Saturday, May 25, 2024

Interview About Keith Laumer


Science Fiction Book Club

Interview with William Keith (May 2024)

William Keith writes military science fiction and military fiction and related game design. He writes under several pen names, such as Ian Douglas, Robert Cain and H. Jay Riker. He has written new entries into Keith Laumer’s Bolo series and Retief series.

Alan Kovski: Was Laumer tempted to write about the international follies of his time in thinly veiled form? If so, did he ever describe some of those connections between particular stories of his and their real-world inspiration? I can imagine he might have indulged a roman-a-clef element in his Retief stories, but maybe not. Maybe he kept his political and diplomatic views to himself.

William Keith: I think "tempted" is too mild a word. One of the fascinating aspects of Laumer's life was his service in the U.S. Air Force from 1953 to 1956, and again in 1960 to 1965. Between these two stints with the military, he served as a diplomat with the U.S. Foreign Service in Burma.

His diplomatic service obviously shaped his writing of the Retief series--comedies in which the central character, Jaime Retief, is the single person in the story who knows what's going on and is willing to act while those around him, especially senior officers with the Service, are idiots.

His time in the Air Force would have focused his opinion about stupidity among officers higher up in rank. All military service has officers who know what they're doing, but it also has far too many examples of people promoted above their level of expertise, if any, and stuck in positions of authority with no idea as to what they're doing or what is expected of them.

As Laumer put it in an interview in Luna Monthly, speaking about his time as a diplomat, "I had no shortage of iniquitous memories of the Foreign Service." The Retief stories clearly show his disdain for politics, shortsightedness, and outright stupidity among members of a diplomatic service who should have known better.

The Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne was the perfect stage for Laumer's thoughts about bureaucracy and politics.

Connie Marshall Thompson: I find it interesting that Laumer served in the Army Air Force and the Air Force but when he created a battle machine it was a tank, ultimately a sentient tank, the BOLO series. Why do you think he chose to write about a ground-based unit as the star of the Bolo works?

William Keith: Basically, you can divide military tactics into three venues--ground, sea, and air. Neither sea nor air combat allows for an up-close-and-personal confrontation with the enemy. Sea battles today tend to be fought at over-the-horizon ranges, while the joke about Air Force engagements is that they take off from a base in North America, fly 12,000 miles to drop bombs on the enemy from 30,000 feet, and return to the States in time for a nice dinner with the family.

Ground combat, while often fought at long range, has the possibility of suddenly and dangerously becoming a hack-and-slash at knife-fighting range. You can see the enemy, and interact with him directly.

Tank combat--the closest analog to the Bolos--has intelligent tanks the size of city blocks engaged in the traditional pursuits of the infantry--taking the high ground, holding it, and reducing enemy defenses/cities/fortifications in direct attacks. This gives MANY opportunities for finding out about the enemy--turns out they're human too, most of 'em--and direct interaction between the combatants and their commanders. "The Last Command," for instance, has an aged human Bolo commander actually climbing onto the radioactive hulk of the Bolo he once commanded as it threatens a human city, talking to the Bolo and delivering its last command. You can't do something like that with a guided missile cruiser or a B-52.

These interactions are gritty, realistic, and hard-edged in a way that only stories about the infantry can present.

John Grayshaw What made you want to continue his Bolo and Retief series?

William Keith: I had no desire about the matter one way or another until a literary packager, Bill Fawcett, approached me with an offer to do a book continuing the story of Laumer's Bolos. Until then, I'd not even been aware that such a dream assignment might be handed to me, but when it was I was delighted. I'd long been fond of the original Bolo stories, beginning with "The Last Command," published in Analog 1966.

What I found fascinating about the Bolo stories was the idea, central to many of them, that these sentient machine behemoths came across as braver, more intelligent, more honorable, more human than any of the actually human characters.

I wrote three novels--Bolo Strike, Bolo Brigade, and Bolo Rising in the late 1990s--in which I tried to continue this idea of AI war machines more human than their creators. It was an opportunity to explore just what it meant to be human, and the limitations of human frailty.

In 2007, I wrote Retief's Peace, my one foray into Retief and the CDT, where I could play with my favorite Laumer characters.

