Friday, June 24, 2022

Keith Laumer: "The Planet Wreckers," "The Body Builders," and "The Lawgiver"

In 1976, Pocket Books published The Best of Keith Laumer, a collection of nine stories with an intro by our beloved hero Barry Malzberg.  Dated "Teaneck, N.J., August 1975," Malzberg's introduction suggests that while the Retief stories are "fascinating" and "amazing" and enjoy a popularity which is "immense," they are not Laumer's most serious and important work, and there are no Retief stories in The Best of Keith Laumer.  Let's read from the 1980 printing  of The Best of Keith Laumer available at the internet archive and see how far we can agree with the sage of Teaneck when he says that Laumer is "serious and gifted" and that his work shows "range, versatility and technical sophistication." 

We've actually already read and discussed three of the stories in The Best of Keith Laumer, "Hybrid," "Cocoon" and "A Relic of War."  That leaves six, so let's wrestle down three today and leave three for next time.  Among today's selections are two stories Malzberg particularly recommends in his intro, "The Lawgiver" and "The Body Builders," but we start with the first story in the book, "The Planet Wreckers."   

"The Planet Wreckers" (1967)

"The Planet Wreckers" debuted in Frederik Pohl's Worlds of Tomorrow, in an issue with an article about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey ("next year's sf super-movie") and an ad for a jigsaw puzzle map of the moon.  Based on my 30 seconds of research on ebay, I'm saying this puzzle looks a lot easier than the jigsaw puzzle of Frank Frazetta's The Silver Warriors which I have been grappling with for weeks.  

I face "The Planet Wreckers" with some trepidation because it was reprinted in Berkley Medallion's 1968 It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy and Baen's 2002 Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side, leading me to fear it is a joke story.  Generally, I find joke stories annoying.  But let's press on!  

Sure enough, this is a humor piece, 33 pages long.  A lock and safe salesman staying in an uncomfortable hotel in a small town gets mixed up in interstellar crime and espionage.  A bunch of alien filmmakers hope to trigger various natural calamities on Earth--an earthquake, a meteor strike, etc.--to record for their latest disaster movie.  A lone alien P.I. hired by the galactic game and wildlife service is on Earth to stop them, but she has been captured and chained up in this very hotel.  Our hero, using his professional skills, liberates her and then accompanies her--clad in his pyjamas--as she tries--and mostly fails--to stop the natural disasters.  He rides a flying saucer, participates in fire fights, witnesses the wrecking of San Francisco.  Thankfully, New York City is preserved by the salesman's quick thinking and good luck, and not only does our hero become a galactic movie star, but hooks up with the female detective--when she takes off her monstrous alien disguise she is revealed to be almost human and absolutely gorgeous!

Acceptable filler with lots of violence and death and lots of obvious jokes.  

"The Body Builders" (1966)

Here's another story that was reprinted in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy and Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side.  Where's Keith Laumer: The Grimdark Side when you need it? 

The style of "The Body Builders" is a parody of hard boiled detective fiction.  Our narrator is a tough guy who is trying to avoid marrying some dame and being pushed around by other tough guys and says stuff like "The idea left me cold as an Eskimo's tombstone."  The setting of the story is the future, a time when a segment of the population, of which the narrator is a member, prefers to store their bodies safely in government facilities where they are kept alive by an IV drip and live life through a remote sensory hook up to a robot body.  Your brain inside your cold inert body controls the robot body remotely almost as if it is your own; if you have enough money you can get some sweet accessories for your robot body, like one that allows it to eat food and transmit the taste back to your brain.  Wealthy people have different bodies, entire fleets of them, each appropriate for a different occasion.

The robot bodies in the story are based on those of famous celebrities; Laumer just gives the last names of the models, so for us 21st-century readers "The Body Builders" serves as a kind of test of our knowledge of mid-century pop culture.  I figured the "Astaire" and "Arcano" models owned by the narrator must be Fred and Eddie, and that the "Liston" and "Wayne" bodies of some thugs were Sonny and John; a comic relief character's "Cantor" must be Eddie.  I had trouble with the lead villain's "Sullivan," but have settled on the theory that the reference is to pioneering boxer John L. Sullivan.  Women in the story own Dietrichs and Pickfords, no doubt Marlene and Mary.    

