Keith Laumer Biography

Keith Laumer John Keith Laumer
Born June 9, 1925 in Syracuse, New York
Died: January 23, 1993. He was 67 yeas old.
Interred: Florida National Cemetery, Bushnell, FL. Plot: 501, 32
Married: Janice Perki on February, 1949

John Keith Laumer was an extremely successful man, an author who kept fit, always. It was therefore more difficult for him when he suffered a massive stroke in 1971 that paralyzed one side of his body and part of his brain and therefore his mind. He was unable to exercise as before and gained weight, resembling the Red Bull in one of his stories. The photo above hardly resembles Keith before his stroke. He was embarrassed by his weight gain but was able to get along well enough. Keith tried to whip, to control, to overcome the stroke. He spent an enormous amount of time in physical therapy and other exercises in a futile effort to gain full use of his body. He could walk and get around, with a limp but he was never to gain full access of his body. Like a character in one of his stories, his crippled body would not comply, would not work correctly. This drove Keith Laumer to anger and the anger turned easily to uncontrolled rage, apathy, and total disappointment. He was a master of his mind but he could no longer write. He tried, over and again but the paralysis took control of his mind and the rage drove everyone away.

His writing suffered horribly. He could not write but he was published. It seems apparent no editor would tell Keith Laumer, a world famous author, that he could not write any longer. The publishers were too interested in taking advantage of Keith as he tried desperately to live up to his previous mastery.

The stroke also affected his ability to communicate well, that is, without falling headway into rage, without notice, at any moment, with anyone. He was a strong, forceful, and aggressive debater, could hold his own in any argument, before his stroke. After the stroke, he was just as strong but his logic faltered and he hung onto ideas which had too little merit, and he was known to suddenly hang up on the phone for the slightest of disagreements, apologetic the next day.

Keith, of course, knew he had the problem, that unbounded rage could and would take control at any moment, with anyone. He knew it and he suffered it, time and again, sorry and apologetic to his friends, piers, and family. But he could not control it. In the end, it controlled him completely.

Most fans were aware that Keith Laumer spent his last years alone, disappointed, sad, and spent, far too early, far too soon for this intelligent, wonderfully talented man.

As one quote from a newsgroup wrote:

On 5 May 1997 03:51:44 GMT, Colin Campbell <colinc@crl10.crl.com>
wrote:

> I always liked Keith Laumer's WORLDS OF THE IMPERIUM. He sure wrote
>some good stories before he gave up and became a hack.

He didn't give up, for heaven's sake -- he had a STROKE. Jeez.

Of all the stupid, unfair, uninformed criticisms..

Keith Laumer was crippled for life by a massive stroke. That he could write anything coherent at all after that is amazing. Yeah, it was junk compared to what he'd done before, and was published by Baen as much out of pity as anything else, but he didn't "give up and become a hack."

He's dead now, so your callous ignorance can't hurt him, but Jesus bloody hell...


In regard to Keith Laumer's temper taken from a newsgroup discussion:

Keith Laumer. Laumer, for those of you who don't know, was famous (or notorious, depending) for his hot temper and his volcanic anger whenever editors screwed up something of his. The reason I'm confident that the version of PLAGUE OF DEMONS which I'll be issuing was "okay" with Laumer is because Drake discussed the issue with Fred Pohl and Damon Knight -- who issued the two different versions, many years ago -- and none of them could remember Laumer raising any fuss. And, as Knight put it to Drake, "you know damn well that if
Laumer had been unhappy you'd NEVER have forgotten it."

But what a lot of people don't seem to understand is that what bothered Laumer was not the _fact_ of editing -- he took that for granted, as most serious professional writers do -- but the _quality_ of it. He told Dave that he once agreed to a Swedish edition of one of his novels. He had no control over the editing, but he made no objection when they told him they had to cut the story from 70,000 to 50,000 words. (Which is _way_ more of a cut that anything I ever did.) Sometime later, he traveled to Sweden and got a copy of the new edition. Laumer could read Swedish, and was curious how they'd done it. He told Dave he got increasingly puzzled because he couldn't find any cuts -- until he got to the end of the volume and realized that the cretin editor had
simply cut the last 20,000 words and published a novel with no ending.

