Keith Laumer’s 1976 The Best of Keith Laumer is a collection of science fiction stories.
Historical note: I was a big fan of Del Rey’s Ballantine’s Classic Library of Science Fiction series, all of whose titles were of the form “The Best of [insert author name]. While this collection uses the same title format, it is not from Del Rey. It’s from Pocket Books. As far as I can tell, Pocket Books published the following best-of collections, some of which I’ve never seen. Whereas Del Rey stuck pretty closely to meat and potatoes SF authors, Pocket let one or two authors with literary pretensions sneak in (balanced, of course, by authors like Garrett and van Vogt). I’ve added helpful check marks next to the ones I have read.
The Best of Poul Anderson ✓
The Best of John Collier
The Best of Randall Garrett ✓
The Best of Harry Harrison ✓
The Best of Damon Knight ✓
The Best of Keith Laumer ✓
The Best of Barry N. Malzberg
The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. ✓
The Best of Mack Reynolds ✓
The Best of John Sladek ✓
The Best of Wilson Tucker ✓
The Best of A. E. van Vogt
The Best of Jack Vance
I think my teenage tastes are clear. These days, I wish I’d snapped up the Collier.
Turning to the Laumer under review: the works on offer range from wacky humour to grim military fiction, the latter of which does not necessarily conform to the tropes of modern military SF. Laumer’s space navies, for example, are OK with treating veterans like crap. The high command may occasionally praise the stalwarts… once it’s too late to matter. It’s more of Laumer’s entrenched cynicism about bureaucracies of any sort.
The stories included in this collection range from fifty to sixty years old, which is to say, about as distant from modern readers as books written between 1916 and 1926 would have been to me when I first read The Best of Keith Laumer . While Laumer’s work shows its age, particularly in the way women are treated — I guess someone had to make Golden Age Poul Anderson look good by comparison … but surely Randall Garrett had that covered? — one wonders how Laumer would have developed had it been possible. He suffered a debilitating brain injury at the height of his career. It’s possible that an uninjured Laumer might have become one of SF’s Old Men Shouting at Clouds (which is after all a very popular career choice), but maybe he wouldn’t. We’ll never know.
Introduction (The Best of Keith Laumer) • (1976) • essay by Barry N. Malzberg
A glowing tribute to Laumer, which in retrospect is rather melancholy since whatever promise Laumer’s fiction had in the 1950s and 1960s, it was undone by the stroke Laumer suffered some years before this collection was published. I have no idea if Malzberg would have been aware of Laumer’s unfortunate circumstances.
The Planet Wreckers • (1967) • novelette
A hapless travelling salesman rescues what he takes to be a helpless dame, only to be dragged into defending the Earth from ambitious entertainers.
Laumer is of course the author for whom, back when I worked for the SFBC, I had to invent a special “sexist even by the standards of the 1960s” warning label. This madcap comedy is a good example: the alien woman is supposedly a top field agent, but Joe Random Locksmith is better at her job than she is.
The Body Builders • (1966) • novelette
Remotely piloted robot bodies let everyone be as attractive and macho as they liked — for a price. Professional fighter Barney Ramm had the money, none of which did him any good when a crooked commissioner decided to fix a fight.
“Cocoon” • (1962) • short story
Technology offered comfort and security but it didn’t ensure survival in the face of changing climate.
“The Lawgiver” • (1970) • short story
The Senator campaigned for strict population control … but how steadfast will he be when his own family is affected?
Thunderhead • (1967) • novelette
Abandoned to rot on a backwater world for twenty years, the old soldier didn’t hesitate to leap into action when he becomes the last defense between humans and the alien Djann.
The Djann get sucker-punched by their desire to protect each other, which is a more sympathetic weakness than one would expect from alien foes. The human high command, in contrast, seems to regard soldiers as expendable.
“Hybrid” • (1961) • short story
Determined to protect a dying alien tree from a would-be exploiter, a space-faring wimp bargains his way into superpowers.
This would be a pure power fantasy story, with the twist that the powers are courtesy of an alien parasite that’s using the human as the means by which it breeds. Nothing new except the alien is straightforward about what it gets from the arrangement. The story leaves room to suppose that our hero’s mind was rewritten for the convenience of his new partner.
The Devil You Don’t • (1970) • novelette
A professor, his naturist sweetheart, and the Devil himself struggle to defend Earth from alien demons.
Oddly enough, the eventual solution isn’t to just kill the invaders.
“Doorstep” • (1961) • short story
America’s military forces unite to annihilate an invading alien. Unfortunately, they have been denied critical, need-to-know information.
“A Relic of War” • [Bolo] • (1969) • short story
An ancient Bolo, an apartment-building-sized “continental siege unit” is seen as a humorous relic by the small town where it has been parked for decades. That is, until it wakes to defend its home town, a heroic action for which it is poorly repaid.
The Best of Keith Laumer is stupendously out of print. Some stories included in this collection can be found here and there like relics of a long-forgotten war in other anthologies and collections.