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Monday 28 January 2019

Book review - Web of Sand (Dumarest 20)

Twentieth in E.C. Tubb’s long-running Dumarest Saga, Web of Sand (1979)  is as entertaining as all the preceding adventures.

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.

Long before the Borg of Star Trek, the Cyclan was assimilating humans, absorbing them into the collective consciousness.

Dumarest is onboard the spaceship Urusha with an assortment of passengers, among them Marta Caine who possesses a rare singing jewel. [I do wonder if this was Tubb’s nod to then popular singer Marti Caine, who died from cancer aged 50 in 1995.]

The passengers are abandoned on the planet Harge, a sandy planet owned by the Cinque, five families, namely The Ambalo, Yagnik, Khalil, Barrocca and Tinyeh responsible for the water, food, power, accommodation and transport. ‘On Harge you lived by their sufferance or you didn’t live at all’. (p12) People who fall into debt have to work off that debt for the families – or they are placed outside the secure dome of the city, where the sand will swiftly strip the flesh from their bones… Beautiful Ellain’s debt has been purchased by Yunus Ambalo and he treats her as one of her many prized possessions.

It was obvious to Dumarest that he and the others had been abandoned by Urusha’s captain on the instruction of the Cyclan. Their only hope was to amass enough money to purchase a ship off this planet. That entailed Dumarest fighting in the arena while his fellow abandoned friends took bets.  The opponent in the arena happens to be a repellent scaly sandworm! His appearance in the arena gets the attention of Ellain…

Afterwards, they become secret lovers and plot to escape the planet together. But that entails amassing more funds for transport. Intrigue, politics and betrayal are never far away, even at a fashionable party Dumarest attended with Ellain. Here, he tries the canapes: ‘Dumarest… selected a harmless seeming cone topped with a violet crystal, bit into it and tasted vileness.’ (p72) An offered ‘triangle coated with sparkling dust’ removed the bad taste. This, long before those sweets in Harry Potter saw the light of day!

The host at the party is Alejandro Jwani, who is a hunter of tranneks – stones deposited by the sandworms – which are ‘the hardest things known. Harder by far than diamond… and extremely valuable.’ (p82)

Also at the party is Marta Caine with her singing jewel. It’s clear that the jewel actually saps her life force in order to ‘perform’. A tragic scene, this.

Dumarest sets out with his friends to hunt for the tranneks, to sell them to Jwani. He employs a local guide, Zarl Hine to take him and his friends to the hills outside the city. They’re wearing protective suits that should survive normal sandy winds; they had no chance in a sandstorm, however.

During their absence from the city, Cyber Tosya lands on the planet and is welcomed by Yunus…

So Dumarest and his friends must confront the sandworms, a sandstorm, locate and collect tranneks and return to the city in one piece. No easy task – and there will be deaths…

The personal conflict between Yunus and Ellain, the tragedy of Marta Caine, the friendship between Dumarest and the others are the emotional core of the book. Not one of the Saga books is all-action, though the pace is quick thanks to Tubb’s slick style. Here, Dumarest is painfully reminded of his lost love, Kalin (from book #4 in the series). Yes, we know that Dumarest will survive – it’s a given in any series, the main protagonist will overcome all obstacles. He does change and grow as the books progress. But we don’t know who else will make it to the end of the book, and that creates suspense. 

This is the last book in my Dumarest collection; I’ll have to either locate #21 and the rest as second-hand paperbacks or purchase them as e-books to continue with the saga (the latter are published in the SF Gateway collection, presumably from Gollancz).

Of great interest is the Introduction by Tubb and a postscript by Philip Harbottle to be found in the front of The Return: Dumarest Saga #32 see here.
Editorial comment:
The editor should have spotted the transposition of letters for the character Jwani; there’s one instance of it being spelled Jwain (p73).

In Incident on Ath, Tubb used the name Hine for a cyber. In this book, he uses the name Hine for a prospecting guide (p91). This kind of thing is bound to be a problem with a lengthy series, the repeated use of a name. I’ve found the same concern when writing my Leon Cazador stories; I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the names I’ve used!

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