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Literature / Retief

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A Science Fiction Comedy series by Keith Laumer which details the adventures of Jame Retief of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (Exactly What It Says on the Tin). Retief must contend with and solve problems involving a wide variety of bizarre alien species, while outwitting the main rival of the Terrans, the five-eyed, vaguely insectoid Groacióbut his primary obstacle often seems to be the hidebound Vast Bureaucracy he works for. Retief is about the only person who ever gets anything useful done, and then usually only by bending and twisting the rules to their breaking point and beyond. His sidekick-like immediate superior, Ben Magnan, is the only one in the CDT who even seems to recognize Retief's ability to get results.

The series consists of a large number of short stories and a few novels, and was inspired by Laumer's own experiences in the diplomatic corps in Burma, as well as the Cold War politics of the day.

Tropes appearing in this series:

  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: Generally completely averted, however members of the CDT are expected to pretend that this trope applies. It wouldn't do to offend a species by admitting that, for example, more than two minutes of nose-flute music causes a splitting headache, or that the delicate play of shades of ultraviolet on a painting is outside a human's visual range.
  • Aliens Speaking English: Quite common. Justified that the Terran diplomats either use translators, have studied the local language, or have given language educators to the local populace.
  • Ambadassador: Retief himself (though his unorthodox methods prevent him from ever rising to the rank of actual ambassador).
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: Pretty much all the actual ambassadors we encounter. In fact, pretty much everyone in the CDT except Retief, although Magnan is borderline.
    • Given that the CDT's idea of diplomacy is to maintain tensions with other nations at levels short of war ...
    • One notable subversion is an Ambassador Rainsinger, who appeared in just one story. Granted, he nearly wiped out all life on a certain planet through shortsighted actions, but he then acknowledged his error and went along with Retief on a dangerous mission that had a chance of saving everyone (and succeeded). Also, when he disagreed with Retief on the exact way to carry out the mission, he proved Retief wasn't the only "two-fisted diplomat" in the CDT. Retief won the fight, but admitted Rainsinger had "a pretty good left."
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The series is full of this. The aliens are generally extremely bizarre, often in ways that only Retief is smart enough to recognize. An extreme case may be the organic robotoids in Retief's War who have interchangeable parts.
  • Bizarre Sexual Dimorphism: In Retief and the Pan-Galactic Pageant of Pulchritude, an alien comments to Retief on the 'remarkable sexual dimorphism' of Terrans, after Retief slips a ringer into the titular beauty pageant: a female Bengal tiger. The alien doesn't notice the difference between human males and females, except to suggest that the human with the large protrusions on his (actually her) upper thorax might want to see a doctor about it.
  • Bowdlerise: There are minor differences between the original stories and their magazine versions. For example, the magazine version of "The Brass God" doesn't use the title "Pope", using Bishop instead. Another example is in "The Castle of Light", where the printed version removed any reference to the characters being nude and covered in mud.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Retief's superiors, often. One believed that a CDT member having a set of journals about pest control would mortally offend a race of arthropods, but saw nothing wrong with his own setting up of a world government run by a local tribe that was universally hated by all the other tribes for highly sensible reasons on the grounds that they were well known to all.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: Many of the aliens have bizarre ideas about how to deal with miscreants.
  • Corrupt Church: In "The Brass God", the Hoogans live under an absolute theocracy. Their Pope's whim is law—and his whim involves things like demanding that the CDT donate one million credits to him, personally, and ordering Retief to be tossed into a heated metal idol, as well as arbitrarily changing the day of the week.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Retief himself, along with many of the aliens.
  • Defector from Decadence: One of Retief's superiors is a Groaci.
  • Dirty Communists: The Groaci basically filled the role of the Soviet Union in the Space Cold War of the series. Lampshaded in "Pime Doesn't Cray", when it's revealed that they frequently build "Bolshoi-type Ballet Theaters" as gifts for planets they're trying to influence.
  • Double Speak: Used by the CDT and other diplomats.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Diplomat at Arms is the first story to be written (though it's set later than all the rest, towards the end of Retief's career.) It's a straight espionage/ action drama with none of the satire and low comedy of the other Retief stories; also, the CDT is portrayed as an extremely competent organization (capable of forging all sorts of useful documents for Retief's mission) and Magnan is actively conniving to ruin Retief's career by giving him an impossible assignment.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: Played with. Many of the stories start with an excerpt from the official records of the CDT, explaining the story you're about to read. The official version is always much different from what actually happens, of course. For one thing, Retief's name is rarely mentioned.
