Dwight's Keith Laumer: SF Author Webpage
by Dwight U. Bartholomew
Last Update: December/12/2011

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Keith Laumer circa 1960Biography

Keith Laumer was a science fiction writer.  His best known creations are Bolos (computer-controlled tanks) and humorous stories involving Jame Retief (an exceptionally talented Terran interstellar diplomat).

John Keith Laumer was born on June 9, 1925 in Syracuse, New York although he was raised in St. Petersburg, Florida and in the Southwest US.  He attended Indiana University (1943-44) and Stockholm University (1948-49) and the University of Illinois in 1949 (receiving a BA in architecture in 1950 or 1952 and being on the staff until 1953.)  In 1953, he returned to active duty as an Air Force officer (1953-1956), switched to the US Foreign Service, and back to the Air Force (1960-1965).

During this time, he married Janice Perkinson (Feb. 1949).  They had 3 daughters during their marriage: Toni, Sabrina, and Ginny   Keith and Janice divorced sometime in the early 1960's.  He settled in Brooksville, Florida.

During Laumer's service as Air Force Attach´┐Ż for the US Foreign Service he was stationed at the US Embassy in Rangoon Burma.  His experiences in the Foreign Service find their way into his Retief stories.  One would hope that Laumer greatly exaggerates the workings of US diplomacy.  Alas, he has stated "I had no shortage of iniquitous memories of the Foreign Service." 1
 


Keith Laumer circa 1970Laumer's first published SF work was Greylorn (Amazing magazine) in April 1959.
In 1960, he published his first Bolo story: Combat Unit.
In 1961, he published 6 stories including several Retief stories.
Laumer's first novel, Worlds of the Imperium, was published in 1962.
Initially published as an Ace double (the flip-side novel was "Seven from the Stars" by Marion Zimmer Bradley), Worlds of the Imperium was such a hit that Ace re-published it as a stand-alone book. Notice the price for the single novel is 5 cents more than for the double-novel.   :-)

The 1960s were extremely prolific years for Laumer: 26 novels and collections of stories (of roughly 63 during his lifetime).  In addition to his science fiction writing, Laumer wrote novelizations of the TV shows The Invaders and The Avengers.  He wrote a novel set in the US diplomatic corp, Embassy, as well as a non-fiction book on model airplanes, How to Design and Build Flying Models.

Laumer even wrote a detective novel (not a far leap given his writing style) called Deadfall which was later made into a film starring Michael Caine (entitled Fat Chance) : I'd never heard of the film but a visitor to this web site (Joseph G.) says "it was pretty good."


Keith Laumer circa 1990?Sometime in the early 1970s, Laumer had a stroke.  I remember hearing about this when I asked noted SF author Hal Clement what Laumer was like in person.  Mr. Clement sadly shook his head and mentioned the stroke.  Charles Platt interviewed Laumer for The Dream Makers (published by Xanadu in 1987): a book of interviews with noted SF authors.  Platt describes Laumer's yard in Florida as being full of broken cars (Cougars).  Laumer said he was looking forward to fixing the cars once he had recovered from the stroke.  It is a very sad interview.

I stopped reading Laumer's work in the late 1970s (The Ultimax Man).  I recall reading that latter-day Retief stories have a nastier edge to them.  It makes me wonder how the stroke affected Laumer's work.

As a teenager, I wrote a fan letter and, wow, got a response!  letter  envelope  This is a transcription.

August 12, 1973
Dear Dwight,
Please forgive me for being so slow in answering your letter.  Since my illness, my correspondence is piling up on me.  Your letter cheered me up a lot.
As for your question about The Long Twilight, I'm sorry to say that <deleted due to spoiler>.
My latest book is titled The Glory Game.  Published by Doubleday.  I hope you like it.
Sincerely, Keith Laumer

Keith Laumer died in Florida on January 23, 1993 at the age of 67.
He is buried at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell Florida in burial plot 501, 32.

By the way, Keith Laumer's brother, March (Marsh) Laumer was also an author and publisher. For example, he wrote several Oz stories and lived in Sweden.  According to www.keithlaumer.com, March was responsible for getting Keith's first SF story published (or nearly not getting it published).  An acquaintance of March wrote to me, "Once when I called her (March's mother) to speak to March, who was visiting, Keith answered the phone." - (Nils M.) The brothers had a "falling out" later in life.

