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Discerning people have always read Keith Laumer for a lot of reasons, and I am delighted that Baen Books is making his works available to be read yet again.

As David Drake pointed out in the preface to the first volume in this series, those with some knowledge of Laumer's life (and of history) can appreciate the telling accuracy of his trenchant, experience-based observations of the lunacies of real-world diplomacy in the Retief novels. Regarded by many, perhaps even most, of his readers as the crown jewels of his literary legacy, the Retief stories used frequently devastating humor to underscore the not particularly humorous dilemma of a tough-minded, principled pragmatist trapped on the far side of the Looking Glass. And as the best satire always is, they were teaching tools, as well.

Along with the humor, however, Retief communicated something else which was common to all of Laumer's work. In addition to his highly capable pragmatism, his realism, or even his occasional cynicism, Retief, like Poul Anderson's Flandry, embodied the other qualities which Laumer obviously believed were the true measure of a human being: self-reliance, unswerving devotion to one's principles (however unfashionable those principles might be, or however uncomfortable one might be admitting that one held them), and gallantry. Always gallantry.

Something which is overlooked almost as often as the sheer scope of Laumer's work, is the spare, clean prose style and muscular storytelling technique which he shared with those other high prophets of human capability, H. Beam Piper and Robert Heinlein. There was a seeming simplicity to the way he wove his tales, coupled with a very real, often first-person colloquialism, which both moved events rapidly and deceived the eye into missing the complexity of what he had to tell us. Characterization in a Laumer story flows so simply and so naturally that its depths creep up upon us almost unnoticed. Yet it is the vibrancy of the characters which truly holds us, and when the final word is read, the reader comes away with both a sense of completion and a desire for the tale to go on . . . forever, if possible.

In my own opinion, that result stems not simply, or even primarily, from his undoubted skill as a literary craftsman so much as from his ability to touch the innermost chords of what makes all of us human. Whether it's Retief's biting wit, or Billy Danger's unwavering determination, or the unbreakable gallantry of his Bolos, Laumer's characters not only live and breathe but challenge. He was capable of bleakness and the recognition that triumph was not inevitable, however great one's determination might be, or that power could seduce even the most selfless, as in the case of Steve Dravek in "The Day Before Forever" or the protagonist of the chilling little gem "Test to Destruction" (which is one of my favorite Laumer pieces, despite its darkness). Yet in an era of cynicism and "enlightened" distrust of and even contempt for heroic virtues, Laumer's characters went about the day-to-day business of living up to those virtues with absolutely no sense that doing so made them special in any way. It was simply what responsible human beings did, and the profound simplicity of that concept made Laumer, like Piper, an author who was in many ways an uncomfortable fit in the America of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps that's one reason Retief tended to overshadow other works of his, like Galactic Odyssey, A Plague of Demons, "The Night of the Trolls," Planet Run, and other stories and novels too numerous to mention. Humor and satire were more acceptable techniques for sliding the author's sometimes discomforting precepts into the reader's consciousness, especially when they were wielded so deftly. Yet the very qualities which made Laumer's other characters misfits at the time he wrote are the same qualities which give them their classic timelessness.

At the end of the day, fate hit Keith Laumer with failing health that was a particularly savage blow to a man who had always celebrated human capability and the ability to triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds. It was a final battle which he did not win, yet in its own way, and for all the bitter irony it must have held for the teller of such tales, it could diminish neither the message nor the messenger, because the true essence of the tales Laumer told were actually less about triumph, in the end, than they were about an individual's ironclad responsibility to try. Like his Bolos, or the protagonist of Plague of Demons, who chose to fight his hopeless battle to the death rather than permit his friend to die alone, Keith Laumer believed that the ability to confront challenges and adversities, however extreme and however remote the chance of final victory, were the ultimate measure of a human being. I suppose that's the reason I consider him to have been one of the three or four authors who had the greatest influence upon me throughout my life, as both a reader and a writer.

And it's also the reason that the title of one of the stories in this volume strikes me as a most fitting epitaph for him, because it's true.

"Once There Was a Giant."


David Weber

September, 2001


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