Monday, June 13, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Transit to Scorpio

After last week's foray into the first book in the controversial (and interminable) Gor series, I think it would be remiss of me not to follow it up with a post about a different -- and even more long-running -- sword-and-planet series, namely the tales of Kregen by Alan Burt Akers, whose first volume, Transit to Scorpio, was first published in 1972. Kregen is a world in orbit around the star Antares, whose astronomical name is Alpha Scorpii, hence the name of this book. It is the setting for not just Transit to Scorpio but of over 50 books divided into eleven "cycles."

All of these books focus on Dray Prescot, an English sailor born in the early 19th century but, thanks to the miraculous technology of Kregen, has lived a life that is "long, incredibly long by any standards." Though the bulk of the action of this book takes place on the planet Kregen, Prescot occasionally returns to Earth. It is stated at the beginning of the book that, on one such return home, Prescot left behind audio recordings recounting his adventures on a far-off world and that these recordings found their way into the hands of Akers, who has transcribed them to form a narrative. This is one of many ways that Transit to Scorpio directly recalls the Barsoom stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. This also explains why the book is told in the first-person.

I mean no insult when I call Transit to Scorpio a Barsoom pastiche. Much like Kline's Venus and Mars tales, Akers's novel is a very enjoyable read, but there's no denying its derivativeness. I tend to think that, as a culture, we overvalue the "new" and the "original," so, for me, following a template laid down by Burroughs in A Princess of Mars is no crime. Indeed, what I find compelling about the Kregen books is how, despite their clear inspiration in Barsoom, they nevertheless manage to add new wrinkles to the basic outline first set down in 1917. A good example of this is the aforementioned way that Prescot periodically returns to Earth, where time passes while he is away on Kregen, enabling him to see decades and centuries he might otherwise have not. But when goes back to Kregen, mere minutes have passed since his disappearance. So far as I know, this oddity is never explained, though it is noted, and it's a small but significant difference from the Barsoom stories that gives them their own unique flavor.

I don't recall ever reading Transit to Scorpio in my younger days, though I think I may well have read one of the later books in the series without realizing it was part of a larger whole. That says a lot about these books, I think, namely that they're mostly self-contained and can easily be picked up and enjoyed without any knowledge of what came before or after. They're very much in line with the conventions of older science fiction and fantasy, describing discrete episodes in the life of a protagonist rather than being pieces of an epic saga. Dray Prescot's adventures aren't like that at all. Instead, he journeys to an alien world, grapples with its strange cultures and customs, meets interesting -- and, in the case of the women, gorgeous -- people, and has swashbuckling adventures.

There's nothing particularly deep or meaningful about it. Even compared to Burroughs, I think Akers is a little shallow, but, again, this isn't intended as an insult. Transit to Scorpio is fun escapist literature and it succeeds well in its purpose. It's a good example of the kind of novel that was commonplace in another era and that could well have served as inspiration to the pioneers of our hobby. I enjoyed the opportunity to read it and might well seek out others in the series, which is something I don't find myself saying often anymore, so take that as you will.

11 comments:

  1. Huh. I'm surprised I never heard of this series. I was reading a lot of science fiction in the 70s and early 80s (that section in Tower Books was practically my second home), and I should think I would have run across this.

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  2. I read one when I was younger and enjoyed it as I recall and was aware there were a few more but I had no idea there were over 50 Dray Prescot novels. I might have to give them a peek, thanks for bringing this to my attention.

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  3. A lot of these have made it to Kindle, including bundle offers on the first few story cycles (trilogies or otherwise)

    Delian Cycle

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  4. Seems I can't get enough of planetary romances, yet I've never encountered this series. Thanks for turning me on to something 'new' (to me, at least). At NTRPGCon a few weekends ago, I reconnected with Lin Carter's Thongor series. Now I need to add these to the heap.

    Steve

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  5. I have to take issue with your reference to OAK's (Otis Adelbert Kline) work as being derivative.

    ERB and OAK were rivals, feeding off of each other (intentionally, some have argued, others say not):

    ERB Barsoom stories 1912-1940
    OAK Venus stories 1929 - 1932
    OAK Mar stories - 1933
    ERB Venus stories 1934-1970

    OAK's work was just as good as ERB (the 'other' ERB) and some have suggested that the Burrough's estate has been active in trying to overshadow OAK. In point of fact I believe it was just a case of one author have better agents than the other.

    In a parallel universe, OAK is the name invoked, with ERB his lesser-known rival.

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  6. I have to take issue with your reference to OAK's (Otis Adelbert Kline) work as being derivative.

    I am quite willing to concede the point. I know little of Kline beyond having read his stories and the fact that he was REH's agent, so I don't deny that I may well have done the man a disservice.

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  7. I could be mistaken, but I believe Akers is a pseudonym for Kenneth Bulmer, who wrote a lot of sci-fi/fantasy besides the Dray Prescott books.

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  8. Andy is correct: Alan Burt Akers is indeed a psudonym of Kenneth Bulmer.

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  9. This looks interesting enough that I'm trying out the first omnibus on Kindle. Thanks!

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  10. I held back from commenting during the Gor discussion, but I'm glad to see the Dray Prescott books come back up. Great literature? No. But you're quite right about their contributions to the development of the sub-genre in my estimation, and I continue to have a special soft spot for them. I recommend the Kregen books as much better entertainment than the Gor books.

    I have yet to pick up Kline's Mars books, but with the Planet Stories reprints of them in unmutilated form, I definitely will get around to them.

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  11. These seem to be available in omnibus form on kindle and individual titles. The problem is that they have a much inflated idea of their value as an e-book. These are bargain basement novels, definitely Burroughs derivative, at least the first half-dozen or so that I read seemed to be and I never went further with the series. Much more fun and cheaper are the Spider Master of Men e-books on kindle, at least IMO.

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