Worlds of the Imperium (1962) is a weakily-constructed work of parallel universes. The adventure is more James DiGriz than Jerry Cornelius, a pistachio-thin shell of pseudo-scientific buffoonery surrounding a core of nutty action.
The hero is Brion Bayard, an American diplomat in Sweden. He's an Ace Double-style uber-every-mensch, just one of the boys, yet strangely capable at everything he does. In Bayard's case, this involves astounding physical prowess and the constitution of a Gygaxian dwarf. Oh, he's also a crack shot.
Bayard is lurking around Sweden when he spots that he's being shadowed. He punches out his hapless follower, but is then overpowered by uniformed men that he takes for police. When he wakes up, Bayard is being held prisoner in a flying box-scout-ship poking its way through the multiverse.
It seems that our universe is a bit of a backwater. We live in a sort of renegade hillbilly timeline lost in the Blight - a sargasso sea of failed might-of-beens. One such failed universe involves an hulking mutant cow, a throwaway line that's easily the book's highlight.
The "hero" universe is that of the Imperium. In 1893, two Italian scientists discover "A-Lines", the trans-temporal ley lines that serve as highways through the multiverse. Drummed out of Italy, the Italians sell their secrets to the British. The British then signed a treaty with the Germans and the Ango-German alliance promptly bullied the Swedish into taking part as well. The three Empires formed a single Imperium, and, from 1900, began to explore all the realms of possibility...
The Imperium isn't perfect. With the bulk of the Empire (Impire?) focused on A-Line technology, they've slipped behind when it comes to developing things like nuclear bombs. They're also still stuck in a period of cultural goofiness. Besides being a monarchy, the Imperium is also all about shiny helmets, over-complicated uniforms, duels to the death and dumb titles.
After much scouting about the lines of Alternity, the Imperium finally discover another closely analogous world to their own. Unfortunately, as two Imperial ambassadors soon discover, it is quite hostile. In this universe, the world is a military dictatorship (as opposed to a, er... belligerant monarchy?) run out of North Africa. And the man in charge? Brion Bayard.
The thing is - the twin forces of Alternity and Goofiness both compel duplication. So the Imperium, our universe and this third universe all have overlapping people. For example, in our universe, Herman Göring is the marshal of Nazi Germany's military and a terrible person that died whilst awaiting execution for war crimes. In the world of the Imperium, he's a terrific chap, and one of the key players in helping all Alternity be filled with happiness and singing unicorns. Göring and Brion spend a lot of time getting drunk together. Ah, the larks. Mr. Laumer uses Göring to make two points. First, there's duplication between universes (isn't that nifty?). Second, he has all the class of our local kebab shop - down to the fried chicken pizza.
In Brion's case, his doppleganger is the warlord of the anti-Imperium. The anti-Imperium that has a nasty disposition, an atomic bomb, A-line technology and all the other ingredients it might need to beat the Imperium in a war. It takes a bit of convincing (and a terrorist attack by anti-Imperial forces), but Brion agrees to drop into the anti-Imperium, assassinate his doppleganger and rule that Universe. Lovely of him.
It all falls apart pretty rapidly. Brion soon learns that, despite their supposedly-identical appearances, he and his warlord don't seem to look alike (his other half? No legs. OVERSIGHT). This teeeny mistake is immediately recognizable upon his landing in Anti-Universe. Brion is promptly chased out of Evil Warlord Palace and forced to join the anti-Warlord underground in a desperate attempt to fulfill his mission. The world of the anti-Imperium isn't a particularly pleasant place (insert African vs. European racial undertones here), and Brion spends most of the book being chased / kidnapped / chased / captured / chased / punched / beaten / chased.
The pseudo-scientific setup is abandoned after the first few chapters - Worlds of the Imperium is mainly the tale of a manly assassin trying desperately to complete his manly mission. Brion isn't particularly well-trained, but his phenomenal physique comes in handy. He wins a lot of fist-fights and proves a crack shot with his super-science handgun. It is, in a word, boring. The complexity of the A-line-ridden Multiverse is a nice hook, but the actual plot is a bad episode of The Man from UNCLE.
Invariably, Brion confronts his other (better) half, figures out the real big bad and saves the day. Twice, actually, as there's a tacked-on denouement that's better than the "real" finale. There's also a love interest. She has two lines of dialogue, so Brion's probably not with her for her mind, but "she had red hair and wore a pale pink gown that started low and stayed with the subject" - one of the book's finer lines.
As this is the V Days of Rome, there are at three connections with the rest of the week's activity. First, this is an interesting approach to alternate history. A terrible follow-through, but an interesting approach nonetheless. Second, Worlds of the Imperium does an excellent job of evidencing the reductivist, misrepresented history that Ian Sales referred to earlier this week in his essay on Rome in Space Opera. The Imperium is the stagnant, decadent Empire with both the anti-Imperium and Our Universe providing a much-needed infusion of masculine, revitalizing barbarianness. Third, the cover art made this look Roman, and I fell for it.
Unless you have some sort of burning need to read a first person narrative about getting shit-faced with distastefully-reconstructed versions of Nazi war criminals, there's not much to recommend The Worlds of the Imperium. Mr. Laumer has an interesting concept and a dull plot - the reader would've been better off with the giant cow.