Everyones looking for Earth!
A conversation with Science Fiction Writer E.C.Tubb
by Chris Bentley and David Sisson

The question of which is my all-time favourite Sci-Fi series is often asked. Is it 'Space: 1999', or 'Thunderbirds', perhaps 'Red Dwarf,' 'Star Trek' or possibly a movie series like 'Star Wars'? But there is another medium for science fiction that often gets overlooked by many people - and thats the good old-fashioned book.

Back in the 1970s the first series of 'Space: 1999' was novelised by several writers the best of whom in my opinion was E.C.Tubb; who then went on to write more stand-alone 'Space: 1999' novels (Alien Seed & Rogue Planet) and finally a big book (Earthfall) that rewrote the basis of the first series altogether - something that rather puzzled me at the time as I was thinking that they were going to be future episodes.

Later on I noticed his name on some other books in the library and realised that he had managed to write 'a few' more SF books - this turned out to be a slight mistake on my part as he has actually written rather a lot over a fairly long period of time. As I liked his 'Space: 1999' novels I decided to pick up two of these books, 'The Winds of Gath' and 'Toyman' noticing at the time that they were part of a small series called the 'Dumarest Saga'. I've always liked numbered items because it appeals to the collector in me, I thought if I liked the books I would be able to collect the set - I didn't realise that I would still be looking forward to buying the latest book 34 years later!

This is because the 'Dumarest Saga' has been written over the space of many years, starting in 1967, and originally lasting for 31 books as it 'ended' at 'The Temple of Truth', published in 1985. However another book 'The Return' had already been written but was strangely only published in France! At one point I thought that I was going to have to learn French but luckily this 'last' book was finally printed in English in 1997. But that wasn't the end of Dumarest because in 2008 the 'final' book 'Child of Earth' was published and who knows maybe there will be another some day? (David Sisson)

Edwin Charles Tubb was born in London on October 15th, 1919. An avid reader of pulp science-fiction and fantasy in his youth, Tubb opted for a full time career as a writer in his early thirties and soon became renowned for the speed and diversity of his output - apart from science-fiction and fantasy, he also wrote westerns and gangster thrillers. Tubb contributed to many of the SF magazines of the 1950s including 'New Worlds', 'Nebula', 'Tales of Tomorrow', 'World of Fantasy', 'Futuristic Science Fiction' and 'Wonders of the Spaceways'. He also contributed heavily to 'Authentic Science Fiction' and edited the magazine from February 1956 until it folded in October 1957. Much of Tubb’s work has been written under pseudonyms such as Charles Grey and Gregory Kern, and he has used more than 50 pen names over five decades of writing.

E.C. Tubb’s best-known work is the 33 volume 'Dumarest Saga', the epic story of traveller Earl Dumarest as he attempts to find his way back to his home planet, Earth, from a region of space so far distant that its existence is believed to be nothing more than a myth. Tubb is also known for his work on six of the 'Space: 1999' tie-in novels, but his introduction to the worlds of Gerry Anderson came in 1968 when he was commissioned to write a series of comic strips for Letraset’s 'Joe 90' Magic Instant Picture Books.

Tubb is renowned as the founder of the British Science Fiction Association and he was guest of honour at Heicon, the 1970 World Science Fiction Convention, in Heidelberg. Now in his nineties, he continues to write with a recent series of sword and sorcery novels ('The Chronicles of Malkar'), a Space: 1999 novel (Earthbound) and a new Dumarest book . (Chris Bentley)

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In 2001, Chris Bentley and David Sisson spoke to E.C. Tubb at his home in London.
How did you become a science-fiction author?

Well, that’s a long story. During the pre-war years I was a great reader. I read everything I could that was to do with outer space, lots of the old pulp magazines, Edgar Rice Burroughs and all of that, and I really just enjoyed it all very much.

