X marks the spot. Rearrange for X. X, the unknown factor. X, the hidden mastermind behind the fiendish plot…
X is one of the lesser used letters of the alphabet* and can be hard for AtoZ’ers, perhaps one of the ones that is most prone to tenuous connections. This year I actually knew very early on what I wanted to write about for X, which comes from a writer who predates the Big Three and certainly influenced Heinlein, as well as popular culture and the military, although both of the latter you’re unlikely to notice unless you are a fan.
*Although I was surprised to find that J is only used slightly more frequently. Approximately a third of the alphabet accounts for nearly two-thirds of letters used.
Edward E. ‘Doc’ Smith, is one of those characters who, from the distance of over 50 years since his death and 100 years since he started writing, just seems too good to be true. If he were an English Public Schoolboy he would be crowned Victor Ludorum. He was athletic as well as scholarly, gallant and kind. Some of his characters have been described as impossibly capable, but friends and fans who knew him have stated that he unconsciously took his characters from real life, with himself and his wife being a template for more than one. (I suspect that he would have been extremely bemused by ‘feminism’, particularly as a political ideology, but he was certainly someone who believe that women were equal, with a role to play, and weren’t just there to be rescued – although that did crop up as a motif once or twice).
Smith, after time spent labouring, was educated as a chemical engineer and his professional career was spend in the food industry. He was proud of his doctorate, and rightly so, and when submitting his science fiction he included this award post-nominally. He was something of a rarity in the early 20th Century – a science fiction writer with a PhD – and so he became known as Doc Smith.
Doc started writing down some of his ideas in 1915 i.e. before the US entered WWI, but when these events were unfolding – a significant influence on his thoughts about space travel and associated topics. What with one thing and another his first story, written in collaboration with a friend, took about five years to complete. It was serialised and published in three parts (having previously been rejected by another magazine). It was so successful that the sequel was requested before the second part had hit the stands.
Smith is probably best known for two series of stories, Skylark and Lensman. The latter is truly epic, with a number of different main characters taking the lead, and several intriguing alien races introduced. Arguably it is Lensman that has had the most influence on the world in its effect on writers, politicians, tacticians…whilst there are many who could honestly say that they have never read any of his books, they have been influenced by his effect on those who have and the real world changes wrought as a result.
However, it is to Skylark we turn for ‘X’. Recall that I said that this began life in 1915 – a mere 20 years after Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays. The alternative name, Röntgen’s rays never really caught on, despite the fact that Röntgen became one of the first Nobel Laureates for this discovery. The romantic, in the classical sense, notion that these rays were unknown stuck – this was what Röntgen himself had called them – even when people understood what they were all about. All of that said, X-rays, don’t really have any real bearing on Skylark. However the Skylark of Space, a space ship that is built by the protagonists exploits ‘X’, the unknown element that is discovered by chemist Richard Seaton and then exploited by him and his millionaire friend Martin Crane.
As has been noted over this series of posts, it’s extremely easy to posit an unknown metal or material, harder to back it up. Again recalling that we’re talking about the first quarter of the 20th Century when this book was written, we can note that quantum mechanics was still in it’s infancy, many elements were still unknown, a lot of thermodynamic theory was unknown, and even the understanding of the structure of the atom was still being refined – Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, which proved that an atom consisted of a relatively dense nucleus, with a diffuse cloud of electrons orbiting it, had only been carried out in 1911.
The mechanism that is fundamental to the stories is the reaction between ‘X’ and copper, which leads to the complete conversion of the atom of copper to energy – with some spectacular results when it is used as a weapon. It’s primary use in the story is to provide power for the spaceship though.
I can’t remember exactly when I started reading Smith’s books, but it would have been around my late teens/early twenties: once I started, I went to a lot of trouble to complete the sets of the Skylark and Lensman series (although I have not read any of the ‘authorised’ follow-ups, written after Smith died). These are classics of a type, but we must remember they were published in the ‘pulps’ of the ‘20s and ‘30s. These are not top-notch writing, but as I said earlier, the ideas contained in them are immense. Everyone has a ‘comfort read’, books that they return to time and again, and Smith’s oeuvre falls in this category for me. So on that basis, I’m comfortable calling them ‘tosh’. But good tosh, if you know what I mean. With the benefit of nearly 100 years further research into chemistry, physics, metallurgy, and all the rest, this mechanism, certainly in the context of an open bench, with an unexplained “whatsitron” operating in the next room, is nonsense – science fiction writer science, to borrow a phrase from one of the commenters on this blog.
So in this case, X remains unknown and in short supply – it could perhaps be a rare earth metal (although rare earths aren’t actually all that rare, in the grand scheme of things). The mechanism is left unexplained, although it is perhaps worth taking a look at the equation E=mc2, which whilst not mentioned explicitly, is at the heart of this. Or at least, possibly a misunderstanding of this. I’m fond of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Lies to children’ explanation of how we learn things. We learn what we need to know at a particular time, and if necessary we learn the next more complicated version, which still might not be ‘the truth’ but perhaps improves our ability to do something. In very general terms then, we begin by learning about atoms and we get told about marbles. Then we get told it’s not really a marble, it’s a plum pudding, then it’s something like ferris wheel or one of those sky car rides and then…and then…
In terms of E=mc2,, very crudely, energy can be converted to mass, and vice versa – to some extent that is what is driving the mechanism here. Except that you can’t really convert all the mass into energy. In the context of an atomic bomb, what you are doing is releasing some of the energy that is stored inside unstable atoms, and doing a lot of this quickly, so if the energy is the glue holding certain particles together, this glue is liberated – again, something of a lie, but better than simply saying it’s possible to turn mass into energy.
Smith is considered by many to be the father of Space Opera, which is more about saga, scope, people and the vast, empty tracts of space, than it is about science, and some would argue even science fiction, which perhaps is why it is important to distnguish between s.f. and sci-fi.
Mixing source material, what you have to remember is that ‘X’ never marks the spot…