John Grayshaw: Do you have personal favorites of his work? And why?

William Keith: My favorite Laumer book of all time was Retief's War, which I discovered in the school library at the age of 14. I'd read nothing of Laumer's until that time, and I was captured by the dashing James Bondesque leading character fighting cool, if somewhat silly aliens on Quopp, a world where native life had evolved with wheels and rotors rather than legs. I was also introduced to the sinister Groaci, which were obvious five-eyed stand-ins for the sinister Soviets.

Retief's War showed me that SF could be written humorously. The fact that the library edition I first read was actually illustrated with drawings of the various species of native life on Quopp. What was not to like?

Retief's War, about attempts to unify mutually hostile tribes, became my jump-off point for my own Retief's Peace, where Retief works with a peace movement with obvious links to the Vietnam War.

John Grayshaw: Can you talk about how after Laumer suffered a stroke in 1971, his efforts to recover and the challenges he faced to still write?

Keith Laumer kept fit, always. It was therefore more difficult for him when he suffered a massive stroke in 1971 that paralyzed one side of his body and part of his brain and therefore his mind. He was unable to exercise as before and gained weight, resembling the Red Bull in one of his stories. He was embarrassed by his weight gain but was able to get along well enough. Keith tried to whip, to control, to overcome the stroke. He spent an enormous amount of time in physical therapy and other exercises in a futile effort to gain full use of his body. He could walk and get around, with a limp but he was never to gain full access of his body. Like a character in one of his stories, his crippled body would not comply, would not work correctly. This drove Keith Laumer to anger and the anger turned easily to uncontrolled rage, apathy, and total disappointment. He was a master of his mind but he could no longer write. He tried, over and again but the paralysis took control of his mind and the rage drove everyone away.

John Grayshaw: Can you tell us about Keith Laumers connection to Pete Townsend of the Who?

Keith Laumer’s stepson was Tom Wright who was a rock photographer and a friend of Pete Townsend. Townsend said A young man who played a huge role in my life and music was Tom Wright. He was at Ealing Art College with me in West London in 1962; he introduced me to a lot of rare R&B and blues. His stepfather, Keith Laumer, was a science fiction writer who had a house in the jungle near Weeki Wachee Springs [in Spring Hill, north of Tampa]. I visited several times.

There was something magical about the place—and also about being around a creative writer who worked tirelessly every day on his books. It’s where I wrote the song “The Seeker,” which was a seminal piece for me about the necessary fruitlessness of spiritual searching. Why fruitless? Because we are always where we are supposed to be.

John Grayshaw: What was Laumers house in Florida like?

In the late 1950’s Laumer purchased a small two-acre island on a lake in Hernando County,  Florida near Weeki Wachee. He would reside there for the rest of his life.

John Grayshaw: What were some of Laumers hobbies other than writing?

Laumer was also a model airplane enthusiast, and published two dozen designs between 1956 and 1962 in the U.S. magazines Air Trails, Model Airplane News and Flying Models, as well as the British Aeromodeller. He published one book on the subject, How to Design and Build Flying Models in 1960. His later designs were mostly gas-powered, free-flight planes, and had a whimsical charm with names to match, like the "Twin Lizzie" and the "Lulla-Bi". His designs are still being revisited, reinvented and built today.

John Grayshaw: What is Laumers legacy? Why was his work significant at the time? And why is it still important today?

William Keith: Laumer wrote much besides humor, my favorite, perhaps, being Earthblood, about a human child raised by aliens. However he is probably best remembered for his humorous work, ranging from sharp-witted tales with only a taste of humor, to rollicking over-the-top farces like Retief and the Warlords. For me, the Retief stories were proof that SF didn't have to be serious, that it could pack a satirical punch while telling tales with a moral while leaving you helplessly laughing on the floor.

When he wrote about military themes or political situations, it clearly was linked to the social and political chaos of the '60s, making a point by making fun of it. I find it interesting, though, that this message is just as applicable to world politics sixty years later. People are stupid... and sometimes need an outsider like Jaime Retief or a Bolo Mark XXVIII LNE to kick ass and set things straight.


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