Edward Elmer Smith dreamed big: really, really big. His earliest science fiction stories span the width of galaxies, and featured galactic conflicts on the magnitudes never before seen when he began to see his stories in print in the late 1920s. His Skylark and Lensmen novels would later prove to be a major inspiration for what we now know as Space Opera, and helped to bring about such stories as Star Trek to Star Wars, all while influencing numerous authors from beyond Gernsback's pulp era.
Edward Elmer Smith was born on May 2nd, 1890 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Put to work as a logger and a farmer throughout his childhood, he left at the age of 18 following a fight with his father. He began prep school at the University of Idaho, working in a mine to pay his way through college. An early reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells, he found himself interested in Civil Engineering. His work prospects were seriously dampened when he jumped from a fourth story window to escape a fire in his apartment building and was seriously injured. Faced with the prospect of disability, his siblings helped him pay his tuition.
Graduating with a degree in Chemical Engineering, Smith set off for Washington DC, where he found work as a junior chemist, working with the U.S. Bureau of Standards, where he helped standardize commercially sold butter and eventually worked as a doughnut mix specialist. In 1915, he married one of his classmate’s sisters, Jeanne Craig MacDougall, and set out to receive his doctorate, which he would eventually earn in 1919 from George Washington University.
Smith found himself interested in writing science fiction in 1915 when he and a coworker, Dr. Carl Garby, mused about the temperature in outer space. His co-worker’s wife, Lee Hawkins Garby, urged Smith to write a story. When he balked because he felt that there would need to be a romantic angle to the story, she offered to compose those parts of the story. Skylark of Space followed Dick Seaton, a scientist who discovers the secret for a faster than light drive, and his conflict with Marc DuQuesne takes them on adventures far beyond the solar system. Smith and Garby worked on the story for the next year, eventually putting it aside. Several years later, however, Smith resumed writing without Garby, and completed the novel in 1920 and began to try and sell it. The next step was difficult: Skylark of Space was rejected by every publisher, and disheartened, Smith put the story aside.
A break came when Smith came across a new magazine on a newsstand: Amazing Stories, which had recently been launched by Hugo Gernsback and edited by T. O’Conor Sloane. He immediately submitted Skylark of Space, and received an acceptance just as quickly. In 1928, the magazine serialized the story in its August, September and October issues, describing the story as “the greatest interplanetarian and space flying story that has appeared this year. Indeed, it probably will rank as one of the great space flying stories for many years to come.” Interestingly, the same issue that introduced Smith also introduced another epic character to science fiction audiences: Buck Rogers.
The stories were popular, and Smith, affectionately known as ‘Doc’ Smith, began work on a second space adventure. Skylark Three was serialized in Amazing Stories in August, September and October of 1930 to further acclaim. A third serialized novel, The Skylark of Valeron followed in Astounding Magazine in August 1934, which proved to be an enormous success.
Smith continued to write following his Skylark novels, producing a two standalone novels, Spacehounds of IPC (serialized in Amazing Stories in 1931) and Triplanetary (serialized in Amazing Stories beginning in January 1934).
Smith would find further acclaim with his Lensman series. After taking a year off to revitalize a doughnut business, he returned in 1936 with an 80 page outline, which would eventually become four novels. Astounding editor F. Orlin Tremaine offered to buy up the series, and The Galactic Patrol, featuring an intergalactic police force, tasked with protecting the galactic civilization appeared in the September, 1937, where it ran through February of the next year. Several more Lensman stories would appear, but Smith had set his sights on another story, the Vortex Blaster, which he sold to Tremaine, who had moved on to a new science fiction magazine, Comet, which resulted in some tension between him and Astounding’s editor, John W. Campbell. During World War II he worked with manufacturing explosives for the war effort, but was later fired. Returning to the doughnut industry, he eventually retired as a Chemist in 1957, continuing to write the entire time.
Smith’s novels would earn him the title of the ‘Father of Space Opera,’ and which would in turn influence hundreds of stories that would follow. His use of super-science allowed him to open up the cosmos to a human playground of endless possibilities, making his books some of the more influential within the genre. His focus on interstellar civilizations, simplified morality tales and clear-cut heroes would provide a stable model for many other authors. Frederik Pohl mused: “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.”
At the 21st World Science Fiction convention in Washington DC in 1963, the first ever First Fandom Hall of Fame award was presented to Smith for his contributions to the field. Soon thereafter, began working on his final story: the last Skylark novel, titled Skylark DuQuesne, which was eventually serialized in 1965’s July, August, September and October issues of IF magazine. On August 31st, just two weeks after the final installment had been published, Smith passed away at the age of 75. Brian Aldiss noted that with his passing, Smith had been “loaded with honours by the science fiction field, unknown beyond it.” Smith’s legacy has continued on as one of the most influential figure within the genre through the stories that have followed that continue to keep us looking far out into space for adventure.