Who Bashed People With His Wit, Then His Cane

Keith Laumer

Keith Laumer

The first manuscript by Keith Laumer that I remember seeing was about an interstellar diplomat named Retief, which caused me to stop reading manuscripts that day to write the author a letter, telling him I was buying the story and adding, “Please write me more stories, lots more stories, about this guy, because I love him.” And Keith did it, too, becoming, I’m pretty sure, one of the three reasons why If, the magazine I published them in, won the Best Prozine Hugo for three years in a row. (The other two reasons? Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker stories, and Robert Heinlein’s serials.)

I felt pretty proud of myself for recognizing their worth so quickly, but I later learned that he had intended them as a series all along, but planned for the series to run in Cele Goldsmith’s Amazing (and I can’t imagine why Cele, bright as she was, let them go). The thing about Laumer is, first, that he was great at satirizing people he had had a bellyful of, particularly Americans in the diplomatic service. (Keith had served a tour in Burma, which gave him much grist for his mill.) Second, that he had a keen sense of comedy, and, third, that he wrote quickly and well.

Not all of Keith’s sf was part of a series. He wrote stand-alone stories when the spirit moved him, some of them really good. There was one in particular — I’ve forgotten its name — which had to do with a time traveler who, leaving his family behind, travels a century or so into the future, where he finds a dreary, post-catastrophe world where his only companion is a nearly out of it centenarian who, when the time traveler mentions his name, sobs, “Daddy.” Corny, maybe, but it took me unawares to the point of actually bringing a tear to my eyes — something which rarely happens.

I left the Galaxy group shortly before Keith suffered the massive stroke that pretty much ended his successful writing career, but I did see him from time to time. Sadly, the wreck of his brain made him the legendary even-tempered man: mad all the time. It was a terrible fate for one as talented as he and, though he lived for twenty-some years after the stroke, he never regained the art of writing a Laumer story, and almost never managed to carry on a conversation without breaking into rage.

11 Comments

  1. Lars says:

    “Night of the Trolls”, I believe.

    You’re right, it was affecting – read it once decades ago and never forgot it.

  2. Michael Walsh says:

    I have fond memories of the Retief stories. Glad you publish them!

    One of the interesting things he did was to reuse the character Brion Bayard from the Worlds of he Imperium series in a mainstream novel called “Embassy”. At the conclusion of it Bayard is posted to Stockholm where “Worlds of the Imperium” opens.

  3. Forrest says:

    The Night Of The Trolls.

    “Was I…good…boy…Dad?”

  4. Terry O'Brien says:

    That sounds like one of the Bolo stories, “Troll” I think it was, where an astronaut in suspended animation for an interstellar flight that never was launched was awakened decades later. The Bolo was under the control of the “Boss” of the area and the hero had to overcome it. The old man who assisted him was actually his young son.

  5. Stefan Jones says:

    How sad! I was a fan of military SF in High School, and of course Laumer’s books were must reading. I’d never heard of his neurological troubles or why he’d stopped writing.

    As I recall, the story where the man meets his ancient son was one of the “Bolo” stories. One of the robot tanks was thought of as a “troll” by the post-holocaust survivors.

  6. Periwinkle says:

    The “Daddy” moment you are thinking of may be from The Night of the Trolls. It’s been at least a decade since I read that, and I can still feel the punch of that scene. It was also one of the first “Bolo” stories, but the fight between the giant tanks is much less memorable.

    I discovered the Retief stories around the age of 14. I promptly read some of Laumer’s more serious works, and was frankly traumatized – but they’re undeniably good. “How to Design and Build Flying Models” is also excellent, informative yet full of dry wit.

  7. H. E. Parmer says:

    The short story was “Night of the Trolls”. The protagonist was a strictly involuntary time traveler, btw: He was an astronaut in training for the first intersteller mission, who was put in suspended animation for what was supposed to be a short test run — and then forgotten in the atomic war. (I still have my Berkley Medallion paperback edition of “Greylorn”, in which NotT was the second selection, after the title novella.)

    Anyway, it makes all sorts of sense that you were responsible for publishing his first Retief stories.

    I always wondered what happened to Keith Laumer. He was one of my favorite sf authors, back in the day. It seemed like he could do any genre, and do it well: Space opera, time travel, alternate universes, comic sf and fantasy. (“The favorite of millions/From the Bronx to Miami/The answer to the riddle is:/’Kosher salami!’”)

    But then, IIRC, after “The Infinite Cage” — in which he seemed to be going in a really interesting direction with his writing — nothing. And after some years, a few novels which had flashes of the old brilliance, but invariably just kind of fizzled out. Damn, but that was a cruel trick his body played on him. All that talent wiped out by a tiny blood clot.

    He still left us one hell of a body of work, though. I’m not all that big a fan of Baen Books, but I do appreciate the fact that they’ve made a fairly extensive sampling of Laumer’s work available as free ebooks, and I strongly urge anyone unfamiliar with his writing to check out their website.

  8. Dan Gollub says:

    The Kaddish begins: Yisgadal vyiskadash shmei raba

  9. Larry Stewart says:

    Around 1975 the Student Center Committee Keith Laumer come to speak at MIT. At the dinner before, someone asked him exactly what was an Infinite Repeater? Keith said “Son, that is just one hell of a weapon.”

    I think I’ve got most of his work in my collection.

  10. Alan Kovski says:

    What a real shame about Laumer’s stroke. He was so good. The Retief stories were fun, but Laumer also put real intelligence and serious artistry into other stories. Some of his best stories were pulled together into a collection titled Nine by Laumer, back in 1967, with an intro by Harlan Ellison. The story “Cocoon” was a model of metaphorical excellence, presenting people so sheltered and cared for that they spent their days in literal cocoons. The story “The Walls” was incredibly fine social-psychological commentary, like Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” only better, more thoughtful. What a great talent Laumer was. And how good of you to recognize and reward that talent.

  11. Elisa says:

    Thanks heaps for pointing us toadwrs these classics! I had only read the Lensmen series out of those and enjoyed them as a younger person. Now they’re a bit of fluff that I like to revisit occasionally.I’ve just finished Space Viking for the first time using my laptop e-book reader. I was hooked and I CANNOT BELIEVE I never read this before as a Traveller fan! The influences in here are enormous not that Traveller is a one-to-one copy of this story but everything from the Sword World names, to other world names, the interstellar feudalism, everything. A rattling good story, totally enjoyed it. Will be reading the others one by one.