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Friday, 25 January 2019

Book review - Incident on Ath (Dumarest 18)

E.C. Tubb’s eighteenth book in the Earl Dumarest galaxy-spanning saga is Incident on Ath.

But first, some background:
The Dumarest novels are set in a far future galactic culture that spread to many worlds. Earl Dumarest was born on Earth, but had stowed away on a spaceship when he was a young boy and was caught. Although a stowaway discovered on a spaceship was typically ejected to space, the captain took pity on the boy and allowed him to work his passage and travel on the ship. By the time of the first volume, The Winds of Gath, Dumarest has travelled so long and so far that he does not know how to return to his home planet. Perplexingly, no-one has ever heard of it, other than as a myth or a legend. It’s clear to him that someone or something has deliberately concealed Earth’s location. The Cyclan, an organization of humans (cybers who are surgically altered to be emotionless, and on occasion they can link with the brains of previously living Cyclans, in the manner of a hive mind process, seem determined to stop him from locating Earth. The cybers can call on the ability to calculate the outcome of an event and accurately predict results.

An additional incentive for the Cyclan to capture Dumarest is that he possesses a potent scientific discovery, stolen from them and passed to him by a dying thief, which would inordinately amplify their already considerable power and enable them to dominate the human species. Also appearing in the books is the humanitarian Church of Universal Brotherhood, whose monks roam many worlds, notably every world where there is war.

Incident on Ath (1978) is a self-contained adventure; it begins on the planet Ath, with a gifted artist, Cornelius, and his sensual sponsor Ursula; he craves perfection in his art and she is prone to taking a drug that offers her temporary oblivion.

On the planet Juba Dumarest rescues a woman, Sardia, from attack. She is a retired ballet dancer, now dealing in artwork and artefacts. She is grateful and takes him back to her apartment. ‘Asleep she was more beautiful than awake, small tensions eased, muscles relaxed, the hand of time lifted from brow and cheek and the corners of the eyes. The mane of her loosened hair lay like a serpent over the pillow… In her throat, beneath the rich olive of her skin, a small pulse beat like a tiny drum.’ (p35) Here, in the apartment, among her collection he spots an intriguing painting – a scene depicting a familiar sight. ‘The moon he had seen when a child on earth’ (p26). Dumarest learns that the painting comes from Ath.

Also on Juba is a Cyber Hine; at puberty he was operated on: an adjustment to the cortex which took from him the ability to feel emotion… Yet Dumarest cleverly evades the cyber with Sardia’s help.

He and Sardia arrive on Ath to find there are no taverns, no hotels. To obtain accommodation you have to be a guest. Guests are bid for by the populace. They have little choice but to go along with the local custom. Dumarest becomes the guest of the woman Ursula – who reveals that she knows of earth! Sardia is the guest of Cornelius… 

Cornelius tells Sardia about the creative impulse, applicable to writers as much as artists: ‘You get an idea, a concept, and you work on it until, within your mind, it is there in its final accomplishment. A work complete in every detail. Then comes the need to communicate and so the necessity of taking that image from the mind and setting it down on canvas…’ (p86) ‘A determination to pursue the demon which plagued him; the creative madness which cursed all true artists. A thing they carried as a burden and a dread, hating it, fearing it, owned by it and totally possessed by it.’ (p88).

As a dancer, Sardia empathises. ‘No dance could be given a personal interpretation without confronting the same devils which tormented every creative artist. The compromise. The limitation of the medium involved. The hopes and aspirations and, always, the sickening knowledge of failure.’ (p86)

Dumarest saw the parallels between Cornelius and himself. ‘Yet the quest was a search and both men sought, in their own way, to find the same thing. The truth… A painting finished – a world found.’ (p89)

As always, Tubb was inventive – ‘The cube itself provided the music…’ (p103) – this written long before the devices we now have in the twenty-first century.  

There are two cultures on Ath – ‘the Choud make the decisions and the Ohrm obey. Anything else is unthinkable.’ (p141) Only there are factions who are intent on overthrowing the Choud, though those in power seem incapable of conceiving any kind of rebellion… Arrogant, uncaring, incapable of listening, the Choud are in for a surprise – as will be the reader when the devastating truth is revealed.

A fast-paced moral tale about the over-reliance on computer systems with plenty of insights into the human condition.

A pity the blurb writer didn’t read the text more closely. The back cover states ‘His rail led to Ath – and to the ominous forces of the Cylan’ when it should be Cyclan! Oh, well…

Editorial comment
In the text we have: ‘… the forearm pressed against her windpipe as the snort of the laser he held pressed against her temple.’ (p174) Of course this should be ‘snout’ not ‘snort’ and there are ways to avoid repeating ‘pressed against’…

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