Keith Laumer

A Trace of Memory

A Trace of MemoryA Trace of Memory was first published in novel form in 1963.  It is the second novel by Laumer that I have read. The novel is actually an expanded version of the story that appeared in Amazing Stories in 1962 (July – September). I read a 1984 Tor Books edition with artwork by Bob Layzell.

This novel feels like it is three chunks of story.  I read the first chunk and really enjoyed it. But when the story seemed to transition to the second chunk, I lost interest and the book sat around the house abandoned for awhile. Simply put the direction of the storyline was somewhat disappointing since I was rather impressed and engaged with how that whole first section had gone.

For the sake of clarity, let me suggest that the “first chunk” includes chapters 1 – 7.  The second chunk: chapters 8 – 12.  Finally, the third: chapters 13 – 18.

Now, before I hear complaint, let me explain why I made these divisions.  I do not own the 1962 magazines in order to see just how far the story was published in those.  So, I have no idea what chunk was published there. However, I made these divisions because while, generally, the plot is a whole, I cannot say that it is seamless and fluid.  Honestly, this is a reason why I did not give this novel a four star rating. Though the main character remains the same chap we meet early on, the settings and direction of the story change so much that the novel feels too broken.

The first seven chapters are really good and I was very much engaged in the storyline.  Written as noir/horror with a dose of sarcastic humor thrown in, the story speeds along following two characters meeting in a town called Mayport.  Laumer displays a keen sense of how to write one of those almost-pulp, noir-esque mystery settings.  We meet the main character, Legion, casing a storefront in late evening. A few pages later we meet the mysterious and mannered Foster.  Their fates connect simply because Legion is a fast-talking swindler and Foster is quick-thinker.  Together, though they present a pair of opposites, they actually are somewhat alike in their underlying personalities.

A few chapters in and this novel moves at breakneck pace and the reader will probably have a lot of questions and not get a lot of answers. And Legion is a real whip of a character, so his sarcasm can get over the top at points. However, this is a good solid story.  And then, the plot jumps to three years in the future and I kind of lost a lot of interest in all the stuff in the first part of the book.  Now Legion’s circumstances have changed and, honestly, its gotten to the point where it is difficult to buy into this story.  Here a pseudo-James Bond/ Dr. No situation is set up featuring South America and help from a minor female character. Evasion and escape and government/military intervention. Well, I just did not enjoy this section much at all. Best part of these chapters is that we meet the magnificent Itzenca character. (A darling, swell cat.)

Finally, what I call the third section moves the story very far off planet and across the galaxy. Here the story turns into a sort of feudal-fantasy thing with Legion trying to evade, escape, solve a mystery, rally the troops, and challenge the planet. It gets a bit too swashbuckling here, I think. (Yes, there are sword fights.) But there is a lot of fun and adventure and the writing is not too shabby.  Still, this is far and away from where we started – a noir tale in little Mayport.

So, at the end of this, let us just accept this for what it is.  It is an adventure story with some science fiction elements, that just builds and builds on the level of far-out. It was never meant to be intellectual and ponderous. It does speed along and it does have some audacious moments. Adventure fans will appreciate this one, though it may not be all that alluring to many dedicated science fiction fans.

3 stars

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds – K. Laumer; ACE 1973

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer (1925 – 1993) is the first book in the Retief series. It is also the first item by Laumer that I have read. This collection was published in 1963, but I read the ACE 1973 edition. The cover of my edition is not credited and I find it particularly hideous. Or, it could have been decent, but instead is wretched. The posture or stance or something is totally off. The figure appears to be leaning away…. except his toes are flat on the ground. So its actually that his pants are pulled up over his belly. Its probably just an illusion based on the two colors of green on his legs. In any case, I really hate looking at this cover.

It is, more or less, common knowledge in the vintage science fiction community that Keith Laumer’s Retief series is heavily influenced by Laumer’s time in the United States Foreign Service. I have not researched Laumer to find out what his position was, nor his years of service, etc. In fact, I know very little about the US Foreign Service. I believe they are a department that is in charge of the ground-level interactions in USA foreign policy.

