Just under a hundred years ago (1915), Edward E Smith started writing what was arguably the archetypal “Space Opera” series. The four books “The Skylark of Space“, “Skylark Three“, “Skylark of Valeron“, and “Skylark DuQuesne” are classics – spaceships, deadly weapons, evil alien races (and plenty of friendly ones), and huge helpings of action. Some people find them the writing style a bit much, though the last of the books was published in 1966 so so it’s less dated. Personally, I love the whole series. The characters, the violence, the “engineerishness”, and especially the sheer scale of the stories. More than any series before, and very few since, Smith kept making things bigger in each story. The first book is about a small group of people from Earth, hurled into the depths of space in their tiny ship and trying to get back. By the second book, it’s time for inter-species war, alien alliances, and giant spaceships. Third book – more aliens, worse war, bigger ships. In the fourth book an entire GALAXY is destroyed.
There’s interesting things to be said about the characters (especially the arch-villian/hero Marc C. DuQuesne), and the alien races (who range from noble to evil with a side order of strange, and every one of which think the humans are weird), but I thought I’d illustrate the “bigger, more powerful” progression by just looking at the various spacecraft mentioned.
Note: I’ve converted measurements to metric as my dear wife commented that comparing “feet” to “miles” isn’t easy for someone who was born the year we went metric (back in the 1960s).
[Skylark of Space]
Our heros Richard Seaton and Martin Crane design a spacecraft around Seaton’s amazing discovery. The villainous World Steel Corporation sabotages it, while building their own ship from the plans. However Seaton and Crane secretly build the “Skylark of Space”, a bigger ship to go exploring with.
It was a spherical shell of hardened steel of great thickness, some forty feet in diameter. Its true shape was not readily apparent from inside, as it was divided into levels and compartments by decks and walls. In its center was a spherical structure of girders and beams. Inside this structure was a similar one which, on smooth but immensely strong universal bearings, was free to revolve in any direction. This inner sphere was filled with machinery surrounding a shining copper cylinder
So that’s a sphere 12 m in diameter, containing 950 m3 of space.
While it was being built, Seaton and Crane went ahead with the construction of the original spaceship. Practically all of their time, however, was spent in perfecting the many essential things that were to go into the real Skylark. Thus they did not know that to the flawed members there were being attached faulty plates by imperfect welding. Nor could they have detected the poor workmanship by any ordinary inspection, for it was being done by a picked crew of experts — picked by Perkins. To make things even, Steel did not know that the many peculiar instruments installed by Seaton and Crane were not exactly what they should have been. In due course “The Cripple” — a name which Seaton soon shortened to “Old Crip” — was finished.
The Skylark is described as “four times bigger than Old Crip”. That can’t be four times the diameter (a 3m diameter spacecraft is too small and there’s reference to “our room” and “the galley”) so I’ll assume it’s four times less volume. That would make it a sphere 25 feet (7.6 m) in diameter holding a measly 230 m3 of space.
DuQuesne and Perkins (villain and henchman) take off in a Steel Corp’s copy of the original plans – i.e. the same size as “Old Crip”. They kidnap Seaton’s fiance, Dorothy Vaneman, and head off into space, taking also a (beautiful) witness, Margaret Spencer, to be disposed of.
The Skylark (version two, same size but much better armoured) encounters a warship of the squat and monstrous Fenachrone, who are setting out to conquer the galaxy.
Yes, it is a space-ship, shaped like a dirigible airship … it must be a thousand feet long
Ok, that’s 305 m long (much bigger than the tiny Skylark), but what dimensions? Taking the “Hindenburg” as a typical dirigible airship, it was 804 feet long and 135 feet in diameter. Applying the same ratio and approximating, we get a ship 50 m in diameter, holding about 700,000 m3 of volume.
Meanwhile, DuQuesne and his new henchman Loring have stolen a warship from the planet Osnome.
“This ship must be seventy-five feet in diameter.”
“You and me both. But say, every ship’s got to have a name. This new one of ours is such a sweet, harmless, inoffensive little thing, we’d better name her the Violet, hadn’t we?”
Another spherical ship, bigger than the Skylark at 23 m diameter (6,400 m3), but tiny compared to the Fenachrone cruiser.
Seaton and Crane aren’t going to stand still when others are flying vast ships and trying to exterminate all competition. In short order they track down the Norlaminians, an ancient race of scientists who have been studying everything worth studying for thousands of years. Though utterly pacifist, they are willing to build Seaton a real man’s ship.
For two miles that enormous mass of metal extended over the country-side, and while it was very narrow for its length, still its fifteen hundred feet of diameter dwarfed everything nearby.
The Skylark lay stretched out over two miles of country, exactly as they had last seen her, but now, instead of being water-white, the ten-thousand-foot cruiser of the void was one jointless, seamless structure of sparkling, transparent, purple inoson.
Taking the “2 miles” figure (10,000 feet is about 200m less), we get a ship that’s 3000 m long and 450 m in diameter. Plenty of space inside for all sorts of things, with 580,000,000 m3 of volume. Indeed, there’s enough space that the old Skylark Two is installed as a ship’s boat.
The Fenachrone home planet and their fleet are destroyed remotely, but Ravindau, a Fenachrone scientist, escapes with a colony ship he’s prepared in secret.
