Friday, June 11, 2010

Forgotten Books: EMBASSY -- Keith Laumer

Keith Laumer was a prolific SF writer who served in the U. S. Army and worked in the foreign service. His stories about Retief, a galactic diplomat, are pretty clearly a result of the latter employment. I find the early ones hilarious. (Others don't.) I also enjoy the novels in Laumer's Imperium series, especially the first, Worlds of the Imperium.Which brings us to today's Forgotten Book, because the foreign service diplomat who's kidnapped by the Imperium and take to an alternate America is Brion Bayard, who happens to be one of the characters Laumer's mainstream novelEmbassy.

Embassy is, as you can read on the cover, "A shocker to rival The Ugly American." It's Laumer's "straight" novel about the U. S. foreign service, which, if Laumer's to be believed, was staffed in the '60s by opportunists, lechers, poltroons, climbers, dumbasses, dullards, and layabouts. The setting is the mythical country of Samoy, which happens to be a lot like Burma (now Myanmar), where Laumer served. Bayard comes to the embassy ready to work, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. He wants to do things right, and he doesn't like injustice. Naturally everyone is immediately out to get him out of Samoy and ruin his career.

Embassy is crammed with dozens of characters and plot lines, including an incipient communist revolution. It's not at all a humorous novel in the Retief vein, though there are moments of humor. Before it's over, there's plenty of action and violence. Torture, even. It's a serious take on the foreign service and what was wrong with it. Even if Laumer is exaggerating by a factor of ten, it's amazing that the U. S. has any standing left in the world.

I suspect that Laumer had high hopes for this book, and he must have been surprised when it wound up being published by a second-rank paperback house instead of some prestigious hardcover imprint. Even Pyramid didn't seem to have any faith in it, cramming its huge cast and story into a slim 200-page volume with tiny print and way too many lines on a page.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but I can see two problems, both of which could have been easily corrected. One is the narration. Bayard's sections of the book are in first-person. Why? I have no idea, since he's only one character among many and gets no more attention than a lot of the others. The other problem is the chronology. A good bit of time passes in the book, but it's hard to know when it happens. Some chapters pick up immediately after the preceding one, while between others a lot of time goes by.

Back in the early '60s I read The Ugly American and liked it. I wish I'd seen this book when it came out, but I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.


pattinase (abbott) said...

A real history lesson on what the climate was like then.

Anonymous said...

It's Laumer's "straight" novel about the U. S. foreign service, which, if Laumer's to be believed, was staffed in the '60s by opportunists, lechers, poltroons, climbers, dumbasses, dullards, and layabouts.

The more things change...

I didn't know this book at all, so thanks for the review, Bill.


George said...

I read EMBASSY way back when it was first published. It seemed prophetic about our involvement in Vietnam.

Todd Mason said...

It and THE QUIET AMERICAN, George. Laumer wasn't the writer that Greene was (really?) but was a better writer than Lederer and Burdick were as a team...but mostly he was a less temperate soul than they...I'd heard of this one, but haven't ever seen a copy.

I suspect Bayard might be the character closest to Laumer's heart, the very value of him popping up again in the Imperium novel. The choppiness might've been D.R. Bensen's hasty blue pencil, to make the book fit the less expensive parameters of thinner paperback binding that Pyramid, as not the richest publisher on the row, would've preferred.

I suspect Laumer thought he had another SAND PEBBLES as well as another UGLY or QUIET. Wonder if in the original he was more correct.

Jerry House said...

I read this when it first came out and enjoyed it greatly. I don't believe it has been reprinted since. Bayard at the time was described by some reviewers as Laumer's Everyman.

Too many major "breakthrough" books suffered a similar fate as Embassy. Robert Block hoped the Star Stalker would be the beginning of a series of major Hollywood novels. John Brunner wrote what he thought would be his "Lucky Jim" but his publisher diddled about so long it's timeliness faded and the book was never published. Brunner later invested much time and energy in The Great Steamboat Race, a very good book but not the breakout one he had hoped for.

I'm glad you brought this one back to light.

Jerry House said...

Bloch, dammit. Not Block. Stupid computer.

Evan Lewis said...

Sounds like an interesting counterpoint to the Retief stuff.