The Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction:

Important works that includes correspondence with E. E. “Doc” Smith and three of his rough draft manuscripts (TRIPLANETARY, SKYLARK OF VALERON and GALACTIC PATROL),
as well as correspondence with A. Merritt, Clark Ashton Smith, Julius Schwartz and others

In his introduction to The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum (1974), Isaac Asimov refers to the three novas of science fiction, stories that changed the genre instantaneously upon their first publication.  In order, Asimov’s three novas are E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Skylark of Space” (Amazing Stories, August 1928), Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (Wonder Stories, July 1934), and Robert Heinlein’s “Life-Line” (Astounding Science Fiction, August 1939).

21674Skylark 2

While Doc Smith’s name may be virtually unknown to fans of contemporary science fiction, Smith’s influence on the development and scope of the field is undeniable.  With the publication of “The Skylark of Space,” Smith introduced the concept of interstellar travel and created the science fiction genre known as the space opera.  Space operas are characterized by interstellar wars waged among galactic empires, conflicts that involve advanced technology and consume entire worlds, often lasting hundreds of years.

Smith’s greatest achievement as an author is The History of Civilization (1955), comprised of his six Lensman novels—Triplanetary (1948), First Lensman (1950), Galactic Patrol (1950), Gray Lensman (1951), Second Stage Lensman (1953), and Children of the Lens (1954)—a number of which were originally published as serials in Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction from 1934 to 1948.  The defining space opera of science fiction’s golden age, The History of Civilization chronicles the interstellar war between two alien races, the peaceful, benevolent Arisians and the vicious, dominating Eddorians.  In order to stop the Eddorians from conquering the known universe, the Arisians institute a eugenics program on several planets in hopes of creating a superior race that can defeat their enemies.  As a result, the Galactic Patrol is formed, an interstellar military and law enforcement agency headed by the Lensmen, human beings of superior intellect and physical ability who are natural, capable leaders.  Each Lensman is equipped with the Lens, a badge that gives its wearer a wide range of telepathic abilities.  As tensions mount between the Arisians and the Eddorians, alien races align themselves with either the rational, orderly forces of Civilization or the ruthless criminal empire of Boskone.  The ensuing battles between Civilization and Boskone last centuries and involve vast space fleets, army units with millions of soldiers, and the casual destruction of entire worlds and races.  The turning point in the conflict comes when third-stage Lensmen develop the ability to merge their minds and the minds of the entire Galactic Patrol into a massive mental entity known as the Unit.

If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because the influence of Doc Smith’s Lensman novels on popular culture is pervasive, ranging from comic strips such as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (1934-2003) to classic TV series such as Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek (1966-1969).  The concept of the Galactic Patrol, an interstellar police force consisting of numerous alien races, is a clear precursor to DC Comics Green Lantern Corps (1959 to present) with the Lenses reimagined as power rings and the Arisians becoming the immortal Guardians.  George Lucas has acknowledged Smith’s Lensman series as a direct influence on Star Wars (1977); the Force find its roots in the Unit, as does the Empire in the Boskone.  Likewise, contemporary high spots of science fiction, such as Louis McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga (1986 to present), Vernor Vinge’s A Fire on the Deep (1992), and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (2013), are all space operas and would not exist with the work of Doc Smith.  In thanking Smith for dedicating the hardcover publication of The Vortex Blaster (1960) to him, Robert Heinlein wrote:
“I have learned from many writers—from Verne and Wells and Campbell and Sinclair Lewis, et al.—but I have learned more from you than from any of the others and perhaps more than for all the others put together. . . .  For the past twenty years I’ve been trying to emulate you and any really astute literary detective could trace down hundreds of things in my stories which derive from your ideas, style, moral standards, et endless cetera.”

Every time we pick up a new science fiction novel that involves political intrigue and warfare on a galactic scale or eagerly anticipate the next Guardians of the Galaxy sequel or any of the myriad of sequels, prequels, and TV series set in the Star Wars universe, we are literally enjoying the Children of the Lens.

