Débrouillard is what every plongeur wants to be called. A débrouillard is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will se débrouiller-get it done somehow.
-George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
Brawn versus brains.
It’s an old complaint about adventure and science fiction stories by a certain audience more comfortable with rules, systems, and other forms of red tape. This superficial frame tends to ignore the cunning associated with those looked down upon for their brawn. It also tends to ignore the absurdities brought about by slavish adherence to the rules thought up by the “brainy” types. In short, the real conflict is between cunning and book-knowledge. And it is one that interplanetary diplomat Jame Retief, or “Retief of the Mountain of Red Tape”, knows too well.
Retief is a man of action and cunning in an organization caught up in academic rules, one too caught up in its own cleverness to understand when its diplomats are being insulted. A débrouillard, useful only for taking credit for his results. Not that his senior ambassadors would interpret Retief’s actions as anything other than slavish obedience to their own plan–even as they would be aghast if they ever watched Retief’s methods. If this sounds familiar to any real word organizations, it may be quite deliberate. Retief’s author, Keith Laumer, was a diplomat in the United States Foreign Service. And the same mind that gave us thundering siege tanks known as Bolos now takes a scathing eye to matters of diplomacy.
And in a universe of various and divergent levels of technologies, scientific understandings, and sophistications, the biggest bumpkins of all are the “professional” diplomats.
Well, most of them.
In “Sealed Orders”, Retief demonstrates this again as he lands on Adobe, a desert world on the verge of war over oases. On one side, the hard-pressed human farmers who are defending their homes against the ray-like Jaq. Known as the Flap-jacks, these aliens incessantly escalate their harassment, bringing in heavier weapons that the human irregulars cannot counter. The wisdom of Retief’s seniors is wrapped up inside a set of sealed orders set about to bring peace.
Retief instead wins over the farmers with one well-aimed punch and then heads out into the desert. Into Flap-jack territory.
“I must apologize for the awkward design of our comfort-dome,” said the voice. “Had we known we would be honored by a visit.”
“Think nothing of it,” Retief said. “We diplomats are trained to crawl.”
The Flap-jacks are polite and gracious sportsmen, and, oh my, do these human farmers put up a lovely fight according to Flap-jack rules. And, even better, those good old chaps on the farms want to up the game from a polite scrimmage to a merry scrum like the Flap-jacks haven’t seen in years. But while it might be neighborly not to refuse such a challenge, Retief must find a way to broker peace on Adobe before the warrior equivalent of a polite wrestling match brings total war–from the rest of the human galaxy.
The answer is far more direct than those sealed orders might indicate. How Retief manages to split the Gordian knot before him will be left for readers to discover. But, like 007 before him, the outcome is not in question–including how his senior officers react to Retief’s coup. At least sealed orders burn nicely…
Laumer consistently upends the expectations of the genteel and unknowingly provincial diplomatic corps with a wry sardonicism. Violence may be the last resort of the incompetent, because the competent may be forced to demonstrate his strength immediately. And such demonstrations may, in the long run, save more lives than incessant flattery and the low expectations of negotiators. In “Sealed Orders”, the mockery is subdued compared to the more blatant and scatological versions in other Retief stories, but the portrayal of Retief as a man of action amidst a sea of red tape is constant.
Good, after all, is not nice.