Leiber, Fritz (Reuter), (Jr.)
Fritz (Reuter) Leiber (Jr.) 1910–
American fantasy and science fiction writer.
A writer of speculative fiction since the 1930s, Fritz Leiber received his first Hugo award in 1958 for The Big Time, a part of his acclaimed Change War series. He is noted for his skillful portrayals of the human condition within possible futures. Leiber has also been consistently praised for his strong characterizations, vivid, almost tactile imagery, and the ability to create dark atmospheres of terror and superstition in the midst of rational, modern settings. His theatrical background is evident in his use of settings which serve as imaginary stages upon which psychological dramas are enacted with precise, unpretentious dialogue. Nowhere is this sense of dramatic unity better demonstrated than in The Big Time, in which, for most of the action, a single room is used as the backdrop for a war waged through time.
Another important novel in Leiber's career is the earlier Gather, Darkness! It is typical in its posing of social commentary—in this case, the responsibility inherent in technological advancement—within an entertaining framework. His other Hugo winner, The Wanderer, again shows his concern for the individual within society. In allowing readers to anticipate imminent disaster through the eyes of ordinary people, he persuades them to care about the characters and their plight.
Leiber's fantasy chronicles, notably the Grey Mouser/Fafhrd stories, are among the most literate and realistic in the heroic-adventure form. Unlike many earlier varieties of hero tale, Leiber's stories have believable protagonists who owe their fortunes to resourcefulness and luck, rather than brawn and violence.
Because of the enduring quality and distinctive style of Leiber's work, many critics have decried the lack of recognition which he has received outside the community of fantasy and science fiction writers.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)
H. H. Holmes
Ever since its magazine appearance ten years ago, Fritz Leiber's "Conjure Wife" has been esteemed as the definitive novelistic treatment of witchcraft in the modern world. A precisely balanced blend of fantasy and science fiction, of psychological novel and suspense melodrama, it stands on a plane with Leiber's own "Gather, Darkness!" or "Destiny Times Three"—which means all of the impact and excitement of the best pulp story-telling, with a literacy and subtlety advanced well beyond most of Mr. Leiber's colleagues.
H. H. Holmes, "Science and Fantasy," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), December 21, 1952, p. 9.∗
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H. H. Holmes
You will recall from anthologies such brilliant Leiber stories as "Coming Attraction" and "A Bad Day for Sales" bitterly depicting a near-future American society in which present trends of sadism, exploitation and hypocrisy have reached their nadir of decadence. ["The Green Millennium"] is a full-scale novel of that society, evoked with Heinleinesque skill at detailed indirect exposition—and of how men rose from that nadir because a technologically unemployed young man happened to adopt a green cat and to glimpse a female satyr. It's a story as imaginative, unexpected, even surrealist as that odd but accurate synopsis indicates; and it's also a thundering action-melodrama, as it becomes apparent that the fate of the world hinges incredibly upon the green cat and every force in society, from the underworld to the Federal Bureau of Loyalty, concentrates on its capture. You may read this as an extraordinarily good suspense-thriller, or as the Writing on the Wall of a funhouse, reflecting in distorting mirrors the message that we are weighed in the balance; in either fashion, read it you must.
H. H. Holmes, "Science and Fantasy," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 15, 1953, p. 14.∗
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[Adept's Gambit], built around the characters of The Grey Mouser (personifying Harry Fischer) and the seven-foot sword-wielding giant Fafhrd (the romantic incarnation of Fritz Leiber, Jr.), is beyond question not only the first but the best of the entire series Leiber was to write about these characters…. From the moment that the spell is cast upon Fafhrd that temporarily changes every woman into a pig the instant he kisses her; on to the Grey Mouser's consultation with the seven-eyed Ningauble, gossiper with the Gods, about what to do about it; through the supernatural sword battle with Anara; to the finale, in which the adept turned to a mouse contemplatively evaluates its chances of killing a bear cub, the story is a delight to read.
