Though little discussed today, back in the 1960s, Syracuse, N.Y.-born Keith Laumer was a hugely popular sci-fi author, largely by dint of his series featuring interstellar ambassador/mediator Jaime Retief, a series that began in ’63 and ultimately comprised some 18 novels and books of short stories. Somehow, I managed to miss the entire Retief bandwagon back when, and only recently realized that I still had not read a single Laumer book from any of his major series — the Retief series was just one of many — or even any of his stand-alone books. On a whim, I selected his 1965 offering A Plague of Demons, which was released as the author turned 40; a stand-alone novel that The Science Fiction Encyclopedia deems the best of his “taut, extremely efficient sf thrillers,” and one that Scottish critic David Pringle has called “perhaps Laumer’s most characteristic book.” As it happens, I chose well, and the book in question, to my great delight, turns out to be at once exciting, suspenseful, harrowing, well written, amusing and ultimately mind-blowing. In 1966, it was understandably nominated for the first Nebula Award, amongst some extremely stiff competition. No less than 12 novels were nominated for that first Nebula, including Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch AND Dr. Bloodmoney, Clifford D. Simak’s All Flesh Is Grass, Kate Wilhelm’s The Clone, and the deserved winner, Frank Herbert’s Dune. How would you like YOUR novel to be up against competition like that?
Anyway, Laumer’s book combines espionage elements with space opera to truly winning effect. A Plague of Demons is narrated by John Bravais, an agent who is asked to come to Algeria to meet his old friend Felix Severance, of the CBI (a combination of the CIA and FBI, we can only infer). Bravais learns that for many years, war combatants around the world have been going missing, seemingly vanishing from their fields of battle. Severance asks him to investigate, and it is not long before Bravais witnesses, during a campaign between Moroccan and Algerian troops, just what has been going on: Seven-foot-tall, skull-faced, occasionally bipedal aliens, vaguely canine in appearance, have been surreptitiously killing soldiers on Terran battlefields, slicing out their brains and storing them in vitro for some reason unknown! For the next 2/3 of Laumer’s book, the aliens, and their human cat’s-paws, chase Bravais from Algeria to Jacksonville, Florida, and then on to Coffeyville, Kansas and to Chicago; a nightmarish pursuit that Bravais survives only because of the PAPA (Power Assisted Personal Armament) modifications that Severance had made on his body, turning him into a superwarrior of sorts. But matters grow even more nightmarish for Bravais in the book’s final 1/3, in which he is captured by the aliens, has his own gray matter removed, and awakens on an alien moon in the midst of a battle, his brain being used to power and control a 70-foot-high, massive supertank, in concert with other tanks being propelled by the minds of Earth soldiers from many nations, some from as far back as 1,000 years ago!
A Plague of Demons was released at the height of the worldwide fixation with superspies and of 007-mania, and its homages to Ian Fleming’s most famous character are many. Not only do James Bond and John Bravais share the same initials, but their best friend and ally is a fellow named Felix (Felix Leiter, in 007’s case). Like Bond in ‘65’s Thunderball, Bravais comes equipped with a flying jet pack, which enables him to spy stealthily over that Algerian battlefield. And ultimately, Severance is revealed to be an operative of a highly secret, self-funded espionage organization, the Ultimax Group (and the fact that Benjamin Franklin is revealed to have been one of the Group’s founders, 271 years earlier, is as close as we ever get to figuring out the year in which the novel transpires: 2061 at the latest, since Franklin passed on in 1790). Laumer peppers his story with all sorts of high-tech spy gizmos; besides the PAPA and jet pack, Bravais employs a UV penlight, a finger-ring microphone for listening through doors, and an OE (optical-effect) suit that renders him practically invisible. Futuristic touches also abound, such as (the seemingly unavoidable) telephone screens and sliding pedestrian walkways, the police force’s ability to override the controls of any vehicle, cars that can be driven from Florida to Kansas in one night, a subsea tunnel extending from North Africa to Naples, and submarine oil tankers.
Laumer also seems to have learned something from Ian Fleming as regards the use of copious and telling detail to engender believability, and the employment of constant motion to propel a story along; the so-called “Fleming sweep.” A Plague of Demons does not let up for a moment, and indeed grows wackier and every more outrageous — winningly so — as it proceeds. The book is what I like to call “densely written;” that is, jam packed with incident and descriptive detail. It is often remarkable how much story is covered over the course of a 10-page chapter! I was often reminded of the early Alfred Bester while reading Laumer’s novel, and can well understand now why sci-fi critic John Clute has described Laumer as being an author of “manic panache.”
Perhaps I would be remiss if I failed to mention that, besides being an outrageous thrill ride, A Plague of Demons is often very funny, too. Indeed, some of Bravais’ throwaway comments are genuinely amusing; thus, such lines as “I was as weak as a diplomatic protest” and “The minutes crawled by like stepped-on roaches.” I love it! Then again, Laumer is also capable of coming up with a lovely turn of phrase, such as “The moon was up now, an icy blue-white disc glaring in a pale night sky, casting shadows like the memory of a noonday long ago.” I should perhaps also add that this novel would make for one truly sensational Hollywood blockbuster, if brought to the screen with care by a team of respectful filmmakers … filmmakers in possession of the requisite $200 million, of course.
The book’s alien monstrosities are truly frightening creations, following Bravais around the Earth relentlessly, abetted by their human-seeming accomplices. Paranoia thus abounds, and the novel features any number of thrilling set pieces, including Bravais’ battle with one of the aliens on that submarine tanker, the discovery of the underground Ultimax safe house in Kansas, and most especially the final sequence, in which the mind of Bravais takes over a cat brain-controlled octopoid repair mechanism (!) to infiltrate the aliens’ central HQ on that war-blasted moon. This last sequence, indeed, is one of the most exciting and imaginative that I have come across in quite some time; wild, wacky, improbable, and yet, gripping in the extreme.
Keith Laumer was not the first author to come up with the idea of a human brain powering a mechanical construct, of course, and indeed, I can fondly recall a Henry Kuttner/C.L. Moore story from 1945, entitled “Camouflage,” in which a human brain in a box runs an entire starship! But Laumer really does take that central concept and run with it here. It is a plot device that he was evidently quite fond of, resulting in his trilogy of Bolo books starting in 1976, dealing with another kind of sentient supertank. I would love to read them one day. A Plague of Demons is the kind of book that makes the reader want to dive into many more works in its author’s oeuvre, and thus, I already have The Best of Keith Laumer sitting on my bookshelf at home, waiting to be opened. Stay tuned…