1962’s Worlds of the Imperium is the first of Keith Laumer’s Imperium novels.
American diplomat Brion Bayard is stalked through the streets of Stockholm. Brion’s efforts to elude his pursuers are energetic but unsuccessful. He is overpowered and carried off. Nobody on Earth will ever see him again.
Nobody on his Earth, that is….
Brion has been kidnapped by agents of the Anglo-German Imperium, a vast empire formed by the merger of the British Empire and Germany, as well as lesser nations. B‑I One, the timeline to which the Anglo-German Imperium is native, parted ways with Brion’s in the 1790s. The non-existence of the United States and the existence of the Empire are but two of the differences between the two worlds; they are not the most significant ones. The most significant difference is that the Imperium has the means to travel between alternate worlds. The Imperium spans probability as well as geography.
B‑I One is the sole timeline in which Giulio Maxoni and Carlo Cocini survived inventing the Maxoni-Cocini Drive, the means by which the distance between worlds of what-if can be bridged. Most versions of Maxoni and Conini were far less lucky. A near miss with the Maxoni-Cocini Drive can doom its world to radioactive chaos or worse. The home timeline is surrounded by a region of chaos and death, the so-called Blight. B‑I One stands for Blight Insular One.
Blight Insular Two was discovered in the late 1940s. It’s not clear what happened to their Maxoni and Cocini but whatever the fates of the inventors, they did not succeed in inventing their eponymous drive or any of its apocalyptic variations. This did not save their world. B‑I Two is a radioactive wasteland, courtesy of a world-wide atomic war. It has been united as the National People’s State under the firm rule of the Dictator.
The Imperium is always keen to incorporate backward lands into itself. Initial attempts to open diplomatic relations with the Dictator resulted in murdered envoys. Having more promising worlds outside the Blight to rule, the Imperium decided to leave B‑I Two to its own devices.
B‑l Two, however, did not consent to isolation. They invented, or copied, their own version of the Maxoni-Cocini Drive. The Dictator’s forces have been using the drive to raid the Imperium, carrying off treasure and women, slaughtering those who resist. They have even detonated a device of mass destruction!
Brion, now ensconced in B‑l One, recognizes the mysterious device as an atomic bomb. The Imperium doesn’t have the advanced science to understand nuclear fission, which means that it cannot understand the threat the National People’s State poses to its very existence. Brion can offer a perspective the Imperium lacks. This is not, however, why the Imperium needs his help.
Brion’s world is B‑I Three. The historical point at which it diverges from the spray of timelines is closer to B‑I Two than B‑l One. So close that people on B‑l Two are duplicated on B‑l Three. Brion has a time-twin: the Dictator himself.
Brion is asked to kill the Dictator and take his place as ruler of the National People’s Party. Brion can then use his position to neutralize B‑I Two.
It sounds so simple. Pity that the Imperium and Brion don’t know what they don’t know.
Worlds of the Imperium was first serialized in Cele Goldsmith’s Fantastic, which I mention purely to justify posting the cover.
Laumer published a few non-SF works. One of them, Embassy, features a protagonist named Brion Bayard, a steadfast, intelligent young man surrounded by bigoted Americans and natives who live up to pretty much every bigoted belief the American functionaries hold. Until I checked the publication dates for this review, I had always assumed Embassycame first, that Laumer repurposed the character for the Imperium series. In fact, Embassy came out in 1965, after Worlds of the Imperium and the first sequel, The Other Side of Time. Was Embassy a trunk novel Laumer sold after reusing the character? Did he just decide to write Bayard’s backstory? No idea.
I also cannot say if Laumer had Piper’s Paratime in mind when he wrote Worlds of the Imperium. The two settings share the idea of a probability-spanning empire, but there are more differences than similarities. The Paratimers work from the shadows. The Imperium dominates its empire openly. Their firm resolve to civilize lesser nations is what wins Bayard over to the Imperium’s side:
“Civilized man,” Richthofen1 had said, “has a responsibility. His is not the privilege of abdicating the position he holds as leader in the world. His culture represents the best achievements so far made by man in his long climb up from primordial beginnings. We have inherited the fruits of the struggle to master hostile nature, to conquer disease, to harness natural forces; we are less than true men if we allow these achievements to be lost, to leave vast areas to the ancient enemy, ignorance, or worst of all, to lose by default our hard-won position, to retreat before the savage, the backward in the name of enlightened social ideas. We have a duty to perform; not to narrow nationalistic policies, not to false ideas of superiority based on religions, social position, untenable racial theories, skin color; but to mankind, that all shall benefit from the real superiority of our western culture, which is bringing man up off his knees into the light of his glorious future.”
“Hear hear,” said Winter.
It sounded like a campaign speech, I thought, but I couldn’t argue with it. I’d seen enough starving babies during my duty in the Orient to feel no patience with the policy of letting backward peoples suffer under the rule of local bosses, just because they were local. “Self-determination of peoples” they’d called it. A lot like self-determination of kindergarten kids dominated by a bully. I preferred a world in which every human born had a chance at the best humanity had learned, rather than being sacrificed to the neuroses, hatreds, manias and over-compensations for inferiority of petty provincial leaders.
What we lacked, back in my world, I thought, was a sense of responsibility, and the courage to assume the burden of leadership. Here they hadn’t hung back; right or wrong, they couldn’t be accused of vacillation.
Ah, 1960s SF. It sure was what it was.
This novel demonstrates one of Laumer’s stock plots: take a competent man, drop him into a situation which he would avoid if he were better informed, and beat the ever-loving crap out of him, over and over, until suddenly he succeeds. Ancillary characters aren’t as durable as the hero, although many of them are heroic. There’s not a lot of depth to this book, but at least it’s not long.
1: Yes, this is an analog of the Red Baron. There’s also a Hermann Goering in the Imperium, a jolly fat man who is delighted to hear that a version of himself was a great warrior. Bayard holds back various facts about his Goering that might upset the Imperial Goering.