Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.
Keith Laumer is most famous for his series about the beleaguered diplomat Retief, which I think are a lot of fun, but he has a few other series that are well regarded too. Worlds of the Imperium is the first in a series of stories about parallel worlds explored by the Imperium, a government on one such alternate earth.
This first installment begins with the kidnapping of one Brion Bayard, an American diplomat visiting Stockholm. Laumer has a thing for diplomat protagonists, having served in the US Foreign Service himself. They say write what you know, so like Sturgeon and bulldozers, Laumer wrote about diplomats. Anyway, Bayard is whisked away in a strange vehicle and subjected to questioning about rudimentary history. As it turns out, he’s been kidnapped by the Imperium, a government from an alternate timeline that has developed a method of travel to alternate universes.
Thus far, they’ve only found two that were inhabitable (in others, earth had destroyed itself or never developed civilization in the first place). One is Bayard’s home (which appears to be our timeline), and the other features an earth ruled by a vicious dictator who has declared war on the Imperium. That dictator’s name happens to be… Brion Bayard. Can the Imperium convince Bayard to travel to the third timeline, impersonate the dictator, and halt the war? Spoiler alert: they can. But can Bayard succeed? That’s the rub.
The setup is all typical exposition-heavy SF info-dumping, but once the story proper gets going, it turns into more of a twisty espionage thriller. It helps that the info-dumping and alternate reality concept are pretty well done (if perhaps a bit elementary by today’s standards, I’m guessing it was more remarkable in its time). It’s very short and snappy, not wasting much time moving from one bit to the next, so even the info-dumps aren’t a real strain.
This might leave you wanting more in terms of characterization though, as the only person we really get to know at all is Bayard himself. He’s got a sharp and cynical edge to him that is well suited to his mission, but other aspects are left unexplored. There’s a perfunctory romantic angle that is simply tacked on and it feels like Bayard gets over his kidnapping and the implied permanent exile from his home a little too easily (did he have no attachments at home? No family? Friends?) Wait, I just realized that the government of the Imperium is based in Stockholm and Bayard is bonding with his kidnappers… this is surely not a coincidence. Anyways, in general, a lack of characterization doesn’t bother me much, so long as you make up for it with something else, which Laumer certainly manages.
It’s a fun, pulpy espionage thriller with a few interesting twists and turns. It might not get you thinking grand thoughts about the nature of the universe (though I suppose the SFnal concepts are interesting enough and well thought out, especially for its time), but it will keep you thoroughly entertained for the few hours it takes to read. If you’re looking to introduce yourself to Laumer, though, I’d recommend picking up the Retief! collection (there’s that exclamation point in the title again, something we don’t see much these days – maybe modern SF would be more fun if people wrote more stories that warranted a title with an exclamation point) before this. They’re entertaining stories too, and they also more prominently feature Laumer’s over-the-top sense of humor. Still, I wouldn’t mind visiting the Imperium again at some point, which is usually a good sign.