(Conservative types who reject using robot bodies and walk around in their real bodies are called "Organo-Republicans" or just "Orggies," and some of them use cosmetic surgery and appliances like contact lenses and toupees to improve their appearance.  Also, Bolos are mentioned, so I guess this story is in the same universe as Retief's Bolo tales.) 

The plot:  Our narrator is a successful gladiator.  (As we are well aware, SF is full of people fighting in the arena.)  A thug in a Sullivan picks a fight with him in a night club; duels between people in robot bodies are common in this milieu and the Sullivan wants one immediately.  Our hero is operating his Arcano body, which is too small to really fight head-to-head with a Sullivan, so he flees to get his Davy Crockett body, and there is a chase scene as the John Wayne-clad thug pursues him.  It turns out the brute in the Sullivan is a government official, so our hero, now in his Crockett, ends up in prison.  His career will collapse if he isn't at a fight scheduled for tonight versus Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust, so he jumps out a window--the Crockett is destroyed and the main character is in control of his real body again.  He leaves the government storage facility and goes to the arena to fight in his flesh and blood body!  Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust is of course in a powerful robot body, but unexpected advantages of a real human body lead to a triumph for the main character.  Not only has he beat the villain (Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust turns out to be that government swine who tried to swat him with his Sullivan), he swears off robot bodies forever after experiencing the excitement of interfacing with life directly, and sets a date to marry not the Dietrich-clad woman who was chasing him, but a nice Organo-Republican girl.  It is also suggested that his example is going to end the fad for using robot bodies and institute the kind of paradigm shift we often see in SF stories.

I'm skeptical of joke stories, but "Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust" is actually funny, the pace of the story is fast, and Laumer actually does a decent job of speculating about and dramatizing all the little ins and outs of the operation of the robot bodies, so I can "The Body Builders" a mild recommendation.  Presumably our pal Barry liked it in part because it depicts technology chipping away at our humanity, turning us into machines, one of his favored themes.   

"The Body Builders" made its debut in Galaxy, and has been translated into Italian, German and Dutch.

"The Lawgiver" (1970)

"The Lawgiver" first appeared in Harry Harrison's The Year 2000, an anthology of new stories set (you guessed it) in the year 2000.

In the hardcover edition of The Year 2000 available at the internet archive, Laumer's story is listed under the heading "Overpopulation," and, just like the Fred Saberhagen novel we just read, Love Conquers All, "The Lawgiver" is set in a world in which fears of overpopulation have lead the government to force menstruators into having abortions against their will. 

"The Lawgiver" is an extravagant melodrama, full of tragic ironies and dramatic coincidences.  It is the future of self-driving cars and videophones and towering skyscrapers.  Senator Eubanks has spent his career fighting for laws mandating abortions as a means of staving off overpopulation and associated famine and starvation.  Just recently he finally achieved success and saw his law passed--but only narrowly!  As the story begins he is on the videophone, arguing with a constituent who thinks a fetus is a live human being with a soul; Eubanks and this woman repeat the same arguments for and against abortion that you have heard a hundred times already and will likely hear a hundred times more in just the next week.  Then a second womb-carrier enters the story, busting into Eubank's apartment on the 76th floor and exclaiming that she is in labor with Senator Eubanks's grandson!  The baby could come any minute!

Will Senator Eubanks stick to his principles and have his own grandson destroyed mere moments before he is born?  Will this unhealthy uterus-owner survive the ordeal of childbirth in the Senator's apartment?  Where the hell is the baby's father, Ron Eubanks, and will this love 'em and leave 'em type have a change of heart and drive back to the capital so fast in hopes of reuniting with the mother of his son that his manually-operated car flies off the road and he suffers a life-threatening injury?

I'm judging "The Lawgiver" barely acceptable.  There is nothing innovative or surprising or exciting about it; it is soap-opera stuff you've already experienced married to arguments about abortion that aren't new, either.  

It feels like filler to me, but "The Lawgiver" has been reprinted in several Laumer collections as well as a 1976 anthology that looks like a textbook that was inflicted on students.


These stories demonstrate that Keith Laumer is a competent writer, but they are no big deal.  Maybe we'll be more impressed by the other three stories in The Best of Keith Laumer?  Stay tuned to find out!

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