I mentioned planetary romance, yesterday, and one thing led to another and I ended up browsing Amazon, using “planetary romance” as a search string.
And I chanced upon a fat list of Dray Prescott/Alan Burt Akers novels set on the planet Kregen, orbiting Antares, in the Scorpio constellation. The series was originally published by DAW between 1972 and 1988, and that’s how I remember it: thin books with yellow backs and garish covers.
The digital omnibuses are pretty expensive at 9 bucks per shot, but I was happy to see they are still available: when first published in Italy in the ’70s, the series stopped at volume 3 – that is exactly 49 volumes before the end of the series, or 2 books away from the closing of the first story arc. The readers were not amused, and the availability, forty years on, of the electronic texts had been saluted, by those that still remembered Dray Prescott’s exploits, as a welcome opportunity to learn how things ended… or how they went on, actually.
Now, this 52-volume series is probably not the ultimate masterpiece in planetary romance (for that, see under Leigh Bracket or Jack Vance), but it’s a fun read, full of strange monsters and beautiful women in danger, and a two-fisted hero and all of that. The setting plays fast and loose with both science fiction and fantasy tropes, and is in general pretty satisfactory.
Admittedly more space soap-opera than space opera due to its length and often recycled plotlines, author Alan Burt Akers (in fact, British pulpster Kenneth Bulmer1) sounds like a cover band of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but what the heck, at least it’s a good cover band.
The plot in a nutshell: early-19th century sailor Dray Prescott is spirited to the planet Kregen, where the mysterious Savanti plan to use him as a field agent in their occult manipulations. Prescott breaks the rules of the Savanti, saves the woman he loves (in the process becoming immortal), and is taken under the wing of the very mysterious Star Lords, another cabal that plans to use him to further its agenda. Many adventures (52 volumes of them) ensue.
As you see, nothing terribly original, but with huge maneuvering space – the Savanti and the Star Lords are a wonderful narrative crutch, and can act as friend or foe or uneasy ally and set in motion or resolve any sort of plot. Incidentally, I must say that as a game designer, I think Scorpio and Kregen would make for a great, old-school sword & planet setting 2: varied venues, exotic peoples, a quantity of non-humans (the the Diffs), beautiful women, monsters of every stripe and size, nefarious bad guys, conspiracies, superscience and magic, swordplay… what’s not to love?
Especially if you are reading this sort of things at fifteen (supposedly, the golden age of science fiction).
Two bits I always found interesting about the Antares/Scorpio/Kregen books:
- first, Dray Prescot has a tendency to be sent back to Earth in exile at the worst possible moments, and when he gets back, he records tapes about his adventures, and has them delivered to Alan Burt Akers (that is therefore just a typist, not a writer)
- second, Prescot has this thing about slavery, and he’s routinely engaged in trying to make slavery obsolete on Kregen – no small feat, considering we are talking a (mostly) pre-technological society.
As I said, Akers/Bulmer’s writing is nothing to write home about, and yet he was a solid storyteller, compensating with enthusiasm and energy the weaknesses of his prose and the derivative nature of his plots.
It is also interesting that the Dray Prescott novels are arranged into cycles, sort of self-contained narrative arcs, which makes for easy reading – you try the first arc, if it works for you, you can go on.
The first 37 novels of the cycle were published in English – then Donald Wollheim of DAW books died, and DAW was no longer interested in Dray Prescot – but the German market was, and the final fifteen were produced directly for the German market. They were then translated into English for the digital edition.
Bulmer was apparently a funny chap, a guy that created complicated biographies for his aliases and in the course of his career published 160 novels and probably twice as many novellas and shorter pieces, plus non-fiction articles and what not.
Yesterday I was told that writing success depends on luck.
Kenneth Bulmer, just as many other high-output, mid-list entertainment authors seems to me proof enough that hard work trumps luck.
But luck, talent and inspiration are obviously much more mystical that plain old hard work.
In the end, are the Scorpio/Kregen stories recommended?
Well, they are certainly an experience – and at least the first two story arcs are a fast, fun read without any literary aspiration. But hey, they were never written as literature.
If it’s entertaining yarns you are looking for, look no further.
- a.k.a. Alan Burt Akers, Frank Brandon, Rupert Clinton, Ernest Corley, Peter Green, Adam Hardy, Philip Kent, Bruno Krauss, Karl Maras, Manning Norvil, Chesman Scot, Nelson Sherwood, Richard Silver, H. Philip Stratford and Tully Zetford. And also as Ken Blake, Arthur Frazier, Neil Langholm, Charles R. Pike, and Andrew Quiller. ↩
- might be worth trying… ↩