Last week, in the first part of our detailed look into Keith Laumer and the Baen reissues of his work, we explored the first three volumes released by Baen (Retief!, Odyssey, and Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side) as well as William H. Keith, Jr.’s continuation of the Retief saga in Retief’s Peace. This week will feature volumes four through seven of the Baen reissue: A Plague of Demons & Other Stories, Future Imperfect, Legions of Space, and Imperium, all edited by Baen author and reissue compilation master Eric Flint.
Retief! and Odyssey focused on some of Laumer’s more famous stories, and while the humorous side of the author wasn’t a secret, it certainly wasn’t the highlight of his career when it wasn’t wrapped up in the satire of Retief, leaving Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side, to be a distinctly lesser volume in the reissue. While, as we discussed last week, it had some good moments, it was largely made up of stories relying on puns and jokes that frequently missed the mark. This made The Lighter Side the low point of the reissues at this stage.
Baen quickly countered this weak collection with A Plague of Demons & Other Stories, featuring A Plague of Demons, Laumer’s only novel nominated for a Nebula Award (Best Novel, 1966). While my take on the novel may be tinged by it having been my first Laumer experience, the Nebula nomination tends to agree with my thoughts: A Plague of Demons is Laumer at his very best. When a man is sent to observe a war in northern Africa, what he finds is a race of werewolf look-a-like aliens gathering the brains of the fallen soldiers. Laumer flies from Africa to out of this world, relishing in the action, twists, and power of his effectively-wielded straightforward writing style. Any fan of action or adventure science fiction, or action and adventure without the other genre ties, cannot afford to miss this forgotten classic. This volume is rounded out with a host of short stories and novellas, including gripping tales such as “Thunderhead,” “End as a Hero,” the short pieces “Test to Destruction” and “Greylorn,” and the oddly impactful “Of Death What Dreams,” a dystopic tale of a man using criminal means to fight the good fight in a world shredded by social stratification. If you are looking for a place to begin your reading of Keith Laumer, A Plague of Demons & Other Stories is the perfect spot to dive in.
The high level of quality continues in the fifth volume of the Baen reissue, Future Imperfect. This volume kicks off with the novel Catastrophe Planet, featuring a lone wanderer headed across an America destroyed by earthquakes, only to come across a dying man with prophetic final words, a mysterious coin, and men who are something far worse than they seem. Laumer’s key theme of the individual in the face of overwhelming adversity is on free display here, with a strong protagonist against impossible odds in a broken world. Future Imperfect includes a number of other strong entries from Laumer, including both the powerful “The Day Before Forever” and the classic Laumer tale, “Placement Test.” The unofficial theme of Future Imperfect is dystopias, but the shattered worlds are perfect launching pads for Laumer’s stalwart heroes. A great follow-up to A Plague of Demons & Other Stories.
The sixth volume of the Baen reissue is Legions of Space, featuring tales of interstellar adventure. The collection opens with A Trace of Memory, which is one of Laumer’s very best novels, a close second to A Plague of Demons. Two men, a drifter and a millionaire who happens to be hundreds of years old, set out to discover the millionaires past, as well as the who and why behind the attempts on his life. However, when a millennia old spaceship enters the mix, the adventure moves far past its humble, earth-bound beginnings. The other bookend of the volume is Planet Run, co-written with Gordon R. Dickson, famous for his two science fiction series, Hoka (with Poul Anderson) and the unfinished Childe Cycle. Planet Run features two legends of interstellar exploration making one last pioneering voyage to a new planet with a dark mystery. While it certainly isn’t the best work of either author, the two work together well, and it is a shame this is the only time that they collaborated. Legions of Space also includes four excellent shorter works: “The Choice,” “Three Blind Mice,” “Mind Out of Time,” and the quirky “Message to an Alien.”
The seventh volume of the Baen reissue, Imperium, features the three novels of the Imperium trilogy: Worlds of the Imperium, The Other Side of Time, and Assignment in Nowhere. Brion Bayard, American Diplomat, finds himself abducted while overseas. The problem is that these kidnappers weren’t from a foreign country, they were from a foreign dimension. These men were from the World of the Imperium, and they were at war with another dimension. They hoped that Bayard would fight with them, and eventually replace the leader of the antagonistic dimension. Why would Bayard be the right fit for this job? Because the ruler was a man named Brion Bayard. The triple play of novels is fast paced, exciting, and a perfect dose of Laumer in extended form. Imperium is one of the most all around solid collections in the reissue.
Look back next week for the third and final part of our look at Keith Laumer, featuring the final three volumes of the Baen reissue, as well as a look at Laumer’s most famous series, featuring the sentient tank Bolos!