In a remote and desolate part of the planet, concealed in the depths of the towering jungle growth, a mammoth space-cruiser was receiving her complement of passengers.
No dimensions are given but it is described as smaller than the Skylark Three, which is thus able to store more tonnage of metal to feed into total conversion reactors, to power bigger weapons, to overwhelm the last of the Fenachrone.
[Skylark of Valeron]
The five crew of the Skylark Three (Seaton, Crane, their wives, and their cook) run into a group of disembodied intelligences (think Q from Star Trek TNG). The Skylark Three is destroyed, but they escape by rotating into another dimension in the old Skylark Two.
DuQuesne is a consumate con-man, and fools the peaceful Norlaminians into using their automated factory system to build him a duplicate of the Skylark Three so that he can search for the missing Seaton. Not that he has any intention of doing so – not when Earth is just waiting to be conquered.
For before their eyes there had already sprung into being an enormous structure of laced and latticed members of purple metal, stretching over two miles of level plain. While it was very narrow for its length, yet its fifteen hundred feet of diameter dwarfed into insignificance the many outlandish structures near by, and under their staring eyes the vessel continued to take form with unbelievable rapidity. Gigantic girders appeared in place as though by magic; skin after skin of thick, purple inoson was welded on; all without the touch of a hand, without the thought of a brain, without the application of any visible force.
“Skylark of Valeron”
Seaton and crew return from their (harrowing) adventures in another dimension, popping back into normal space in a far, far distant galaxy. Just finding their home world will be a challenge, but a bigger one is a planet full of chlorine breathing monsters who have enslaved a local world of humans. This calls for a seriously bigger ship!
Mart and I did some figuring and decided that with circles one thousand kilometers in diameter we could chart galaxies accurately enough to find the one we’re looking for … Therefore, we built the Skylark of Valeron just large enough to contain those thousand-kilometer circles.”
Gah! This is one HUGE ship, 1,000,000 m in diameter, a sphere containing 52,400,000,000,000,000,000 m3 of machinery, drives, and weapons – not to mention a cubic mile of computer.
“Sacner Carfon’s ship”
The Norlaminians realise they’ve made a big error by supplying DuQuesne with such a powerful spacecraft. They gather a crew of Seaton’s allies and supply them with a bigger ship
Fully twice the size of Skylark Three in every dimension she lay there, surcharged with power and might, awaiting only her commander’s touch to hurl herself away toward distant and inimical Earth.
A decent sized ship by any normal measure, at 6500 m long and 900 m in diameter (that’s 4,620,000,000 m3) but DuQuesne has fortified the planet and they have to retire ignominiously in defeat. Alas, his triumph is short lived once Seaton and his travelling planetoid turn up.
There’s many twists and turns in the last book. DuQuesne allies himself with Seaton to tackle a greater danger … betrays him … allies with him … psychic powers are harnessed to build vast weapons … an entire galaxy of the Chlorine breathing aliens attack … and so on.
A crew of 800 genius scientists from a distant galaxy, secretly travel to Earth and build a giant ship on the Moon. They’re just there to take advantage of Earth’s background noise (as the planet gears up with the new technologies brought by Seaton and DuQuesne) so that they can return and fight their own revolution against their lizard-like overlords.
The Mallidaxian’s slimly powerful length now extended for a distance of two and one half miles from the mountain’s foot out into the level-floored crater
A moderate sized ship, at 4000 m long and (based on the Hindinburg again) say 670 m diameter. There’s plenty of room for laboratories and fancy staterooms when you have 1,600,000,000 m3 to play with. A chunk of it is taken up with an instantanious transporter which is useful for flipping hydrogen bombs into your opponent’s office.
Marc DuQuesne is not the sort of person who accepts someone else having a bigger ship. Something has to be done.
Nor was DuQuesne’s worldlet, which he named the DQ, very much like the Skylark of Valeron except in shape. It was bigger. Its skin was much thicker and much denser and much more heavily armed.
No exact size or comparison is given, so I’ll just assume it’s twice as big (in volume) as the Skylark of Valeron. A chunky little craft of 1,260,000 m diameter, holding 1,050,000,000,000,000,000 cubic meters of space.
So just how big are these ships?
- Here’s a blue whale, humpback whale, a city bus, and the space shuttle, along with the original “Skylark of Space“, “Old Crip” and the “Violet” – all to the same scale. (Until I worked this out, I hadn’t realised quite how big the shuttle was … it does look smaller on TV!).
- You need to increase the scale in order to see the next ship. Here’s the evil Fenachrone cruiser, sandwiched between two versions of the “Enterprise“, a jumbo-jet, and the “Yamoto“, the largest World War 2 warship. The entire diagram above is also shown at the same scale.
- Then the ships start to get really big, and the scale has to increase again. Here is the “Skylark Three“, the “Mallidaxian“, and the un-named ship that Sacner Carfon et al fly into battle. For comparison, the U.S. military headquarters at the Pentagon, the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and once again the previous diagram reduced to scale.
- The moon-sized ships from the last two books are at a different scale altogether. The “Skylark of Valeron” is about the same size as the (largest) asteroid Ceres, or the distance between Auckland and Dunedin in New Zealand. DuQuesne’s ship the “DQ” is bigger still. The previous diagram is NOT included as the scale had to jump x500 and it would be 1.3 pixels wide!