The Star Treasure

Keith Laumer


Although Laumer is probably best known for his Retief and his Bolo stories or perhaps the medical calamity that overshadowed the majority of his career, this particular book is significant to me because it happens to be the very first Laumer I ever encountered, spotted during of my covert forays up into the adult section of Waterloo Public Library.

Right after the superfluous prologue we get a hint Things Have Changed from the date: Sarday, Ma 35, 2190. Ban Tarleton is a loyal, excessively loyal, officer in the United Planetary Navy, taking the claims of his superiors at face value and interpreting what he sees in light of the lies he has been raised on.

Ban’s friend and fellow officer Paul is less naive. Ban realizes something is up when Paul vanishes from Tyrant, the ship they are serving on, now in orbit around Saturn. Ban does his best to help Paul but but by the time he finds Paul in the rings of Saturn, Paul has been murdered by security goon Hatcher. Ban puts two and two together to get apples, decides that what Paul discovered was a mutiny on the Tyrant, one orchestrated by the security personnel and heads off to Earth in a stolen ship’s boat that is in no way designed or equipped for a 118 day journey.

Ban survives the trip only to become the target of a world-wide manhunt. When he is eventually captured, he discovers that he misinterpreted the facts and there was no mutiny. Worse, Paul seems to have been a “Hatenik”, as those who oppose the current system are called, so all of Ban’s efforts have been to serve a cause he sees as inherently wrong. Ban isn’t happy to be tried and convicted of grand larceny and desertion but by this point he isn’t sure that those charges are not entirely justified.

Ban is sentenced to life on the exile planet Roseworld, Old Mars reimagined as a seering hot world, where if things go according to plan he will spend the rest of his days turning rocks into smaller rocks in search of items whose significance will never be explained to him. The reason this does not work out is because Ban has a peculiar talent for crossing authority figures; most of the last 60% of the book consists of Ban being forced out of his current marginal existence, finding a new place to live that is even more marginal, only to find even that taken away from him. Along the way he gets a series of painful revelations about the world in which he lives, lessons that are necessary because although Ban is a man of destiny, he’s also not too bright. What he is is nigh-unkillable, a talent he gets a lot of use out of.

Laumer had a promising career from 1959 to 1971, publishing a diverse assortment of works. In 1971 he suffered a stroke and while he eventually recovered to some degree from it, his ability to write was permanently impaired. Unfortunately his need to write was not and what followed was a sequences of sub-par, nigh-unreadable works. Perusal of the ISFDB leads me to conclude his ability to get published at all was due in large part to the late Jim Baen’s generosity. Baen also hit on the idea of turning Laumer’s Bolo setting into a shared universe, which would have had the benefit of keeping Laumer’s name on bookshelves without inflicting his fiction on readers.

Laumer also suffered some personality changes, the most striking of which was tendency towards a degree of irritability. From a fan site:

I finally got to meet Keith in 1990, at his home in Brooksville, Florida, a couple years before he died. I was in awe of the man, his talent, his persona. He was paralyzed on one side but could get around on a motorized scooter, which he drove on a tour of his property during the 1990 visit. I had taken my nine year old daughter with me, all the way from Oregon, to finally meet Keith after all those years. We had a wonderful visit, that is, until the lasts few minutes when Keith pulled a German Lugar, aimed it at my chest, and told me to leave. He later apologized but I never saw him again.

Laumer died 23 January 1993, 22 years after his stroke.

The Star Treasure was serialized in 1970 and so would have been among the last things Laumer wrote before his stroke (which is interesting, at least to me, because I would have guessed it was earlier). The Star Treasure is 178 pages and perhaps 60,000 words if I am generous. As result it does not have space to waste on side-issues like nuanced characters, detailed world-building or complex plot: it moves forward very quickly towards the final big reveal.

Laumer had a track record of sexist by the standards of the 1960s portrayals of women but that’s not really an issue here because there are only two women in this, one of whom is fridged in short order and neither of whom are around for long.

Perhaps as a side effect to keep Ban the sort of person who could have a surprising number of illusions shattered in under 200 pages, he comes across as not very bright so it’s probably not entirely good that he ends up with godlike powers, as so many Laumer characters do, or that he ends up replacing the previous guy with godlike powers. To his credit, by the end Ban seems to have realized he needs to step back and take time to process everything he has learned.

I am a little disappointed but in no way surprised that by the end the top down manner of government is justified: not only does this suit SF’s usual approach to politics but if a book is structured as a sequence of “Everything You Thought You Know Was Is Wrong (or at least misleading” and the government is revealed to be a secret oligarchy oppressing the world early on, then revealing that that is not the whole story is pretty much required.

Laumer wrote better books but none of those was the first Laumer I ever read. This particular one appears to have fallen into obscurity: the most recent edition I can find is a 1986 Baen reprint and while they offer a number of books with Laumer’s name on them, The Star Treasure does not appear to be among them.

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