Serial Thriller

Most SF readers have a certain guilty nostalgia for books they gobbled up in their teens or earlier. As the cynical quotation goes, "The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve." (This is attributed to many people but was coined by Peter Graham. Another exciting trivia-quiz factoid.)

One series I kept buying in my salad days was E.C. Tubb's endless "Dumarest" space-opera saga, in which rough, tough spacefarer Earl Dumarest gets into deep trouble on planet after planet while questing for his home world, which has faded into mythology. No one believes it exists. Even while trying to kill or seduce Dumarest, villains and hot-eyed temptresses would pause to say something incredulous like: "Earth? As well call a planet Dirt, or Soil!"

All action-packed stuff, set in a seedy galaxy of generally brutal and feudal worlds. Dumarest hardly has a moment to recover from the agonies of his latest long interstellar haul in a cryogenic coffin before it's time for more fisticuffs, knife-fighting or all-out combat in the local arena.

Enemies pursue him, especially the sinisterly emotionless Cybers of the dread Cyclan, who Know Everything because they regularly connect to their shared galactic consciousness – a vast hive-mind of cyborg brains hidden underground on some secret planet which series addicts just knew would turn out to be Earth. There are gorgeous girls for Dumarest too, usually one per book, usually (as another sequel looms) ending up either tragically parted from our hero or tragically dead. Onward!

The novels tended to have one-word titles, often the name of the current luscious lady: Derai, Kalin, Lallia, Mayenne, Eloise, Veruchia ... Some of these had mysterious mutant psi powers; Veruchia, presumably, had a hideous growth on the foot.

It's easy to mock the repeating formula elements in Tubb's series. Star-travel in High mode (first class, drug-assisted) or Low (steerage in a frozen coffin) is described again and again in similar phrases. Each instalment's evil Cyber ecstatically links with the Cyclan Mind in almost exactly the same words. Someone else usually scoffs about a planet called Dirt or Soil. Nevertheless, these are reliably entertaining action-adventures, written by a skilled wordsmith – short, gripping, punchy novels with no word-processor bloat. Dumarest had a huge following in his day.

The saga began in 1967 with The Winds of Gath (UK hardback title just Gath) and was dumped by US publisher DAW Books at volume 31 in 1985, with our hero's quest still unfinished. Donald A. Wollheim, founder of DAW, loved Dumarest and always wanted more; but after his death, the new management disagreed. For the last two episodes, readers had to wait until 1997 (with a 1992 preview in French translation) and then 2009.

Ted Tubb, as he was known to friends and fans, was still steadily writing and publishing novels when he died in September 2010, aged 90. His first SF story – in New Worlds magazine, long before its takeover by Michael Moorcock – and first novel both appeared in 1951. He edited the British magazine Authentic SF from 1956 to its demise in 1957, and was a legendary figure in fandom. A founder member, for example, of the British SF Association in 1958, and a charismatic, brass-throated fund-raiser at innumerable convention charity auctions. Even the tattiest magazine was "worth the price in paper alone!"

Tubb was the last survivor of what the SF Encyclopedia calls "the extraordinary conditions (low pay, fixed lengths, huge productivity demands) of early 1950s SF in the UK". None of those fifties magazine-hack colleagues could attend his funeral; he'd outlived them all. But he was well loved.

David Langford really ought to read the older Dumarest adventures again. It's been so long....

Here is the longer Tubb obituary by Phil Harbottle, as published in Ansible.