RETROSPECTIVE: Derai by E. C. Tubb

Monday , 14, July 2014 1 Comment

It’s hard to imagine, but the year 1968 might as well be ancient history now. Sure, it seems like just the other day that the Beatles were releasing “Hey Jude”, a song written to cheer up Julian Lennon in the aftermath of his parents’ divorce. In that same year, New Zealand reporter Peter Arnett quoted an unspecified army major as saying that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” On Christmas eve, astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman recited passages from the book of Genesis to a television audience of over a billion people as the Apollo 8 mission circled the moon. Such were the times when E. C. Tubb published this book.

And yeah, I might have been a touch underwhelmed by the first novel in this series, but to be honest, they had me here at the cover art. Whoever published this knew what they were doing. At a hundred and fifty-three pages, it does not represent a terribly serious investment, but really… any science fiction novel with a sword wielding woman in unreasonable armor on the cover is worth a shot. Sure, the plot is formulaic, following much the same structure as a television mystery. And admittedly, the setting is almost painfully derivative of Dune which had come out three years beforehand. But the lead character cuts so compelling a figure that it really is no surprise to me that this series would continue on for a whopping thirty-three books in total.

A couple of passages from the first chapter are sufficient to illustrate this:

“We’d make a fine couple,” she said. “I’m all the woman you could ever use and you’re all the man I’ll ever want. We’d get along fine.” She caught the towel he threw toward her and watched him dress. “What do you say, Earl?”

“It wouldn’t work,” he said. “I like to keep moving.”

“Why?” she demanded. “You’re looking for something,” she decided. “That or you’re running away from something. Which is it, Earl?”

“Neither,” he said.

“Then–?”

“No,” he said. And left her standing alone.

Yeah, just three pages in and he’s dumped his girlfriend. It gets better, though:

“What’s the matter, Aiken? Don’t you want to pay me?”

“Sure I do,” said the proprietor. His eyes were darting, furtive. “Sure I do,” he repeated, “only–” He broke off, swallowing. “Look, Earl,” he said desperately. “I’ll give it to you straight. Things haven’t been going so good. The concession cost more than I figured and the goops have been staying away. What I’m trying to say is that I’m practically broke. I owe the others. I’ve got to find freight and passage money to the next stop on the circuit. There are bills due in town. With your share I can just about make it.”

“And without?”

“I’m beaten,” admitted Aiken. “I’ll be stranded. Finished.”

“Too bad,” said Dumarest. “Pay me.”

“But–”

Dumarest reached out and caught the other man by the shoulder. Gently he tightened his fingers. “I worked for that money,” he said quietly. “I chanced getting myself killed to earn it. Now do you give it to me or do I help myself?”

In a word, this guy is awesome. Subsequent heroes cut from the same cloth pale in comparison. Han Solo drops his shipments when he gets boarded. Mal Reynolds will spend entire episodes trying to find just one person that will oblige him by paying him for his services. But Dumarest of Terra not only gets the job done, he gets paid. Even more impressive is the fact that never has to boast or shoot his mouth off. When he’s cutting a deal, it’s the other guy that puts together his resume for him:

“Earl Dumarest,” read Shamaski. “A traveler. You arrived here from Gleece traveling Low. Before Gleece you were on Pren, before that on Exon, Aime, Stulgar. Before Stulgar you were the guest of the Matriarch on Kund. You traveled with her retinue from Gath where, I assume, you were able to be of some service.”

This guy gets around. This guy gets things done. This guy takes no flak. His reputation precedes him. But there is a new threat to the freewheeling, rolling stone lifestyle of our hero in this installment of the Dumarest saga. No, it’s not some alien menace, some freakish and debilitating disease, or some insidious cult. It’s not even stuff like more varieties of double dealing or even more pedestrian ways to die, although that is here in spades. No, the traveler’s kryptonite turns out to be something more inscrutable than anything we’ve seen in this series so far: girls.

A local pilot on the world of Hive explains:

“I was a traveler once myself,” he said abruptly. “I drifted around for a while until I landed here. That was sixteen years ago. I met a girl and my traveling days were over.”

Game over, man. Game over!