While the Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction contains fascinating correspondence with A. Merritt, Clark Ashton Smith, E. R. Eddison, and Julius Schwartz, the heart of the collection is the remarkable material pertaining to Doc Smith.  Manuscript material from the formative era of science fiction is rare, and it is impossible to overstate the historical and cultural importance of these Smith manuscripts.  The Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction provides numerous invaluable insights into Doc Smith’s work and his writing process, highlighting one of the early architects of all we have come to know as science fiction.

Doc SmithDodson-letterScan 3Smith-manuscript-exttriplanetary-2Triplanetary copy

“Within SF fandom — that is the coterie of readers to whom science fiction virtually meant the magazines — E. E. Smith, Ph.D. (known as ‘Doc’ Smith) was one of the greatest names, if not the greatest of all. It was E. E. Smith who started science fiction off on the trillion year spree which is now an integral part of its image. Beneath Smith’s advance, the light-years went down like ninepins and the sober facts of science were appropriated for a binge of impossible adventure” (Brian W. Aldiss, TRILLION YEAR SPREE, pp. 210-212).

“When George Lucas researched the background for the Star Wars saga, it was no accident that one of his sources was the Lensman series. But even the Death Star seems a puny weapon next to what Edward E. Smith (1890-1965) imagined in SECOND STAGE LENSMAN (1941-1942): a whole fleet of mobile planets assaulting Earth. “Doc” Smith, as he was known to SF fans, hardly seems a candidate for literary recognition. By prevailing standards, his style is quaint, his dialogue stilted, his characters embarrassing, his values sentimental. Yet Smith was a literary revolutionary. His place in science fiction can be compared to that of James Fenimore Cooper in the development of the American novel. Cooper was a clumsy writer, as Mark Twain demonstrated in a devastating piece of criticism; yet he created the entire mythology of the frontier in his Leatherstocking Tales. Similarly, Smith created the mythology of space opera in his Skylark and Lensman adventures … Both the Lensman and Skylark series retain an elemental appeal that transcends pulp limitations. If a classic is a work that fulfills all the possibilities of its form, then these are classics” (John J. Pierce, FOUNDATIONS OF SCIENCE FICTION, pp. [129], 134).

Science fiction fandom grew out of science clubs, all facilitated by Hugo Gernsback, “The Father of Science Fiction,” who published the addresses as well as the names of those whose letters were published in his magazines. What ties the Dodson collection together is a classic example of the interaction of science fiction readers with the genre’s writers and editors during the 1930s. Historically, this interaction resulted in the publication of hundreds of amateur magazines (fanzines), the first locally organized fan clubs and, ultimately, the First World Science Fiction Convention, held in New York City in 1939.

Like many young fans, Richard Dodson’s interest in both science and in fiction led to correspondence with writers, editors and other fans. Some writers working in this popular fiction genre wrote science fiction rather than science fantasy. In the tradition of Verne and Wells, they made an effort to provide at least some plausible science in their scientific romances. In the main, E. E. “Doc” Smith, a chemist who wrote science fiction, was one of these writers. When John W. Campbell became editor of ASTOUNDING in 1937, his editorial policy called for realism and scientific verisimilitude. With his engineering background and his appreciation of “hard” science fiction stories written by fellow writers with science backgrounds, Campbell ushered in what is now called science fiction’s “golden age.” The need to employ at least somewhat plausible science while telling the story is a connecting thread throughout the correspondence between Smith and Dodson.

Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith (1890-1965), American chemist and pioneer science fiction writer, is historically important as the best known and most imitated writer of early “space opera.” Smith’s first novel, THE SKYLARK OF SPACE, was begun in 1915 and finished in 1919, but its was not published until 1928. While other pulp writers (Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson for instance) wrote and published this type of story before Smith’s debut novel appeared in AMAZING STORIES, his first story and those that followed significantly expanded the boundaries of pulp superscience yarns by humanizing the scientist/hero, making science relevant to the plot, and moving the action beyond the confine of our Solar System. He became the master of the form.