Then, of course, the war came along and lots of families broke up for one reason or another. You were taken away, put with people who you didn’t know, taken to a place you’d never seen before and told to fight. It was a bit of a shake-up for you. Then, if you were lucky, you came home and were told to carry on where you left off. I came back and didn’t know what to do with my life. I thought to myself that a new life in Australia might be an idea because a lot of people were emigrating there at that time.

I needed to have a trade to get out there and because I had done a bit of bomb damage repair work, I put myself down as a carpenter. I wasn’t really a carpenter but I knew enough to get myself through an interview. The idea was that I would go to Australia, get settled, and then my wife would come out a few months later. At the very same time as this, I had a short story published for which I was paid, and so I decided to stay here and give it a go as a writer. The chances are that if I had gone to Australia, the wife wouldn’t have followed me over and I would have ended up getting killed by a sheep on a sheep farm or something!

This first story was ‘No Short Cuts’ in 'New Worlds' magazine?

Yes. That’s right. It was my beginning. I did other jobs to support my family, but gradually I earned more money from these stories. I had some ups and downs along the way, but I managed to remain as a writer for the most part.

I learnt that, more than anything else, speed was everything. You had to write fast - don’t edit, just let it flow. Sometimes what you wrote was awful, but mostly it was alright and you got away with it. If you were paid by the word, you would use all sorts of little tricks to fill the page. I had characters spending a whole paragraph just stubbing out a cigarette and going through a door. It was like that in those days. Nowadays, if I was writing like that, I would spend ages describing a character using a mobile-phone or something like that.

I learned a lot of things in those early days. I was naive and I was ripped off once by a bloke who claimed that he was better known than I was and would be more likely to have a story published than me. He told me that once my story was published, he would give me the fee for it and I would have my foot in the door, as it were, with the editor of this particular magazine. Of course, the bloke didn’t give me any money at all and claimed that it was his story. I learned from that.

Another thing I learned was from an old mate, a writer called Bill Temple. He taught me that characters should just ‘talk’. They don’t ‘hiss’ or ‘bark’ or ‘snarl’ like in the old silent melodramas - you know the kind of thing: “Get over here,” the villain snarled. I stopped using all of those ridiculous adjectives and found that it sounded better.

Were you just writing science-fiction?

Oh, no. I wrote whatever I could to keep the money coming in. I did westerns, a few thrillers and some gangster things, but it was the science-fiction that I personally enjoyed obviously. I began to write under different names, some of which were given to me by publishers as they were ‘house’ names - such as King Lang, Gill Hunt and Volsted Gridban. Once, when I was doing a magazine called 'Authentic Science-Fiction', I actually wrote everything in one particular issue, including the readers column. I had deadlines to meet and I just had to do it.

They were great days because I met some good mates who had similar interests but I also upset a few people too. There was one fellow who was desperate to get in print. I was an editor by this time and I published one of his stories and it wasn’t bad, but I had to cut down on some of the weaker parts of the story. It still read well but this bloke was furious that I had done it and never spoke to me again.

People have this idea that writing is a kind of romantic life but it isn’t. If you’re already well off and write to express yourself I suppose it is romantic, but for me it was hard work. I had a family to support and really just sitting in front of a typewriter makes it a bloody lonely life, not a romantic one. You don’t meet anybody and you lose touch with the real world because you spend all of your time in one that you have invented - such as the one for the Dumarest stories. Sometimes it was nice to do something different, to have a break from what you were always doing. I spent some time selling knives and demonstrating things in markets and that type of thing. I actually really enjoyed that and I felt a bit like a priest, telling people ‘the truth’ and they would believe me. It was the same with the writing. To make a break from the norm was quite refreshing sometimes.

Were the 'Joe 90' Action Transfer books a refreshing break from the norm?

That’s right, I did those, didn’t I? I can’t remember exactly how many I did, maybe two or three, but it paid pretty well and I was pleased to be doing something a little unusual. Because the stories were based on a children’s television programme, I was working under certain instructions from the publishers. I couldn’t have 'Joe 90' or any of the other characters using excessive violence. I mean, these were supposed to be adventure/spy stories about a lad who had a gun and all of that, but you couldn’t have him shooting anybody or at least only do very little shooting. You had to keep the stories simple. The characters all had to be different so children could recognise them as goodies or baddies. You also had to have things that they knew from the programme itself. I suppose it was quite a relief for me as a writer because it saved me having to invent all of these things.

