I had never heard of Keith Laumer when I saw a copy of A Plague of Demons & Other Stories, written by Laumer with compilation and editing credits going to Eric Flint of 1632 fame, sitting on the shelves of my local bookstore’s science fiction section. With a cover and title evoking horror in my young mind more than science fiction, and a back cover blurb promising action and adventure, I snatched it up. And my view of science fiction was never the same. Here was an author, a relative unknown in the early 2000’s despite decades of prominence in my genre of choice, who wrote action that was ripped straight from Hemingway and filtered through unexpurgated Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Laumer once described one of his approaches to starting a story as a man coming through a door and punching the protagonist on the chin, and then going from there. And, despite going into outer space and waging war on evil aliens, A Plague of Demons does just that. And is all the more perfect because of it.
Out of print for decades, Laumer saw a bit of a resurgence with the republishing of his work in large volumes, as well as the continuation of many of his universes, both from Baen Books.
Retief!, the first volume of the Baen reissue, collects tales of Laumer’s most famous character, Retief, galactic diplomat, and all around master of all he surveyed who just happened to be surrounded by bumbling idiots. Including in Retief! are the very first Retief story, “Diplomat-at-Arms,” as well as the first two Retief short story collections, Envoy to New Worlds and Galactic Diplomat, and the first Retief novel, Retief’s War. In the Retief stories, large amounts of humor mix with an edge of bitterness that creates a master satire of the diplomatic process, and humanity’s very thoughts on diplomacy and peace-making. Intelligent comedy that is sadly rare in science fiction.
Retief’s legacy was continued is 2005 with Retief’s Peace, written by William H. Keith, Jr. Keith is well-known for his work within other peoples’ frameworks. Keith wrote the Saga of the Gray Death Legion, beginning with Decision at Thunder Rift, for the BattleTech property, novels starring Buck Rogers, Babylon 5 novels co-written with stars of the show, and a trio of novels that are part of the Stephen Coonts’ Deep Black series. On top of this, Keith, writing under the name Ian Douglas, also wrote the Galactic Marines series and the Star Carrier series, with the third book, Singularity, arriving on shelves in 2012. While perhaps not quite as great as the best of Laumer’s Retief stories, Retief’s Peace is also better than the worst, and well-mimics Laumer’s style.
Baen’s second volume of the reissue was Odyssey. Unlike Retief!, Odyssey is made up of unconnected stories. Among a number of Laumer short stories, including the classic “Once There Was a Giant,” are two of Laumer’s best novels, Galactic Odyssey and Dinosaur Beach. Very much in a similar vein to Laumer’s story starter discussed above, Galactic Odyssey kicks off with the unsubtly-named Billy Danger trapped in a corn silo that is actually an alien space ship, rocketing into space. The sheer fun of Laumer’s narrative is inescapably gripping. Dinosaur Beach stars a time traveler who, after the destruction of Dinosaur Beach Station during large-scale temporal warfare, must stop all of humanity from ceasing to exist. After Retief!, we see that Laumer’s true prowess is in putting regular people into irregular circumstances, as far out of their comfort zones as he can, and then nearly shredding the pages with his blistering action.
The third volume of the Baen reissue collects Laumer’s humorous science fiction under the title Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side. While some of Laumer’s humorous pieces aren’t nearly as memorable as much of the rest of his work, they aren’t without merit. The opening story, “In the Queue,” was even nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best short story. As well as a host of short stories, Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side also contains two novels, Time Trap and The Great Time Machine Hoax. While Time Trap is one of Laumer’s earliest novels (and it shows, both with the not-as-funny-as-it-could-have-been gender switching and the rutabaga aliens), The Great Time Machine Hoax proves itself to be far more fun, combining the action Laumer does so well with some of his groan-inducing humor. The protagonist, Chester W. Chester IV, inherits a mansion and a supercomputer (Generalized Nonlinear Extrapolator, or “Genie”). When Chester and his friend Case Mulvihill, decide to test out the computer, they find themselves back in time, with the very fate of humanity in their grasp. And when Chester and Mulvihill, to the great surprise of no one, utterly bungle said fate of humanity, the adventure becomes all the more gripping as they get one last shot of fixing what they have ruined.
As the first three volumes show, Laumer’s range is staggering, and when it comes to strong writing, he is truly gifted. Check back next week for “Keith Laumer, Part 2,” in which we explore A Plague of Demons & Other Stories, Future Imperfect, Legions of Space (including a novel co-written with Gordon R. Dickson), and Imperium. Then, the week after that, we will conclude our look at Keith Laumer with “Keith Laumer, Part 3,” talking about The Long Twilight and Other Stories, Earthblood & Other Stories (including a novel co-written by Rosel George Brown, as well as a few of Brown’s stories), The Universe Twister, and Laumer’s Bolo series, including The Compleat Bolo, the Bolos series that began with Honor of the Regiment, as well as some of the more recent additions, including David Weber’s Bolo! and Old Soldiers, John Ringo and Linda Evans’ The Road to Damascus, William H. Keith, Jr.’s Bolo trilogy that began with Bolo Brigade, and the recently released The Best of the Bolos: Their Finest Hour. See you then!