Laumer's other brother, Frank, lives in Dade City, Florida.
 



Keith Laumer's Signature from 1973Writing Style and Themes

Laumer's style of writing is often reminiscent of a gritty detective novel.  Below is a brief example:

    The cigarette tasted terrible. I mashed it out in a glass ashtray with Harry's Bar on the bottom.
    "Sorry you had the trouble for nothing," I said. "I'm not looking for work."
    "We represent a very important man," Slim said, and showed me an expression like that of a man who worked for a very important man. It looked a lot like the expression of a man in need of a laxative.
    "Would he have a name?" I said. "This very important man, I mean."
    "No names; not for the present," the gray man said quickly. "May we sit down, Mr. Florin?"
    I waved my free hand. The gray man took two steps and perched on the edge of the straight chair beside the dresser. Slim drifted off into the background and sank down into one of those big shapeless chairs you need a crane to get out of.

- from Night of Delusions, p. 2

George Willick (on his Spaceflight website) describes it as

Keith's style is somewhat jarring to traditional readers of fiction, punchy like Hemingway's with the words telling a story rather than the story serving as a vehicle for the words.
T.G. Browning describes it as
He generally made a name for himself for two distinct types of fiction: A kind of screw-ball comedy/satire, and an action/adventure yarn characterized by a very tight, quick moving, almost Hemingway type style.
Dani Zweig has an excellent overview of Laumer's writing career on his Belated Reviews website.
If this site is ever down, here is a copy.

Laumer frequently explored the concept of time-travel from many different "angles" with books like Dinosaur Beach, The Great Time Machine Hoax, and Worlds of the Imperium.

Another favorite theme involved the Unusual Human:
        o Man transcending to a higher state of being.  (Hybrid, Cocoon, Great Time Machine Hoax, Ultimax Man)
        o An extremely competent man surrounded by idiots.  (Retief, Glory Game, Lafayette O'Leary, Placement Test)

 


Laumer addressing an audience, date unknownNominations and Awards

Several of Keith Laumer's stories were nominated for awards but never won Hugos or Nebulas.



Recommended Reading
  1. Dinosaur Beach

  2. This is a time-travel story with plenty of plot twists.  As a teen, I drooled over the cover art (the nude lady was fascinating J).  Re-reading the book as an adult, the story is pure Laumer (the tough hero) but with a surprising and delightful humanity.  There are some touching moments in the book that set it apart as a true gem amongst Laumer's generally gritty straight-forward work.
  3. Retief At Large, Ace, 1978

  4. This volume collects together the best Retief short stories.  The stories are quite absurd and funny.  They involve Jame Retief, an extremely talented Terran diplomat, who works under Ambassador Magnum.  From outward appearances, Retief is the underling but, since everyone in the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (the CDT) are buffoonish idiots, Retief manages to save Terran diplomacy from dangerous folly.
  5. Retief's War

  6. A full length Retief novel that does a neat job of portraying some rather unique aliens.  The aliens have evolved wheels instead of limbs.
  7. The Great Time Machine Hoax

  8. Another time-travel story (sort of) with a good deal of silliness thrown into the mix.
  9. Planet Run

  10. Maybe it's the added writing power of Gordon R. Dickson or maybe it's because the protagonist's sidekick has my last name.  Anyway, I just plain enjoyed reading Planet Run.  The story has a western flavor to it.  The term "run" refers to opening up a planet to free settlement: a la, the Oklahoma Land Run of 18??.
  11. Galactic Odyssey

  12. Down-and-out guy accidentally stumbles into a spaceship and is thrust into a galaxy of aliens and extraordinary situations.  This is classic hard-boiled Laumer-style space adventure.  The hero, as in Earthblood, is just an ordinary guy.  Indeed, he's more ordinary than any of Laumer's other characters which, IMHO, makes it easier to connect with him.


Published Interviews and Resources


Keith Laumer Links

 

Reference:
1) "An Interview with Keith Laumer" by Paul Walker, Luna Monthly #45, February 1973.