How were you briefed about the show?

I think I was sent some photographs and some outlines about the characters - what they looked like, who they answered to, what the car could do and all of that - and then I just created a simple adventure story around it all. The 'Joe 90' books were sort of comic strips so I had to write stories which would translate into good pictures.

I did quite a bit of freelance writing for comic strips too but it was always the ‘real’ writing that I enjoyed the most. When you were writing for a book or a comic that had characters who had been created by other people, you had to write with that in mind. By this I mean that, for example, Commander Koenig in 'Space: 1999' was someone else’s character. I didn’t know him like I do Earl Dumarest, who is my own character, so I had to think about how he acted in the actual programme but with a little bit extra that I enjoyed putting in there myself.

Did you find it creatively constricting to write like this?

To a point, but I was used to writing like that. Back in my early days, I was often given stories which were part finished or only early drafts by other writers. I had to fill the story out but still retain the essence of what was already there. Other writers did the same to some of my stories so it was something that many of us did. You had to put in your own ideas while still being true to what the other writer had originally come up with, so when I did the 'Joe 90' books and the 'Space: 1999' ones I did it like that. Of course, with the television books you also had to write something which the reader, who was also likely to be a viewer of the particular programme, would recognise too. You couldn’t just please yourself if you were writing for books based on a film or a television programme. People expected certain things from certain characters.

Within the realms of a science-fiction story, you still tend to use factual scientific themes and concepts as a basis to what you write.

Yes, that’s true. When I was first writing, I used all of the things that I had soaked up about the real universe and astronomy and so on. I had read other people’s stories with characters going to different planets without spacesuits or breathing equipment and I just thought it was all a bit daft. I always wanted to make the stories exciting and interesting but I didn’t want them to be totally silly and outrageous. I knew about rockets and the pressures that space flight can put upon the human body so I tried to put all of that into my stories. I always felt that it was a little unfair actually. I don’t claim to be a scientist myself, but I am a writer with an understanding of science. Yet there I was, earning the same as people who were just making up everything with no regard to realism at all. But that was how it was.

How did you come to write the 'Space:1999' novels?

Well, I had the scripts offered to me by a publisher who wondered if I was interested in having a go at a novel based on the programme. I was pleased because I thought to myself, “Great - someone else has done all the hard work.” I sat down to read these scripts and they were quite entertaining but after a while, I honestly thought that some of it was just rubbish.

What do you mean?

There was one part when Bergman said something like, “My God! His brain has swollen to three times its normal size.” Well, I thought, where did it go to? It just didn’t make sense! To say that the brain had swollen considerably would have been alright, but three times is just stupid. Another line was something like, “His blood’s frozen solid.” Now I know you need drama and excitement and all the rest but it should, to my way of thinking, be plausible and some of these stories weren’t.

Did you watch 'Space:1999' on the television?

Yes I did, although I have to say that it got pretty ghastly towards the end of the series. That is always the problem with a continuing series of television programmes or films, or even books for that matter. You tend to re-use old ideas or borrow ideas from other sources and it all looks a little tired. 'Star Trek' was the same and I love that myself, but it happens there too.

The problem with 'Star Trek' (in all of its incarnations) and 'Space: 1999' was the kind of village mentality: everybody knows each other and looks out for their neighbour and it’s an idealistic way of life. With 'Space: 1999' in particular, I felt that once they were off on their journey there would have been more unrest amongst the Alphans and I tried to put that into my books. I mean, after a while, I would have said to Koenig, “Who are you to still be in charge of it all? Let someone else have a go or we can run things by committee or something.” Dramatically, I think that would have worked very well because there would be conflict and conflict brings drama.

