One of the most prolific and gifted writers in a very fast field. For science fiction is really where it's at these days. In fact, anyone not writing s.f. is clearly out-of-step. In this arena, Laumer is close to being one of the old-timers (no pun intended despite the theme of this collection). He is, quite simply, very good indeed and one helluva lot of fun to read.
The Timesweepers • (1969) • novelette The Devil You Don't • (1970) • novelette The Time Thieves • (1972) • novelette (aka The Star-Sent Knaves) The Other Sky • (1968) • novella (aka The Further Sky) Mind Out of Time • (1968) • shortstory
John Keith Laumer was an American science fiction author. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, he was an officer in the U.S. Air Force and a U.S. diplomat. His brother March Laumer was also a writer, known for his adult reinterpretations of the Land of Oz (also mentioned in Keith's The Other Side of Time).
Keith Laumer (aka J.K Laumer, J. Keith Laumer) is best known for his Bolo stories and his satirical Retief series. The former chronicles the evolution of juggernaut-sized tanks that eventually become self-aware through the constant improvement resulting from centuries of intermittent warfare against various alien races. The latter deals with the adventures of a cynical spacefaring diplomat who constantly has to overcome the red-tape-infused failures of people with names like Ambassador Grossblunder. The Retief stories were greatly influenced by Laumer's earlier career in the United States Foreign Service. In an interview with Paul Walker of Luna Monthly, Laumer states "I had no shortage of iniquitous memories of the Foreign Service."
Four of his shorter works received Hugo or Nebula Award nominations (one of them, "In the Queue", received nominations for both) and his novel A Plague of Demons was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966.
During the peak years of 1959–1971, Laumer was a prolific science fiction writer, with his novels tending to follow one of two patterns: fast-paced, straight adventures in time and space, with an emphasis on lone-wolf, latent superman protagonists, self-sacrifice and transcendence or, broad comedies, sometimes of the over-the-top variety.
In 1971, Laumer suffered a stroke while working on the novel The Ultimax Man. As a result, he was unable to write for a few years. As he explained in an interview with Charles Platt published in The Dream Makers (1987), he refused to accept the doctors' diagnosis. He came up with an alternative explanation and developed an alternative (and very painful) treatment program. Although he was unable to write in the early 1970s, he had a number of books which were in the pipeline at the time of the stroke published during that time.
In the mid-1970s, Laumer partially recovered from the stroke and resumed writing. However, the quality of his work suffered and his career declined (Piers Anthony, How Precious Was That While, 2002). In later years Laumer also reused scenarios and characters from his earlier works to create "new" books, which some critics felt was to their detriment:
Alas, Retief to the Rescue doesn't seem so much like a new Retief novel, but a kind of Cuisnart mélange of past books.
-- Somtow Sucharitkul (Washington Post, Mar 27, 1983. p. BW11)
His Bolo creations were popular enough that other authors have written standalone science-fiction novels about them.
Laumer was also a model airplane enthusiast, and published two dozen designs between 1956 and 1962 in the U.S. magazines Air Trails, Model Airplane News and Flying Models, as well as the British magazine Aero Modeler. He published one book on the subject, How to Design and Build Flying Models in 1960. His later designs were mostly gas-powered free flight planes, and had a whimsical charm with names to match, like the "Twin Lizzie" and the "Lulla-Bi". His designs are still being revisited, reinvented and built today.
review of Keith Laumer's Timetracks by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - April 11, 2015
This is the 5th bk by Laumer I've read in a row in the last mnth. I started off basically justifying reading them by saying that I'm depressed & they help me get thru the day (better for you than meds, eh?!). Then I started liking his writing again w/ Dinosaur Beach ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6... ) &, dagnabbit all to shit'n'shinola if I didn't like this one even more.