Well, whatever Laumer’s rôle in the Foreign Service, he must have had some diverse and outrageous experiences. He probably had a near limitless supply of stories to tell. The stories collected in Envoy to New Worlds are chock full of sardonic, satirical humor. Clearly, Laumer saw the ridiculousness of many of the situations and scenarios he witnessed/experienced as a member of the Foreign Service.

vintage-sf-badgeThe first story, Protocol, is actually a variant of The Yillian Way, which was a short story originally published in IF magazine in January 1962.  As with all of the stories in this collection, the story is super fast moving.  There is no pondersome droning, no languishing in existential crises, no lengthy blocks of text detailing out the background and history of every aspect of the story.  So, in a way, the only real criticism a reader can have of the writing is that it lacks a certain depth.

On the second page of the book, we are introduced to Jame Retief, Third Secretary in the Corps Diplomatique. We immediately discern that he is just this side of disobedient/insubordinate. Through the rest of the stories, we learn he is a tall, stocky fellow who is great in hand to hand combat and skilled in weapons.  Overall, he is really a space-age James Bond. He is super fun because he comes with loads of initiative, diligence, and wit. My only complaint about this character is that it just is unclear what his motives are. He clearly dislikes the methods and people of the Corps Diplomatique.  Retief is one of those characters that would succeed no matter his career or field. So, really, I want to ask:  why do you do this diplomat stuff?

Introducing himself in the style of the alien culture: (pg. 32)

“Well, let us dine,” the mighty Flapjack said at last, “we can resolve these matters later.  I am called Hoshick of the Mosaic of the Two Dawns.”

“I’m Retief.” Hoshick waited expectantly. “. . . of the Mountain of Red Tape,” Retief added.

I suppose Retief must be, at heart, a good-hearted fellow with the common good truly as his goal, so to speak. In the pursuit of the safety and sanity of the galaxy, he fights both the generally villainous and corrupt people of the galaxy, but also the bureaucratic, ignorant, self-satisfied members of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission.  In other words, he’s a hero who has to work alone, getting no credit, resolving galactic disputes into tidy packages of diplomatic prettiness. He does the dirty work and gets all the blame, none of the credit.

“It’s time you knew,” Retief said. “There’s no phonier business in the galaxy than diplomacy.” – pg. 126

Along the way, Retief meets all kinds of Laumer’s creative – really creative – aliens and alien worlds. (Anyone ever wanting to expand on Retief’s galaxy has a virtual infinite sandbox of awesome ideas waiting for them to play with and develop.)  Each culture is particular and individual and of course their self-interest shows through. Overall, Retief’s resolutions are amicable to all parties – and he generally shows due respect and acceptance for the variety of cultures.

“You are not like other Terrestrials, you are a mad dog.”

“We’ll work out a character sketch of me later. Are they fueled up? You know the procedures here. Did those shuttles just get in, or is that the ready line?”

Retief does seem to have a sort of omniscience. Sometimes, as a reader, you have to just chalk it up to Retief being a diligent worker, a good researcher, having a good memory, or whatever. Maybe its just “off screen” when he has the time to ferret out various scenarios. Nevertheless, this keeps the stories super-fast paced and very lively.  In a lot of ways, these stories are just like reading Dr. No etc., just not Fleming’s writing. And, let me say this:  I like Bond. So, of course, I really enjoyed this collection.

I also like how Retief recognizes the absurdity and corruption of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission and, more often than not, the people involved in it. Nevertheless, he does not really display any aggressive bitterness, jealousy, or vindictiveness. I mean, even I was vexed by the character Miss Meuhl in the story Policy. (I kept thinking, “Boy, if only Retief had a Miss Lemon, he would rule the galaxy!”)

The humor and ridiculousness of the stories is priceless. It is somewhat “expected,” but that does not lessen its funny-level. This is entertaining stuff and anyone who does not appreciate it probably is stuck in an existential crisis with R. W. Emerson or something.  I liked every minute I was reading these stories. Obviously recommended for people who like fun and James Bond, but also fans of Babylon 5.

4 stars