Saturday 15 December 2007

Review: A Trace of Memory by Keith Laumer

Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was a prolific American SF author who specialised in fast-paced adventure stories (of which the Bolo series, concerning intelligent tanks, is best known) and comic satire, notably in the Retief books about an interstellar diplomat. A Trace of Memory, published in 1963, is a stand-alone novel in the former category.

The story is set in the (then) present day with the protagonist a capable but down on his luck American drifter called Legion. He accidentally becomes involved with Foster, a wealthy middle-aged man, who is desperate to flee some unspecified danger. To make matters worse, Foster falls into a coma while they are on the run and, the next morning, wakes up not just restored but rejuvenated. He has the appearance of a twenty year old; but no memory of who he was or what had happened to him.

Legion is drawn along in Foster's search for answers to his identity, a search which ends in the discovery of an ancient control centre from where they trigger the recall of a spacecraft which takes them to its mothership in distant Earth orbit. Foster realises that he originally came from this ship; he is able to recover some general memories of his language and culture with the aid of mental-transfer teaching devices, but is still unable to discover his identity. Foster's people are related to Earth humans, but long ago overcame the disease which causes old age. They are virtually immortal, but every century or so their bodies reset to a younger age, when their memories are wiped. To overcome this, they download their memories ready for uploading afterwards, but Foster cannot find his old memory record.

Foster takes the mothership back to his home planet in search of answers, while Legion takes the shuttle, loaded with saleable high-tech products from the mothership, back to Earth to enjoy a life of wealth and ease. This does not last; he finds himself chased off Earth and decides to take the shuttle in search of Foster. On arrival at Foster's home planet, Legion finds the situation radically different from what he expected and there are various twists and turns before the conclusion.

This book is certainly a page-turner (I finished it in one sitting) with something of the style of an old-fashioned private eye novel; in fact, it reads more as if it belonged to the 1940s rather than the 1960s. I have to admit that while it's a fun read, it isn't brilliant; the characterisation is minimal, there is no mention of women except for the brief appearance of a girlfriend, and there are plot holes which suggest a rather cursory attention to logical consequences. I have a few more of Laumer's books which have been sitting on my shelf for decades, and I hope to work my way round to re-reading them in due course because I enjoyed them as a young lad, but on this basis I'm not too optimistic. Still, at least it's short!


Bill Garthright said...

Keith Laumer's early works were fun, if you didn't take them too seriously. In addition to the Retief series that you mentioned, I remember "Earthblood" (1966) as being a fun romp.

But after his stroke in 1971, his writing really deteriorated. And unfortunately, he re-wrote some of his earlier stuff, so you need to make sure you get the early versions. "The Stars Must Wait" (1990) is an example. I recently read this, and it's a very poor re-write of "The Night of the Trolls" (1963), which was MUCH better. The second half of the later book is filled with political commentary. Really bad.

Anthony G Williams said...

A pity about that. The conventional wisdom is that authors get better with experience (all that slaving away to perfect their craft) but sadly there are exceptions, for medical or other reasons.

Another of Laumer's early works (1965) of which I have very fond memories is 'A Plague of Demons'. That one will have to go on my "short" reading pile!

RossinDetroit said...

I found this book in 1970 at the very beginning of what was to be a deep lifelong involvement with SF. This story was a wonderful adventure for an 11 year old. I read it several times over the years and always enjoyed the stripped down plot, imaginative scene descriptions and vigorous action. I did wonder why the only mention of females in the whole thing was squealing dancing girls in a car chase scene. Despite their limitations, Laumer's books always entertained me with their characters and action. There's little more that I can ask from a book. I see a little of Keith Laumer in Neil Stephenson these days, in a good way.

Ray Girvan said...

plot holesYep. After a long break, I re-read this recently and wondered one or two things. For instance, population/fertility issues in a society of near-immortals. And is Legion doing the Vallonians a favour by restoring a fixed permanent feudal hierarchy? Nice for the Rthr and cronies, but not for the guy permanently reborn as stable-sweeper. It would have been a more satisying outcome for him to have disrupted the taboos on technology, but left them with the Change (periodic rejuvenation / memory wipe / start from scratch) as a mechanism for social mobility.