Timetracks is a collection of 5 stories written from 1963 to 1970. The 1st one, "Timesweepers", was the basis for Dinosaur Beach. I've criticized John Brunner (&/or his publishers) by writing "Polymath (1974) is just a slight rewrite of Castaways World (1963) wch was part of an Ace Double." In other words, I expect the worst when I read a novel based on a novella or a short story or vice versa. The rewrites are often just token excuses for a reissue of not much merit. In this case, I'm happy to say that the rewrite is more substantial & I enjoyed reading both the novel & the original story.
Dinosaur Beach is 151pp & "Timesweepers" is 40pp. The difference between them isn't just filler & fluff. In this original story, the main character's name & address are different than in the novel:
""It's vital that I speak with you, Mr. Starv,"" - p 4, "Timesweepers"
""It's vital that I speak to you, Mr. Ravel,"" - p 9, Dinosaur Beach
"brought out a card with an address printed on it: 309 Turkton Place." - p 5, "Timesweepers"
"brought out a card with an address printed on it: 356 Colvin Court." - p 11, Dinosaur Beach
Ok, I realize that that's a completely unimpressive comparison. But, wait!, the changes become more substantial soon thereafter:
""You've made an error," Blackie said, and turned away.
"From the corner of my eye I saw the other half of the team trying a sneak play around left end. I caught him a few yards past the door.
"It was a cold night. Half an inch of snow squeaked under our shoes as he tried to jerk free of the grip I took on his upper arm." - p 7, "Timesweepers"
""You've made an error," Blackie said, and turned away.
""Don't feel bad," I said. "Nobody's perfect. The way I see it—why don't we get together and talk it over—the three of us?"
"That got to him; his head jerked—about a millionth of an inch. He slid off his stool, picked up his hat, My foot touched the cane as he reached for it; it fell with a lot of clatter. I accidentally put a foot on it while picking it up for him. Something made a small crunching sound." - p 12, Dinosaur Beach
Satisfied now? That scene's much more thoroughly developed in the novel. "He leaned sideways quite slowly and hit the floor like a hundred and fifty pounds of heavy machinery." (p 9, "Timesweepers") The "Karge" in "Timesweepers" had gained weight by this point (& lost a letter in his name): "He leaned sideways quite slowly and hit the floor like two hundred pounds of heavy machinery." (p 15, Dinosaur Beach) Maybe 150 lbs wasn't really heavy enuf to qualify as "heavy".
Not only did the Karg gain 50 lbs, but the protagonist gained 50 IQ points: "For a fraction of a second, I had enjoyed an operative IQ which I estimated at a minimum of 250."(p 28, "Timesweepers") "For a fraction of a second, I had enjoyed an operative IQ which I estimated at a minimum of 300."(p 132, Dinosaur Beach) Gee, if I believed in God (I don't) I'd ask IT to rewrite my story so that I'm skinnier at age 61 & ask IT to make a few other improvements. Ok, I'm just showing you that I pay attn (somewhat) when I read but indulge me a little more:
"I was still dizzy from the shock of the transfer. Otherwise I would probably have stayed where I was until I had sorted through the ramifications of this latest development. Instead, I started toward the end of the pier. It was high and wide—about twenty feet from edge to edge, fifteen feet above the water. From the end I could look down on the deck of the pseudo-galleon, snuggled up close against the resilient bumper at the end of the quay." - p 18, "Timesweepers"
"A sense of vertigo that slowly faded; the gradual impingement of sensation: heat, and pressure against my side, a hollow, almost musical soughing and groaning, a sense of lift and fall, a shimmer of light through my eyelids, as from a reflective surface in constant restless movement. I opened my eyes; sunlight was shining on water. I felt the pressure of a plank deck on which I was lying; a pressure that increased, held steady, then dwindled minutely.
"I moved, and groaned at the aches that stabbed at me. I sat up.
