Keith Laumer was a prolific writer whose output dropped dramatically following a stroke in 1971. He is probably best remembered for his Retief stories, which is a shame because they're among his lesser work. Laumer was one of those writers who had a reputation for producing adventure stories and he was often overlooked for his considerable literary talents. He was in fact nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards on more than one occasion, although he never won. He had previously worked in the diplomatic service, which inspired his one mainstream novel and most of the Retief series, but his first published book was Worlds of the Imperium (1962), half of an Ace double.
Worlds of the Imperium introduced Brion Bayard, who would return for further adventures. He is kidnapped at the beginning of the novel by agents of an alternate universe who are exploring our reality, among others, also among the few that were not destroyed by a radical new technology. Bayard, who accepts his situation with aplomb, finds himself in a world where England, Germany, and Sweden have united as the Imperium with control of the technology to travel among alternate realities. The Imperium, which does not have atomic weapons, is being attacked by another reality ruled by a ruthless dictator, who turns out to be that reality's version of Brion Bayard. The Imperium wants him to take the dictator's place so they can manipulate his culture but Bayard isn't sure he wants the job. He narrowly escapes an attack by the enemy forces and then is forced to fight a duel with a local official whom he publicly insulted. The mission starts badly because no one realized that the two Bayards no longer look alike - the dictator lost his legs - and the impersonation fails immediately. Through a chain of contrived coincidences, Bayard falls in with the opposition - who operate freely in Bayard's headquarters. His new allies only last an hour or two, however, before they are dispersed or killed by the other Bayard's security forces. He's in and out of trouble several times after that before When he finally meets his duplicate, Bayard discovers that he has been lied to, and shortly afterward one of the Imperium officers shows up with a gang of thugs, kills the other Bayard, and captures the version from our world as part of his plot to seize control of this Earth and use it as a powerbase. It's not a great novel and there are too many coincidences, but in general it's a solid and exciting adventure story and reminded me at times of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
A Trace of Memory was serialized in 1962 and appeared in book form the next year. Legion is a drifter who has no self confidence and no prospects. He avoids arrest by pretending to have answered an advertisement by a man named Foster, even though he has no interest in a career as a soldier of fortune. Foster has a strange story. He is suffering from amnesia but believes that he is at least a century old, has a notebook made of material unknown to scientists on Earth, and claims to be pursued by an enemy that manifests itself as strange lights in the darkness. The reader will be well ahead of Legion thanks to a prologue which shows an alien space traveler stranded on Earth in the distant past, along with the mysterious Hunters. Legion plans to slip away at the first opportunity but coincidentally - Laumer often resorts to coincidence to speed up his plots - the Hunters show up again before he can do so. Another coincidence has Foster regenerating to a younger version that same night, and the police are after Legion for murdering the older version. Young Foster also has a new case of amnesia. The two of them are reduced to being fugitives from the law, as well as the Hunters. They decipher part of the notebook and decide that the lair of the monsters in at Stonehenge in England. Foster wants to investigate but Legion just wants to clear his name and forget about everything that has happened.
At Stonehenge, they survive an attack and activate a device that calls a lifeship from a large orbiting spaceship. Aboard, they find training tapes that enable them to use the equipment and eventually restore part of Foster's memory, enough that he knows about being stranded on Earth for centuries - it turns out he was King Arthur. Humans, it appears, are descended from castaways from his race - although we never get an explanation of hominids. But Foster doesn't know why he was in the solar system, why he is being hunted, or what disaster led to the deaths of everyone else aboard. He also explains that Terran humans would be able to regenerate as well if they were vaccinated against getting old, a rather glib explanation of his longevity. The Hunters are a lifeform that can only be nourished by electrical energy, which confined them to the area of the hidden underground installation under Stonehenge. I had to wonder how they could have evolved under those circumstances but Laumer never tells us.
Foster takes his ship and returns to his homeworld, but Legion takes the lifeship full of technological wonders and returns to Earth where he quietly amasses a small fortune and builds a retreat in an island off the coast of Peru. There, inexplicably, he puts all his artifacts in one spot with limited security and doesn't even have an escape plan when, inevitably, someone comes in force to find out where he is getting all these technological marvels. Laumer resorts to coincidence constantly to keep the story moving and that's the case here as both Soviet and American forces arrive within hours of one another, resulting in a pitched battle during which he escapes, eventually makes his way to the hidden starship, and then goes off to find his former mentor among the stars.
Arriving on the alien home world, he discovers that their civilization has collapsed into a form of primitive slave holding in which no one remembers their previously exalted past. He wanders around with a cat, who coincidentally and implausibly shows up at the precise moment necessary for him to escape a prison. Since authority is based on personal combat, he is prepared to challenge the local ruler and eventually overthrows the entire planetary government. The entire second half of the novel rings false, however, artificial and overly contrived.
Envoy to New Worlds (1963) was the first collection of Retief stories. Jame Retief is a minor diplomat in the Terrestrial diplomatic service, and he bears a strong resemblance to the Brion Bayard character in Embassy below. The Retief stories are written to a formula. His superiors are inevitably exaggerated buffoons, most frequently a halfwit named Magnan, but he usually makes them look good by disobeying their orders and solving the problems between humans and one or another alien species. The humans always come off looking bad, but often the aliens fare no better. In "Protocol" (aka "The Yillian Way") the aliens treat the human mission terribly until Retief rebels and meets them on their own terms. The Yill are portrayed as honorable, if somewhat strange. That's not the case in "Sealed Orders" (aka "Retief of Red Tape Mountain". This time Retief is supposed to intercede in a battle between human settlers and manta like aliens both of whom claim a rather desolate planet. He discovers (or actually intuits) that this is all a game for the aliens, tricks the leader of the local group into engaging in personal combat, defeats him, and then negotiates a division of the planet favorable to both sides. The aliens in this case are childish and easily fooled, though the humans are almost as despicable.
"Cultural Exchange" is a bit contrived, and none of the various parties are alien this time. There's a complicated plot involving shipment of supposed students and various armaments which are actually intended to be an invasion force. Retief manipulates everyone concerned to thwart the invasion, save an imperiled wine crop, and favorably alter the balance of power in a cluster of human settled worlds, much to the chagrin of his superiors. "Aide Memoire" introduces rivalry with the Groaci, an alien race less prone to putting incompetents in positions of authority, although they always proved less resourceful than Retief. "Policy" is not very good. Retief is on the Groaci homeworld and manages to discover the fate of a missing Terran starship simply by accosting a local drunk and then browbeating a government representative into admitting everything. The humans are even more inept than usual and Retief unaccountably doesn't transmit his information until it is too late to do so. "Palace Revolution" (aka "Gambler's World") is also fairly weak. Discovering a planned coup on a primitive world, Retief engages in some not very convincing negotiations with a casino owner who is behind the rebellion and saves the day.
A Plague of Demons (1965 - a shorter version was serialized as The Hounds of Hell) is one of Laumer's many novels dealing with a superhuman. John Bravais is called to Algeria by an old friend who has been forced to go undercover. He learns two things. First, the government - and possibly foreign governments - are working on surgical techniques to create super soldiers. Second, people are disappearing around the world in unprecedented numbers. When Bravais spots an alien creature dissecting a human, he tries to report it to the local United Nations command, only to discover that the commander and some of his men are superpowered allies of the alien, which forces him to become a fugitive. He discovers that in addition to their enhanced human allies, the aliens have mental powers which can make them appear as normal humans for short periods of time. His partner succumbs to their influence and Bravais finds himself on his own, although he now has some enhancements of his own. The first half of the novel is in fact one extended chase scene, with our hero escaping Algeria aboard a disreputable cargo ship, evading capture repeatedly when he returns to the United States and sets out to visit a location his dead partner suggested as a safe haven. Laumer is at his best here, with a crisp and reasonably plausible narrative enlivened by intelligent and sometimes clever prose.