The later episodes were disappointing. I know that when they came on, I was surprised that there were new characters who I had never seen before and characters like Bergman were gone without any explanation. It was a shame because I thought Barry Morse was very good.

Were you ever invited to the studios or taken to any special screenings of the programme?

When I was given the job of writing the books, I was taken to a screening in London with the other writers who were doing the books. I think it was a cinema in Marble Arch and I saw four or five episodes of the programme. I was really impressed and thought that the idea of doing them as books would be quite exciting. The problems really came along when you saw it in print. The actual scripted words were sometimes terrible.

All criticism aside, I thought the programme itself was excellent and very entertaining, which is what it is all about I suppose. For me as a writer, I felt that for the novels the original scripts would need some alteration as well as something extra of my own. For example, there was a sequence in one of the episodes when Koenig walks down one of the corridors and into Main Mission. There was no dialogue but because that Main Mission set was so impressive it held your attention. On the written page of the script that I had to work from it just said, “Koenig enters Main Mission from an adjoining corridor.” That was it. I had to fill that scene out to make it interesting for the reader. Between that and the various scientific inconsistencies, I decided that for my adaptations I would use the scripts only as a basis for what became almost original stories and I think that it worked better that way. It sounds a bit big-headed, but I thought, “I’ll do it my way.”

When I had done the books based on the scripts for the series, the man who was doing the editing for the company publishing the books said to me that they had lost the contract to do further books based on episodes but that they still had the rights to do a couple more using characters and ideas from the series. He asked if I wanted to have a go so I said, “Yes.” I was hoping that they would be so well received that they might be used as actual episodes of the programme itself. So I did a couple of 'Space: 1999' novels which were entirely my own stories, and then the publishers asked me to do a final book, 'Earthfall', as they were still contracted to publish one more. On this one, I was allowed to end the series in written form as I thought it should be done. As a writer, it was quite a challenge for me and very enjoyable because the idea of the series itself was a good one.

The concept for the programme was interesting, but quite constricting for a writer like myself who tried to be as scientifically accurate as possible. The Alphans were supposed to be travelling at the speed of light or something and then every species they meet talks English - it could have been a crab sitting on a rock or something and it turns around and says, “Hello, Commander Koenig. We’ve been expecting you.” I know the characters have to communicate but they created an idea which gave them many problems in terms of realism and scientific accuracy.

I was far happier with the original stories I wrote for 'Space: 1999' and I was especially pleased with that last one, because I had the chance to really do something interesting with the Alphans, projecting into the future where they have had children, returning them to Earth and all of that. I tried to re-address the scientific failings of the series and add a bit of human interest as well.

Did you ever have the chance to discuss your thoughts with any of the actual writers for the programme?

No, never. I was sent scripts to work from and that was that. I never met anybody involved with the writing of the actual programme at all but I think I would have liked to. I think that I must have done alright because the books sold well and were quite popular.

Are you aware that your 'Space: 1999' novels are more highly regarded than the others amongst fans of the series?

No, I wasn’t, but I am very pleased to hear it. I don’t know why because all the authors were from similar backgrounds and I actually knew a couple of them pretty well. One of the writers flaked out. I think I remember that he had the same sort of problems with the original scripts as me but couldn’t (or didn’t want to) overcome the problems like I did. I think it was Brian Ball. We all met at the screening and we went for a meal which was all very nice, but then we just went off and did our own thing.

Were you sent any photographic reference to work from?

No, I don’t think so. I was very impressed by the design of the Moonbase itself and the costumes and, of course, the Eagles which I thought were very good. I didn’t have to describe any of those things too greatly in the books because it was obvious that the reader would be more than familiar with what they looked like from the series itself. I was sent a brochure or something which gave me an outline of how Moonbase Alpha itself was set out and also which uniform colours denoted which role: white was medical, red was Main Mission crew, and so on.

Do you feel that your own novels and stories would translate well into television? The 'Dumarest Saga' in particular has all the elements for an exciting long-running series.

