The opening shot of Star Wars with its slow reveal of a truly gigantic Star Destroyer is arguably the finest single shot in science fiction movie history. It’s so powerful, it not only changed the way blockbuster movies were made from then on. It turned nearly an entire generation into science fiction fans over night!
Of course, those newly minted fans looking for more of the same were in for a shock. There just isn’t anything really approaching an epic space battle in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. (The battle cruisers of the second volume are completely impotent against the “dead hand” of Hari Seldon.) Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 opens with divine intervention in man kind’s evolutionary prehistory and culminates into a baffling conclusion that not even the novel can satisfactorily explain. People that turned to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers got their nuclear powered infantry, sure. But they got half again as much lecture on why they needed to spank their puppies.
But no, this middle brow and vaguely “serious” take on the field may be synonymous with written science fiction fans of a particular age range. But it sure wasn’t primary to people that sat down to make the first wave of role-playing games. There you got the gritty “bullets and blades in space” of authors like H. Beam Piper, E. C. Tubb, Poul Anderson, and Jerry Pournelle for what would inspire Traveller. Or you got the wild and freaky science fantasy of post apocalyptic mutant adventure from authors like Andre Norton, Sterling Lanier, and Brian Aldiss for what would inspire Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha.
Looking at just these three distinct science fictional oeuvres, one would think that Star Wars just came out of nowhere like lightning out of a clear sky. It didn’t, of course; it followed from the pulpier planetary romance style of science fiction pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs which dominated the field right up through about 1940 with countless spin-offs and variations produced by science fiction luminaries such as C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Jack Vance.
But even with that as a given, the question remains. Where is the must-read classic science fiction novel that gives the exact same sense of awesomeness as that gigantic Star Destroyer from the opening shot of Star Wars? Where is the book that anticipates the epic thrill people felt when the witnessed the Millennium Falcon make the jump to light speed for the first time? Where is the book that captures the brutality of a boarding party of stormtroopers systematically taking over a starship or tremendous weapons capable of destroying a planet…?
Well that book, the book that holds the distinction of getting to all of that firstest with the mostest has to be E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Galactic Patrol. And let me tell you it’s got everything. Giant starships, tractor beams, force shields, space marines, and explosive pulse-pounding action. The fact of its wide-ranging appeal and enduring influence would be immediately evident to anyone familiar with The Green Lantern Corps, but the question remains….
Why would something this astounding go pretty well dormant until stuff like Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica could make it the new normal again…?
It’s hard to believe, but that actually happened.
Why would that happen…? And more importantly, how could it happen? Well, that’s a long story, really. One place to start would be to check in on the people that make the short lists of science fiction’s seminal classics. If the people you’ve depending on to point you to the crème de la crème of science fiction can’t be bothered to pay their respects to A Princess of Mars and Galactic Patrol, then they’re selling you a bill of goods.
And it’s long past time for somebody to make a better list– one that captures science fiction’s real history.