  • Extra Eyes: the Groaci have five.
  • Extreme Omnivore: In "The Garbage Invasion", the Basurans have consumed their entire native planet, and are looking for new ones to eat.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: Virtually all of Retief's superiors, who invariably take credit for Retief's work in resolving the diplomatic issue of the week, even if they were the ones who caused it in the first place.
  • Feudal Future: The Empire of the Lily on the planet Northroyal, in "Diplomat at Arms".
  • Flowery Elizabethan English: The Oberonians in "Ballots and Bandits" all speak like they stepped out of the pages of a Shakespeare play, for no apparent reason except Rule of Funny.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The Manpower Utilization Directorate, Division of Libraries and Education; the Motorized Equipment Depot, Division of Loans and Exchanges, etc.
  • Funny Foreigner: Runs both ways with the native aliens and the human diplomats. The aliens typically manage the Terran language and have some strange customs. The Terrans are often bewildered by these customs, and from the alien eyes humans are quite silly themselves.
  • Genuine Impostor: The punchline of "Diplomat at Arms", the story that caps the series. In his final mission, Retief is sent to a Feudal Future planet where somebody is causing trouble by claiming to be the heir of the long-lost Emperor who went away centuries ago and was never heard from again. His plan involves claiming to be an hereditary officer of the Imperial Suite-in-Exile, come to present proof that the self-proclaimed heir is an impostor who obtained his own proofs by deception and murder. The epilogue of the story finds Retief back among his colleagues in the Corps Diplomatique, who exclaim over the creativity of this ruse and how carrying it off must have required great insight into the national character of the planet... and the final sentence reveals that, although he left many years ago to join the Corps Diplomatique, Retief actually is a hereditary officer of the Lilyan Imperial Suite-in-Exile. This is hinted at in the earlier novel Retief's War, where a cousin of his (a beautiful princess) comes to visit him, and gets mixed up in his current adventure; at the end of the book, we find out that Retief is an officer - a general, to boot - in her world's armed forces.
  • God-Emperor: in "The Hoob-Melon Crisis", the Groaci ambassador to an empty planet declares himself king, and then, in great bit of broken logic, uses the divine right of kings as an argument to get himself accepted into the official Groaci pantheon, since he was the one who made himself king.
  • Guile Hero: Retief.
  • Heli-Critter: In Retief's War.
  • Human Sacrifice: in "The Brass God", the Pope of the Hoogans declares that Retief must be sacrificed in a heated metal idol to make up for his insult in talking to the wrong people.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: In a sense, Retief himself is this to Magnan, his immediate superior in the CDT, and the only person in the CDT who takes Retief at all seriously.
  • Initiation Ceremony
  • Kaiju: "Giant Killer" features a giant dinosaur called Crunderthush that the hapless Terran emissaries (sans Retief) mistakenly agreed to slay.
  • LEGO Body Parts: in Retief's War, the biological robot natives of Quopp all have interchangeable body parts they can trade with or steal from each other.
  • Luke Nounverber: used throughout the series.
  • Maximum Fun Chamber: Groaci Captain Thilf threatens his subordinates with being "pegged out in the pleasure pits" if he is allowed to die.
  • Meaningful Name: Ambassador Grossblunder, Miss Braswell, many more.
  • Mundane Utility: The Bolo Model WV/1 is a Continental Siege Unit with half-a-megaton per second firepower. The CDT attached a bulldozer blade and use them for strip mining. Averted when a particularly aggressive power knows the potential uses for a Bolo. Under the guise of a "equipment loan", the bad guys receive a CDT grant of 500 WV/1 "tractors", with the intent of using them for conquests.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Everyone in the CDT except Retief and—sometimes—Magnan, plus the majority of the Groaci, and many others.
  • Oh, Crap!: The mood that often accompanies the initial incident in a story.
  • Planet Eater: In "The Garbage Eaters", the Basurans want to take over the paradise planet of Delicia so they can eat it like they did their home planet.