The second half of the novel lets down a bit, although it does introduce the concept of the Bolos, human brains installed in supertanks, which would reappear in Laumer's later fiction and spawn a series of stories and novels by other authors. Bravais is captured and awakens to find himself ensconced in a fighting machine on a distant planet, where he is able to regain his self identity and probe the minds of his alien captors, turning the situation to his advantage. How he acquires these mental powers is never really explained. The aliens also represent Good and Evil in some mystical fashion. The final chapters are overly ambitious. Not only does our hero penetrate to the center of an alien stronghold, lead a successful revolt against the mind controllers, and personally wrestle another alien life form to death, but also organizes an army to resist reconquest and alerts the Earth with a plan to expunge the invisible aliens living among us. He also announces an interstellar war against the aliens. Laumer does have a tendency to rush his endings, and this is a notable example.
The Great Time Machine Hoax (1964, aka A Hoax in Time) is atypical of Laumer's work, a broad farce that makes little effort to be plausible. The protagonist is due to inherit an expense ridden estate from an uncle when he discovers that a self aware computer was built beneath the mansion and provided with unlimited data. The computer has expanded on its original mission and now contains so much information that it can reconstruct actual historical events with incredible (and totally implausible) detail. The first effort to explore this function goes awry when he, a friend, and an avatar of the computer become lost in a succession of past and future realities - Laumer never explains how all of this including enormous distances can be created within the context of a small chamber, or how they could possibly live that long without access to food and other supplies from the "real" world, but none of that is particularly relevant to the story. Laumer frequently resorted to absurdity in his fiction, particularly the Retief stories, but there is rarely any genuinely inventive humor. He often repeats the same joke endlessly, as though absurdity was in itself funny, and it doesn't work in this novel at all. Eventually we learn that they really have been projected through time - just how that is possible given the setup is not explained either - and their presence has altered history beyond recognition. Despite this, neither of the story's two titles makes any sense, since there is no hoax involved. We do see the first glimmer of Laumer's political philosophy stated clearly when our hero falls in with a bunch of lazy anarchists. "Most of the shrill cries of social injustice come from people who contribute nothing to the scene..." This sentiment will crop up more often in his later work.
Embassy (1965) is not science fiction, although its protagonist is Brion Bayard, the same name used in Worlds of the Imperium. Bayard is an unorthodox - i.e. honest and competent - junior diplomat assigned to the corrupt American embassy in Samoy. Laumer also employs the odd convention of having Bayard's viewpoint scenes told in first person while the bulk of the book is in third person. Laumer has an interesting double standard in this book. One of his criticisms of the senior diplomats is that they are all racists who think of the locals as stereotypes, relatively stupid, lazy, and lacking in courage or principle. But then he portrays each and every one of the local characters in just those terms, everything from a simple minded communist agitator to a would be dictator to a pair of lazy file clerks. The diplomats are also engaged in wholesale adultery, sexual harassment, petty rivalries, and open corruption. They are more interested in lining their pockets than advancing the interests of either the American government or the Samoyan people. The main plot involves a ploy to sneak high powered arms into the country to suppress a communist rebellion and then seize control of the government, except that no one actually has control of the weapons which end up making little difference. There is also a completely unbelievable sequence in which a rather dumb American businessman comes to Samoy with no plan or contacts, simply to find out if there are any investment opportunities, and he relies on the word of the first random American visitor he meets. Laumer clearly had no future as a writer of political thrillers.
Galactic Diplomat (1966) is the second collection of Retief stories, and there are hints that Laumer might have exhausted his ideas for this format because the selection is sometimes repetitive, sometimes incongruous. The opening story, "Ultimatum", is for example another one in which aliens threaten an attack until Retief calls their bluff and co-opts them into working for the humans instead of against them. "Saline Solution", however, inexplicably has Retief and Magnan working in the asteroid belt with no hint of aliens or even interstellar travel. They are caught in the middle of an attempt by a big mining corporation to jump the claim of an independent and Retief resorts to the company's own trickery to fool them. "The Brass God" (aka Retief: God Speaker") doesn't even attempt to be a serious story. Retief and company deal with an alien religion whose adherents are comic book style caricatures. "The Castle of Light" is slightly better. The Groaci, Retief's recurring foe, attempt to occupy a neutral planet by taking advantage of peculiarities of interstellar war and an unusual festival that occurs only once in several generations. Retief doesn't save the day this time. It turns out the festival coincides with an astronomical event that causes devastating earthquakes and the Groaci are wiped out. "Wicker Wonderland" is a slight change of pace. Retief is working for a Groaci diplomat, who is both competent and virtuous, when he uncovers a plot by humans against a native population. The story jumps around and the pace is so even that it feels like several sketches were patched together.
"Native Intelligence" (aka "The Governor of Glave") is a thinly described diatribe against what Laumer apparently perceives as freeloading ignorant people who use "popular" revolutions because they aren't ambitious or smart enough to work for a living, in this case taking over a previously prosperous planet until Retief singlehandedly restores the old order. "There's always a certain percentage of any population with a conviction that society is a conspiracy to deny them their rights. The right to be totally ignorant of any useful knowledge seems to be the basic one." The next story is "The Prince and the Pirate", better written but still a polemic about governments who impose the needs of the majority on the more successful - hence entitled - minority. I'm not surprised that writers with this prejudice against what they see as the evils of welfare are generally favorably disposed toward monarchies. "Courier" is quite good. Retief is sent to help a human colony fend off an invasion by nasty aliens, abetted by crooked humans. The final story, "Protest Note", is the least interesting. Retief forces a treaty on interlopers by beating up their chief.
Retief's War (1971, expanded from the 1965 version) was the first novel length adventure, set on a planet whose variegated inhabitants are essentially part machine, most of them moving on wheels. A crooked Terran diplomat, an ambitious and nasty local tribal leader, and a wily Groaci spy conspire to overthrow the semi-anarchy that has long prevailed, each for reasons of his own. Retief finds himself leading a rebellion by uniting several of the tribes in what could have been a fairly serious adventure but devolves into farce. Retief actually disguises himself as an alien for much of the book. There are a few semi-relevant subplots and lots of running around but this is basically a very long version of the standard Retief adventure among dumb aliens.
The Other Side of Time (1965) is the sequel to Worlds of the Imperium. Bayard discovers that there are other timelines that think they control the multiverse when he stumbles upon an invading force of hulking hominids and is taken prisoner, then discovers that there is a third race from another hominid strain, and that both of them consider themselves the true masters of the universe. He escapes from one only to be captured by the other and no one he encounters is particularly honorable, human or otherwise. Laumer refers to one of the alien species as cannibals, which is nonsense since they don't eat their own kind. They do eat humans, however. The plot is structured like many of Laumer's novels - a succession of captures and escapes and other minor crises - then when he reaches the desired world count, he brings it to an end, not always completely successfully. Bayard gets stranded in a low tech world but through an astounding series of coincidences is able to build a transport device almost from scratch, and then finds his way back to another viable timeline through another series of coincidences. It's a bit frustrating that the plot is so contrived because the prose is quite good. The ending comes out of nowhere with Bayard rescued again, and this time they invent a time machine on the spot so that he can go back to before the Imperium timeline was destroyed and prevent the disaster from happening. Happy ending but not a very well crafted one.
Earthblood (1966) was written in collaboration with Rosel George Brown and appears to be set in the Retief universe, long after the Terran empire has fallen. There are references to bolos and the Groaci. The protagonist is a rare purebred human in a galaxy where humans have interbred with some alien races or mutant strains, producing Geeks, and interacts with separate alien species called Gooks. That alone should tell you something about the racial attitudes of the novel, but it's more complicated than that. Reflecting the dichotomy prevalent in the Retief stories, we have several incidents where tolerance of the different and friendship with aliens is commended, but at the same time the human race was the only species to experience altruism, to build memorable cities, and so forth and so on. This, even though when our hero finally is reunited with a pure human civilization, he finds them just as stupid and self serving as everyone else. Roan is raised by an alien and a halfbreed, kidnapped into an interstellar circus, captured by pirates, becomes leader of the pirates, defeats a warship of a possibly extinct alien race, locates the remnants of the Empire, gets involved in a civil war, is appointed grand admiral, and lives unhappily ever after. Completely forgettable.
