The Dumarest Saga: Spacefaring Adventure From E.C. Tubb

Sept 27, 2020
Herein we continue our travels through the towering stacks of, sometimes lurid, sometimes obscure, science fiction, fantasy, crime and horror paperbacks of yesteryear... 

Lurid cover art for the British edition of Winds of Gath
Lurid cover art for the British edition of Winds of Gath
The Dumarest novels, with their ambiguous titles, guaranteed to tell you nothing about the contents (Kalin, Veruchia, Mayenne, Derai etc), were a staple feature in book stores in the mid-seventies. In theory they should have been rubbish. It was obvious that the author had been contracted to write a disposable pulp SF adventure series, and the nature of the genre suggests that they should be Buck Rogers tales with aliens and galactic empires and dashing heroes (or post-modern anti-heroes) saving the universe. They’re anything but.

You may be unfamiliar with the books, but if you were a roleplayer in the 1980s you’d probably recognise the setting, because you’d have seen it before. It’s basically the SF RPG: Traveller. By which I mean, Marc Millar obviously based Traveller (the original edition) on the works of E.C. Tubb. Or, if you haven’t played Traveller, think Firefly/Serenity.

Earl Dumarest is a traveller, originally born on Earth; Earth being, at the time a scarred and inhospitable planet (possibly ruined by ancient wars) where life for the remaining population is a perpetual struggle for survival. At the age of ten he stows away on one of the few starships that calls at his world. When the captain of the ship discovers the young stowaway, instead of chucking him out of the airlock he adopts the boy and takes him deeper into space. Years later, the captain dies, and Dumarest, now a young man, continues travelling, until he journeys so far into known space that his home world is nothing more than a myth – a legendary planet which is said to be the original place from which mankind colonised the stars. No one knows where it is, and very few people even believe it exists. Dumarest now wants to find his home again, and so the series details his quest to find it. Within that format, each book details Dumarest arriving on a new and exotic world. Like American TV shows from the period you could, in theory, take many of the books, shuffle them around and read them out of sequence without any problem.

The US edition of Melome
The US edition of Melome
What makes the books compelling is the brutal setting. Tubb only hints at the background to his universe. The implication is that mankind spread out from Earth and colonised vast tracts of space. At some point there must have been a central government of some kind until it collapsed. Individual planets left to their own devices developed on their own, like feudal cities in the Renaissance. Tubb paints a picture of the depression of the early thirties – poverty and suffering seems to be endemic throughout his universe. The poor are only a few meals away from malnutrition, and travellers like Dumarest have to be streetwise and hard to survive in a universe where no one seems to care for strangers who arrive penniless on a world where they can’t find work. The tiny percentage of people who are wealthy have everything and they live in decadent luxury. The rest of the population suffer appalling conditions to survive. Tubb is old enough to have lived through the bleak days of the post-World War One depression, and the universe of Earl Dumarest captures the hard times that people (and possibly he, himself) must have endured back then.

What also makes the setting (and here the influence on the Traveller RPG is obvious) is the believable low tech. The most ambitious weapon is a laser (fragile and easy to break) but people still commonly use knives and rifles. Space travel is slow and boring, to the point where passengers travelling ‘High’ take drugs to make weeks in space seem like hours. Passengers who can’t afford the expensive high passage travel ‘Low’, doped and frozen in cryogenic caskets with a 15% mortality rate. Ships are often old and barely spaceworthy. Machines break down. Shanty towns full of desperate men and women can be found close to every world’s star port where the destitute will do anything to scrape together a meal. People often try to rip you off. A little money in your pocket often means the difference between life and death, which is rare in SF adventure stories.

The US edition of Nectar of Heaven
The US edition of Nectar of Heaven 
The books themselves are lean adventure yarns – fast paced, and without any of the cushioned upholstery of contemporary novels. No one will ever call them high literature, but in the best traditions of quality pulp, like Howard and Chandler, they entertain.

Tubb avoids the temptation to include Star Trek style aliens. Like the TV series Firefly, the universe is colonised by humans, though thousands of years of isolation have produced distinct cultures on various worlds, and now and then there are indigenous life forms on planets that correspond to more lurid SF principles. But by and large the rule seems to be pulp realism. Like Bernard Cornwell’s books, Tubb writes from the viewpoint of a tough, essentially decent, but also very streetwise, working class protagonist, rubbing shoulders with the wealthy and influential classes, many of whom do not understand him or the downtrodden multitude he represents. If you know Cornwell’s Eternal Sharpe heroes, Dumarest will seem like a familiar type of character.

As far as I’m aware, the books have been out of print for many years, and the last half a dozen were never available in the UK anyway. They do crop up occasionally in second hand shops and come recommended.

When E C Tubb wrote the first book The Winds of Gath it wasn’t necessarily with the intention of spinning out a long running saga. Like a lot of writers who worked through the forties and fifties he lived pretty much hand to mouth, writing at a ‘pulp’ rate, conscious that he had to hustle each and every sale, and that editors invariably paid per word, so the more words he wrote, the better his chance of paying the electric bill that month. Every writer of his generation dreamed of striking it lucky with a concept or character that could generate regular work in a highly competitive and lowly paid vocation. Tubb would write for any genre going but preferred SF. When the first Dumarest book proved popular enough for his publisher to commission two more volumes, Tubb knew that this was an opportunity for a regular stream of work. Rather than write stand-alone SF novels and have to struggle to find a publisher for each one, he could take the ideas and concepts and put them in the context of a Dumarest story. Dumarest’s universe was flexible enough to incorporate most of the ideas he came up with, so it made commercial sense to use a familiar brand that guaranteed sales.

