Monday, June 9, 2014

Derai by E. C. Tubb

In his essay in praise of Leigh Brackett, "Queen of the Martian Mysteries," Michael Moorcock tells us that E.C. Tubb's Dumarest books are "excellent," and were inspired by Brackett's own planetary romances about Eric John Stark.  So when I saw Tubb's Derai at a used bookstore (the 1968 Ace Double, combined with Juanita Coulson's The Singing Stones) I picked it up.  This weekend I read Derai, and was quite pleased with it; it is an entertaining and engaging adventure tale.

My Ace edition has a cover and a frontispiece by Jeff Jones that lead you to expect the novel to be about ancient or medieval people who fight with swords, Conan-style.  This is misleading; there is quite a bit of hand to hand combat in the book, but Derai is set in a high tech civilization with space ships and laser rifles where people cultivate and exploit alien life forms and can manipulate the human brain.

In the far future mankind has colonized innumerable planets.  There is no central government, each planet handling its own business, and most people have either never heard of Earth, or think Earth is just a myth.  Dumarest is a wanderer who travels the universe, hoping to find clues as to the whereabouts of Earth, which he left as a child.

In Derai, the second of the 33 (!) volumes in the Dumarest saga, Dumarest is hired to escort a beautiful young woman on a space flight back to her home world.  This woman, named Derai, is a timorous aristocrat with the ability to read minds.  On Derai's home planet, Hive, Dumarest gets involved in the cloak and dagger conflicts between the world's ruling noble houses and between the prominent members of Derai's house, who are vying for control of the house.  Because of his outsider status and because his abilities are in demand, Dumarest closely interacts with all levels of Hive society: the nobles, the business class, and the workers and peasants.  He also deals with a monk who is part of an interstellar religious order, and a member of the Cyclan, an interstellar group of people who forsake all emotion and physical pleasures to be trained to act as organic computers, capable of predicting future events.

Frontispiece by Jeff Jones
The climax of the novel comes on a third planet, where Dumarest has to enter a gladiatorial race through an obstacle course.  This third section of the book held surprises for me; instead of simply dwelling on the details of the fight through the maze, Tubb uses it as an opportunity for some character-based drama, as Derai and another woman, both of them in love with Dumarest, try to keep him out of the horrendously dangerous competition.

Derai is a good story of adventure and intrigue, full of fights and backhanded plots, but also full of interesting SF ideas-- techniques of space travel, odd human cultures, strange alien animals and ecosystems, a means of prolonging life that has dire side effects, and the Cyclan.  Tubb's style is good, and all the characters are sympathetic or interesting, with motivations that we can understand.  Their relationships and actions all make sense--the characters aren't just cardboard enemies for Dumarest to knock over and female props for Dumarest to rescue.  I actually cared about Derai's relationship with Dumarest, and about who took over Derai's noble house, and I was legitimately curious about what the Cyclan was up to.

This is an entertaining SF adventure; Moorcock hasn't steered me wrong.  I will be keeping my eyes open for more books by Tubb, and look forward to reading more about Dumarest and his travels throughout the galaxy.   

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