Leiber's sense of pace, rich background detail, taut battle scenes, fine characterization, fascinating supernatural elements, together with his extraordinary talent for weaving tasteful humor throughout the entire fabric of his story—a talent unsurpassed by any living fantasy writer today—make this a classic fantasy. (p. 290)
In the outline for Gather, Darkness! Leiber suggested an underground using witchcraft and holding up Satan as its idol to overthrow the despotic scientific religion. (p. 293)
Perhaps Leiber was the better merchandiser of such ideas, possibly he was convincing where the others were not, but whatever the reason, and erroneously...
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The Times Literary Supplement
Imagined monsters are generally more successful than manufactured ones where nasty tales are concerned, and Fritz Leiber demonstrates this effortlessly with [Night Monsters]. One or two of the early stories tend towards the weak and garrulous, and "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes"—which is about the devouring She rather than vampirism proper—would surely have been impossible at a later stage of Mr. Leiber's psychosexual knowingness. But the more recent tales such as "Midnight in the Mirror World" are sincerely horrid, this particular one being an extension of Charles Addams's cartoon about the man in a washroom standing between double mirrors and seeing a dozen dwindling versions of himself of which the third or fourth version is emphatically not him at all. Mr. Leiber intuitively knows … that correct atmosphere can overcome most deficiencies of plot. His imagined fragments of dark have a tactile quality about them such as only the best writers in the genre achieve.
"Science Fiction in Short," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3769, May 31, 1974, p. 591.∗
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It's too bad that we have no tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser [in The Best of Fritz Leiber]. Not only did that charming pair of rogues—the tall Northern barbarian and the small city-bred trickster—launch the author's career; they are still going strong, to the joy of everybody who appreciates a rattling good fantasy adventure. But by no means are these stories conventional "sword and sorcery." The world of Nehwon is made real in wondrously imaginative detail, its human aspects as true as in any conscientious job of reporting. To visit the city of Lankhmar is to learn what decadence in fact means; to roam with our vulnerable vagabonds is to experience pity and terror as well as suspense, wry humor, and uproarious hilarity. Here Leiber in his way—like the late J.R.R. Tolkien in his, and not vastly different—has done, and is doing, for the heroic fantasy what Robert Louis Stevenson did for the pirate yarn: by originality and sheer writing genius, he revived an ossified genre and started it off on a fresh path.
I could likewise wish that this book held a sample or two of Leiber's horror stories. In my opinion, which Fritz modestly does not share, Lovecraft and Poe himself never dealt out comparable chills. The typical Leiber frightener gains tremendous power by its economy, its evocative contemporary setting, and its bleak brilliance of concept—like "Smoke Ghost," to name a single tale, whose phantom is in and of the...
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All I ever try to write is a good story with a good measure of strangeness in it. The supreme goddess of the universe is Mystery, and being well entertained is the highest joy.
I write my stories against backgrounds of science, history and fantasy worlds of swords and sorcery. I write about the intensely strange everyday human mind and the weird and occult—about which I am a skeptic yet which interest me vastly. I always try to be meticulously accurate in handling these backgrounds, to be sure of my facts no matter what fantastic stories I build from them.
The tales in [The Best of Fritz Leiber] are predominantly science fantasy. They are arranged in the order in which they were first published, all except "Gonna Roll the Bones." It seemed best to lead off with a story that displayed to advantage all my talents, such as they are. It was actually written next to the last of the twenty-two stories in this book. (p. 298)
["Sanity" and "Wanted—An Enemy"] reflect my wry worries about war, pacifism, and world government….
"The Ship Sails at Midnight" is the romantic tale of a love that was unconventional, at least then. The goddess Mystery makes an appearance, perhaps. I picked it as my best single story for an [August] Derleth anthology….
["Coming Attraction"] was denounced by a minority of its first readers as Unamerican (I don't know why—it's...
