Worlds of the Imperium

by Keith Laumer

Cover image

Series: Imperium #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 1962, 1965
Printing: September 1982
ISBN: 0-523-48546-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 288

Buy at Powell's Books

Brion Bayard, the first-person protagonist, is a US diplomat who, as this novel opens, is kidnapped from the streets of Stockholm, Sweden, by interdimensional travelers. As we quickly learn, his world, much akin to our own, is one of only three Earths found intact in the multiverse. Most of them have been either corrupted or utterly destroyed by disaster. The Imperium is the (largely British) government of the world that has developed interdimensional travel after diverging from Bayard's timeline in the late 1800s. They've kidnapped him from his own world to serve as a weapon and agent against the third world discovered in the Blight, one that seems unremittingly hostile and warlike and which is starting to attack the Imperium.

Worlds of the Imperium looks at the start like it may be a novel about interdimensional travel and exploration, but Laumer limits the possibilities severely with the Blight. The stage is narrowed to only three variant Earths, and one of those is only seen in Brion's background. It is, instead, the story of a war between two alternate histories fought with occasionally advanced technology. The plot is of the secret agent thriller variety, about infiltration and political maneuvering. It moves right along — the whole novel is only 178 pages — but it also isn't going to give you many plot elements you've not seen before.

I wanted to like this more than I did, since I think the concept is inherently interesting and the Imperium modeled after the British Empire is moderately entertaining. But I wanted more alternate worlds, a plot with more SF involvement than this one, and characters I liked a bit better. Brion has an edge of cynicism that gives his character some shape, but the rest are one-dimensional. The romantic subplot feels entirely obligatory and awkwardly tacked on, and the characterization of women isn't worth thinking about. There are also some linguistic quirks that kept knocking me out of the story, such as the habit of just about everyone of referring to others as "old boy," "chief," and similar terms, and dialogue that's a bit too far towards pulp for my taste. The collective impression is a pulp adventure story that, despite it's better-than-usual premise, is not particularly well-written.

There are more Imperium stories, some of which probably get more into the SF elements of the world that I'd like to see fleshed out (such as additional worlds, or more about the mechanics of interdimensional travel), but the writing just isn't good enough for me to want to read further. Laumer is best-known for his Retief novels rather than this series, but based on this one sample I'm not inclined to give him another try.

The edition of Worlds of the Imperium that I read included two bonus short stories. I wouldn't try to find this edition even if you wanted to read this book; the short stories were actually a detriment to the work as a whole. The book would have been better if they were omitted.

"The War Against the Yukks": This has the dubious distinction of being possibly the worst short fiction I have ever read. An archeologist uncovers an ancient spaceship at an Aztec site, and from there stumbles into an ancient war with only one surviving base. I will now completely spoil this story in order to explain why no one should waste their time reading it: the war was a literal war between the sexes, and the surviving base (from eight thousand years ago) is all female.

This is an attempt at humor. Some degree of offensiveness is definitely permitted in the name of humor. But this story is such an egregious collection of thoughtless stereotypes that it cannot be redeemed by some slapstick. It is, from pretty much top to bottom, systematically misogynistic in its choice of topics and portrayal of characters, assigning to the women ridiculous and infantile attitudes towards practically everything but most notably sex. And, of course, the male protagonists are irresistable (which makes absolutely no sense in a society that's not seen men in living memory). Every time I thought it couldn't get worse, it did.

It's extremely difficult to write a story about radical gender separatism without getting preachy and falling into stereotype traps concerning one gender or the other. When this is done in the name of feminism as a form of protest, examination of a history of sexism and abuse, or as a radical inversion, this is somewhat forgiveable, although it often still makes for bad fiction. When it's done on a humorous lark to make fun of women, ugh. I will be generous and write this one off as a miserably failed joke. (And yes, the writing is also of poor quality, although not as offensively so as the idea.) (1)

"Worldmaster": This story is, thankfully, better. (It would almost have to be.) After the conclusion of a nasty space war, one side is left standing with control of the best military flagship anyone has built. The admiral plans to use it to end the war between two superpowers by taking total control of the Earth, for supposedly the best of motives. The protagonist sets out to stop him because, well, because that sort of thing is not done. (Admittedly, the reader can fill in all the reasons fairly easily, but I would have liked to see them play a larger role in the story.)

As with Worlds of the Imperium itself, the setting is thin background for a thriller-style plot involving the protagonist first trying to find allies to stop this and then trying to put a stop to it himself. As with the novel, it zips along reasonably well, but I kept stumbling over idiom and language. I, for one, am happy that such similies as "transparent as a bride's nightie" concerning things that have nothing to do with either brides or sex have fallen out of the language. The sexism fairy has been busy on this one.

Anyone familiar with military SF or US conservatism can probably write most of this story from the premise. Nothing is particularly surprising, and while the pacing is good, I mildly disliked everything else about the story, from the writing to the characters. It's not a horrible example of it's type, but it's shallow. And, sadly, not the shallowness of a story that's just having fun, but instead the shallowness of a story making a simplistic political point that's already been made many times by better stories. (4)

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-10-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21