So what kind of girl could possibly stop a guy like Dumarest in his tracks? That is a good question, really, because after treading the dust of a hundred worlds he never yet came across one that could. Though he’s far from being a James Bond or a Dominic Flandry, he’s certainly not desperate for the attention. What’s more, he’s been around the block enough to know that women from matriarchal worlds are liable to slip him a powerful drug and saddle him with a false rape charge after they’ve had their fun.¹ He’s no chump, he sees through the sort of feminine wiles that would trip of just about any other guy, and the entire concept of settling down is antithetical to his idiom. It would appear that the author has set an unsolvable problem for himself.

But there is such a woman that can do the impossible and she is right there on the cover: the title character, Derai. Complicating things, however, is the fact that she is a telepath along the same lines as characters like Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx or Firefly’s River Tam. She is a mutant and the first of her kind and she is on the run from forces that would like to harness her abilities for their own ends. While she’s not insane or schizophrenic, she is nevertheless troubled, frightened, and beset with irremediable nightmares. The interesting thing about this book, then, is that Tubb’s choice for a credible love interest for Earl Dumarast actually compounds the problem that he has set for himself. What is the actual spark that drives their attraction?

You know, I don’t know what I expected to find as being the solution, but I have to say… Tubb’s answer to this nearly made me fall out of my chair when I read it. See, the thing that makes Dumarest so attractive to Derai is that he is the only man in the universe around whom she feels secure. And the thing that makes Derai so irresistible to Dumarest is that she really and truly needs him. That is the way to this particular man’s heart. I don’t even know what this means, exactly, but hearing it from a character like Dumarest is simply staggering:

“Wait. I have some money for you. Your money. Not all of it but as much as I could get.” His voice reflected his bitterness. “Money isn’t plentiful among the Caldors. Not when there are so many to be fed and housed. But live quietly until she sends for you. In may not be for long.”

Wait, thought Dumarest bleakly. Until a bored woman decides to relieve her boredom? No, he told himself. Not that. Wait, yes, for just as long as necessary to get a ship away from here. And yet he knew that he wouldn’t go. Not while he knew that she needed him. Not while he wanted to be needed by her.

It’s not that the author is being daring or cute or even trying to make a point.² This is a for all intents and purposes a trashy, no-frills dime store novel. It does not put on any sort of airs or even the slightest hint of pretension. It’s not on the agenda for the author to challenge his intended audience. Not on something so elemental, anyway. He plays to what he could assume would have been his readers’ self-evident assumptions about the way things work in these matters. He can afford to invoke these themes in an almost casual manner.

Anyone that doubts that the touchstone of this novel really isn’t all that unusual for its time needs only to look at this lyric from a popular Stevie Wonder song that was released in the same year:

For once in my life I have someone who needs me
Someone I’ve needed so long
For once, unafraid, I can go where life leads me
And somehow I know I’ll be strong

That such assertions are now practically unthinkable is emblematic of just how much the culture has shifted: a man speaking in such a manner anymore is simply begging to be belittled.³ After all, why should a woman’s need for a man inspire him to be both courageous and strong? Why should it excite him? I couldn’t say, really, as I can honestly say that I’ve never consciously considered the matter. Indeed, the James Jamerson bass line was the thing that always drew my attention when I listened to the song, not the words. And yet, such notions about romance are by now even more astonishing than the idea of NASA astronauts quoting the King James Bible. They’re very nearly incomprehensible anymore. But for the time in which that song was released and this novel was published, they were entirely unremarkable.⁴ Consequently, E. C. Tubb’s Derai is astounding today for reasons quite apart from the intentions of the author. This book is not just an engaging tale of gritty adventure. It’s a time capsule.

¹ On a matriarchal world there is no defense for a man accused of rape and his eyelids, nose, lips, ears, tongue, and at least one other choice body part are removed no matter what the evidence shows.

² If you want to see someone making a point, check out the original series Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis” which would have first been broadcast in the year before. Spock rebukes Zephram Cochran for his dated and narrow minded views on sexual mores: “Your highly emotional reaction is most illogical. Your relationship with the Companion has for one hundred and fifty years been emotionally satisfying, eminently practical, and totally harmless. It may indeed have been quite beneficial.”

³ To be clear, a man confessing such feelings today would no doubt be accused of being weak and afraid of a “real” relationship with a “real” woman.

⁴ The phrase “women need men like fish need bicycles” was not coined until 1970, well after the publication of this book.

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