Then he DID blow his stack.


Keith Laumer attended Indiana University, 1943-44; Stockholm University, 1948-49; received a BA in architecture in 1950 from the University of Illinois. Became a staff member of the University of Illinois in 1952. Served in the US Army in WW2 in Europe and then did two odd hitches in the US Air Force, 1953-56 and 1960-65, attaining the rank of Captain in the latter tour. In between the two military hitches, Laumer was a member of the US Foreign Service in Rangoon, Burma. After the second hitch, in 1965, Laumer turned his attention to writing.

Keith Laumer worked at his trade, creating a huge series of Retief stories, both shorts and novels, Imperium tales, and the Bolo tank (which has taken on a life of its own since Laumer's death with multiple writers). 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. Laumer still has many, loyal fans.

Keith Laumer was discovered by Cele Goldsmith with his Greylorn which was published in April 1959. Laumer was stationed with the U. S. diplomatic corps in India, and his brother had brought the story into the Ziff-Davis offices, requesting to see the editor and interrupting her work. She was annoyed and almost rejected the manuscript there and then, but upon reading it she was captured by Laumer's humor and perception. Soon afterward, she bought the first of Laumer's Retief stories, "Diplomat at Arms," which ran in the January 1960 Fantastic.

We decided to move to Florida. We'd been to the Cape a few times to watch rocket launches, and were both confirmed space junkies. We'd also gone down to visit Keith Laumer after Milford, and his little town of Brooksville looked attractive. Groceries and rent were about half what we were used to paying. We bought an ancient panel van -- cheaper than U-Haul -- and loaded everything we owned inside and on top of it. Keith had said we could stay with him for a week or so, while Gay looked for a job.


From author Joe Haldeman:
"Maybe it was foolish to drop everything and move, but it wouldn't be the last time for us, and it did work out all right, despite a serious and expensive accident en route and a disaster soon after we moved into Keith's spare bedroom. Keith and I were sitting by the fire after dinner, talking about asteroid mining, when he suddenly fell over half-paralyzed. He rallied for a few days, but then had a massive stroke, and Gay and I wound up being his caregivers for a few months."

The "massive stroke" struck while Keith and author/editor Ben Bova were leaving his residence in a dar. Keith never fully recovered.


(from David Weber)

Discerning people have always read Keith Laumer for a lot of reasons, and I am delighted that Baen Books is making his works available to be read yet again.

As David Drake pointed out in the preface to the first volume in this series, those with some knowledge of Laumer's life (and of history) can appreciate the telling accuracy of his trenchant, experience-based observations of the lunacies of real-world diplomacy in the Retief novels. Regarded by many, perhaps even most, of his readers as the crown jewels of his literary legacy, the Retief stories used frequently devastating humor to underscore the not particularly humorous dilemma of a tough-minded, principled pragmatist trapped on the far side of the Looking Glass. And as the best satire always is, they were teaching tools, as well.

Along with the humor, however, Retief communicated something else which was common to all of Laumer's work. In addition to his highly capable pragmatism, his realism, or even his occasional cynicism, Retief, like Poul Anderson's Flandry, embodied the other qualities which Laumer obviously believed were the true measure of a human being: self-reliance, unswerving devotion to one's principles (however unfashionable those principles might be, or however uncomfortable one might be admitting that one held them), and gallantry. Always gallantry.

Something which is overlooked almost as often as the sheer scope of Laumer's work, is the spare, clean prose style and muscular storytelling technique which he shared with those other high prophets of human capability, H. Beam Piper and Robert Heinlein. There was a seeming simplicity to the way he wove his tales, coupled with a very real, often first-person colloquialism, which both moved events rapidly and deceived the eye into missing the complexity of what he had to tell us. Characterization in a Laumer story flows so simply and so naturally that its depths creep up upon us almost unnoticed. Yet it is the vibrancy of the characters which truly holds us, and when the final word is read, the reader comes away with both a sense of completion and a desire for the tale to go on . . . forever, if possible.