“After Smith, all science fiction bore the stamp of his influence, most clearly in the writing of Jack Williamson and John W. Campbell, Jr., but in many other writers’ work as well … That influence endures to the present. At a panel during the 1982 World Science Fiction Convention a group of writers including Larry Niven, Jack Chalker, Phylis Eisentein and Michael Resnick agreed that they stand on the shoulders of earlier writers, in particular Doc Smith because of his positive belief in the future as a place where humans will be free to take significant action. Thus, Smith’s identification with the scientist, or rather the spirit of optimistic rationality that he attributes to science, has become one of the foundations of science fiction” (Sanders, E. E. “DOC” SMITH, pp. 83-84). Smith’s influence is also evident in film and TV, from Star Trek and Star Wars to the latest episode of Guardians of the Galaxy.

The first installment of “The Skylark of Space,” written by Smith with some help from Lee Hawkins Garby, was published in the issue of AMAZING STORIES dated August 1928. “It is the first ‘space opera’ in which men go outside the Solar System to meet alien races, engage in struggles, and generally reach the maximum limits of exotic adventure … The story remains one of the great classics of the field, and is almost required reading for anyone who tries to understand the history of science fiction” (Lester Del Rey, THE WORLD OF SCIENCE FICTION, p. 45).

The “Letters” column of AMAZING STORIES printed the addresses of the writers as well as their names, thereby facilitating correspondence between readers of the magazine. Richard W. Dodson (1915-2008), a high school student at the time, read several of Smith’s stories and was inspired to write to him. The result was an exchange of letters, with topics ranging from the nature of science fiction writing and critiques of Smith’s work to the study of science, that would continue for the next twenty years.

Dodson, later a prominent American atomic scientist, also corresponded with Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt and other writers, as well as Julius Schwartz, a young fellow fan, but Smith was the author Richard admired most. As a teenager, science was as important a part of Dodson’s life as it had been for Smith. Richard enrolled in the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in Pasadena where he was one of Linus Pauling’s assistants. He graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry in 1936. He then went to Johns Hopkins University from which he received his Ph.D. in Chemistry. He did research in radioactive materials and in 1943 he joined the Los Alamos National Laboratory to work on the Manhattan Project. After the war he returned to Cal Tech, but soon left for Columbia University where he joined the Chemistry Department, first as an assistant professor, later as a full professor. At this time he also worked for the newly established Brookhaven National Laboratory where he was appointed first chair of the Chemistry Department. He served as well on General Advisory Committee of Atomic Energy Commission.

The core of the Richard W. Dodson Science Fiction Collection is the work of Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith. All pre-golden age science fiction manuscripts by any writer are rarely available for sale, and these “Doc” Smith manuscripts are not only rare, but historically important as well.

“Together with the earlier Skylark series, the Lensman series provides the paradigm for the subspecies of science fiction usually known as ‘space opera.’ It is exemplary of a literary strategy which exploits the illusion of plausibility conferred by the use of scientific and pseudoscientific jargon to turn the cosmos into a colossal playground where assorted heroes can do battle on a spectacular scale with entire races of loathsome aliens. Space opera is basically costume-drama of a very simple and elementary kind, but its essential simplicity and repetitiveness are cloaked by a continual escalation of magical superscience. Smith was the first writer to realize and exploit to the full the fact that the pretence of fidelity to known science and future possibility maintained by science fiction was not an imaginative constraint at all, but permitted absolutely anything to happen at the whim and convenience of the author, provided that a suitable jargon of apology was included … Smith was an inelegant writer and an unimaginative one, but neither of these failings proved to be the least handicap to him, for the nature of his endeavors made them irrelevant. The raw audacity of his adventure stories gave them the capacity to exercise an almost mesmeric effect over many readers, pandering to one of the most elementary of human needs: the need for compensatory fantasies in which to express impulses that have to be restrained in everyday social intercourse” (Stableford, SURVEY, pp. 1183-1184).

The collection includes three draft manuscripts, all handwritten with TRIPLANETARY also having a typewritten copy, letter correspondence with E.E. Smith, A. Merritt, Clark Ashton Smith and others, signed books, photographs, artwork and other materials.

This collection, new to the market, will be available for inspection at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair, November 10-12, 2017 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Please inquire for free passes for the fair. Any queries please contact either Lloyd Currey or John W. Knott.

Post written by Boyd White, L.W. Currey and John W. Knott

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