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by David Drake

Keith Laumer was a perfectionist who lived on a two-acre island in the middle of an eighteen-acre Florida lake. He had what is almost certainly the world's largest collection of original bodystyle (that is, 1967-68) Mercury Cougars. (The picture in The Faces of Science Fiction shows him sitting in #44, but he reached that number many years before his death.)

Keep those independently verifiable facts in mind, in case something strikes you as improbable as you read on.

Keith wrote in most of the sub-genres within science fiction. Picking a few off the top of my head, there's alien invasion (The House in November), military SF (the Bolo series), parallel worlds (Worlds of the Imperium), space opera (Galactic Odyssey, one of my all-time favorite SF novels, and one of the very few to have a black hero)—

—And the Retief series, the most remarkable of the lot, because the stories are funny besides being . . . but we'll come to the "besides" later.

The main thing all of Keith's work has in common is its aura of realism. A writer ought to know what he's describing. There are plenty of writers who've seen and done things, but they can't make those things vivid to the reader. You feel the reality of a Laumer story.

And of course, he did have the knowledge. For example, the Bolo series so perfectly captures the awesome power of a tank that I figured the author had served in an armored unit at some point in his varied career. Nope. But part of Keith's World War II training (in what was then the US Army Air Corps) involved lying down in a slit trench while tanks drove over him. Which, when you think about it, is an even better way to come to appreciate tanks than riding inside one.

He also came by the diplomatic background of the Retief stories honestly, having served in the US Foreign Service in the late '50s as vice consul in Burma.

Burma was—and is—a fragment of British imperialism rather than a nation state. The area which the British administered from Rangoon included three major tribal groups, all of whom hated each other even more than they hated the British (after all, they'd known each other longer).

When the British left Burma in 1948, they handed the administration over to the tribe which happened to live in the neighborhood of Rangoon—thereby spawning national resistance movements in both the north and south of the country which continue active to this day. What passes for a Burmese central government is intensely xenophobic and handles internal protest by (for example) machinegunning crowds who are waiting outside hospitals for word on relatives machinegunned during earlier peaceful protests.

It was the practice of the diplomatic community of the time to pretend that Burma was a normal country, civilized according to Western standards. As a matter of fact, the Secretary General of the United Nations then was Burmese. (A similar process goes on today in regard to Iran. About the only people who publicly deny that Iran is civilized are the theocrats who lead Iran.)

The pretense would have been difficult to maintain for those diplomats stationed in Burma who went beyond the social whirl and actually learned something about the country. Of course, most of them didn't get out into the country. The US presence in Burma was just as remarkable as Burma itself.

The United State Foreign Service had gone through reorganizations both before and after World War II, leaving several different types of diplomats coexisting rather uncomfortably. The older and greater in the status, the less awareness of the realities of the modern international community and the greater scorn for pragmatists like Captain Keith Laumer, who'd transferred into the diplomatic service from the Air Force.

What I'm trying to imply with all this is that the incredible byzantine backgrounds of the Retief stories owe as much to Keith's memory as to his imagination.

The humor (sometimes pretty black humor, granted) and realism which pervade the Retief stories are both pretty obvious. Besides those things, the stories are sometimes constructed with very, very sneaky cleverness. I'll give one example (but I won't tell you what the story was).

Analog was always a squeaky-clean magazine (even before it became a deadly dull magazine). But back in the '70s, Analog ran a Retief story in which the native names were what appeared at first glance to be collections of unpronounceable consonants—a science fiction cliché for suggesting alien sounds.

If you looked very carefully, though (and to be quite honest, I didn't, until a linguist friend pointed it out to me) and noted the ways the natives mispronounced English words, it turned out that all those native names were scatological. John Campbell must have been spinning in his grave.

So what you have in your hands are some of the funniest, cleverest, and most (unfortunately) realistic stories ever written about life at the sharp end of international relations. You're about to have fun.

And who knows? You may also learn something that'll make the international news a little easier to understand.

* * *

David Drake


Note: This essay is closely based on one I did for Keith in 1990. I had to change references to Keith to past tense. Nothing about international diplomacy has changed. Unfortunately.



David Drake is a sweet and lovable man who has dogs, cats, a wife, and one son. Among his published works are the Hammer's Slammers series of military science fiction and a number of novels using his background in the classics and his interest in ancient Rome. He has been a fan of Keith Laumer's work since 1959. 


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