Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:
Discovering The Wandering Tellurian
The Wandering Tellurian, by Alan Schwartz (1967). PB
I discovered a lost wonder recently. As I often am, I was browsing in a used bookstore (is there a better time-killer?) and stumbled across a battered old Ace Double SF book. It was The Key to Irunium, by Kenneth Bulmer/The Wandering Tellurian, by Alan Schwartz. I love finds like this because of the potential to unearth a gem or at least read an unknown book by an unknown author.
Luckily this happened this time. I had already heard of/read many books by Bulmer in the past, so this unfamiliar-to-me text was of interest. Perhaps like many others, I had discovered Bulmer’s works in childhood and been completely unaware of it, since he often wrote with pseudonyms. He was most famous for writing the Dray Prescott planetary romance series, which he wrote under two names, being Alan Burt Akers and as Dray Prescott himself. This is how I discovered him as a child, when I was looking for something similar to Conan and John Carter of Mars. This same quest led me to later discoveries (that have also turned out to be Bulmer) including Odan the Half-God, the Vikings, Wolf’s Heads, The Eagles, and some Casca the eternal mercenary. I loved the seemingly endless warlord of Antares books and thought some others, like Odan the Half-God to be quite fascinating. I will devout a later LCFA review to Odan and his ancient submerged civilization.
So, to return to this particular book, I saw Bulmer’s name and snatched it up. The Key to Irunium is the first in an odd series called Keys to the Dimensions. Maybe they were meant to be Bulmer’s version of Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. Perhaps, given Bulmer’s voluminous output and both author’s penchant for action, they were friends, or conversed, or had some connection over the years. I don’t know. As I haven’t read through all of this series, I will report back later when I finish reading through it. They do have his characteristic action and oddly noir flavor. Bulmer can certainly turn a phrase here and there! However, for the sake of this review, I am skipping this book. So no review of Irunium just yet, even though it is Flash Gordon enough.
The Wandering Tellurian was the second book in the Ace Double. I was completely unfamiliar with the author, Alan Schwartz. As far as I can uncover, it turns out that this is his only novel. I do not know if he ever wrote anything else, but he is a very good author and I wish he had written more. Ironically, this book reads as if it is introducing a series or at least a whole universe. These Tellurian tales would have been fascinating, because he hints at a rich history behind the civilization and teases us with mentions of past wars and major events, such as The End, which destroyed his galactic civilization and left individual planets to spiral downward into barbarity for millennia. His writing is surprisingly mature (in literary quality, not subject matter) and has real depth to it. It is a shame he did not write more.
The Wandering Tellurian is rather complex despite its brevity. At heart it is a coming of age tale, as a young man steps into adulthood. The opening scenes are his conflicts with his father and society over his apparent non-choice in careers. His heritage is to be a galactic weapons salesperson, which is not what he wants. This arc is handled fairly well and ends with his maturing through adventure and surprise at what he has learned while out exploring the universe for the first time.
The book is also a sword-and-science-mistaken-as-sorcery adventure of the grand old style. Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Jack Vance, or John Brunner, or even the aforementioned Bulmer, could have written this. I was particularly pleased with Schwartz’s culture building. His universe is interesting and, especially like Vance, he seems to have a good grasp of history, politics, philosophy, sociology, and religion, which all inform his creation of realistic alien cultures. Maybe the author was a professor. Or maybe he is another pseudonym for another famous author. Maybe one day I will discover which, but he wrote well enough for me to ponder the possibilities.
Some of the nice touches in the book include the use of thought-tech. When the character is in his advanced Tellurian ship, it is controlled by the merest thoughts. I loved the way Schwartz simply stated the use of this tech. When flying, you thought a direction or location, when researching you simply thought up the subject, when fighting you simply thought up and used defensive or offensive devices. The Tellurian culture was apparently a galactic level civilization which had suffered some unexplained apocalypse. The End was mentioned throughout the book, but only tantalizingly. It was never explained or explored in depth. Even the main characters, with their advanced machinery, were using very old technologies that they only partially understood. The rest of the planetary cultures in the universe were existing like isolated islands, with all different levels of civilization. Maikal, the protagonist, says of a remnant Tellurian culture he finds on one of the worlds, when they ask to rejoin the advanced galactic civilization:
“But your people have been here thousands of years. You don’t even speak the language of the rest of us. Your culture is thousands of years behind ours. Even if I told you how to operate this machine, you would not have much chance of getting it anywhere.”
There is a detached coldness, or cruel logic, inherent in the Tellurian culture. They will leave you sitting in the mire and walk on to the next job. Or shoot you if you resist too much. Sometimes Maikal wondered if the isolation makes people more primitive or vicious.
“Maikal wondered if something about isolation made people become more sadistic, or if the isolation was merely a condition that brought our natural traits.”
This was echoed up and down the Tellurian chain of civilizations. For instance he harshly judged the devolved Tellurians (Gafts) he found on one world because of their brutal, warlike nature, because they not only attacked and nearly killed him as a “sorcerer” from the heavens, but because they were also systematically exterminating the native, peaceful yet more primitive, hunter-gatherer society on their planet. However, his occupation was as a merchant of war who trafficked in advanced weaponry for a price to any culture on any world for any reason.
I truly enjoyed this small novel, because of the nuances and richness of details in the galactic culture behind the book. There were cool scenes from sword fights to spaceships, from lost races to decadent super cultures. There is a richness of language and concept that was distinctly Vancean or maybe Banksian, with terms like Ecologism, the Matriarchy, and the connection of Lahdz to Lhonz.
I do wish Alan Schwartz would have written a series of books to further explore and explain this universe. Nevertheless, a very nice lost and found adventure!