Space Opera (High and Low)

When I was a kid I read every bit of science fiction I could get my hands on. This was back in the late 1960s and I didn’t know the difference between stories written in the 1930s and newer stuff. If I’d ever heard the term space opera it was incidental and to me had no particular meaning. So I didn’t categorize my reading chronologically or by reviewers’ ratings. I based it on how “good” the story was. So it’s interesting to see what fifty years does to my opinions of those old stories. I’ll look at three stories; Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space, E. E. Smith’s First Lensman and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

So when I read The Legion of Space way back when, I thought it was great! It had vivid characters, exciting action, interstellar travel and bizarre aliens. I remember how vivid the secondary character Giles Habibula seemed to me with his whining and complaining. I remebered it as being an excellent sf novel.

Well I’ve reread it recently. Yikes! The writing is stilted and of poor quality. The characters in many scenes are one dimensional and the dialog is mostly wooden. Giles Habibula at least was more interesting than the rest of the characters so at least my recollection was not completely unconfirmed. But all in all, reading it was disappointing.

Next up I reread First Lensman. I started it with some trepidation. I had enjoyed the whole Lensman series immensely. Some of my fondest memories as a young science fiction fan were imagining how it would look if the series could be brought to the big screen. I was worried that, once again, the reality wouldn’t live up to the memory.

Luckily, it was much better than The Legion of Space. There were some weaknesses in the dialog and changes in the literary conventions stemming from the mores of the time. But overall it was enjoyable and fun. The strengths of the story were much as I remembered them. The stories were plot driven but with enough simple character development to lend sympathy to the endeavor. I think the recognizable American ethos and feel of the scene made it comfortable and enjoyable. And nostalgia for those happier times increased the pleasure of reading it. Catastrophe averted.

Finally I reread At the Mountains of Madness. Now even back when I first read this Lovecraft tale I recognized the shortcomings of Lovecraft’s prose. His overcharged style sometimes verged on self-parody and the telegraphing of plot events was extremely heavy handed and obvious. Even as a young adult I felt impatient at just how poorly he laid out his stories. His only saving grace is that in the broad strokes of his world building vision he seems to have tapped into images that are genuinely horrific. A very strange author that always leaves conflicted feelings after reading, that is how I describe Lovecraft.

Interestingly, I felt no difference between my original impressions of this story and my recent reading. He induces the exact same combination of impatience and vague interest. He’s like some unpleasant fever dream that produces a combination of stimulating disorientation and dull headache at the same time.

So what have I learned from all this? I’m not sure. Possibly that as a young reader I was far less critical of literary talent. And yet, the stories that I enjoyed the most still seem to possess the most merit as stories. And looking at the components that the better stories possessed, they combined likable protagonists with plot lines that featured conflict and adventure. Okay, so basically Homer’s Odyssey.  Well that’s not a profound conclusion but I guess it’s comforting to know.

Pardon me while I go search for an old edition of Smith’s Skylark of Space. That should be fun.

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