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Laumer, Keith

Entry updated 2 October 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1925-1993) US author, brother of March Laumer, who used his experiences in the US armed forces and Diplomatic Corps to considerable advantage in his sf work. He served in the army 1943-1945, studied architecture and graduated with a BScArch from the University of Illinois in 1952, served in the USAF 1953-1956, and then joined the US Foreign Service. He rejoined the USAF as a captain in 1960. He began publishing sf in April 1959 with "Greylorn" for Amazing, and for more than a decade remained extremely prolific, producing three major series and two minor ones along with a number of independent novels; after 1973, affected by illness, he published more sparingly.

The most interesting of Laumer's series is the Imperium sequence, comprising his first novel, Worlds of the Imperium (February-April 1961 Fantastic; 1962 dos; exp as coll Worlds of the Imperium: Special Bonus Stories "The War Against the Yukks" and "Worldmaster" 1982), The Other Side of Time (April-June 1965 Fantastic; 1965) and Assignment in Nowhere (1968) – the last two assembled as Beyond the Imperium (omni 1981) and all three as Imperium (omni 2005) – and Zone Yellow: An Imperium Novel (1990). The Imperium dominates a temporally-complex nest of Parallel-Worlds universes, and strives in Time Police fashion to maintain the stability of its chosen time-stream. As opposed to the grimmer and perhaps more plausible versions of the same task expressed in novels like Barrington Bayley's The Fall of Chronopolis (1974), Laumer takes an essentially optimistic view of this kind of situation, treating it in a no-nonsense, problem-solving manner. Also related, if only thematically, to the Imperium series is Dinosaur Beach (1971), a tale of Time Paradoxes and Changewar in which a role similar to that of the Imperium is played by Nexx Central and various other competing Time Police organizations. A second series, the Parallel-Worlds comic novels featuring Lafayette O'LearyThe Time Bender (November 1965-January 1966 Fantastic as "Axe and Dragon"; exp 1966), The World Shuffler (1970), The Shape Changer (December 1970-January 1971 Fantastic; 1972) and The Galaxy Builder (1984) – attempts to replay a similar scenario in terms of slapstick, with only moderate success.

Laumer's other major series depicts the adventures of interstellar diplomatic troubleshooter Jaime Retief on a variety of Alien worlds: Envoy to New Worlds (coll 1963; exp vt Retief: Envoy to New Worlds 1987), Galactic Diplomat: Nine Incidents of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (coll 1965) and Retief's War (October-December 1965 If; 1966), all assembled as Retief! (omni 1993); Retief and the Warlords (1968), Retief: Ambassador to Space: Seven Incidents of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (coll 1969), Retief of the CDT (coll 1971), Retief's Ransom (1971; with new title story added to make coll, rev vt Retief and the Pangalactic Pageant of Pulchritude 1986), Retief: Emissary to the Stars (1975; exp 1979), Retief: Diplomat at Arms (coll 1982), Retief to the Rescue (1983), The Return of Retief (1984), Retief in the Ruins (coll 1986), Reward for Retief (1989) and Retief and the Rascals (1993). Retief's unchanging role is to mediate between the residents of Alien worlds, some of them nefarious, and his bumbling superiors in the Terran Diplomatic Corps, and to solve various sticky problems, almost all couched in comic terms, sometimes amusingly. The decline of Laumer's creative powers can be detected in later volumes of this series. Here as elsewhere, his bibliography is tangled; putting aside titles which partially replicate earlier titles, Retief collections assembled entirely from earlier volumes include Retief at Large (coll 1978) and Retief Unbound (omni 1979) [see Checklist for further details]. Retief! (coll 2002), not to be confused with the omni listed above, usefully presents Retief's career in chronological order. A Comics adaptation of six of the stories is Keith Laumer's Retief (December 1989-October 1990 Adventure Comics), written by Bruce Balfour.

Thematically associated with singletons like A Plague of Demons (1965) (see below) are the Bolo books, which are Military SFBolo: The Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade (coll of linked stories with new linking material 1976) and Rogue Bolo (coll of linked stories 1986), both assembled as The Compleat Bolo (omni 1990), plus the weak The Stars Must Wait (1990) – which recount the long history of a military unit of constantly upgraded sentient tanks (see Weapons); so extended is their history of loyalty to a long-vanished imperium that a sense of Time Abyss can occasionally be felt (see Sense of Wonder).

Laumer's singletons are varied, ranging from broad Humour like The Monitors (1966), filmed as The Monitors in 1969, to taut, efficient sf thrillers whose structures amalgamate Space Opera and the favourite sf theme of the coming to awareness of the Superman. The best of them is probably A Plague of Demons (November-December 1964 If; 1965), in which a tough human is biologically engineered into an indomitable fighting machine so that he can deal with a threat to Earth, and finds – after a long, remarkably sustained chase sequence ending in his capture by some singularly efficient Aliens – that for centuries Earth has been being despoiled of its best fighting men, who, like himself, have been taken off-planet and surgically transformed into command centres for gigantic, armed fighting machines embroiled in an aeons-long interstellar war. In this Mecha or Cyborg form, he regains autonomy, organizes a revolt of his fellow cyborg-supertanks and prepares to carry – fabulously armed – his message of freedom to the stars.

In A Plague of Demons, and in other novels such as A Trace of Memory (July-September 1962 Amazing as "The Hounds of Hell"; 1963), Catastrophe Planet (1966) [for revs see Checklist], which is a Dystopia, The Long Twilight (1969), The House in November (October-December 1969 If as "The Seeds of Gonyl"; 1970) [for rev see Checklist], Dinosaur Beach and The Infinite Cage (1972), the essential Laumer Superman takes shape: often an orphan, usually a loner, sometimes a victim of Amnesia, he discovers the world to be a persecuting snare and delusion, and gradually comes to realize that his Paranoia is justified, for his frustrated human competence is no more than a cloak disguising his true – at times godlike – superiority. In A Trace of Memory, he proves to be a rationalized King Arthur [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Once he has become a superman he is able to transcend the world of normals, and often takes that world over, though behind the scenes. It is for novels in which this wish-fulfilment version of the superman is expressed that Laumer will be best remembered, though his tendency to repeat earlier inspirations in slackened form damaged his later efforts even in this favourite mode; books such as The Ultimax Man (September-October 1977 Analog as "The Wonderful Secret"; exp 1978) or End as a Hero (1985) are significantly weak by comparison with early work. But at his best Laumer wrote polished and succinct daydreams of sf transcendence that served as models of their kind. [JC]

see also: Alternate History; Gamebook; Gods and Demons; Hive Minds; Identity Transfer; Invasion; Panspermia; Psi Powers; Psychology; Robert Hale Limited; Time Loop; Time Opera.

John Keith Laumer

born Syracuse, New York: 9 June 1925

died Brooksville, Florida: 23 January 1993





Lafayette O'Leary


Time Trap

individual titles

Later expansions of single novels into collections are listed here.





works as editor

about the author


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