Leiber, Fritz (Reuter), (Jr.) Essay - Critical Essays

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.∗

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.∗

Sam Moskowitz

[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 or not, in the minds of readers he came to be regarded as the transitional author who tied well-known elements of superstition to science in fiction.

Before the appearance of Gather, Darkness! Leiber was regarded as an important writer. That one story placed him among the "big names." Yet, its techniques and stylistic flow are clearly devices taken from Edgar Rice Burroughs; the author keeps two or more situations going simultaneously, carrying them along in alternating chapters. The chase scene in which the hero, Jarles, is rescued from the mob by the old "witch" Mother Jujy is obviously indebted to A. E. van Vogt's treatment in Slan, where Jommy Cross is saved from the mob by Granny. The personality changer used on Jarles is reminiscent of Stanley G. Weinbaum's "attitudinizer" in Point of View. From Leiber's own acrobatic tower in Two Sought Adventure comes the notion of the flexible "haunted" house. But these were merely ingredients that Leiber obtained for the literary stew; the spice he added to flavor it no one could lend him. There is the satire, pitiless in its excoriation of religion, satire deriving from Leiber's own personal observations. There is the cynicism regarding the scientists' ability to do any better than the politicians. There is the humor, mature, not light, not raucous, blending into the story. And there is the gift for characterization, effectively evidenced in Brother Chulian, Jarles, Mother Jujy, and the Familiar. (pp. 293-94)

Only slightly less successful than Gather, Darkness! was Destiny Times Three … to which Business of Killing …, a short story of the contemplated exploitation of simultaneous worlds, was a prelude. A machine built by an Olaf Stapledonian intelligence accidentally fragments the time stream of our planet into a number of "worlds of if," three of which, at least, have duplicated...

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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...

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Poul Anderson

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...

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Fritz Leiber

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...

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Robert Thurston

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...

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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...

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Tom Shippey

[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...

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Richard Delap

[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...

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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...

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Michael Bishop

[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...

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Algis Budrys

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...

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John Clute

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...

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John Silbersack

[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...

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Justin Leiber

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....

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Jeff Frane

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...

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