Right- and Left-Handed Compliments

When a fan wants to compliment a writer he must speak in terms that will sound like praise to the hearer.

A couple of years ago there was a particular Hugo-nominated novel I enjoyed quite a bit. Several things about it reminded me of Keith Laumer’s The Glory Game both in its strengths — the pitting of an individual against governments, the vivid military action, a hero conflicted about human intentions toward alien communities — and in the paradoxical way its galloping pace would suddenly halt for the delivery of an expository lump.

Well, I knew this was not the sort of comparison that would sit well with an author whose achievements were then being compared to Heinlein’s, so I kept it to myself. But understand that during the years Laumer was an active writer I enjoyed and admired pretty much everything he wrote. I still find his short story “Long Remembered Thunder” as hauntingly mythic as ever. Even “A Relic of War,” the anthropomorphic story about an AI fighting machine, hooks readers into caring about a vast, dangerous weapon system. So coming from me, a favorable comparison between anyone and Laumer is a sincere compliment.

Laumer’s dramatic stories tended to be rather Raymond Chandleresque in style. By comparison, his humorous stories and satires were delivered in the universal voice of male prozine writers of the 1960s (anyone from Randall Garrett to Mack Reynolds or Christopher Anvil). And in the years following his recovery from a stroke, he produced a lot of satirical stories featuring the galactic diplomat Retief, not something calculated to heighten critics’ sensitivity to the best of his work (whose opinion he didn’t care about, though I’m always happy when someone takes notice of his fiction.)  

It’s easiest to draw people’s attention to writers who won scads of awards. Laumer isn’t one of them. He received a handful of Nebula and Hugo nominations writing during an era when a lot of excellent short fiction appeared. Once a Hugo voter wrote Ellison, Zelazny, Le Guin and Larry Niven on his or her nominating ballot, there were a lot of names still vying for the final spot.

At least among fans of military sf Laumer is far from forgotten. I’m happy new fans have discovered Laumer through their enjoyment of Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline”, another sentimental adventure involving an abandoned AI warrior.

Since the writer I wanted to compliment obviously appreciates stories of that kind, maybe I should have trusted him to understand what I meant  (however nice it is to hear one’s name uttered in the same breath as Heinlein’s.)

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One thought on “Right- and Left-Handed Compliments

  1. I remember being fond of Laumer’s diplomatic stories, though he never seemed to have another such felicitous idea. (Not that I discovered, at any rate.) I also remember reading someone’s personal reminiscence of a meeting with Laumer, and came away with the impression that he could be dangerously bad-tempered and egotistical. Of course, other science fiction writers, known for the objectivity and impartial judements, could not possibly have misrepresented him…

    When many, years later, Babylon 5 appeared on the air, I was not that impressed. It adopted the stereotype quasi-military background from Star Trek, even though the mission was supposedly a diplomatic one. Why, I asked myself — and anyone else who would listen to me — didn’t they take a page from Keith Laumer? Build the series around a cynical career diplomat instead of another boring military officer? Anyone who has watched “Yes, Minister” or “Blackadder” knows that politics isn’t dull.

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