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by Joel Rosenberg

During a time when some major writer first makes his—or, rarely, her—splash in SF, like some star flaring suddenly into a nova, there's an understandable tendency to let your eyes get dazzled by that, and not quite see the other stars that burn, stably if not nearly so visibly, year after year.

Or, to try analogy instead of metaphor—the field is created not just by the work of the master, but by the journeyman, as well.

Like, say, Keith Laumer, one of the great journeyman writers of the field, although that's sometimes hard to remember. The Retief stories have made such a strong impact and provided so many good catch-phrases ("I thought the nuances were the best part" is my own favorite) that it's sometimes easy to forget the other stories, and when people think of other Laumer stories, all too often, they're thinking of the Bolo stories, and stopping there.

Which is a shame. Those less well-known stories are a whole lot of fun, in fact, and well worth the bother. Sure; looking back in time, the early sixties are much more marked by Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High Castle, Glory Road and Dune than A Trace of Memory—but that's not the point; the workmanlike Laumer story is still a fun ride more than forty years later.

You'll see some of the same things over and over again, and frankly, some of them can be annoying—like the always-similar tough-guy talk, which does wear pretty thin on early twenty-first-century ears. But more, you'll see the details—Laumer was always obsessed with the details of how things are done, whether it's climbing a wall, or escaping from being entombed. And if Heinlein had his Competent Man, and Poul Anderson his Man Who Counts, Laumer has his Guy Who Gets Things Done, and it's always fun to watch that theme get played out, over and over again, in all sorts of different variations.

Like these stories.

Oh, they're not without flaws. There's a few things just plain wrong with A Trace of Memory, for example. It's really just too much story for a 66,000-word novel, for one, and, geez, having a character "My Name is Legion," when it turns out that, well, that's just the character's name? There's a few more flaws that I'm sure are there, but can't quite name.

Flaws and all, and it's classic Laumer: a character who, once started, just won't give up, even when he's not always sure what it is that he's refusing to give up, and it's about time it got back into print for a whole new generation or two who missed it the first time.

Without giving anything away, I think that I know the old joke that Laumer was working from in writing "The Choice"—and it's not a bad joke. Just light, although there's some echoes of the minor characters in the Retief stories, who just can't think things through.

"Three Blind Mice," "Mind Out of Time," and "Message to an Alien" are all worth reading, as classic Laumer—and if you think that the latter story doesn't have some implications for modern politics, think again. Please think again.

The real gem, though, in this collection is Planet Run, written with Gordy Dickson. It's hard to say enough good about this one; it's got both Laumer's and Gordy's strengths, but blended so seamlessly that it's just about impossible to say who wrote what. I would have thought that the Kipling reference was Gordy's, but I have it on the best authority that bringing it in was Laumer's idea; Gordy and I discussed the story over lunch one day.

When people write the history of science fiction, they understandably tend to focus on the novas and supernovas of the field—Heinlein, Doc Smith, Niven & Pournelle, Varley, Gibson, and Vinge. And that's understandable.

For me, there's lots to be learned and a lot of fun to be had from going back and spending an afternoon with an accomplished journeyman writer like Keith Laumer, and I'm glad I did.

You'll be glad, too. Enjoy.

—Joel Rosenberg

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