Lafayette O'Leary made his debut in The Time Bender (1966, aka Axe and Dragon), which skirts the border with fantasy. He's a nerdish type who experiments with self hypnosis and dreams and finds himself in an alternate world, Artesia, which is a forerunner of steampunk with steam powered vehicles and other anachronisms in a medieval setting. O'Leary can alter this reality through force of will at times, but not always, as suits the purposes of the author. The story is lightly humorous throughout, and for the first third our hero still believes it is all just a dream, even when he is arrested for practicing sorcery. There is actually no magic in it although the explanations are pretty flimsy. Our hero saves the kingdom from its usurper, who is also from another reality, defeats a dragon - actually a transposed dinosaur, kills the leader of the barbarian horde, outwits the schemers, and rescues the princess, only to discover he is the long lost ruler of Artesia, which honor he declines when he discovers that both he and the princess love someone else. Laumer left things open for a sequel by noting that the organization which polices the alternate realities - not the same one as in the Bayard stories - have noted that he might make a good agent for them in the future. Lightweight and still episodic, but more integrated than the earlier Laumer novels and quite amusing most of the time.
Laumer's next two novels were stand alone and neither were very good. The Monitors (1966) was made into a low budget and very bad movie. The monitors are alien invaders who are indistinguishable from humans and all speak flawless English. They take over the planet all at once, replacing all governments, police, and other authority figures and imposing a rigidly determined interpretation of our laws - some of which are admittedly absurd - for the good of the human race. They cannot understand why there is resistance, but of course there is. The novel is openly satirical but many of the arguments made by the aliens to criticize human foibles are clearly contrived to be one sided, which blunts the sarcasm. We see most of this through the eyes of one stubborn man who discovers that most humans, including the resistance movement, are just as dumb as the invaders. This is a moderately good short story idea spun out to novel length, and some of the incidents are clearly just filler to push up the wordcount. The jokes aren't very funny and they're repeated so much that they lose even the traces of humor by the end of the book. Pretty minor, as was the 1969 film version, which was even sillier than the book.
Catastrophe Planet (1966 - later reissued as The Breaking Earth with a couple of short stories added) isn't much better. The earth's crust has come loose and there are devastating earthquakes, tornadoes, and volcanoes all over the world. Mal Irish is a not entirely reputable drifter who finds a dying man in the wreckage who claims he was part of an expedition to Antarctica which was intended to create a compensating force - not likely - but which was wiped out mysteriously after finding evidence of an ancient technological civilization. Now he is being pursued by strange men - three of whom Irish kills in short order - but as a result it is now our hero that they are looking for. The coincidences this time are almost comically contrived. Irish takes a coin from the dead man and somehow not only do the bad guys know that he has it, they also have an entire contingent of supposed numismatists staying at the hotel where he takes refuge in Miami, and naturally he takes the coin for identification. They switch coins on him, for no good reason, and he decides to find out why. He follows them secretly that night and rescues a young woman they are trying to abduct, a woman who speaks no known language. Later, another coincidence saves his life when an earthquake throws off the aim of a man about to shoot him at close range. The girl gets captured and based on virtually no evidence, he decides to look for her on the island of Crete, which isn't an island any more, and there he almost immediately meets the man who has been ferrying the mysterious men out to an empty spot of the sea where they disappear. When he enters the undersea city, he immediately runs into a lone guard who conveniently speaks English. Then he captures another, who conveniently has the missing girl's clothing in his possession. And he also just happened to bring a cutting torch with him, which he uses to escape a locked tunnel. He also steals a boat, which just happens to have a military style machinegun hidden, but not hidden well enough. The mystery men also conveniently speak English when Irish is spying on them. The steady string of unbelievable coincidences is symptomatic of lazy plotting and I suspect Laumer wrote this one quickly. Too quickly. And then in the final thirty pages we discover that the girl is the last survivor of a prehistoric race, preserved by suspended animation, and the mystery men are actually a race of nonhuman creatures from somewhere else who prey on humans. Oh, and the hero wipes them out. As was the case with some of Laumer's other novels, it appears that when he reached a certain word count, he would then tie up all - or most - of the loose ends and end the book, rushing through explanations when he bothered with them at all.
Planet Run (1966) was Laumer's second and final novel collaboration, this one with Gordon R. Dickson. It's very minor for either writer. A long retired space explorer is lured into one last mission to stake a claim on a distant planet, accompanied by a comically naive young man. They survive several encounters with bad guys and raw nature, find a gateway to another part of the galaxy, and thwart the chief villain working behind the scenes. The story is occasionally ludicrous and badly plotted. At one point we are told that humanity doesn't have a faster than light drive but we never hear how then it is possible to travel from one star to another so quickly. The inexperienced character makes so many rudimentary mistakes and bad judgments that there is no real contrast between him and the greenhorn.
The Invaders (1967, aka Meteor Men) was the first of two books Laumer wrote tied to the often silly television series, so some of the dumb things in the story were probably not his fault. David Vincent is a manufacturing consultant - except that no consultant makes extraordinary recommendations based on a one hour tour of a plant - who coincidentally has noticed four strange components at four different plants which can be assembled into something that looks like a raygun. The final component was made at another plant where he is also called in to consult, but the local security officer insists that the information is classified - which is nonsense since it wasn't a government contract, there was no confidentiality agreement, and in any case he could not overrule his superior. The security man is an alien, whose skin is painfully hot to touch, yet no one has ever noticed this before! He steals the drawings of the last component and with a scientist friend builds one to complete the weapon in his possession. It projects a cone of "negative space", whatever that might mean. They call the FBI who immediately agree to send a team to investigate, which is patently absurd. And since they didn't specify what information they had, it's also illogical that the invaders would know that this was something they should respond to. Vincent is captured and his friend is injured and has amnesia. The aliens also communicate to their mother ship in English, conveniently allowing Vincent to learn more about them by eavesdropping. Following the origin story, there are two adventures, one involving his encounter with a madmen who believes in invaders but thinks Vincent is one of them. It's an extraordinarily bad story. The third and last isn't much better. Vincent hears that a meteor cloud is likely to hit the Earth's atmosphere and talks to a prominent scientist for five minutes, convincing him that there is a potentially great danger. I can understand Laumer writing this for the money, but I can't understand why he allowed them to put his name on it.
Nine by Laumer (1967) is a collection of short stories accompanied by an essay in which Harlan Ellison rather effusively calls him the best new science fiction writer since Kurt Vonnegut. The opening story is "Hybrid", in which roving space travelers find a fallen tree that is actually an alien intelligence that transforms itself from animal to plant late in its life cycle. One of them becomes host to the tree's offspring/spores in return for extended life and an improved physiology. It's not bad but there's really not much story either. "End As a Hero" is about the only human survivor of an encounter with the alien Gool, who use a form of mind control and who are at war with Earth. Neither Laumer nor the copy editor knew how to spell "pseudo" and the plot doesn't make much sense. I don't see, for example, how humans could create a working mental defense when they didn't know previously about the aliens' abilities. Or why would they send a spy if they already know that his mind might be suborned so they automatically plan to kill him before he can return, and disregard anything he tells them? Anyway, our hero now has super-psi powers of his own and can take control of minds down on Earth and compel them to let him through the defensive shield. It never occurs to him to control the minds of the people in charge. The story doesn't work dramatically either because since he can make his way in and out of guarded facilities simply by manipulating a few minds, there's no real challenge. It's a terrible story. "The Walls", on the other hand, is quite good. In a massively urbanized future, an obnoxious husband has full wall televisions installed in his apartment, which ultimately drives his wife insane.