"The horizon pivoted to lie flat, dancing in the heat-ripples, sinking out of sight as a rising bulwark of worn and sunbleached wood rose to cut off my view. Above me, the masts, spars, and cordage of a sailing ship thrust up, swaying, against a lush blue sky. Hypnobriefed data popped into focus; I recognized the typical rigging of a sixteenth-century Portuguese galleass." - p 37, Dinosaur Beach
Nice, huh? From pier to sea. If he'd managed to write an epic based on this story the galleass might've been in a storm in outer-space. Since I already knew the gist of "Timesweepers" I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did the following 4 stories.
"The Devil You Don't" is one of those the-devil-as-a-humorously-sympathetic-character stories. Since I think the devil's a fiction, it's always a relief when IT's treated accordingly instead of bending-over-&-spreading-it to the-gospel-according-to-the-biggest-bully.
"Dimpleby put out his hand. "Lucifer, hey? Nothing wrong with that. Means 'Light-bearer.' But it's not a name you run into very often. It takes some gumption to flaunt the old taboos."
""Mr. Lucifer came to fix the lights," Curlene said.
""Ah—not really," the young man said quickly." - p 48
I actually did know a young guy back in the mid 1980s who claimed that his parents named him "Lucifer". But that's another story. In this one, since it's FICTION, there's a nice twist that deviates from the usual mythology:
""But what about?" Dimpleby prompted. "What about Hell?"
""It's about to be invaded," Lucifer said solemnly. "By alien demons from another world."" - p 53
This is somewhat similar to something that I pointed out in Rudy Rucker's Postsingular: "One thing I like about Rucker's work is the way he explains fanciful mythology, angels, eg, by using contemporary General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology (or ideas from other scientific arenas) - even if he is playing fast & loose w/ them." ( "Upping the Nante": https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/... )
""Look, I'd better fill in a little background for you. You see, Hell is actually a superior plane of existence—"
"Curlene choked on her ale in a ladylike way.
""I mean—not superior, but ah, at another level, you understand. Different physical laws, and so on—"
""Dirac levels," Dimpleby said, signaling for refills." - p 54, Timetracks
That, of course, stimulates me to look up "Dirac levels":
"Imaging the two-component nature of Dirac–Landau levels in the topological surface state of Bi2Se3
"Ying-Shuang Fu, M. Kawamura, K. Igarashi, H. Takagi, T. Hanaguri, & T. Sasagawa
"Received 10 February 2014, Accepted 04 August 2014, Published online 14 September 2014
"Massless Dirac electrons in condensed matter are, unlike conventional electrons, described by two-component wavefunctions associated with the spin degrees of freedom in the surface state of topological insulators. Hence, the ability to observe the two-component wavefunction is useful for exploring novel spin phenomena. Here we show that the two-component nature is manifest in Landau levels, the degeneracy of which is lifted by a Coulomb potential. Using spectroscopic-imaging scanning tunnelling microscopy, we visualize energy and spatial structures of Landau levels in Bi2Se3, a prototypical topological insulator. The observed Landau-level splitting and internal structures of Landau orbits are distinct from those in a conventional electron system and are well reproduced by a two-component model Dirac Hamiltonian." - http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/v...
I don't understand that but I love the language. Wish I'd written it in a trance or while indulging some free association of stream-of-consciousness.
""There've always been humans with more than their share of vital energy. Instead of dying, they just switch levels. I have a private theory that there's a certain percentage of , er, individuals in any level who really belong in the next one up—or down. Anyway, Yahway didn't like what he saw. He was always a great one for discipline, getting up early, regular calisthenics—you know. He tried telling these fellows the error of their ways, but they just laughed him off the podium. So he dropped down one more level, which put him here; a much simpler proposition, nothing but a few tribesmen herding goats. Naturally, they were deeply impressed by a few simple miracles."" - pp 55-56
"Lucifer shook his head bemusedly. "Professor, did you ever have one of those days when nothing seemed to go right?"
