Monday, November 11, 2013

Spacehounds of IPC by E. E. Smith

First written in 1931, and then published in book form in 1947, Spacehounds of the IPC is perhaps the kind of novel they are complaining about in the introduction to the Norton Book of Science Fiction, the story of white men with absolute faith in science flying around in spaceships, fighting evil aliens and rescuing women from monsters.  On the other hand, the woman in the story also shoots aliens, and most of the alien civilizations the Earthmen encounter are friendly, so maybe Spacehounds would get a pass from the Department of Humanities wing of SF fandom.

The main character is Stevens, a genius “mathematical physicist” and an Olympic diver, and the story begins with a trip from Earth to Mars.  After solving the navigation problems that have been plaguing the ships on this route of late, Stevens shows a pretty young woman, Newton, around the space liner, which he helped design.  Newton is Stevens’ dream girl – not only is she a fellow world class athlete (champion of women’s golf in both the US and UK) but she’d rather explore the ship’s engine room than go to a dance!  Then disaster strikes, when an alien vessel slices their ship to pieces and tows the pieces to Jupiter, and Stevens and Newton have to escape in a lifeboat to the forested moon Ganymede.  
This is a pretty fun book.  The characters are cardboard and the level of human drama is low, but it is full of fun SF ideas: Smith really does try to figure out what interplanetary travel will be like, on a technical level with all kinds of navigational devices and techniques, and on a personal level – what zero G is like, for example.  Marooned on Ganymede, Stevens and Newton spend months mining natural resources and building things like a hydroelectric turbine and suits of plate steel armor, while other Earthmen become embroiled in the war between the good and evil inhabitants of the Jovian region, designing, building, and manning ferocious space warships.  The scenes with space ships traveling, battling, and exploding, and all the aliens and monsters, conjure up spectacular visions, like from a Lucas or Honda movie. 
I read a 1983 printing by Berkley.  The original magazine version is available at Gutenberg, complete with Wesso illustrations, and a quick look gives an idea of the kinds of updates made to later versions.  For example, in the second chapter Stevens gives a little history and science lecture.  In my 1983 edition atomic bombs played a role in the development of the world government; atomic bombs are not mentioned in the 1931 serial.  Similarly, Martians, unable to exploit hydroelectric power on their arid world, must make do in the 1931 version with “fuel,” but in my edition they have “atomics.”  That's progress!  There are also numerous lines in my edition in a slightly different typeface, as if the publisher was fixing typos that were on earlier plates or something like that.  

Recommended to space adventure fans, those interested in the history of SF, and anybody who enjoys reading sentences like “With two fields of force, set up from data 27 to 43, it will be possible actually to project a pure force of such a nature that it will react to deheterodyne the blanketing frequency at any predetermined distance.”  Do I get credit towards a physics degree for reading these things?

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