"Dinochrome" (aka "Combat Unit") reminded me of Colin Kapp's earlier "Gottlos", and it's a Bolo story about a malfunctioning supertank that turns on its owners. Okay, but tepid. "Placement Test" is a satire about a future where people are medically dumbed down so that they are content doing menial jobs. This one also starts off pretty well. It also has one of the classic SF failures of prophecy - the computers of the far future all use tape reels. But what starts as a criticism of bureaucracy ends up as advocacy of elitism. Our hero has been deliberately treated badly so that he can prove that he is one of the few qualified to run the world. We are even told that the idea that "the will of the people equals wisdom" is "folklore." The conclusion is that the only people worth while are those who are willing to cheat and lie to get what they want, and therefore the repressive system Laumer described is actually Utopian rather than Dystopian. "Doorstep" is trivial. A Wellsian style space capsule lands on Earth and an overly zealous general kills its passenger before discovering it is harmless. "The Long Remembered Thunder" is one of Laumer's better efforts. A scientist is sent to his home town to locate the source of peculiar transmissions which are interfering with a government project. He is particularly interested in a mysterious and very elderly recluse who is never seen during the hours of darkness, and who has told one confidant that he battles demons in his basement. Unfortunately, some local punks have wounded him and tried unsuccessfully to burn down his house, and he is nowhere to be found. The story falters toward the end, with a deus ex machina device for defeating the alien invaders and another to turn time backwards and let the elderly lovers correct their youthful mistake. Not bad overall though. "Cocoon" is another story of television as a device to sedate the masses, and a rebel movement aimed at disrupting them. Last in the collection is "A Trip to the City" (aka "It Could Be Anything"). It's the best story in the collection. A young man who has never left the small town where he lives discovers that the outside world he knows through magazines and television does not exist, that he's in a wasteland surrounded by cities populated with automatons with a limited range of human imitation. We never find out what's going on but we're not supposed to. The point of the story is that nothing is real unless we go see it ourselves.
The Day Before Forever and Thunderhead (1967) consists of a novella and a novelet. The protagonist of the first and longer story wakes up in the 22nd Century but remembers living in the 20th. He is soon on the run from the repressive police of a future in which a megacorporation that dispenses longevity rules the world. After various adventures he penetrates to the heart of the company and discovers it is run by an older version of himself, that he is the latest in a line of programmed clones originally designed to provide a succession of likeminded CEOs, although the system has been corrupted by the discovery of literal immortality. There are a few holes in the plot but they're small ones and the writing is some of the best Laumer ever did, although it also reflects his elitist views. The hero decides that a benevolent dictatorship is better for humanity than freedom. The second story isn't as good. A forgotten military picket on a remote and forgotten colony world continues to do his duty even though he has been forgotten by his superiors. He gives his life to help avoid an alien landing in a rather sappy, melodramatic fashion. Not one of Laumer's better efforts.
Enemies from Beyond (1967) was the second Invaders tie-in, and like the first it consists of three short adventures. As with the first, Laumer made no real attempt to construct plausible situations. In this case, Vincent hears of the sinking of a commercial freighter and concludes - rightly - that aliens were responsible, so he rushes to the hospital, convinced that minutes count - toward what? - and the doctor in charge is easily convinced to break the rules and let him in because he has no government identification and therefore obviously must be a government agent. Then, as it happens, Vincent knows not only of the existence of a radically new submarine despite its top secret status, he is also a personal friend of the captain! Then he convinces his friend to not only take him out on one of the secret missions, but to re-route it to the scene of the freighter sinking. Then he just happens to run into a salvage operator who has access to a state of the art torpedo. He bluffs another man into spilling confidential information in the second story, no more plausibly than in the first. This one involves sea creatures coming ashore and attacking people, which seems like a poor tactic for invaders who want to remain unsuspected. The final story involves Vincent's encounter with a clairvoyant who can read the aliens' minds, sort of, and reveals another string of incredible coincidences. This is, frankly, an embarrassingly bad book from cover to cover.
Galactic Odyssey (1967, serialized as Spaceman) is a showcase of Laumer's faults, unfortunately. Episodic, hastily written, filled with coincidences and implausibilities, it opens with the hero, Billy Danger, taking shelter in a grain silo that turns out to be an interstellar spaceship run by alien hunters who just happen to speak English all the time. At one of their hunting stops, everyone is killed except Billy and the inevitable beautiful maiden. They are stranded on that uninhabited world but just happen to stumble upon a 7000 year old spaceship with a workable interstellar warning beacon. Unfortunately they attract the attention of non-human aliens who abduct the girl and leave Billy to die, although obviously he survives and eventually is rescued by another passing ship. There follows a series of adventures as he attempts to find and rescue the girl, during the course of which he is imprisoned, enslaved, employed as a spy, becomes captain of his own ship, and eventually completes the mission. I hadn't remembered any of this from having read it when the paperback first appeared, and I doubt I'll remember much of it a month from now.
Retief and the Warlords (1968) is a novel and introduces the Haterakans as the primary alien villains, although the Groaci are back as well. The Terran authorities refuse to help the various human colonies and miners working in a newly opened region of space, preferring outreach programs to the lobsterlike Haterakans. As usual the plot is helped along by a liberal application of absurd coincidences and the tone is light and even silly at times. And as usual the diplomats are so stupid that any hint of verisimilitude is missing. Retief is captured briefly by the Haterakans, escapes improbably by seizing control of a ship, and arrives among beleaguered colonists. They in turn make him a prisoner and he's forced to escape again, this time with the assistance of a stranded Haterakan. Then he's a prisoner of the aliens again. This all gets pretty monotonous by half way through the novel. Retief even has some timestop capsules so he can extricate himself from impossible circumstances. Retief then reorganizes the Keystone Cops Terran Defense Legion and thwarts the aliens without causing significant casualties on either side. As forgettable as all the other Retief stories.
Assignment in Nowhere (1968) is a Brion Bayard novel, although this time he's not the protagonist. He rescues Johnny Curlon from what appears to be our timeline when he is attacked by minions from another. Curlon is the last descendant of Richard the Lionhearted and he is the nexus of powerful forces which could save, or destroy, all of the alternate timelines. For some reason the blighted worlds where civilization died are expanding and the nearby timelines are seeing influxes of corrosion, rust, and toadstools. Picturesque, but not particularly logical. Curlon is captured, escapes, is captured, escapes, is captured, and escapes in the same pattern as holds in most of Laumer's novels, although like the previous Bayard adventures, this one is somewhat better written. Briefly Curlon teams up with the sinister Baron Van Roosevelt who convinces him that he is trying to restore balance to the universe, although eventually we are told that he is actually attempting to restructure time for his own purposes. The rules about changing realities are pretty fluid; Laumer obviously didn't spend a lot of time thinking them through. This one feels more like fantasy than SF.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy (1968) provides some evidence that Laumer was better at shorter length, starting with the opening story, " The Body Builders", a lively satire in which people live in tanks with their consciousness transmitted to a variety of robotic bodies. Laumer characterizes this as a logical extension of makeup and more invasive methods of improving one's appearance. The protagonist is inadvertently dumped into his actual body and eventually discovers that he likes it better. "The Planet Wreckers" on the other hand is not so good. The hero discovers that Earth is the set for an alien produced disaster movie with real disasters. Occasionally funny, more often just silly. "The Star-Sent Knaves" (aka "The Time Thieves") is more or less a sequel, this time with alien art thieves using superscience to perform their heists. "The War With the Yukks" is about the accidental discovery of an ancient automated weapons system in Honduras that might have been a fair story if it had been handled straightforwardly, but Laumer plays this one for minor laughs as well. The last story is in the same vein. "Goobereality" concerns an invention that extrapolates realities, but the inventor discovers that someone has stolen the plans for his device. Not bad but minor.