  • The Peter Principle: The CDT is in a Peter's Spiral. Retief, however, will never reach his level of incompetence, since his superiors think he's already there.
  • Planet Terra: Humans are referred to as "terries".
  • Plant Aliens: Herby from the story "The Piecemakers" is a talking flower (although it turns out there's more to him than that).
  • Pointless Civic Project: Mentioned in "Dam Nuisance". A alien local asks Retief for CDT aid in repairing a roof. However, Retief notes that the Corps is prohibited from building anything useful - the CDT experts believe that it would cause the aliens to lose self-esteem as a result. However, our hero notes that the CDT is more than happy to construct something useless should the need arise.
    • In another story, the CDT is more than willing to provide an agrarian world with all sorts of engineers and technical advisers, but is utterly appalled by the notion of providing them with what they actually need - manual laborers to help with the harvest.
  • Professional Butt-Kisser: The CDT is full of these. Pretty much everyone short of full Ambassador rank needs this as a basic survival skill. Retief's inability to master the skill is one of the reasons he finds promotions so hard to come by.
  • Prop Recycling: Several elements of Laumer's Bolo series appear, including the titular super tanks, Infinite Repeaters, and the Terran Concordiat. Of course, this begs the question as to whether or not Laumer intended to set up a Future History.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Pretty much all of Retief's superiors in the CDT qualify, with the notable exception of Magnan, who rises to the level of near-competence once in a while.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Retief pulls one off in "Pime Doesn't Cray". In the course of finding a stolen theater, he freaks out a Groaci embassy, assaults its personnel, and steals a land deed. When the Groaci ambassador confronts his Terran counterpart about Retief, the human diplomat is incredulous. To him, Retief is just "the fellow who holds my suitcase."
  • Reverse Cerebus Syndrome: The first two stories featuring Retief are serious in tone, lacking any humor. But by Protocol, there was a shift into satire that the series is well known for.
  • Retcon: In the original version of "Courier", Retief realizes the locals of a planet are all telepathic. In latter versions, the line is taken out. Despite this, the story flows better without it, as the telepathy had no build up and doesn't add to the tale.
  • Rightful King Returns: Played with in "Diplomat at Arms". A Feudal Future planet with a legend that their true Emperor will return one day and lead them to glory has fallen victim to an impostor who threatens to lead them into war. Retief is sent to sort it out, and does so by persuading the imperial court that he is the true heir to the imperial throne, deposing the impostor, and sticking around long enough to straighten out some of the society's worst problems before abdicating in favor of the most competent noble he can find, heaving a sigh of relief, and going home.
  • Sand Worm: In the story "Internal Affair," the ambassador to the planet Quahogg is chased by forty-foot giant worms. They turn out to be the intelligent aliens he was sent to meet, and the only safe place for humans on the planet is inside a larger worm in which the smaller worms live. It's also intelligent and serves as the head of state.
  • Sealed Orders: In the story called, appropriately enough, "Sealed Orders," Retief is given sealed orders and sent to deal with a situation that's brewing between some Terran colonists and aliens called "Flap-jacks." Retief resolves the situation to the satisfaction of all concerned, returns home to witness his boss congratulate himself on the quality of the orders in the packet and Retief's ability to follow them, and then dumps the packet of orders —still sealed— down a garbage incinerator.
  • Space Cold War: Once the Groaci appear in the series, the analogies to the Cold War start coming fast and furious.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: Almost every one of the many bizarre alien species in the series comes with their own quirky way of speaking: To talk like a Groaci. Backwards everything say Slunchans the. Squalians eek speclusively in Spoonerisms. And so on.
  • Strongly Worded Letter: One of the CDT's favorite tactics. Much safer than doing anything (at least in theory).
  • Unified Naming System: The various government departments in Keith Laumer's series: "Manpower Untilization Department, Directorate of Libraries & Education", "Motorized Equipment Depot, Division of Loans & Exchanges", "Special Committee for the Reconstruction of Underdeveloped Nations' Economies", etc. (MUDDLE, MEDDLE, SCROUNGE)
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: This sort of thing happens quite often, given how diverse the aliens are.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Retief's basic technique is to go to the hot spot of the current situation, find a trustworthy local to tell him what's really going on, and then plan out how he's going to win on the fly.