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For more than thirty years, Fritz Leiber has been giving his readers glimpses of Heaven and Hel in his own special time machine/spaceship theater. One might describe it, if the metaphor is not too conventional, as the theater of his imagination. Such a metaphor is more accurate than usual in the case of Leiber, since he often designs his stories according to theatrical conceptions. (p. v)
The influence of theater upon his work is more than just a simple costuming of his fantasy and science-fiction stories in the paraphernalia of the stage, more than just the fact that his characters often perform plays or put on little shows or gather together for poetry and song recitals in the course of their adventures. The ideas, structures, and machinery of the drama, as practiced from the time of the ancient Greeks right up to the present, are such basic elements in his fiction that it is difficult to find a Leiber story or novel that does not, in some way, suggest his ties to the theater. (pp. v-vi)
Leiber's work has been distinguished for his ability to create mood, especially the dark mood of the occult and supernatural, and to tell stories complex in plot and theme at a fast pace. He is perhaps better than any other fantasy-sf author at creating good dialogue (although in some science fiction circles, that observation might be classified as faint praise). He has the knack of writing emotionally-charged dialogue that is...
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ALEXEI PANSHIN and CORY PANSHIN
A Specter Is Haunting Texas resembles Fritz Leiber's very first science fiction novel—Gather, Darkness!…—in being an intermittently satirical melodrama about revolution. The target of both satire and revolution in Gather, Darkness! was organized religion. The target in A Specter Is Haunting Texas is Texas—which is to say the American impulse toward gigantism. (p. 15)
The differences that twenty-five years have made are that the satire in Specter—while it lasts—is painted in broader strokes than the satire in Gather, Darkness! and that the revolution in the newer book is a temporary failure rather than a success. Otherwise, the books are much of a piece.
At its best, Specter is not particularly original. It covers ground covered better in the Fifties by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire…. [Its] greatest strength, in fact, is in conceits and occasional lines. And two-thirds of the way through it falls apart, its satire forgotten in favor of the melodramatic requirement of movement at any cost. (pp. 15-16)
A Specter Is Haunting Texas, like Gather, Darkness! before it, is without the same claims to stature, similarly spoiled. (p. 16)
Alexei Panshin and Cory Panshin, "The Elizabethan Theatre in 1590" (copyright © 1969 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted by courtesy of Advent Publishers,...
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[In The Golden Bough Sir James Frazer deduced] that in essence primitive magic was not like primitive religion, as most observers had assumed, but was instead similar to science, in its belief that the universe was subject to "immutable laws, the operation of which can be foreseen and calculated precisely". The Golden Bough makes this claim overtly…. [And] it is a relatively short step from saying that magic is very like science to saying that it is actually a form of science. It is this further step which many science fiction authors have, with varying levels of seriousness, been happy to take. (pp. 121-22)
[The] real potentials of the "Frazerian" story were exposed as well as anywhere … by Fritz Leiber's unduly-neglected novel, Conjure Wife…. (p. 122)
Leiber's hero, Professor Saylor, discovers suddenly and by accident that his wife has constructed round him a great web of magic defences to cover him from the malice of the other faculty wives, all of whom, like her, are witches by instinct and tradition. Dismissing it as superstition, he makes her burn her charms; and then, of course, his life turns into a paranoid's nightmare, with student accusations, missed promotions, charges of academic plagiarism, and so on. In the end his wife, left magically defenceless, is turned into a soulless zombie by her female enemies…. [While Leiber's] images of the powers of witches...
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[Our Lady of Darkness is] an absolutely superb book, Leiber's first novel of the supernatural since the incredible Conjure Wife…. (p. 4)
While the novel is easy to read and follow, almost every page is filled with little sub-plots and commentaries that shift and slide with ambiguous purpose. The reader who is familiar with Leiber's own background may be convinced the book is only a thinly disguised autobiography embellished with interludes of supernatural horror. And those with a solid grounding in supernatural literature and the histories of its practitioners (especially H. P. Lovecraft) will understand how Leiber is creating a fantastically successful tour de force of the entire genre. The whole performance is a sophisticated sleight-of-hand creation that may seem perilous to "mainstream" readers … but is not so esoteric that it cannot be enjoyed simply as a witty, amusing and, finally, terrifying tale of occult forces at work in the modern world.