Greylorn (1968) starts off with the title story, one of Laumer's worst novelettes. Earth is about to be overwhelmed by some unexplained form of pink tide so the authorities send a slower than light starship to a colony they hoped was founded fifty years earlier seeking help. The captain puts down multiple mutinies during the five year flight, then outsmarts an implausible ship full of aliens in a completely implausible fashion, finds the colony, which just happens to have developed better ships and newer weapons which can destroy the pink tide. I'd hardly think a newly planted colony could have progressed that far in just over a generation. Terrible story. "The Night of the Trolls" is much better. A man wakens from a sensory deprivation experiment to discover that forty years have passed and that a devastating war has reduced the outside world to feudalism. (He gets a hint of this when a seventy year old book crumples to dust.) He gets involved with the local baron, also a recent escapee from suspended animation, and foils his plans of world conquest. The surprise - an old man who helps him turns out to be his son - is obvious from the outset. It's a pretty good story but the conclusion - he helps launch a starship - seems incongruous given the situation on Earth. "The Other Sky" is about the secret conquest of Earth by the alien Niss, whom the government refers to as guests. The set up is none too plausible and the typical Laumer coincidence is in evidence. The hero just happens to have a secret exit from his apartment that he discovered by accident. He finds another alien, a friendly one from some kind of alternate world on Pluto, which has just been knocked out of its orbit, and also gets told that he used to be part of the space navy, which he doesn't remember at all. It's a kind of kitchen sink plot that introduces new factors so rapidly that it's hard to immediately notice the inconsistencies. Then the final third, in the alternate Pluto, becomes so silly that it spoils what went before. "The King of the City" isn't bad but it's pretty minor. A space squadron comes back to find that Earth, or at least the US, has fallen into anarchy, and after various secretive movements they depose the shadow government and restore order.
Laumer wrote three quite short novels tied to the British TV program The Avengers in 1968. They are The Afrit Affair, The Drowned Queen, and The Gold Bomb. The first one has Emma Peel as Steed's partner; the other two feature Tara King. Steed is detailed to protect a group of diplomats at a special conference which has been threatened by someone calling himself the Afrit. Emma Peel is conspicuous by her absence, but female characters are almost entirely absent from Laumer's previous fiction, let alone a competent female character. Eventually she does show up, after a plague of pranks and odd events hounds the conference. Laumer captures some of the feeling of the show, but can't negotiate the balance between humor and adventure that made it so good. Instead he has produced here what is essentially a parody of the television program, and not a very funny one either. The Drowned Queen is more SF. Steed and Tara King are working undercover aboard the world's first submersible luxury liner - which doesn't seem like a viable commercial idea to me. There's a murder and other strange goings on and the jokes aren't quite as overwhelming as in the first, but there's still enough silliness to spoil the plot. The chief villain wants to hijack the ship and turn it into an international pirate. Minor from beginning to end. The Gold Bomb is no better. Steed and King have to track down a maniac who is building an atomic bomb for use in the British Isles. Laumer clearly did these strictly for the money.
Retief: Ambassador to Space (1969) is the third collection of Retief's shorter adventures. The formula had worn pretty thin by now. "Giant Killer" involves killing a dinosaurlike creature to establish diplomatic credentials and "The Forbidden City" (aka "Retief, War Criminal") has typical hijinx on a decadent planet with Retief saving the day against all odds. No surprise there. "Grime and Punishment" (aka "Clear As Mud") has intelligent aliens for a change, and even the dumb humans aren't entirely hopeless. They have to deal with a planet menaced by mud volcanoes and in the process secure a lucrative trade agreement. In "Dam Nuisance", a parody of North Korea - which is hard to fathom given that it's a parody of a country in the first place - Retief has to rescue Magnan, his superior, who is taken prisoner. He uses clever subterfuges to thwart an alliance by a neutral world with a hostile power in "Trick or Treaty", which is probably the single best Retief story. A Groaci plot to steal a planet from a race of intelligent balloons is foiled, as usual, in "The Forest in the Sky" and a warlike, but not too bright, species must be shown the light in "Truce or Consequences." With the one exception mentioned, these are all very minor stories.
The Long Twilight (1969, aka And Now They Wake) predates the movie Highlander, which Laumer might well have sued for stealing his idea. In the near future, a form of broadcast power is inaugurated which wakens the awareness of two immortals, one of whom is in prison for having killed a man, the other of whom has become an alcoholic drifter. At the same time a peculiar, stationary tornado appears over the ocean. Through flashbacks we learn that the two of them are actually the source of the legend of the rivalry between Thor and Loki, based on a misunderstanding. Both are actually aliens stranded on Earth and, as we eventually learn, both are reasonably nice guys. The power station refuses to allow itself to be shutdown and all the humans stationed there are killed by excessive heat and some kind of force field, while the tornado spawns a storm that threatens the eastern half of North America. The misunderstanding between them was contrived by a sentient warship that considers itself their masters rather than their servant, and it is only when they destroy the ship - and thus lose their immortality - that they can be free and the Earth saved. Atypically for a Laumer novel, the chief protagonist dies on the last page. This was far and away Laumer's best novel to date.
The House in November (1970, aka Seeds of Gonyl) is also quite good until the halfway mark, despite some familiar faults, and suggests that Laumer began to care more about the quality of his writing during this period. Jeff Mallory wakes up to discover that three months of his life are missing. His town is enclosed by a metal wall, there's an enormous tower just beyond, and one of his daughters is missing. His wife and children don't remember the missing girl, and the door to her room has been plastered over. He finds dead people scattered through the town, lying where they fell, and the rest of the population is clearly brainwashed, working every day in an installation on work they cannot describe. Creatures that look vaguely but not convincingly human can also be seen overseeing things. Obviously it's some kind of alien invasion and for some reason his conditioning has worn off. He escapes the town and discovers that the people surrounding it believe the country has been conquered by the Russians. They discount his story of aliens as a paranoid fantasy. When he finally finds the army, a Russian-American alliance, they are similarly deluded, believing the Chinese have invaded. Each population he encounters is subject to a different form of brainwashing, but for what purpose? Continuing the episodic nature of the story, Mallory next encounters a group that believes that Satan and imps are responsible. There are also a handful of small coincidences that help him along, but they're not as outrageous as in some of the earlier novels. Then everything falls apart in the second half. We are told that the entire population of the world was wiped out by the invading aliens - who are a mass mind virus - except the people in the town where Mallory lived. This contradicts the existence of the other groups he encounters, which Laumer never explains. We also have to believe that except for the people in town, all of these other groups actually believe the nonsense they have been spouting despite clear evidence to the contrary. Mallory turns out to be descended from one of two alien guardians planted on Earth to watch for just such an invasion. How coincidental that he was in the only town spared, but why did his subconscious trigger not throw off the conditioning until it was almost too late to stop the aliens? Fortunately, the base for the good aliens is within walking distance from town - another astounding coincidence - and after disposing of the guardian who has gone bad, Mallory discusses he has super mental powers, can control humans, and can stop the aliens from sporing. If the good aliens could do this, why is their usual response to sterilize the planet? Why would the communications equipment require that both guardians cooperate to use it when it's purpose was to report a crisis - like the death of one of the guardians? It's back to the lazy Laumer here, rushing through an unconvincing ending after a series of space filling adventures.