I’m not sure. I think one obvious failing in all television and film science-fiction is that you have writers who have little knowledge of science. But on the other hand, you can’t have scientists or astronomers attempting to write television programmes because they don’t know anything about the business of making dramatic entertainment. I will admit that it is hard because, obviously, television programmes are always meant to entertain (and 'Space: 1999', 'Star Trek', 'Battlestar Galactica' and all the rest certainly do entertain because I watch them all myself), but things do stand out sometimes as being written by someone without even the basic understanding of, say, light speed or time travel as a concept.

You also have the problem of other people then using your ideas in a way in which you never really wanted them to be used. I used to laugh at the different covers that would appear on my Dumarest books, so I can’t begin to imagine how I would feel if somebody was making a film or television series of one of my stories. I think it must be difficult for people like Stephen King who create these characters and then a film-maker changes this, that and the other. I suppose the financial rewards ease things a little.

Also I have never actually liked the term 'The Dumarest Saga', that was invented by the publisher and it just stuck, it wasn't something that I would have chosen.

Do you deliberately use certain words as a kind of trademark, I always noticed that 'Tintinubulation' seems to appear somewhere in every Dumarest novel.

Really (laughs). No thats not something that I do - or was aware that I did. I'll have to look out for that now.

If Dumarest were to be made into a film or television series which actor would you see in the role?

I'm not sure, but theres an actor in 'The Bill' who plays a character called Frank Burnside (Christopher Ellison), who facially looks like the character to me - he has that intensity.

Speaking of other television series, are you aware of the striking similarities between 'Battlestar Galactica' and your Dumarest novels?

I know what you mean, with the Cylons in 'Battlestar Galactica' and my characters the Cyclan in the Dumarest books: in both cases, they are the villains and are sort of robot-like. The heroes in 'Galactica' are searching for Earth and so is Earl Dumarest, my hero. However, I wouldn’t say that I was ripped off or anything because we all use different ideas and influences that we pick up on our way. I remember an old saying we used to have which was, “Science-fiction is a pool in which you dip.” A great many fantasy stories are about a search or a quest to find something or someone, or in this case, somewhere, so I can’t claim to have created that idea. The Cylons were actually robots but my characters, the Cyclan, are only robot-like because they are based on the law of pure reasoning, like Vulcans in 'Star Trek' really.

I actually quite enjoyed 'Battlestar Galactica' but there was all sorts of ridiculous stuff in there too. Look at those pilots in helmets with a ring of lights around the face piece. Why, in total darkness, would you want little lights just in front of your nose?

Even though you are a serious science-fiction writer, you still talk as if you are a fan of all this type of thing.

Well, that’s because I am a fan. I can pick holes in it all and that is half of the enjoyment of it. I tape 'Star Trek' if I’m going out and I always look at the films when they are on the television. Science-fiction has always meant a great deal to me. Like yourselves, I used to organise conventions although in my day it was a different sort of fandom to what there is now.

My original taste of science-fiction came in the 1930s. It was a time of depression and those stories gave me hope and a view of the future which wasn’t as bleak as the one other people might have had. Then the war came along and it shook everything up. Of course, there was a great deal of death and unhappiness caused by it, but in many respects it was a good thing, because it pushed people into space through the development of rockets and missiles, and medical science moved forward in leaps and bounds.

When I first met up with others who had the same kind of interests, I was so pleased because I could talk about rockets and satellites and all of that without being branded a nut-case.

As a science-fiction fan, I write stories that I want to read myself and, in fact, I do go back and read all my old books because I find them very entertaining. I suppose I imagine that other people who share my enthusiasm for science-fiction will also be entertained by the stories that I write, and if that is the case, then I am delighted.

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The Dumarest Saga books

E.C.Tubb passed away on 10 September 2010 - Chris Bentley looks back on his career in PART 2

Back to Index - or back to - Interview Selection

Chris Bentley & David Sisson 2010.
First published in FAB magazine (Fanderson - The Official Gerry Anderson Appreciation Society)