EC Tubb’s Dumarest serial is oddly compelling… so oddly compelling that, if you like the first book, you end up slowly chugging through the series.
For those who’ve just tuned in, this is an incredibly long mid-20th century low Space Opera serial that influenced the roleplaying game Traveller. Note, series not serial: though there is forward momentum, each book is standalone — it’s more Deep Space Nine than Babylon 5. Also note the low. This isn’t exactly Conan in Space, but the Cimmerian would not be out of place.
So, Dumarest wanders a Grapes of Wrath galaxy — think how we met Rey in The Force Awakens — in search of Earth while pursued by the fanatical Cyclan, cyborg monks with no emotions other than the hunger for power and pride in their intellect.
It’s very much The Fugitive does Space Western. There are exceptions, and Tubb often kicks off with a short story before settling down the real meat. However, in almost every episode, Dumarest is the archetypal Drifter who becomes involved in gothic goings on in one of the local great houses, usually because that house faces some external threat.
(The houses are usually Gormenghast-style piles crammed with extended family and fuelled by dwindling fortunes. However, from time to time he swaps in military unit, spaceship, expedition, clan or band, with similar effect.)
This happens so consistently, that the books should be too formulaic to keep coming back to.
But we do. Each novel is the same but different.
How did — does — he do it?
First, Tubb is incredibly economic with the… backbone of the story. Just three elements — FATE RPG would call them “Aspects” — generate most of the underlying conflict.
(1) Dumarest is a veteran traveler on a quest staying just ahead of his enemies. He is lonely, but cannot stay. His skills tempt him to help the unfortunate, but does not want to get involved. Though he does not want to get involved, his search for clues pointing to Earth forces him to stay long enough that he does get involved.
These internal conflicts echo his impact on the people around him. He’s attractive to women (because rugged bad boy) but they know they can’t keep him and their family disapprove. He’s a potential ally in local conflicts (because skillset), but — since he has no local network — politically and socially weak when he takes sides.
(2) The great houses are old. This makes them proud but decaying, durable but unadaptable, in need of new blood/ideas but too conservative to accept them, and loyal but untrusting.
(3) The Galaxy is so soul-suckingly big that you can lose a planet in it! So it offers novelty but rootlessness, diversity but isolation, and hope but peril.
(The other elements and players contain similar contradictions. The Cyclan, for example, are all about intellect, which makes them smart but foolishly arrogant.)
There you have it: Dumarest is a questing traveller. The great houses are old. The Galaxy is big.
From a reader point-of-view, these are a starkly powerful trio of archetypes. They’re probably why we want to buy the next book(s). Together they generate enough complexity to make the story vivid and intriguing while still easy-to-follow, which probably explains why we find them so entertaining. And, archetype and complexity themselves combine to make the stories feel strangely satisfying… a bit more significant than just a throwaway read.
From the writer point-of-view, this is a great way to make the material manageable. In a Science Fiction universe where potentially anything can happen, it’s good to have a simple backbone to cling onto.
Tubb is similarly economical when he builds his scenarios. Here’s my diagram of a typical Dumarest episode (right).
Tubb generally has just two nested arenas in which the three main conflicts play out:
First, the Planet, where there’s a… (1) WAR. Enemy versus Great House, including Dumarest. The Environment is also a player, though one to be exploited by both sides. (There’s also usually a subplot to do with the fortunes of the house versus the environment.)
On the planet, there’s the Great House (or spaceship or military unit or whatever) where there’s: a (2) POWER STRUGGLE between a Waif, on whose side Dumarest intervenes, versus a Pretender (e.g. an evil uncle); and a (3) ROMANCE that’s really a three-sided conflict between the “Girl” (mid 20th century terminology, sorry), Dumarest (can she win his love and make him stay?), and her Suitor (usually a more suitable young man).
These three conflicts — War, Power Struggle and Romance — are themselves archetypal and give the reader something to hang onto as the story twists and turns.
Because they co-exist and interact, these three conflicts also generate enough story possibilities to provide variation between books: the suitor may be tempted to side with the rival, or prove himself in the war… The Pretender may threaten the Girl, or change sides in the War… players may be close friends or relatives with each other so that the Suitor is the ally of the Waif.. and so on.
Tubb often merges the players in interesting ways. Most obviously, the Waif is the Girl and the Suitor is the Pretender. But what if the Waif is the Suitor? Or the Girl is the Pretender? Or if somebody is being duplicitous?
Tubb also varies his arenas. Sometimes the planet doesn’t really figure and everything happens within the house (or city, clan or ship), or the house and the planet are the same.
Finally, Tubb has two conflicts that Dumarest trails around between books. They not only connect each episode, they’re also what get him involved and what keep him moving on, and in doing so add complexity and time constraint to each story:
Dumarest versus whatever stops him finding Earth. It’s one of those Who’s-Afraid-of Virginia-Wolf-Unhealthy-20th-Century-Style obsessions. It’s integral to his character, affects his involvement in the three main conflicts, but also creates more standalone conflicts as he battles against whatever or whoever stands in his way.
Dumarest versus the Cyclan. The Cyclan want to wrest certain knowledge from his brain then eliminate him. Whether they are already involved in the situation, or whether they insert themselves specifically for the task, they usually spend some of each book going after Dumarest through either the Power Struggle or the War.
* * *
And that’s it.
Three aspects, two arenas, three main conflicts yields thirty-three Dumarest novels.
Is this the best way to approach writing a series? Unlike Star Trek, it means inventing a new ensemble cast for each episode. However, because it’s new each time, your ensemble need never run out of plot, and you need never get tied up with tracking continuity.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tempted to give something like this a go.
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of The Wreck of the Marissa (Book 1 of the Eternal Dome of the Unknowable Series), an old-school space adventure yarn about a retired mercenary turned archaeologist. He’s on a quest to find the mythical Dome but keeps getting involved in “local difficulties”. You can get it on Kindle here.