It's Lafayette O'Leary again in The World Shuffler (1970). For someone who was traveled between realities, he's awfully slow on the uptake when the palace where he leaves is suddenly deserted, slightly rearranged, and everyone he knows has forgotten him and has led a different life. With the woman he thinks of as a princess, though she's now a barmaid, he sets off on a series of the usual anecdotal and rather silly adventures. He's taken prisoner by shifty sailors, locked up for crimes he didn't commit, and threatened with mayhem everywhere he turns. The problem with this kind of humor is that it wears thin very quickly. The jokes are obvious, and not very funny, and the silly names get irritating after a while. We all know that O'Leary is going to get back to his own reality line eventually, so there's no tension to the plot, and in fact there's not a whole lot of plot, just our hero going from one crisis to the next, each of which is virtually unrelated to the others. These were undoubtedly easy books to churn out, but far below the standards of his best work. Unfortunately, the bulk of his fiction falls into that category.
Time Trap (1970) opens with a series of time anomalies, people either displaced in time or caught in loops so that they repeat an endless cycle, even though they are aware that they've done things before. The story then moves to Roger Tyson, down on his luck, who stumbles into the middle of a cross temporal battle. The potentially interesting story is undermined by Laumer's propensity for silliness very early. The usual episodic formula follows as he crosses from one time to another, dodging cave men, German artillery, and tentacled aliens. It turns out that they're all caught in a kind of multi-dimensional slide show whose owner is about to discard it, killing everyone inside as well as the entire planet Earth, because of the alien infestation. Tyson has to thwart the aliens and convince the builder, a computer, to let the inhabitants survive. Relentless nonsense.
Deadfall (1971, filmed and re-released as Fat Chance, and then the movie was renamed Peeper) is an homage to Raymond Chandler. Laumer does a reasonable imitation although his plots and situations are so close to the original that they seem too familiar. The story is a cross between Farewell My Lovely and The Little Sister. Joe Shaw is hired by an ex-crook to find the quasi-daughter he put up for adoption twenty five years earlier. He immediately ties her to a wealthy and influential family, who bought the girl from the real adoptees for some reason. There are also a bunch of thugs after both Shaw and his employer, both of whom get beaten up and knocked around a lot. He flirts with the women, his speech is full of colorful metaphors but rarely polite, and he has no respect for authority. A couple of murders later, he is no wiser about what is actually going on. I had a pretty good idea what was actually going on, and I guessed the surprise revelation - the sister whom we are supposed to believe is the adopted girl is not and she is in fact the killer. This was actually pretty good. Laumer might have missed his calling, but I suspect he found it easier to churn out straightforward SF adventure stories than convoluted mystery novels. The movie was briefly available on DVD.
Although The Star Treasure (1971) also makes use of coincidence, it is less intrusive and for the most part this is a pretty good novel. The protagonist discovers that the secret police are in command of the space navy in a future in which the solar system has been explored, but he thinks it's just a local mutiny. Circumstances force him to escape back to Earth where he undergoes trials and tribulations, is pursued as a deserter and aided by an underground group he thinks are criminally insane, and eventually reaches the authorities, who promptly send him to a prison planet after convicting him of most of the crimes of which he was accused. There he makes a place for himself and, despite having been railroaded by the authorities, refuses to join the rebels. So he's hunted by both sides on an inhospitable planet. There is some political discussion, mostly about the tendency of rebels to replace one oligarchy or dictatorship with another rather than actually improve things. The end, alas, falls apart. He encounters aliens living secretly in the caves, aliens who give him a mental ability that allows him, in a few pages, to disarm the entire fleet and bring the secret rulers of Earth to their knees. Sad ending to a promising start.
Dinosaur Beach (1971) is an expansion of the shorter version, "The Time Sweepers." The protagonist is a time agent whose job is to prevent unauthorized tampering with history, a familiar and respected SF theme. Laumer's theory of time travel in this one is original, if not very sensible. The powers that be employ robotic men to change things in the past because since they're not alive, their activities cannot change the timestream. No, it doesn't make any sense to me either. Our hero goes from one crisis to another, largely without any act of volition of his own. Eventually he runs into a female agent, similarly stranded, although she may be from an alternate timeline. Female characters rarely have much to do in Laumer novels and this one is no exception although the chauvinism is relatively mild. This is one of Laumer's most disappointing books because it's quite well written up until the final third, during which he transforms into A.E. van Vogt with lots of mumbo jumbo about time travel theory that just fills space and a rapid succession of revelations about higher and higher orders of civilization intervening in the past, the collapse of the universe, the discovery that the protagonist is an agent within an agent within an agent, and a few other odds and ends that turn it into an elaborate and unsatisfactory mishmash.
Retief of the CDT (1971) is another collection. They follow the same pattern as the earlier Retief adventures. "Ballots and Bandits" isn't bad. A planet newly freed from domination by the Groaci is having its first free elections, and Retief ends up as a candidate. "Mechanical Advantage" (aka "Retief, Long Awaited Master") is awful, however. Humans and Groaci quarrel over an apparently empty world in such an illogical manner that the story devolves into nonsense. Someone steals an entire building meant to impress the locals in "Pime Doesn't Cray", which is average. "Internal Affairs" is better. A missing ambassador leads Retief to a gigantic intelligent creature who communicates with others by swallowing them. Finally, Retief has to mediate an end to an interplanetary war in the mediocre "The Piecemakers". A typical Retief collection varying from lightly amusing to annoyingly simpleminded. Retief's Ransom (1971) is more of the same except at greater length, set on a planet where the dominant species is a kind of gestalt of individual organs, limbs, etc. It's mildly amusing.
Lafayette O'Leary returns for a third adventure in The Shape Changer (1972). He was previously confined to a single timeline but an old friend stumbles across some forbidden technology which O'Leary accidentally activates. He promptly finds himself in the unfamiliar body of a thief in a world very similar to the one he remembers, and is soon on the run from both the authorities and the tribe of thieves of whom he appears to be a member. There's also a jilted bride fond of knives and a thug even fonder of them, both with grudges against our hero. In flight, he stumbles upon another cave with another piece of forbidden technology and wakes up a mysterious man named Lom, who steals and apparently uses the device because O'Leary now finds himself in the body of a winged man capable of flight. And so it goes from that point on, with O'Leary traveling back and forth among bodies/realities until Laumer reached his desired word count and tacks on a hasty and unconvincing ending. This one is even sillier than the first and approaches being unreadable.
Night of Delusions (1972) is more serious but no less chaotic. The protagonist agrees to be bodyguard for a high ranking politician who appears to have lost his mind. They want him to play along with the man's delusions - which involve aliens secretly invading Earth - hoping to shock him back to reality. Or are they actually trying to assassinate him? Neither explanation makes any sense within the context of the story. But our hero also begins to suffer multiple conflicting views of reality, suggesting that he might be the victim rather than the man he is supposed to be protecting. Just what is real and what is not? Every time he thinks he's beginning to understand, he finds himself back at an earlier point in the narrative, with his memories intact, but those of everyone else have been changed, including a woman who is variously a stranger, a friend, and his wife. Eventually he awakens in a laboratory where he is told that he was part of an experiment, but little more, and he still doesn't remember his past. Broke, he encounters the woman from his dream and then discovers that the laboratory has disappeared, suggesting that perhaps this is still not the real world. A long succession of alternate realities and alternate explanations follow and at the end we still don't know what the "true" story is. The device works for a while but by the end of the novel it has worn thin.
The Infinite Cage (1972) is surprisingly good given the monotony of the previous several books. It even has a fairly complex plot and the characterizations are much better done than in almost anything else he has written. The protagonist is a thirty year old man who spent his entire life in an institution because he cannot speak or function. He escapes at that point and we discover that he is a natural telepath who has long been overwhelmed by all the voices he hears. After a period during which he assumes himself to be each of several other people based on this contact, he begins to acquire sufficient knowledge and skills to get by in the world, although he never seems quite normal. His superhuman powers don't always work to his benefit, however, and toward the end of the book he has lost his fortune, his "friends", and one leg. The conclusion is a bit of a muddle as he develops the power to regenerate the lost leg and cure his other problems, but then splits into two entities, one roughly human, the other a transcendent being that travels to the stars. Despite the unsatisfactory ending, this is an excellent novel and one that I would not have expected from the author of the Retief stories.
