personal computers and networks had not been invented yet).
Then, armed with the knowledge of what others were doing, each engineer wrote a second draft that attempted to make the whole proposal more coherent.
“Oh, I see you are using two-step logon verification in your section on the operating system. I will mention that in my write up of the Operational Concept.”
This process was iterated, gradually improving the proposal document towards the goal of being understandable and making sense. The writing staff shrunk with each cycle; fewer and fewer engineers took over what they now understood from less able ones who had good ideas but could not convey them clearly.
Eventually, the time was up. The proposal had to be in the government’s hands by a deadline or the contractor could be disqualified from even being evaluated at all.
Most of the time, more or less, this process worked. The final submittal was good enough that the contractor, at the least, would not be embarrassed by what he was handing in. And who knew? What was submitted just might be good enough to win. After all, all of the competitors had the same challenge.
On a few occasions, however, the iterations did not work. There were many cycles, of course, but as the deadline approached, somehow, the words became no better integrated than they had been at the start.
On a few (thankfully) such occasions, with only, say, seventy-two, hours left, I had been the last engineer remaining, and the proposal was a complete mess. It would be an embarrassment to submit. And not handing one in at all was not an option. Both of these choices ran the risk of being dropped from the bidder’s list for the next RFP.
Then, with fewer chances to bid, work would eventually dry up. The more qualified engineers would leave for other companies. The less talented ones that remained would be even less able to respond adequately to whatever RFPs did come in.
In my over-active imagination, over a span of a few years a death spiral resulting in complete collapse of the company was a distinct possibility. The weight of the world was on my shoulders. The needle on my stress meter pinned itself on the right, deep into the red.
And in those situations, I recalled Skylark Three.
What I had to do was a mere pimple on the face of the adversity that was handled by Richard Seaton, I realized. He stopped the Fenachrone, for crying out loud. They were the ones that blew up entire planets for target practice!
And how did he do it? Put in an honest full day’s work, have a calming dinner, a good night’s sleep, and start again fresh the next day. If he could save the entire galaxy from the Fenachrone, the guys who blew up entire planets for target practice, then certainly I should be able to handle my petty problem as well.
I did knock off at 5 PM even though there was only three days left, got my sleep and continued to work through what had to be done the next day.
Self-delusion? Sure it was? But remembering about Skylark Three was what got my stress meter back into the green.
© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy