What consists of over 50 volumes, is more popular in German than English, and was told by a fictional character to a non-existent person? Yes, I’m talking about Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot series, all written under the pseudonym of Alan Burt Akers.
Bulmer wrote up the Prescot series from 1972 to the late 1990s, and got 37 of its books published in English; the remaining books were published only in German and translation is still ongoing. They chronicle the adventures of British sailor Dray Prescot, who is mysteriously transported to Kregen, a planet orbiting the double suns of Antares. As a sword and planet series, they seriously rival Burroughs’ Barsoom series in extent, world detail and popularity.
I first encountered the series way into the middle of things, when a friend handed me his copy of Mazes of Scorpio, #27 in the series. I didn’t like it. At the same time, I was intrigued by the rich detail of the world being painted, and the premises behind the hero’s presence on this alien world. I also couldn’t get into Bulmer’s narrative style at the time – I hated the way the narrator constantly declares things in the negative – “I did not smile,” I did not do this, I did not do that.
But fast forward some time later, and I gave the series another try, this time with the first two volumes – Transit to Scorpio and The Suns of Scorpio. This time, lover of exotic worlds that I am, I got hooked.
Agent of the Star Lords
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Prescot series, as compared to the Barsoom novels, is Prescot’s existence on Kregen as a catspaw in some cosmic game he has yet to understand.
The Star Lords intermittently and arbitrarily whisk him away from the life he has built for himself on Kregen to take part in conflicts elsewhere on the planet, and when Prescot refuses, they punish him by sending him back to Earth.
Prescot’s absences often have major impacts on his relationships. In the Krozair Cycle, Prescot is made absent from Kregen for twenty-one years, causing him to miss an emergency summons from the knightly order of the Krozairs of Zy. The dishonor of this failure causes his children – who have matured to adulthood by the time he returns – to hate him.
Prescot is continually caught between having to obey the Star Lords and resisting their commands – he cannot afford to displease them, as he stays on Kregen only by their sufferance, but at the same time their missions often put him in danger and tear him away from his people at critical moments.
Kregen in many ways is the idea of Barsoom matured – enriched with more details and stronger themes. Bulmer’s choice of Antares for his setting is said to be a subtle homage to ERB, Antares being derived from ‘anti-Ares’ – in short, ‘the other Mars.’
Kregen has some very strong long-running conflicts which make it interesting. For one, there is the perceived opposition between the deities of the Green Sun and the Red Sun, around which the Krozair cycle revolves. Then there are the invasions of the Shanks, a race of fish-men from the unknown far side of the planet; and the machinations of Phu Si Yantong, a sinister Wizard of Loh aparently bent on world domination and the destruction of Dray Prescot.
Another aspect I like is Bulmer’s attention to religion and culture; there are dozens of gods and beliefs, saints, and frequently conflicts between religions.
The same attention goes to military ranks and titles of nobility, with different nations having different titles – a nice contrast to ERB’s universal use of just a few titles like jeddak – and to military details such as weaponry and organization.
Technology on Kregen is not static. Time and again, Dray Prescot is able to introduce an innovation that helps his chosen side triumph. He also has his failures and frustrations, such as his inability to find the secret of creating fliers in the Hamalese style, forcing him to improvise skyships with sails in Armada of Antares.
Strangely enough, the fevered imagination with which Bulmer infused Kregen with its richness is also one of its weaker points. There’s an incredible array of names and terms to keep track of, as Bulmer seemed to try to outdo ERB’s penchant for exotic terms by inventing a name for everything. There are also a lot of recurring characters, who often get only a short introduction or none at all in the later books.
The result is that it is harder to get into this series from just anywhere in the sequence. Enjoy Kregen by reading Transit to Scorpio first, so you get a more gradual introduction to the details. Highlights in the series for me (caveat: I don’t have all the books) are Armada of Antares, Krozair of Kregen, and the Vallian cycle especially Captive Scorpio and Golden Scorpio.