In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Today I’m taking a look at two alternate world books by Keith Laumer, from the days when novels were short and briskly paced. And Laumer was a master of that form. I’d been searching for some good summer reading, and these certainly fit the bill. The books are full of alternate versions of people we recognize from our own history, and the hero even gets to meet an alternate version of himself at one point. What can be more fun than playing the game of “what if…?”
I have a number of methods for picking books to review in this column. The most common is an archaeological expedition into my basement to search through the boxes, storage tubs, shelves, cabinets, and other nooks where my books are stored. I am also regularly reminded of old favorites by different media, sometimes just by mentions of a theme, and other times by way of an explicit mention of a specific book. A favorite source of ideas is the wonderful Tor.com column written by James Davis Nicoll, which presents five books sharing a similar theme, and then solicits the readers to mention their own favorites. My recollection of Worlds of the Imperium was jarred by his recent column “The World Next Door: 5 SFF Stories That Travel to Alternate Earths.” I immediately went to the basement, and found not only the book but its sequel as well. And since Laumer’s books are such quick reads, before I knew it, I had finished both.
Worlds of the Imperium first appeared in Fantastic Stories magazine, serialized from February to April 1961. My own copy is from the third paperback printing by Ace Books, issued in October 1973, which I think I bought when it was new. Its first sequel, The Other Side of Time, was also serialized in Fantastic Stories from April to June 1965, and my copy appears to be a paperback first edition from 1965. From the price penciled inside the front cover, I believe I found it in a used bookstore years later. There were two other books in the series, Assignment in Nowhere (from 1968) and Zone Yellow (from 1990). I’d never encountered those sequels, so they were not in my basement. Had they been, I might still be reading instead of writing this review…
About the Author
Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was an American science fiction and fantasy writer whose work was very popular in the mid to late 20th century. He was a military veteran and foreign service officer, and that experience is on display in the two novels I am reviewing today. His work was always action packed, and sometimes humorous, with every type of humor from tongue-in-cheek satire to slapstick.
I have reviewed other works by Laumer before in this column, including the collection The Compleat Bolo and the short novels The Glory Game and End as a Hero. Additional biographical information is contained in those reviews, and there are a few of Laumer’s stories and novels available to read for free on Project Gutenberg, including Worlds of the Imperium.
Stories about traveling to parallel worlds have been around almost as long as science fiction itself. I’ve reviewed more than a few of them in this column, including books by H. Beam Piper, Michael McCollum, Murray Leinster, Roger Zelazny, Robert A. Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Some of the stories address the topic from a scientific viewpoint (or at the very least, a pseudo-scientific viewpoint), while other involve the workings of magic. These books are related to time travel stories, which involve moving backwards and forwards through history instead of sidewise, and closely related to alternate history stories that are set in alternate versions of our own world, but do not involve travel between the realities.
I won’t go into too much depth on the topic of alternate world stories, here, because the previous columns I mentioned above offer examples of the theme and discuss it in some detail.
Worlds of the Imperium
Brion Bayard is an American diplomat on a trip to Stockholm, Sweden in the early 1960s. He realizes he is being followed, but falls while trying to evade the man tailing him. He is kidnapped, and awakens in a strange room that feels like it is moving. At the end of a corridor, there is an instrument panel that looks like something on an aircraft, but with no windows. A combat veteran of World War II, Bayard is able to wrestle the gun away from his captor, then fires into the control panel. The crew is terrified, and seeing their fear, he realizes he is putting everyone in danger. So he interrogates them at gunpoint. [Note to budding authors: Always have your characters deliver exposition at gunpoint. It keeps explanations succinct, and the readers on edge.] They explain that they are representatives of the Imperium, and can travel between alternate realities using something called the Maxoni-Cocini drive. Many of the timelines, referred to as the Blight, have been destroyed by wars or accidents, and emerging in these timelines could be catastrophic.
Upon reaching their destination, which the crew refer to as Zero-Zero Stockholm, Bayard finds himself in a world where the American colonies never revolted, and the British, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires forged an alliance that now dominates the world. Their 20th century was not marred by world wars, and they are now exploring the many worlds of alternate realities. He meets people who are doppelgängers of people in our own world, but shaped by different experiences. One is the elderly but spry Manfred von Richthofen, who did not die in a Great War that never happened, and a genial Hermann Göring, untainted by exposure to Nazi ideologies.
