Thursday, 21 October 2010

Review: The Winds of Gath

The Winds of Gath (1967) is the first installment in E C Tubb's 33 volume Dumarest Saga with the last book published in 2008.  Acknowledged even by Tubb as a formulaic series, the Dumarest Saga never feels like a pulp creation.  The combination of repeating familiar elements (even whole paragraphs) in each book combined with vivid imagery and an economical writing style that never wastes a word makes the Dumarest books page turners that can be read in an afternoon, yet are guaranteed to satisfy like a trustworthy brand.

But what really makes the Dumarest Saga so successful is Tubb's title character, Earl Dumarest.  A loner, soldier of fortune, infinitely resourceful and with a strong sense of honour, Dumarest is a man who can never stay in any one place or form normal human relationships because he is driven by a terrible need to find the home he ran away from as a ten-year old boy; the planet Earth.

The Dumarest Saga is set in the far future after mankind has colonised most of the galaxy.   Centuries after the collapse of a Galactic Empire that has left the galaxy a collection of feudal states, life has become hard with a technologically advanced nobility lording over planets reduced to near peasantry.  Dumarest is a Traveller; part of a fringe group that roam the spaceways in search of adventure, fortune, or just a better life.  It's a hard life with the risk of being stranded on a backward planet with no way of earning a passage off–provided one hasn't suffered in the one in five chance of dying while travelling "Low" in freezer compartments designed for livestock.  Dumarest risks this, and the many other perils, in his search to find Earth.  Unfortunately, Earth has passed into legend and scarcely anyone believes him when he says that it actually exists and that he came from there.  Worse, in his travels, Dumarest soon makes powerful enemies such as the emotionless Cyclan, a brotherhood dedicated to pure logic bent on galactic domination who see Dumarest as an obstacle to their goals. 

The Winds of Gath sets the tone for the series with Dumarest awakening from his frozen sleep to discover that the freighter he'd booked passage on has been diverted by a powerful noble to the planet Gath; a desolate, barely habitable world without agriculture, industry, or even proper settlements; a deathtrap for a man like Dumarest.  The only inhabitants of Gath are other travellers who've been stranded and face the prospect of starving to death in their tiny shanty town and the retinues of wealthy tourists who exploit the hapless travellers like beasts of burden.  The tourists themselves are there to experience Gath's one attraction:  The Winds.

In a desperate bid to earn a ticket off Gath before he starves, Dumaerst enters a bloody gladiatorial contest organised by the sadistic Prince of Emmened.  Defeating the Prince's champion, Dumarest falls under the protection of the Matriarch of Kund and her ward, the Lady Seena Thoth.  As is expected in these sort of situations, a romance begins to blossom between Dumarest and the Lady Thoth, which is complicated by repeated attempts on her life.  Or is Dumarest the target?  And who is behind the attacks?  The vengeful prince?  The Matriarch's Cyclan adviser?  Someone else?

Intrigues and violence move the story along at a fast clip until the story is torn apart by one of Tubb's signature plot devices:  A natural phenomenon that borders on the metaphysical.  The Winds of Gath that the toursits have come to experience are caused by a peculiar crystals that form a coastal mountain range.  When the seasonal winds blow against them, they produce sounds that make the people who hear them think that they are reliving past experiences.  Long dead parents can be heard, lost lovers found again, old triumphs revisited, and past sorrows eased.  It's all very nice, except this year the winds turn into a howling gale that bring not just memories, but death and madness.  It also neatly kicks over the traces that allow Dumarest to solve the mysteries and get off Gath with a whole skin.

No one would pretend that The Winds of Gath is high literature, but as simple escapist entertainment it excels and Tubb's writing style and characterisations make the Dumarest Saga one series well worth revisiting.

1 comment:

  1. Great review!
    Other than the occasional boilerplate paragraph, I'm quite surprised by the quality of E.C. Tubb's writing. The little touches of brilliance here and there combined with pretty solid world building make these fun to read and read again.