Keith Laumer’s Retief Stories: Why I Will Never Be Able to Stop Laughing

Keith Laumer was a science fiction writer who first started publishing in the late 1950s. Go check him out on Wikipedia if you need to know more: Keith Laumer – Wikipedia

It definitely had to have been Laumer’s time in the U.S. Foreign Service that primed him for what I consider one of the funniest, snarkiest, and pun-iest science fiction series ever. I laughed when I first read Retief’s War over fifty years ago, I laugh today when I reread it and I do not doubt, if someone is thoughtful enough to put in in my hand, I will laugh at it on my deathbed…and beyond.



Obviously, I’m here today to talk about the incomparable Jame Retief: Jame Retief – Wikipedia

Retief is the most capable, clever, and gorgeous galactic diplomat that can possibly be imagined. He was a low-level employee of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, the human diplomatic corps that represented Terra on dozens of both human-settled and completely worlds—and he stayed low-level throughout his service. Why, one can’t help but ask? Jame was smarter than literally everyone in the room—especially all his fellow diplomats—and was renowned for repairing the screw-ups so endemic in his organization. In stories called ‘Pime Doesn’t Cray’, ‘Retief and the Red Tape Mountain’ and ‘The Piecemakers’, he pulls figurative rabbits out of hats again and again.

But whoa! Jame Retief never, ever, EVER gets credit for his dazzling legerdemain. His ‘superiors’ hog that, dislocating their shoulders as they pat themselves on the back. In one story called ‘Sealed Orders,’ Retief gets a sealed package of instructions from the ambassador and is sent off to clear up a snafu. Retief does, and the ambassador takes the credit, as it was obviously because his instructions were so precise and so perfect.

Retief nods, just before disposing of the—unopened—packet down the garbage chute.

But my love for Retief does not include just the clever stories. As we are all well aware, I’m a sucker for puns and clever word play—and I will admit, the heavier-handed the better. How about military men named Colonel Trenchfoot and Major Faintheart? Ambassadors called Grossblunder, Gropedark, Lacklustre, Shortfall, and Swinepearl?

And even better, many of the stories begin with quotes from the official CDT handbook, which I picture as being a foot thick and full of the approved behavior in every conceivable situation and culture. Naturally, the handbook has a list of lettered-and numbered facial expressions and how they’re to be interpreted by colleagues. Read this quote—if you dare—and I can only hope you’re not drinking anything; I know to my keyboard’s detriment that snorted/spewed iced tea is not beneficial:

     “A most perceptive observation, Chester,” Ambassador Earlyworm said, bestowing a 24-w (Gracious Condescension) leavened with a hint of 7-y (Expectation of Great Things in Due Course) on the lucky bureaucrat, at which his fellow underlings around the table were quick to bombard him with approbation, ranging from Faintlady’s 12.7-x (Knew You Had It In You, Fella) to Felix’s more restrained 119-a (We’re All Pulling For You, Lad), to which he responded with a shy 3-v (Modest Awareness of Virtue).
     “In fact,” Earlyworm interjected a Cold Return to Objectivity (91-s) into the lightning interplay of ritual grimacing…

So, political screw-ups abound. Cool aliens are either trying to run the Terries off their planet or soak them for all they can get. And the clueless CDT fall into every trap, even with their eyes wide open, since the service is full of professional butt-kissers and CYAs. Pretty much every one short of full Ambassador rank recognizes toadying as a basic survival skill. Retief’s inability to master this particular skill is one of the reasons he finds promotions so hard to come by.

So, get thee to some Jame Retief stories—there are several free at Gutenberg—and see if you’re made of stronger stuff than I and are able to keep from laughing.

I doubt it.