What is especially remarkable about the book is Leiber's cast of characters, the most engaging ensemble to appear in many years.
Franz Westen is recovering from a long bout with alcoholism and the death of his beloved wife, Daisy. His private quirks … become not only a revelation of character but an important aspect of the half-century curse and how it will seek to destroy Franz by taking advantage of his own psychological weaknesses....
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Mary S. Weinkauf
The Book of Fritz Leiber includes ten stories and nine essays illustrating his range…. Leiber's imaginative and playful range of thought brightens up the topics he chooses, though his reviews and the essays on foreign words and King Lear are not particularly stimulating or new. Very few of the stories other than "The Spider" and "Cat's Cradle" match the quality of his commonly anthologized fiction or of those which have won awards, giving the suspicion that this is a way to collect the also-rans in permanent form….
Although Leiber comes right out and says what made him write these pieces and that Lovecraft and Shakespeare are his chief literary influences, the book also shows his enjoyment of language, his appreciation for Renaissance and Jacobean drama, and his interest in the way the human mind solves everyday problems and how that carries over to the way it handles paranormal ones. Leiber's best work gets inside the human mind and down to the layers where myth waits to unite individual experience to the pattern we call humanity. In short, this book gives only a very limited sampling of a respected writer's great skill….
Mary S. Weinkauf, "Paperbacks: 'The Book of Fritz Leiber'," in Delap's Fantasy & Science Fiction Review (copyright © 1977 by Richard Delap), Vol. 3, No. 4, April, 1977, p. 29.
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[Many of the pieces in The Worlds of Fritz Leiber] are either overwritten or unimaginatively resolved, if not both together…. [To] Leiber's credit is the fact that none of these stories pretends to be anything more than an entertainment—even though he manages to touch on such weighty subjects as political witch-hunting, cold-war politics, the Bomb, father-and-son relationships, bungling bureaucracy, growing old, cats, and (obsessively but chastely, as if afraid to confront a healthy lust in anything but the most decorous or tangential terms) nubile and pre-nubile young women. Fine. The problem is that too many of these entertainments are so trivial as to be irritating or so facile in their resolutions as to border on cliches. Many would benefit from cutting. (pp. 29-30)
["Catch That Zeppelin!" is fascinating] and believable historical speculation, and Leiber's erudition shows to good advantage.
Structurally and stylistically, however, the story is a failure. Leiber resorts to the expedient of making one of his characters a "social historian" who lectures his father, the narrator, about all his most recent findings. And, at the story's end, when the narrator is finally cornered by an enigmatic Jew who has been following him, two puzzling but disgracefully convenient shifts of the temporal continuum return him safely to the present. That, friends—unless your name is Euripedes, and maybe even then—is known...
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Night's Black Agents, a collection of Fritz Leiber short work, is an outstanding bargain. Leiber is famous for being neglected. That is to say, periodically a critic discovers that this still-active master storyteller has been consistently ahead of his time over a very long career in SF. What matters truly is that, whether as a traditional fantasist, or a sword-and-sorcery writer, or an artist of "straight" science fiction, Leiber is unfailingly entertaining on a very high level…. Night's Black Agents is a sampler of Leiber at his best, and of the best that SF can attain in many of its modes. (p. F2)
Algis Budrys, "Tales of Time and Space," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), March 5, 1978, pp. F1-F2.∗
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Here is a mistake from Fritz Leiber, though it warms the heart. Our Lady of Darkness is a mistake of displacement. Whatever one reads of Leiber, in whatever genre he presents to us his skill and touch, the implied author (the author visible in the text, all we have a right to know) who speaks to one seems to exhale a kind of shy sacrificial gravitas, however garish or commercial the story he's telling happens to be. It somehow seems brave for an adult person like Fritz Leiber to expose himself without condescension or disguise to a readership comprised of people like us—young, claquish, aggressive, intrusive, we tend to demand complicity of our authors, and to punish those who turn a blank face, or (like Silverberg) a mask of anguish. Perhaps anguish comes too close to the foul rag and bone shop to be amenable to claims of complicity. And perhaps Leiber was after all right, in Our Lady of Darkness, to avoid telling the tale of anguish and mourning that lies palpably at the heart of its inspiration, and instead to displace that story into a routine tale of externalized haunting, even though injected with elements of an sf rationale, a good deal of social realism scarifyingly illuminating about life in California now (and in our future soon enough), and some interesting speculative musing about what the modern world-city may be beginning to do to us. (p. 64)
[The] implied author of Our Lady of Darkness...