Bayard’s captors reveal they are being attacked by people from another timeline who seem to have developed an equivalent of the Maxoni-Cocini drive. Not only are they conducting raids, but they are also detonating atomic weapons, something unknown on the Zero-Zero timeline. The agents of the Imperium need Bayard’s help because he also has a doppelgänger on the timeline they suspect as the source of the attacks: his counterpart is the dictator who rules that world.
They need Bayard to kill and replace his alternate self and stop the attacks. Bayard receives extensive training, acquits himself well in an attack on a diplomatic reception, falls in love, fights a duel with an obnoxious Imperial intelligence agent, and soon is thrown into the timeline where he faces a man who looks like his own mirror image. But all is not as it seems, and Bayard is soon thrown into a series of adventures that propel him from threat to threat, but always coming out on top due to his grit and determination. There are revelations and reversals of fortune that keep the reader gripped right up until the final pages—events I will not discuss because guessing what happens next is a big part of the fun.
The Other Side of Time
I had so much fun with the first book, I immediately launched into the sequel, which also moves at a rapid pace. Laumer doesn’t waste time recapping the previous novel, but instead simply starts by presenting Bayard as a Colonel in the Imperium’s Intelligence Service, who has found satisfying work and a beautiful woman to love. Bayard is summoned by Manfred von Richthofen to answer questions about his identity. Before he can find out why his boss has been questioning him, he encounters a mysterious man in a burning protective suit and is suddenly catapulted into a strange version of Zero-Zero Stockholm that is unpopulated, but overrun by giant, intelligent primates in strange protective suits. To evade capture, he steals one of their time ships, but cannot control it and hurtles to an unknown destination, which turns out to be the timeline of the primates, who are called the Hagroon.
They throw him in a jail cell with someone from another timeline, who introduces himself as Field Agent Dzok, and turns out to be another ape-like distant cousin of humanity. The two escape in a damaged time shuttle, and after some adventures, make their way to the home of the Xonijeel, Dzok’s people. These people are generally pacifists, but fiercely prejudiced against the violent primates called homo sapiens. Learning that Bayard has killed people in his recent adventures, they sentence him to be marooned on an industrially backwards timeline, from which he can never escape. The quirky but likeable Dzok argues on Bayard’s behalf, but to no avail.
Bayard awakens in an alternate version of Louisiana in a world ruled by the French Empire of Napoleon the Fifth. His memories have been tampered with, but a local fortune teller, Olivia, helps him regain his memory. She disguises herself as an ancient woman, but is actually quite young, capable, and longing for adventure. He does some research and finds that the Xonijeel exiled him to a world that is not backwards enough—the inventors of the time drive, Maxoni and Cocini, did exist in this world. He and Olivia travel to Italy to determine whether this timeline’s inventors made enough progress to help him assemble his own time drive, as Bayard is determined to science his way out of his exile. And sure enough, in a museum, they find one of Maxoni’s “Möbius coils,” and between this discovery, Maxoni’s lab notes, and Bayard’s training, he is able to build a primitive time ship. Someone is pursuing them, however, and Bayard decides to leave in a hurry, not bringing Olivia because his slapdash ship is so dangerous. And sure enough, he crashes in a jungle on a fortunately habitable timeline…and who should show up but Field Agent Dzok, who has been looking for Bayard, and has been hot on his trail from the start of his exile.
Dzok explains that the Hagroon have developed a weapon that can destroy entire timelines, which was probably the aim of their incursion into Zero-Zero Stockholm, and the two of them head out to save the world (or one of them, at least). Dzok has developed a suit that Bayard can use to travel between worlds without a ship, a suit that they realize can travel not only sidewise in time, but backward and forward as well. The plot gets pretty tangled from this point on, a little too tangled for my taste, but Bayard is able, as usual, to survive great punishment without flagging in his efforts.
This book is not quite as serious as the previous one, and some of Laumer’s sense of humor shows through especially in the quirky character of Dzok. But, like the first book in the series, it is first and foremost an action/adventure story.
Worlds of the Imperium and The Other Side of Time are both excellent examples of Keith Laumer at his best. They are fun and exciting, and the narrative moves at a rapid pace. They were just exactly what I was looking for in my summer reading. The novels have held up pretty well over the years, and I would recommend them to anyone.
And now it’s your turn to chime in: If you’re familiar with these two books, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you want to talk about alternate world stories in general, that’s OK, too.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.