Time Tracks (1972) and The Big Show (1972) are both collection. The first opens with "The Timesweepers", which was expanded into the 1971 novel Dinosaur Beach. It's followed with a humorous fantasy, "The Devil You Don't," in which Lucifer comes to Earth to seek help in repelling an invasion by alien demons who have infiltrated hell. It's minor but a lot funnier than most of Laumer's other efforts at comedy. "Mind Out of Time" is about an experimental star drive that allows people to somehow project themselves into alternate realities. The explanation makes little sense. "The Time Thieves" was collected earlier as "The Star-Sent Knaves" and "The Other Sky" is also a repeat. The Big Show includes no previously collected stories, but it's pretty minor. The collection opens with "In the Queue." It's atypical of Laumer, a satire about people standing in line for fifty years or so to have their papers processed, after which their lives are so empty that some of them get back in line. "A Relic of War" is a Bolo story. An aging machine adopted as a town mascot stirs to life when an old enemy killing machine is reactivated. It's a pretty good story, in fact, the best in the collection. "The Big Show" is a satire of television addiction and goes from humorous to silly way too soon. "Message to an Alien" has a single righteous man proving that the softies in the government who wanted to make peace with an alien enemy are wrong. The story is related to the novel The Glory Game. "The Plague" is a didactic political diatribe against do-gooders who force a landowner to accommodate a hoard of homeless people. It's designed to prove the author's contention with little regard for what might actually happen in such a case. "Test to Destruction" is a murky tale of a dictatorship on Earth that is overthrown by a man aided by alien powers, which ultimately corrupt him as well.
The Glory Game (1973) is a prequel to and includes the short story, "Message to an Alien." It's one of Laumer's better written novels in many ways, but it's also a socio-political diatribe. It opens with Dalton, a maverick officer in the human space navy, explaining why it is okay for humans to exploit races technologically inferior to humanity, against the backdrop of an imminent war with the alien Hukks. Laumer then sets up his paper tiger. The softliners have decreed that the human fleet cannot fire upon the Hukks even if the latter attack them. This is such a ridiculous premise that it invalidates much of what follows. Dalton is secretly told that he might destroyed a few Hukks in the event of an attack if he does so before the admiral can order him not to fire. But the softliners also secretly give him orders authorizing him to relieve the admiral in order to anticipate an expected mutiny by hardliners. During the maneuver, Dalton detects a genuine attack aimed at Earth's moon, relieves the admiral, and initiates action against the Hukks. Laumer is balanced, however, and the hardliners are depicted as dishonorable, duplicitous, and cruel. After the surrender of the Hukk fleet, he derails a plan to annihilate the now virtually defenseless ships. Dalton is drummed out of the service after alienating both sides, but then saves the day again by preventing the invasion of a colony world. There's an attempt to balance viewpoints in this one, which is rare in military SF.
The Undefeated (1974) and Retief: Emissary to the Stars (1975) are both collections. The first repeats three stories from earlier collections and only the fourth story, "Worldmaster" is new, while all four of the Retief stories are previously uncollected. It's one of Laumer's better stories. In the aftermath of a major conventional war, a military commander decides to assume control of all of Earth, but after being opposed by one of his subordinates in a series of skirmishes, he realizes that he was acting unwisely and sabotages his own plot. The Retief formula is very outworn in these. "The Hoob Melon Crisis" has humans and Groaci contesting an uninhabited planet, with widespread stupidity on both sides. "The Garbage Invasion" is very similarly, with the conflict this time involving whether or not it is okay for the Groaci to dump their garbage on another uninhabited world. "The Troubleshooter" and "The Negotiators" both involve thwarting Groaci takeover plans. I suspect that Laumer himself was getting tired of this series by now.
The Best of Keith Laumer (1976) and Bolo (1976) only collected three new stories between them. "Lawgiver" is a relatively even handed look at the battle between birth control and overpopulation, presenting arguments from both sides, and showing its impact on a politician who must decide whether or not to compromise his beliefs when he discovers his son has fathered a child about to be born illegally. "Field Test" involves a new model Bolo fighting machine that sacrifices itself in battle for the sake of honor. "The Last Command" is also a Bolo story. A pair of humans have to convince it that its perception of the situation is incorrect, while the Bolo is convinced that they are actually enemy agents seeking to subvert its purpose.
The Ultimax Man (1972) was a pivotal point in Laumer's career because he experienced a debilitating stroke while writing it which resulted in physical and behavioral changes. The protagonist is a small time crook who is kidnapped by an alien who has been observing humans for centuries. In his hidden base, he begins to train his prisoner in every field of human endeavor, intellectual and physical, in order to test our racial potential and decide how humans should be approached by the rest of the universe. Except he isn't telling the whole truth, and the human does some sneaking around in forbidden knowledge as well. It starts off pretty well but Laumer can't resist the temptation to be silly. Eventually the human turns the tables on the alien, steals a ship and sets off to explore the galaxy, although he is quickly made a prisoner again. After several sometimes confusing adventures, we learn that the aliens have been manipulating the human race for millennia, that there are superbeings on other worlds, but that none of them are able to stand up to a determined and aware human being. Trivial.
Star Colony (1981) was supposed to be the first volume of a series, but the project never got beyond the first book. It's clumsy and awkward right from the outset, with a sort of crashlanding, tensions among the crew and colonists, and a secret alien observer having witnessed their arrival on what we but not the colonists know is an inhabited world. Eventually the humans meet the aliens, who are the most interesting part of the novel, but unfortunately not the real focus. The dialogue is stilted and the narrative disjointed and occasionally confusing. This was Laumer's longest novel, and quite possibly his least interesting one. The characters are almost all interchangeable and they act in such an odd fashion that it's impossible to identify with them. Nor does Laumer make any real effort to show us the new planet. I was immensely disappointed when this first appeared, and it fares no better upon rereading.
Chrestomathy (1984) and Once There Was a Giant (1984) are both oddities. The first one consists almost entirely of excerpts from previously published novels, plus two short stories, one of which had not been previously collected. "Birthday Party" is a very short piece in which the human life span is extended to five thousand years, but infancy is also multiplied by ten. The title story of the second book is a short novel that makes up half of the contents. It is one of Laumer's older stories involving a professional assassin coerced into arranging the death of the owner and sole inhabitant of a potentially valuable planet. His plan is to involve his target in a dangerous cross country journey during which he will hopefully die of natural causes, but during the course of their travels, he finds himself bonding to the strange man, who stands over ten feet tall. The second story is "No Ship Boots in Fairyland," which has a 1984 copyright but which is actually "The Other Sky" with a new title. It might possibly be revised but it was not worth checking.
The Galaxy Builder (1984) is a Lafayette O'Leary story. The plot is a rehash of the earlier ones. Reality changes again and our hero has to find his way back to the world where he is happily married. The writing this time is more like the old Laumer, as is the plot which moves from one episode to the next. The characters resemble the unsophisticated comic aliens from the Retief stories and the humor is much the same, based on silly accidents, dumb misunderstandings, and convenient coincidences. He is promptly sentenced to death for a crime he doesn't recall having committed, which supposedly caused a discontinuity in space and time. He's into and out of dungeons regularly as he tries to figure out what happened and change things back to the way they were previously. Half way through, O'Leary realizes that the ongoing changes are not random, that he is being manipulated by person or persons unknown. A variety of nonsense follows before he traces the people responsible and, after apparently being separated from the reality he seeks forever, is finally reinstated.