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[The Change War] stories reflect Leiber's fascination with the instability of much of modern American life. In Leiber's best fictions he is able to endow this instability, this American capacity for change, with a profound supernaturalism that can turn the most freakish accidents of urban chance into nightmares of paranoic intensity.
The Changewar plots are created around the premise that there are two forces in the universe battling for supremacy in the greatest war ever—a war conducted in all places and over all time. The war's object is to alter the course of past and present history in favor of one or the other of the two forces, known as Snakes or Spiders. At the end of time one side will have ultimately won by actually channeling history to its advantage. (pp. vii-viii)
The Changewar is an exercise in thought that can be carried in many directions, and most other writers would have taken it elsewhere. By choosing as he has, Leiber scorns some easy crowd-pleasing effects in order to test the boundaries of science fiction and gothic horror as they apply to modern life. In this he is foregoing the traditions of both fields and attempting something new, exciting, and quite valuable. Leiber writes in the tradition of the English, French and German gothic writers of the early 19th century who reacted to their revolutionary age by acknowledging the vastness of human ignorance. But Leiber also stands with the...
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The Big Time introduces the "Change War" world in which a vast war is conducted through space and time by "Spiders" and "Snakes," and by humans and extra-terrestrials who have the rare quality of flexibility and alienatedness that allows them to be recruited out of their ordinary life and time into the big time, the world of all times and possibilities. Many time travel stories suggest that one might travel to the Ice Age, mash a blade of grass, and change all history…. But if you think about it, if time travel is possible, then all of time must exist at once in some sense—the past cannot have wholly disappeared if you can get to it, nor can the future be wholly unmade if you can go there and back. This raises the question as to how one can change the future or the past. This also raises the question: what is "the present"? If you can travel the big time continuum of space-time-history from ancient Egypt to the distant future, who is to say what slice is the present? Strikingly, Fritz has an elegant answer to these questions: the "law of the conservation of reality."
The idea is to extend the conservation laws of physics once more, into the psychological, historical, and higher physical sciences. (p. 12)
The law of the conservation of reality, like the other conservation laws, suggests that nothing is really lost, nothing spontaneously evaporates or appears: you can, with a great expenditure of...
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The element of change and the effect it has on human society is a persistent theme in Leiber's fiction, and he is one of the few science-fiction writers of his generation to consistently stay abreast of the cultural changes around him. Leiber, above all, has been aware that change—or evolution—is not only inevitable, but necessary to human growth. It is a theme that is most obvious in his Change War stories, but it can be found in subtler forms throughout his fiction. (pp. 13-14)
Gather, Darkness takes place in the far future on Earth, with a group called the Hierarchy holding sway over the commoners. The religion they have formed is a corrupted form of Roman Catholicism, with a structure reminiscent of Dante's Inferno. The priesthood is defined by a series of circles, with the outermost circle being the first, and the whole governed by the Apex Council, within the seventh circle. The Hierarchy has sole control over the highly advanced technology which makes the priests' lives so comfortable; the commoners are reduced to a state of physical and intellectual poverty comparable to the peasants of Europe's Dark Ages. As priests advance inward, they receive more and more information about the real activities of the Hierarchy. Those in the Apex Council have achieved the peak of cynicism and available knowledge. (p. 20)
[Brother Goniface, one of the archpriests of the Apex Council,] faced with the...
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