Gnerphk’s Book Review: Dumarest of Terra

In addition to my 7 ongoing Planets games, I read on average one book per day while running my used book shop. This should indicate just how bad a career choice selling used books can be.

After reading all these books for all these years, I’ve discovered something some might find surprising: Much of what’s out there is absolute crap, and people eat it up. Take Twilight. Please, take Twilight. Take it far from here and burn it. Same for “50 Shades of I Don’t Know What S&M Means”.

On the other hand, there’s a ton of excellent books that, for whatever reason, people tend not to notice, much less read and enjoy. I’ve recently been working my way through the Dumarest saga by E. C. Tubb. These are a series of twenty-odd novels, uniformly excellent in concept and plot, well-written, and virtually unknown to modern audiences. The main character is an interstellar traveler named Earl Dumarest who wants to go to Earth, but most of the people he meets are so far from the now-legendary homeworld of humanity that they have never so much as heard the name.

(I’ll try to avoid excessive spoilers here; bear with me.)

The first volume, “The Winds Of Gath”, shows this in particular, and the main plot is given extra impetus from Dumarest’s sudden realization that he’s been traveling too long and too far for his origin to make sense to his fellow-travelers. His preferred method of travel is the cheapest, the somewhat dangerous practice of cryogenic sleep during interplanetary flight, and when he awakens he’s not where he intended to be. It emerges that he’s a migrant laborer by choice, as it enables him to indulge in travel and curiosity; he’s also fiercely independent, has a sharp mind and a finely-honed instinct of self-preservation, and he has no qualms about imposing his own moral code on his environment when he deems it appropriate.

For ease of traveling (and bearing in mind the price of his passage off-planet, without which he may well end up having to sell himself into slavery in order to survive), he attaches himself to the retinue of traveling nobility. He also encounters a member of the Church of Universal Brotherhood as well as a Cyclan, two organizations that seem diametrically opposed; the Cyclans are emotionless creatures of pure logic, humans who have opted to have their natural reactions excised in order to better process fact, while the Church espouses virtues like mercy and charity. (Earl has little use for either.)

During the trek to the planet’s sole tourist attraction, a massive natural white-noise amplifier made from geographic formations, he encounters evidence of plots, machinations and dangers. While present at the key event, he uses his wits and native toughness to expose the plot of… well, I won’t give it away; the result is quite surprising and the suspense excellent. And in the end, he opts to travel on, pursuing a new quest for Earth; this choice determines his direction through the rest of the series.

The best part of these stories, in my opinion, is the demonstrated value of determination in the face of impossible odds. Life in the wide universe is cheap and there are many that surrender to despair or ennui, but those that survive and prosper are those with the will to continue and the determination to make things change in the world around them. As in life, foolishness is often fatal; indeed, self-destruction is probably the most common cause of failure.

(Incidentally, about half of the plotline from “The Hunger Games” can be found in one of the first books. I rather liked Katniss, but Tubb’s arena is far more believable.)

If you read my words and want to pick up some of these books, you may be disappointed. Most of the series was printed just once and can be found only in those shops that carry old DAWs or Ace Doubles. For the completists among you, the $40 price tag on the third book, “Toyman”, may be a bit disheartening; turns out it’s the second side of a double novel, the first half of which was authored by a very young Dean Koontz. The real kicker is that, when the author was dying a few years back, he finally released the long-awaited conclusion to the series; no major publisher would accept it, so it was privately printed and is now only available for about $50 on the collector’s market.

I read one of these years ago and decided to put together a complete set when opportunity permits. I’ve been in the book business for well over a decade; during this time I’ve handled roughly a quarter million books (most of which, alas, were good only for recycling). My collection is now about 85% complete and I’ve started reading them through from the beginning. I haven’t been disappointed once.

Think about that for a second.

Every book is a unique plot. Each is well-written and quite compelling. Every single story is excellent.

Now, Stephen King has written somewhere around 50 books, some of which have seen high praise and most of which have sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies. And yet, even his most rabid fans, if objective, will have to admit some failings; “Tommyknockers”, for example, should never be read or even displayed. If you have the misfortune to own a copy, you can use it as a doorstop, to balance your clothes dryer, or possibly to make pipelighters. It has enough heft to be an effective blunt instrument (as does the text). If you’re searching for a volume to be turned into a book-safe, you need look no further.

…but I digress. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion at least, Tubb trumps King in terms of reliable readability.

(This is not to say that Tubb wrote better books; indeed, some of King’s works ought surely to go down in history as prime literature. High school kids could do a lot worse than to read “The Eye of the Dragon”, “The Body”, “The Green Mile” or even “The Stand” in lit class. Anything’s better than some of the tripe we force-feed them, and much of King’s work is excellent. Tubb, however, is reliably good.)

So why, then, are these excellent books not reprinted?

Well, old-school sci-fi really doesn’t sell well these days. It has a writing style that’s rather dated; today’s readers demand different things, especially in the realm of sex. In truth, very little of what was written before the 90s will satisfy modern tastes; the longevity of Asimov’s “Foundation”, Tolkien’s works, Narnia, Travis McGee, and Repairman Jack are quite remarkable.

There is another reason, though, and that’s the advent of the corporate eReader. Amazon presently controls the American distribution rights to the Dumarest Saga in electronic form, and while it is available there it’s unlikely to be released elsewhere.

Personally, I despise pleasure-reading on a handheld device, and I truly loathe certain of Amazon’s business practices. With that in mind, it’s a damned good thing that I have my stack of Tubbs, each patiently waiting its turn in the reading queue.