Laumer returned to familiar ground with Retief to the Rescue (1983) and The Return of Retief (1984), both very much in the style of the earlier stories. Since these were never among Laumer's more ambitious efforts, the two new novels are rather disappointing. In the first, Retief is caught between the Creepies and the Crawlies, two subsets of a local native species involved in a rather peculiar war which seems to target Terran embassy officials rather more than could be pure chance. The Groaci are around to stir things up as well, but in a very subsidiary way. The second one is much less interesting. Another alien race begins to encroach on human space and naturally the diplomatic corpse is incompetent and seems likely to aid the invaders rather than the humans, until Retief singlehandedly finds a way to turn the tide against the bad guys. Simple minded and boring even for a Retief story.
End As a Hero (1985) is an expansion of the short story of the same name. Humans are at war with the alien Gool, who use their telepathic powers to implant hallucinations in the minds of the crew of Terran ships, leading to mutiny, assassination, and general chaos. The protagonist not only survives one of these attacks but the contact enables him to learn the secret of telepathic spying and he is therefore able to discover the Gool secrets and the methods by which they can be defeated. Unfortunately, it is known that he was in contact with them and since no one else has managed to survive with an intact mind, the authorities on Earth believe that he is a saboteur and decide to kill him rather than listen to him. Not bad, but not much addition to the original story. As a result, it feels like the sketch of a novel rather than the completed item.
Rogue Bolo (1986) is almost an epistolary novel, consisting of very short fragments of conversations, news reports, and thought streams mixed with more conventional narrative. The Mark XXX bolo is self aware and self programming and very controversial because it is virtually unstoppable. Why a unified world government would build one is never really explained, but it promptly begins acting outside the parameters expected by its creators. This is because it is able to perceive threats invisible to human eyes, including terrorists and a hostile alien force lurking on the outskirts of the solar system. It reads like a self published novel, awkward, badly plotted, poorly thought out, and ultimately dull. It is a shame that Laumer's reputation now rests primarily on the Bolo and Retief stories, which are usually his least notable fiction.
Retief and the Pangalactic Pageant of Pulchritude (1986, an expansion of Retief's Ransom) and Reward for Retief (1989) are both negligible. Added to the original story in the first is Retief's stint as judge at an interstellar beauty pageant and the consequences thereof. The second is entirely new but says nothing new. Retief is assigned to a planet of intelligent caterpillars who are clearly anti-Terran and clearly plotting something nefarious. Laumer moves this series toward the Lafayette O'Leary universe by creating a nexus of alternate worlds in which our hero finds himself temporarily lost until, naturally, he solves all the problems, outsmarts the natives, but is given no credit by his superiors. This is the worst of the Retief novels and Laumer's worst novel since Catastrophe Planet.
Retief returns in Retief in the Ruins (1986), which follows the usual pattern. The bulk of the book consists of the title novella, in which humans and Groaci are contending for the technical secrets of an alien race which is in serious decline but which once was a dominating force in the galaxy. As usual, Retief works around his bumbling superiors and solves the problem on his own terms. There are two long stories included, both also featuring Retief. "There Is a Tide" is quite similar, revolving around a plan to develop the ecology of another contested planet. The third story is "The Woomy." This time the Groaci are trying to tie up the timber export business on a forest planet, but Retief foils them once again. Nothing memorable in any of these three.
The Stars Must Wait (1990) follows the adventures of a space pilot who awakens from an inadvertent one hundred year suspended animation to find himself in a future where Bolos, quasi-intelligent tanks, have begun to experience malfunctions. It's a massive rewrite and expansion of "Night of the Trolls". The hero discovers that Earth has descended into a feudal state and a local baron is using the threat of a bolo to keep the locals in line. He upsets the order of things, removes the bolo threat, and overthrows the baron after overcoming a variety of difficulties. One of the best of his latest novels, although obviously a retread of ideas he developed years earlier. Zone Yellow (1990) is an Imperium novel featuring Brion Bayard. This series had gone steadily downhill from the outset and this one hits bottom. Bayard has to find the timeline of origin of a race of intelligent rats who are invading the other realities and spreading a deadly plague. Although the background resembles the earlier novels, the tone is very different and Bayard doesn't seem like the same person at all.
Judson's Eden (1991), Back to the Time Trap (1992), and Retief and the Rascals (1993) were Laumer's final three novels. The first one is a standalone that has a clever concept and deals with is reasonably well. A wealthy man flees from the rapacious government of Earth but crashes on a planet where time doesn't work in the same linear fashion as it does elsewhere in the universe. Eventually he begins to understand at least part of the laws of nature there, enough that he is able to take advantage of them when the evil government people track him down. The cardboard characters detract from what might otherwise have been a considerably better book. Back to the Time Trap is the second and final adventure of Roger Tyson. Two alien races with godlike powers are battling to control all of space and time and Tyson gets caught in the middle for a wave of sometimes amusing anomalies and dilemmas. A little too silly at times for my taste but not awful. The final Retief novel is also okay but it offers absolutely nothing new and simply retreads the same battle with the Groaci for influence with stupid alien indigenes plot that Laumer had already used a score or more times previously.
The last few collections have a handful of previously uncollected stories. In The Long Twilight and Other Stories (2008) there is "The Half Man." It's a more serious story than most of Laumer's others. In a future when humans have altered their own DNA to diversify and populate otherwise unwelcoming worlds, a half breed finds his destiny on a world where humans have reverted to living underwater. "Of Death What Dreams" can be found in A Plague of Demons & Other Stories (2003). It's a dystopian story that ends with alien contact, and is written with dialogue using lots of innovative idioms that actually get a little annoying eventually, although the story is otherwise not bad at all. "The Secret", in Retief: Diplomat at Arms (1982) is a standard and minor Retief story. "Three Blind Mice" is in Legions of Space (2004). Three humans crash on an ice world where snow blindness is the order of the day, pursued by inimical aliens who want to kill any human who observes one of their ships. This is one of Laumer's better short pieces. There are two stories in Alien Minds (1991). "Reverse English" is a very short extended gimmick story about outsmarting a rogue computer. "The Propitiation of Brullamagoo" is a novelette that can best be described as a Retief story without Retief. Silly and minor.
There are several Laumer stories that remain uncollected as of this writing. Probably the most interesting of these is "Diplomat-at-Arms", the very first Retief story from January 1956 Fantastic, which is totally different from all of those which followed. Retief is an old man, his superior, Magnan, is reasonable, there is no mention of the Groaci, and no humor at all. "Street Scene" is a humorous piece written in collaboration with Harlan Ellison which opens with an impossibly large pteranodon crashing into a city street. I recommend reading this in Ellison's collection Partners in Wonder because there are two different endings and this is the only place where both are provided. The remaining stories are all very minor. "The Choice" (July 1969 Analog) is a mildly humorous piece about space explorers taken captive by a superintelligent artifact. "The Soul Buyer" (December 1963 Fantastic) is related to "The Other Sky" in that it involves the secret invasion of Earth by the Niss, although this one is set way before the events in the better known story. "Stranger in Paradox" (August 1961 Fantastic) involves escaping from a prison planet. "Rank Injustice", from New Destinies, is a minor Retief story. Finally we have two related stories that appear together in The Best from If (1973), "The Right to Revolt" and "The Right to Resist." In the first, colonists on a planet run by a corporation rebel rather than accept the imposition of new colonists and the pre-emptive relocations of those already in place. In the second, the rebels have taken over but now face unrest from the people they rule. Both tend to lecture rather than show.
There are a number of other Laumer collections that just reshuffle the stories already mentioned above. These include Retief Unbound (1979), Retief at Large (1978), Knight of Delusions (1982), The Complete Bolo (1990), The Lighter Side (2001), Retief! (2001), Odyssey (2002), and Future Imperfect (2003).
Overall, and with a few exceptions, Laumer's work did not live up to my memories of it. His best novel is probably the non-SF detective novel. His tie-ins are among the worst, along with Catastrophe Planet and Star Colony. Nevertheless, it is a shame that he is best remembered for Retief and Bolos, none of which can be placed among his better efforts.