Retief: Envoy to New Worlds
Retief: Envoy to New Worlds. Keith
Original Publication: 1963
Current Availability: Print
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in July of 2009, and is reprinted in the August 2011 issue of Freelance Traveller and here with the author’s permission.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
Marc Miller has mentioned numerous books that influenced Traveller in just one of his interviews, and so I’m less convinced that they had much major impact on the game. Herein, I cover one of them.
This third review discusses Envoy to New Worlds, the first of Keith Laumer’s Retief books, which focus on an underappreciated diplomat, who gets his hands dirty on the galactic stage, but never gets the credit.
About the Story
Envoy to New Worlds is actually a collection of stories. They all center around Retief, a member of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, an organization which does its best to mediate disputes in a highly bureaucratic manner. Retief doesn’t really go in for bureaucracy, so he’s willing to take on a more hands-approach—often leaving his fellows aghast.
In “Protocol”, Retief is the only one who realizes that his diplomatic party is being insulted. In “Sealed Orders”, he has to stop a war between humans an alien race. In “Cultural Exchange”, a variety of problems come together, leaving Retief to skillfully juggle them. In “Aide Memoire”, we learn that even sponsoring youth groups can lead to problems ... when you’re dealing with aliens. “Policy” is about the hunt for a missing heavy cruiser—that only Retief seems to care about. Finally, “Palace Revolution” puts Retief right in the middle of things, as the knives come out.
They’re all short and succinct stories that mainly focus on how clever Retief is, even if he never gets the credit.
Genre & Style
Envoy to New Worlds is a bit hard to categorize, genre-wise. It certainly has the trappings of science-fiction, as Retief is hunting for a 20,000-T heavy cruiser in one story and is negotiating with aliens in most of the others. However, the trappings are just that. They’re the excuse for the story.
The book’s real genre is satirical-screwball-comedy of the sort that often goes after authority figures and their silly social mores. Here, it’s all about the idiots running the CDT who are too dumb to actually understand what they’re doing. I think of Envoy to New Worlds as more akin to P.G. Wodehouse than most books in the science-fiction category.
Stylistically, Laumer pulls off the comedy genre well. The stories read quickly and are fun. You can smirk at the failures of Retief’s superiors and smile at Retief’s successes.
Substantially, there’s not a lot here, however. In writing about the stories in this article, I found that I just barely remembered them, though I read the entire book in the last week. This shallowness is particularly bad in the first several stories, where the aliens are clearly just stage props. Later on, they get a bit of substance, so in “Aide Memoire”, for example, you can get a bit of an impression of the alien Fustians, who grow shells as they age.
With that said, I give Envoy to New Worlds a “4” out of “5” for Style, but only a “2” out of “5” for Substance.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
I came into Envoy to New Worlds not expecting a very close correlation with Traveller and that’s certainly what I got. It’s pretty hard to imagine what Marc Miller felt influenced Traveller in this book, because of the fact that it uses its science-fiction elements so much as backdrop.
The only thing I can see is that Laumer’s aliens might have influenced Traveller somewhat. As I said already, the Fustians start to imagine what a very alien species might be. You also have the Groaci, who show up in a few stories (and several later books), and I’ve got a vague impression of their race. So, a Traveller GM might get some ideas for how to differentiate alien races from this book too.
Nowadays, there’s one more element that might be of interest to a Traveller GM: the diplomacy. Unlike in the original Traveller game, there’s a diplomat subclass right in the core rules of Mongoose’s release. If that’s the direction you want to take your campaign, there's a nice set of potential diplomatic missions found in this book.
I’ll offer a grain of salt with all of that: I’ve only read this first Retief book. It feels a bit rough, and the stories clearly improved as the book went on, so maybe there was better developed background in later books that influenced Marc Miller and could influence GMs today. If you’re familiar with anything of note for Traveller in later books, please talk about it in the forums.
And I will add one other element from later books that I found interesting: the most recent Retief book, published after Keith Laumer’s passing, was written by William H. Keith Jr., a well-known Traveller writer from the 1980s. It’s called Retief’s Peace. I’m very curious to see what a Traveller writer has done to a series that had at least some influence on Traveller, and so that may be the topic of a later review.
Envoy to New Worlds is a funny but shallow book of interstellar diplomacy. If the series had any influence at all on the Traveller game, it’s hard to see it from this first book in the series.