"Dimpleby pursed his lips. "Hmmm. You mean like having the first flat tire in a year during the worst rainstorm of the year while on your way to the most important meeting of the year?"" - p 56
& THAT gives me a most adequate excuse for quoting myself. From Monday, August 1, 2005 'til Monday, July 31, 2006, I kept a journal of sorts called "POSITIVE". The idea was that I was too negative & I wanted to force myself to pay more attn to positive things that happened to me during each day for a yr. Here's a relevant excerpt:
"Saturday, October 22nd, 2005EV
"Ok, as is sometimes the case here, the day wasn't too promising on the "positive" end: I got a flat riding my bike to work in the cold rain, I fixed it in the rain, I got ANOTHER flat riding home from work in the rain, I tried to fix that one & failed. FORTUNATELY, when I still had 2 miles to walk in the cold rain pushing my bike Katie Doody stopped & offerred a ride. Thank you, Katie!!
"Had a LONG conversation w/ Germaine about things like my relationship w/ the Church of the SubGenius.
"Sunday, October 23rd, 2005EV
"Well! Yesterday I got YET ANOTHER FLAT in the rain so I didn't mention that before because I didn't want to strain TOO MUCH to squeeze something positive out of it but today I got a 4TH FLAT IN 24 HRS & had a stranger offer me a ride while I was trying to fix it yet again! SO, THAT was POSITIVE.
"Then I succeeded in fixing it enuf so it didn't get a flat on the way home from work."
In "The Time Thieves" I had to laugh: A guy gets hired to protect a collection of valuable paintings by staying in the vault w/ them:
"Dan looked around at the gray walls, with shelves stacked to the low ceiling with wrapped paintings. Two three-hundred watt bulbs shed a white glare over the tile floor, a neat white refrigerator, a bunk, an arm-chair, a bookshelf and a small table set with paper plates, plastic utensils and a portable radio—all hastily installed at Kelly's order. Dan opened the refrigerator, looked over the stock of salami, liverwurst, cheese and beer. He opened a loaf of bread, built up a well-filled sandwich, keyed open a can of beer." - pp 78-79
"He finished his sandwich, went to the shelves and pulled down one of the brown paper bundles. Loosening the string binding the package, he slid a painting into view. It was a gaily colored view of an open-air café, with a group of men and women in gay-ninetyish costumes gathered at a table." - p 79
Anyone who works in a museum or archiving knows how ludicrous this is: food and BOOZE in the vault?! To attract insects & cause dangerous drunkenness in the people therein?! Bright lights to cause possible fading?! The guard actually being able to casually handle the art?! Not bloody likely.
""Wait!" Snithian shrilled. "I can make you a rich man, Slane"
""Not by stealing paintings."
""You don't understand. This is more than petty larceny."
""That's right. Those pictures are worth thousands."" - p 108
The reader can tell that this story wasn't written in the late 20th century, it was written in 1963 to be exact. By the time of this review, even painters that this writer considers to be utter hacks of the worst order, in particular Christopher Wool, sell paintings for prices in the millions:
"The final price for Apocalypse Now, including the buyer’s premium paid to Christie’s: $26.4 million. It had appreciated roughly 350,000 percent in 25 years."
& that's 'cheap' compared to some other crap sold the same night at the same auction on November 12, 2013:
"By the end of the night, the auction at Rockefeller Center would make history many times over. As auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen’s hammer fell on lot after lot, the figures posted on the screen behind him were as eyepopping as the works on display. A Francis Bacon triptych set an auction record for any artwork, at $142.4 million. Jeff Koons’s sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange), at $58.4 million, set a high mark for a living artist. An Andy Warhol picture of a Coca-Cola bottle sold for $57.3 million, pushing the overall take that night to $692 million, at the time the biggest single sale of art ever." - http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/...
I find human priorities nauseatingly suspect. As the authors of the above twice-quoted article, Vernon Silver and James Tarmy, point out:
"The same $142.4 million spent on the Bacon triptych at Christie’s would have funded India’s entire Mars orbiter mission—twice. Koons’s Balloon Dog, a 10-foot-tall stainless-steel rendition of a child’s party favor, went for roughly the same amount the White House recently requested to develop an Ebola vaccine."
