1971’s Retief of the CDT is the seventh1 book featuring Keith Laumer’s two-fisted man of interstellar diplomacy, Jaime Retief.
Retief is a mid-ranked member of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT); he is sufficiently lofty in rank yet expendable enough to be entrusted with important tasks by his immediate superior Ben Magnan. Worst case, Retief dies ignominiously for reasons beyond his control while Magnan heaps all the blame on Retief.
I didn’t have an elegant place to put this: there are no women of significance in this volume. Laumer being the author for whom I required a “sexist even by the standards of the 1960s” warning when I reviewed reprints for the SFBC, this is for the best.
I’ve used the cover of the first edition I read, although my copy is a later Pocket Books edition.
There was an even later Pocket edition with cover art whose main purpose seems to have been to make the inevitable Baen edition look good by comparison.
Retief’s bosses are all craven, corrupt self-serving fools, more interested in promotion, blame-avoiding, and bureaucratic minutiae than they are in pursuing the ostensible goals of the CDT. However, the CDT’s rival, the five-eyed alien Groaci, are somehow even worse. For the many alien civilizations caught between CDT and Groaci, the choice is between calamity and catastrophe.
Enter Retief, whose cynical detachment towards the CDT, patronizing compassion for aliens, and willingness (and ability) to kick over tables means he is often the only hope aliens have for a third choice.
There were a lot of Retief stories back in the day. There was a very good reason for this. To quote Fred Pohl:
What Laumer and Saberhagen gave were series stories, really nice ones. They are the kind of thing that a lucky editor finds under his Christmas tree, almost as good as a serial at keeping the readers coming back, not as annoying to the readers who hate having their stories interrupted a month at a time.
The Retief stories are formulaic. Retief is almost always caught between the absurd demands of his superiors, Groaci predatory ambitions, and the needs of various planetary natives, a situation apparently inspired by Laumer’s own experiences in the US Foreign Service. Consequently, they are also consistent; if you enjoyed one Retief story, odds are you will enjoy another, nearly indistinguishable Retief.
The stories are extremely slight, literary popcorn almost immediately forgotten after reading. Because Laumer does not venture far from the formula2. the longer collections3 feel repetitious. This is why I selected this particular collection, as it is short.
Retief of the CDT is out of print in North America, as far as I can tell, thus not available from Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, or from Chapters-Indigo. The last surprises me because Chapters often has SF Gateway ebooks and indeed, when I check the SF Gateway site, they have a (non-functional) link to Kobo, the brand of ebook that Chapters sells.
And now the stories themselves!
Ballots and Bandits • [Retief] • (1970) • novelette
Having been liberated from the Groaci, the natives of Oberon now face the perils of CDT-guided democracy with only Retief on their side.
Mechanical Advantage • [Retief] • (1971) • novelette
Magnan having gossiped about new-found empty world Verdigris to his Groaci opposite number, Magnan, Retief, and the rest of a CDT expeditionary force arrive to find the Groaci have claim-jumped the planet. What neither side knows is that while the natives annihilated themselves 20,000 years ago, their artifacts are active, well-armed, and opiniated about off-world visitors.
Pime Doesn’t Cray • [Retief] • (1971) • novelette
Unable to complete a public works product before the CDT finishes its project, the Groaci resort to the bold coping mechanism of stealing the Terran opera house. The aliens fail to take Retief’s ingenuity into account.
Laumer aliens often have amusing verbal quirks, much as one might have all dialogue uttered by Americans end with “Yee, Haw!” In this case, the quirk is less amusing than it is annoying.
Internal Affair • [Retief] • (1971) • novelette
Retief and other CDT staff arrive to initiate diplomatic relations with an alien race, only to discover that they have grossly underestimated the scale of the problem.
This is weirdly reminiscent of White’s Major Operation, also published in 1971.
The Piecemakers • [Retief] • (1970) • novelette
Shipwrecked on an alien world, a world facing not one but two ET invasions, Retief and Magnan ally with that planet’s sole occupant. On the plus side, the alien has impressive abilities. On the minus, it is lonely and plans to use its abilities to keep the humans around.
1: Some sources claim that it is the sixth. I cannot be sure that people claiming this are not Groaci agents.
2: Leaving aside 1960’s “Diplomat-at-Arms.” Although it was the first published story, it is set at the very end of Retief’s career and isn’t much like the other stories in tone.
3: Most of the collections were short, the main exception being 1978’s Retief at Large at 440 pages. Reading 440 pages of Retief adventures is like eating an entire bathtub full of those fake-banana-flavoured candies. I am not going to review it (unless paid), which means there no reason to hold off on mentioning the most notable aspect of Retief at Large: Spider Robinson managed to sell reviews of Retief at Large to both Analog and Destinies by approaching the material from different perspectives.
The other factor to consider if you are collecting Laumer books is that he had a stroke in 1971 that seriously impacted his writing ability without removing his need for a writing income. Works written after the stroke tend to be far inferior to those written before. This was in no way Laumer’s fault4 but that does not make the books more readable.
Note that due to publishing lag times, works published in 1971 were written before 1971.
4: Laumer appears to have relied on a treatment of his own devising, which probably didn’t help, but he made the decision to do so with a damaged brain.