In my own opinion, that result stems not simply, or even primarily, from his undoubted skill as a literary craftsman so much as from his ability to touch the innermost chords of what makes all of us human. Whether it's Retief's biting wit, or Billy Danger's unwavering determination, or the unbreakable gallantry of his Bolos, Laumer's characters not only live and breathe but challenge. He was capable of bleakness and the recognition that triumph was not inevitable, however great one's determination might be, or that power could seduce even the most selfless, as in the case of Steve Dravek in "The Day Before Forever" or the protagonist of the chilling little gem "Test to Destruction" (which is one of my favorite Laumer pieces, despite its darkness). Yet in an era of cynicism and "enlightened" distrust of and even contempt for heroic virtues, Laumer's characters went about the day-to-day business of living up to those virtues with absolutely no sense that doing so made them special in any way. It was simply what responsible human beings did, and the profound simplicity of that concept made Laumer, like Piper, an author who was in many ways an uncomfortable fit in the America of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps that's one reason Retief tended to overshadow other works of his, like Galactic Odyssey, A Plague of Demons, "The Night of the Trolls," Planet Run, and other stories and novels too numerous to mention. Humor and satire were more acceptable techniques for sliding the author's sometimes discomforting precepts into the reader's consciousness, especially when they were wielded so deftly. Yet the very qualities which made Laumer's other characters misfits at the time he wrote are the same qualities which give them their classic timelessness.

At the end of the day, fate hit Keith Laumer with failing health that was a particularly savage blow to a man who had always celebrated human capability and the ability to triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds. It was a final battle which he did not win, yet in its own way, and for all the bitter irony it must have held for the teller of such tales, it could diminish neither the message nor the messenger, because the true essence of the tales Laumer told were actually less about triumph, in the end, than they were about an individual's ironclad responsibility to try. Like his Bolos, or the protagonist of A Plague of Demons, who chose to fight his hopeless battle to the death rather than permit his friend to die alone, Keith Laumer believed that the ability to confront challenges and adversities, however extreme and however remote the chance of final victory, were the ultimate measure of a human being. I suppose that's the reason I consider him to have been one of the three or four authors who had the greatest influence upon me throughout my life, as both a reader and a writer.

And it's also the reason that the title of one of the stories in this volume strikes me as a most fitting epitaph for him, because it's true.

"Once There Was a Giant."

David Weber

September, 2001


(from a usergroup, author unknown)

Forty years ago, the April 1959 issue of the old pulp digest AMAZING STORIES
published a story by a new writer. The short novel was called "Greylorn;"
the author was Keith Laumer. His second story appeared in the January 1960
sister publication FANTASTIC. "Diplomat-At-Arms" introduced his most famous
character, Retief, although the aging warrior depicted was a far cry from
the wisecracking galactic diplomat who later evolved. I don't know that
this seminal story has ever been reprinted.

Suddenly the floodgates opened. Books and stories poured out of his
typewriter. During the next decade Laumer dominated the field. His style
was fresh, staccato, concise. You could read for pages and never encounter
the word "and." His protagonists were unabashedly masculine, tough-mined,
heroic. Laumer always had a story to tell; in contrast to the endless
ramblings of today's writers, he told it and got the hell out!

Laumer moved effortlessly back and forth between SF and fantasy. He created
the multi-stratified Worlds of the Imperium, the off-kilter medieval
adventures of Lafayette O'Leary, Retief's wry adventures, and some of the
best time travel fiction of his day. Like a kid in a candyshop he wrote too
much too fast and soon burned out. Almost anything from the 1960's shows
him at the top of his form; the majority of his work after that is stale
self-imitation. Today most of his stuff is out of print; he's mainly
remembered for one his later creations: the BOLOs, the ultimate in sentient
fighting machines.

My fondness for his work is only increased by present-day writers like
Robert Jordan, who require multiple mega-volumes to tell their tale. Keith
Laumer's style burned bright and cut like a knife. I hope this will
motivate a few newer readers to visit the second-hand bookshops and check
out his work.

Keith Laumer photo by Patti Perret.

KEITH LAUMER PEN NAME: Anthony Lebaron and Rafe Bernard.