But who cares about an Ebola vaccine when you can have "Koons’s Balloon Dog, a 10-foot-tall stainless-steel rendition of a child’s party favor"? Think of how happy its resale value will make you feel as yr guys liquify inside you?! But I digress.
"["]I'd like you to act as my agent in the collection of the works."
""Nuts to you!" Dan said. "I'm not helping any bunch of skinheads commit robbery."
""This is for Ivroy, you fool!" Snithian said, "The mightiest power in the cosmos!"" - p 110
Laumer's one of the prominent humorists in the SciFi world when he's at his best, wch I reckon her is in Timetracks:
""Too bad." The words seemed to come from underneath the desk. Dan squinted, caught a glimpse of coiled purplish tentacles. He gulped and looked up to catch a brown eye upon him. The other seemed busily at work studying the ceiling.
""I hope," the voice said, "that you ain't harboring no reactionary racial prejudices."
""Gosh, no," Dan reassured the eye. "I'm crazy about—uh—"
""Vorplischers," the voice said." - p 88
Laumer even goes so far as to put the shoe on the other tentacle to show humans as fratricidal monsters:
""Hairless! Putty-colored! Revolting! Planning more mayhem, are you? Preparing to branch out into the civilized loci to wipe out all competitive life, is that it?"" - p 99
The result being that our hero, Dan, is relocated to somewhere where he can't do any harm:
""Life In a Community Center is Grand Fun!" (Dan read), "Activities! Brownies, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Sea Scouts, Tree Scouts, Cave Scouts, PTA, Shriners, Bear Cult, Rotary, Daughters of the Eastern Star, Mothers of the Big Banana, Dianetics—you name it!" - p 102
Laumer always gives us a happy romantic ending. I like happy romantic endings, maybe I'll even encounter one in real life sometime:
"She looked up at him, smiling, her lips slightly parted. On impulse, Dan put a hand under her chin drew her face close and kissed her on the mouth . . ." - p 118
Then there's "The Other Sky". On the 1st page of the story it's written: ". . . perturbation in the motion of Pluto. The report from the Survey Party confirms that the ninth planet has left its orbit and is falling toward the Sun." - p 121 In my recent review of Laumer's The House in November ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2... ) I wrote:
"This casual mention of Pluto was made during the time Pluto was considered to be a planet. I imagine that any references to it these days wd be subtly different. This gives me an excuse to quote at length from NASA's website:
"Discovered in 1930, Pluto was long considered our solar system's ninth planet. But after the discovery of similar intriguing worlds deeper in the distant Kuiper Belt, icy Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet."
""But—what happened to Olantea?"
""It found a new orbit at last, far from its sun. You call it Pluto."
""And the remains of the moon are the asteroids," - p 189
"["]If we nudge Olantea from its cold orbit and guide it back to its ancient position, fifth from the Sun. once more it will flower." - p 193
I don't recall whether the yr of the story is specified but it's implied in this: "On the nine-hundreth floor he stepped out". (p 130) Too bad the view was probably ruined by the surrounding 3,000 story bldgs. On Pluto, we find a variation on Robin Hood or elves or Robin Hood & the Elves or whatever (Gulliver's Travels): "A shaft stood abruptly in its throat. It fell backwards. Vallant raised his head; a troop of tiny red and green-clad figures stood, setting bolts and loosing them." (p 152) "Vallant complied, groaning: he felt a touch, twisted his head to see a two-foot ladder lean against his side. A small face came into view at the top, apprehensive under a pointed hat." (p 156)
& the small face of the reader came into view over the top of the bk & read "Mind Out of Time".
This is short stories, so it's probably of variable quality, as most collections are. I'll keep a running tab of the particular stories.