The US edition of Prison of Night
The US edition of Prison of Night
Initially he was published by ACE books in the US (his commissions always came from American publishing houses, despite Tubb being a British writer. The UK editions were always licensed reprints), and had a good working relationship with the then (legendary) editor, Donald A Wollheim. Wollheim was probably the most important driving force of SF and Fantasy in the late sixties and all the way through the seventies. He built up an impressive list of authors when he worked for ACE books, and then in 1971 broke away to set up his own independent publishing house devoted exclusively to SF and Fantasy. DAW books became the most important imprint, responsible for publishing novels by just about every writer of the period. From Moorcock to Zelazny, Jack Vance to Philip K Dick, John Brunner, A E Van Vogt… the list was pretty much exhaustive.

Wollheim was especially keen to bring the Dumarest series over from ACE to DAW and promised Tubb two books a year with a larger word count (an extra 10,000 words per book). The series continued to be popular with readers, though after a while critics began to suggest (good-naturedly – there were few people that didn’t like the books) that Tubb was failing to progress the series. In every book Dumarest was struggling to find Earth, and despite plot opportunities coming his way, would inevitably be no closer to his goal by the end of the volume. There were of course sound commercial reasons for not ending the series but Tubb recognised that despite his inventive worlds and unique vision of a depression era galaxy, the series would grow stale if Dumarest didn’t get anywhere. By the eighties his intention was to write a number of books that culminated in Dumarest finding Earth. The series would then change tack dramatically with a series of books set on Earth, answering the many questions as to what had happened to it, and why was it ‘lost’ to the rest of the universe.

He had written the 32nd volume (The Return), which culminated with Dumarest descending from orbit to Earth, when DAW books underwent a major shake-up. Wollheim (now a very old man) stepped down and handed over the business to his daughter, Elizabeth R. Wollheim. Donald Wollheim had always said he would publish Dumarest as long as E C Tubb kept writing the books. His daughter had other ideas. As soon as she was settled in she took a hard look at the list of established authors and began to cull the ones she didn’t like. She felt that the Dumarest books were too ‘macho’ and had to go. Tubb was told that the new DAW books would not be publishing volume 32, and that she wasn’t interested in any more Dumarest books either. DAW changed from that point on and began to concentrate on publishing more romance orientated fantasy in a Mists oO Avalon style, and was partly responsible for the growing trend in the late eighties to the present day of all those identikit, Tolkien/Arthurian/D&D style ten part trilogy fantasy books that clog up the bookshelves of Waterstones.

A translated version of the 32nd book was published in France in 1992, but didn’t see an English language print until 1997 when a small press called Gryphon was talked into accepting it. Deprived of major bookshop distribution, and with cover art that can best be described as almost equalling the poor standards of fanzines, it didn’t do very well. In 2008 another small press considered the possibility of resurrecting the Dumarest series, compiling three or four books into a single volume at a time and putting the complete series back into print. Tubb had written a 33rd book, set now on Earth, which the small press published as a limited to 1,000 copies run, to test the water. Although the 1,000 copies sold out, they came to the conclusion that a mass print edition wouldn’t be commercially viable any more, and that they would struggle to sell enough copies of the reprint omnibus collections, taking into account the heavy discounting and mark ups now in place in the book trade. Plans for a 34th volume were also shelved.

It highlights the changing tastes of the book-buying public. Writers who were regularly found on the shelves of even small bookshops in the 1970s now struggle to find any market for their fiction. The overwhelming back catalogue of SF/Fantasy from the fifties to early eighties often isn’t in print any more, which I personally think is a shame, as taken as a whole, the breadth of ideas back then was more varied than you find in contemporary SF/Fantasy.

Michael Moorcock wrote of E C Tubb, "His reputation for fast-moving and colourful SF writing is unmatched by anyone in Britain." And in relation to the Dumarest books themselves, Michael Moorcock has described them as a "conscious and acknowledged imitation" of Leigh Brackett 's Eric John Stark stories, which I confess I know nothing about, though I've heard good things about Leigh Brackett in the past.

UK art for Toyman - possibly Dumarest in a Village People phase - check out that moustache
UK art for Toyman - possibly Dumarest in a Village People phase - check out that 'tache! 

The Series In Full:
The Winds of Gath (1967) (original UK title: Gath [1968])
Derai (1968)
Toyman (1969)
Kalin (1969)
The Jester at Scar (1970)
Lallia (1971)
Technos (1972)
Veruchia (1973)
Mayenne (1973)
Jondelle (1973)
Zenya (1974)
Eloise (1975)
Eye of the Zodiac (1975)
Jack of Swords (1976)
Spectrum of a Forgotten Sun (1976)
Haven of Darkness (1977)
Prison of Night (1977)
Incident on Ath (1978)
The Quillian Sector (1978)
Web of Sand (1979)
Iduna's Universe (1979)
The Terra Data (1980)
World of Promise (1980)
Nectar of Heaven (1981)
The Terridae (1981)
The Coming Event (1982)
Earth is Heaven (1982)
Melome (1983) (published in UK with Angado [1984] as Melome and Angado [1988])
Angado (1984) (published in UK with Melome [1983] as Melome and Angado [1988])
Symbol of Terra (1984) (published in UK with The Temple of Truth [1985] as Symbol of Terra and The Temple of Truth [1989])
The Temple of Truth (1985) (published in UK with Symbol of Terra [1985] as Symbol of Terra and The Temple of Truth [1989])
The Return (1997) (written 1985 but previously only published in French language as Le Retour [1992])
Child of Earth (2008)


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