'Retief!' - Book Review

by Keith Laumer (edited by Eric Flint)

Jame Retief is one of Keith Laumer's best known characters. Wikipedia addresses the origins of Retief better than I can: "... the stories have a base in Laumer's experiences in the United States Foreign Service ... the diplomatic 'old guard' were confronted with a new world situation and a new generation of diplomats, men like Laumer, who took a more pragmatic approach to the service. This conflict undoubtedly informs the Retief stories, in which stubborn and often ignorant superiors mired in bureaucracy cause him endless difficulties in the carrying out of his duties." Retief has a lot in common with James Bond: a sophisticated man's man who is capable of any sport, extremely strong, and willing to solve political problems with force when necessary, usually against the orders of his superiors. Retief is not only smarter than his superiors, he's also invariably smarter than the local inhabitants (also inevitably the only one on the mission who's bothered to learn the local language ... even though technology makes that easy in their time) and any enemies who crop up. Which makes everything a farce.

This is a collection of some 15 or so stories, including the novel Retief's War. Ironically, I agreed with whoever wrote the introductions (presumably Eric Flint), who thought the very first Retief story Laumer ever wrote - "Diplomat-at-Arms," also placed first in the book - was the best of the lot. It was the least farcical, and there was some actual threat (which doesn't exist in any of the other stories) with Retief losing two fingers in a battle.

I found these hugely entertaining in my teens, but these days it seems a great deal more like Laumer's blatant wish fulfillment and nasty bitterness toward his superiors. They're easy reads and mildly amusing, but it might have been better to leave them as happy memories.