(1) Timesweepers: This seems to be a typical Cold War fantasy, so far--a 'O07 time travels' sort of thing. I have no idea why the agents are conditioned to amnesia when they are debriefed. What would anybody hope to gain thereby? And the opponents seem totally motiveless. There also seems to be a strong trend of the 'robots have no rights' thesis. If the robots have needs and motives, they must have rights. We'll see how it ends--Laumer is noted for his ironic twists. As in this case. But what bothers me is the uncritical acceptance of the idea of progressive evolution. Despite a minor nod to the idea that there are regressions, there's no apparent belief that there may not BE any pervasive direction in evolution, which is a theory only of change, not of direction or purpose. There's also a strong anthropocentrism. I've noticed this in Laumer's works before. It's not just that 'mechanical' life is given short shrift. Nonhuman life is almost nonexistent. There's the odd bushes--but never so much as a dog or a partridge otherwise (oh, wait, there's a pig in the Lafayette O'Leary series).
(2) The Devil You Don't: (As in 'better the devil you know...'). This story begins by distinguishing between evil and sin (sin is what's pleasurable, it's argued). It's a promising start, anyway. With an interesting development, though I would question the premise that there were never any slapstick comedies in Classical Theater. Just because satirical material was less likely to be preserved than 'serious' dramas and comedies doesn't mean that there was no cartoonish buffoonery. There definitely was in Shakespeare's time, and in Chaucer (cf the gatekeeper in the Scottish play who laments that alcohol consumption stimulates libido...and then prevents follow-through.). And remember the crudely erotic jokes in the staging of Lysistrata. Maybe the chain accidents weren't as common in the past...but how would one know?
(3) The Time Thieves: Not to be confused with the movie The Time Bandits (although I wouldn't rule out some connection). There are so many different agents and agencies in this story that it's hard to come up with a coherent motivation or chain of consequences. The notion of imprisoning malcontents in 'unoccupied' loci is an interesting one, if a little disturbing (is it really a good idea to place outposts in areas that are quite definitely inhabited, if not by sapients?). But the part that upset me the most is the repeated slander that early modern humans practiced genocide against other hominids (in our timeline). There's no evidence for any such practice. Stephen Jay Gould argued that it was a contingent fact of history that we don't now cohabit the globe with other species of hominids: but there's no need to presuppose any murderous rampages, even so. Just as a sidenote, I don't see any reason to believe that Neanderthals would have blue faces. It's not impossible, of course. But why would it be so?
(4) The Other Sky: This is a journey into the land under the hills (sometimes known as Tir Na Nog, or the Land of Youth), rationalized as a type of 'portals' which involve time travel as a consequence of relativity. There are a few niggling questions (such as what happens to the age of the travelers?), but my main quarrel is the invention of a form of monstra ex machina (here called the Niss), whom it's not only permissible but even meritorious to mercilessly exterminate. I've always regarded this sort of thing as an attempt to provide surrogates for our own murderous behavior, which we externalize into 'aliens' to whom we owe no consideration of kindness. But Walt Kelly's immortal aphorism "We have met the enemy, and he is us." still applies if we try to project our hostility to manufactured 'aliens'. Note, for example, that the 'Niss' are never identified by gender. How do they reproduce, if not by sex? Other intelligent life forms are identified as bisexual...sometimes, at least).
(5) Mind Out of Time: A couple of space travelers find themselves freed from time by traveling further and faster than is intended in the experiment they're part of. This has been handled better elsewhere (as in James White's Tomorrow Is Too Far). One odd thing: Laumer gives the impression of being a very uxorious man. Many of his characters are very strongly devoted to their wives. But the wives seldom make any actual appearance in the stories. One of Laumer's stories includes a part where a man actually ends up cohabiting a woman's body--but otherwise, women seem too often to be offstage shadows.
These stories do show their age (they were all written in the 1960s), but despite the retro feel, they are all pretty interesting. They do what short stories do best -- take a weird idea and explore it without needing to flesh out a world too far. Good quick read.