Leiber, Fritz (Reuter), (Jr.)

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Jeff Frane

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2667

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 realization that the Witchcraft has begun to create a real threat to the Hierarchy, has decided to foment a minor crisis in an attempt to draw out his opponents. (pp. 20-1)

The members of the Witchcraft have developed all the "mummeries" of Black Magic in the same manner that the Hierarchy has adopted the trappings of the Christian church. They have "familiars," attendant beings grown from their own tissue (a concept considerably predating research into DNA and cloning); the rocket-powered "angels" of the Hierarchy are fought by similar missiles disguised with batwings and leering faces; and they haunt the countryside, frightening commoners and priests alike. (p. 21)

The obvious decadence of the Hierarchy … provides a more realistic venue for a successful revolt than that of many science-fiction stories. The concept of a small group, or a single individual, leading the liberation of society from an all-powerful, oppressive elite is a common theme in science fiction. In Gather, Darkness, the Witchcraft ultimately succeeds, but it does so because it has arisen at a time when the Hierarchy is already crumbling from within; Goniface has seen that his own rapid rise, virtually unopposed, is not the sign of a vigorous state.

Gather, Darkness, although couched as an adventure tale, posits some questions about the functions and responsibilities of scientists that are particularly relevant to today's society. At the conclusion of the book, it is clear that no simplistic answers are offered, even within the context of a "happy ending." (p. 22)

While acknowledging the real benefits of technology, Leiber is offering cautions. Scientists have no reason to assume a godlike status, and equally, this status should not be conferred upon them by others. There also seems to be a message to the "commoners"—the non-scientists—that it is their responsibility to gain as much knowledge about what scientists are working on, and the manner in which the world is constructed, as is needed to make informed decisions within society. Considering the fact that this novel was written several years before the revelations about the Manhattan project and decades before such volatile subjects as research into recombinant DNA, it is a message that seems prophetic indeed. (p....

(This entire section contains 2667 words.)

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The Big Time is a highly compact book, only 129 pages long; yet within it Leiber has created what may be structurally and emotionally his best novel. It is very deliberately modeled on the dramatic form…. Following the demands of the dramatic form, much of the information and significance is carried through the dialogue, and the prose is impressively lean.

The novel opens with a narrative introduction. Greta Forzane, the point-of-view character throughout, is a participant in the action to follow, but at the same time is a careful observer; her occasional failures to see things happening on stage are simply those failures that a playwright would rely on from a live audience. Greta herself is a fusion of audience and narrator. (p. 24)

Greta sets the stage, describing its location and physical appearance. Then each of the on-stage characters is introduced, each located physically and given a brief précis. We are actually being given only a little more information about each than would be offered in a theatrical presentation, and in fact, a good deal of what Greta says about them could be suggested by careful costuming and direction….

The characters that fill the stage of The Big Time are from a wide variety of times and places, and only the dialogue (and costuming) is available to communicate this to the audience. At times, the speech patterns seem to verge on the stereotypic, but some such device as this is necessary to communicate information in theatrical terms.

The New Boy (Bruce Marchant) is clearly British with his first line: "Why'd you pull out so bloody fast?" Erich is clearly German: "Didn't you feel their stun guns, Dumpkopf, when they sprung the trap—too soon, Gott sei Dank?"

We are thus immediately presented with the conflict that will gather throughout the story, not only the obvious falling-out between two war-companions, but the concern that Bruce has with his own fears of war and cowardice, and the enormous ego that drives Erich. (p. 25)

A great deal of the insecurity and internal conflict of all of the characters stems from the problem that Marchant outlines…. All of them are being manipulated by forces that they have no direct contact with or knowledge of, and they are sent out into a battle whose direction and purpose are equally unknown. They have been told that their enemy is "bent on perverting and enslaving the whole cosmos, past, present, and future,"… but they have no real way of evaluating this assertion….

We find that the opposing sides are involved in a conflict that ranges up and down the line of history and spans the galaxy The Snake and Spider leaderships, whoever or whatever they might be, are attempting to create some final result by altering or eliminating entire cultural patterns and societies. The concept itself is not completely original within science fiction, but Leiber adds an element that resolves a number of paradoxes inherent in time travel as well as adding a certain scientific plausibility to the entire scheme. (p. 26)

[In the end], we learn that Bruce and Lili attempted to shut all of them off from the Change War, but it is clear that Leiber is saying that this is impossible; we cannot cut ourselves off from the real world and the changes that occur in it; we cannot escape to some place where there is no Change. (p. 29)

[The Big Time is] very likely Fritz Leiber's best novel. Rarely has his work—or any science-fiction novel—existed on so many levels and in such a compact form. (p. 30)

The Wanderer [is] a disaster story that, in some ways, became a formula for other writers to follow….

In most disaster novels, a prevalent sub-genre within science fiction, a natural cataclysm destroys most of human civilization. The author frequently begins the story with the approach of the disaster—whether it be impending comet, flood, plague, or wind—and skips back and forth among a number of characters. After the cataclysm, the characters are drawn together in the struggle for surivival, and the human element of interaction is used as a plot device.

In The Wanderer another level is added through Leiber's fertile imagination. It is also Leiber's first lengthy piece of what is commonly called "hard" science fiction, the type of story that requires a great deal of scientific research and extrapolation….

Through alternating chapter sections, Leiber introduces the reader to a series of characters around the world…. Leiber deliberately chooses what he calls the "'little people,' avoiding scientists, engineers, public officials, etc. The story is told in terms of individual and small group efforts at facing up to a (for the Earth) cosmic catastrophe." In fact, the only scientist mentioned in the book, Morton Opperly, is on-stage only briefly, and that at the end of the book.

Leiber carefully constructs an air of expectation. We know that something is going to happen but not what or when. At the same time, he involves us in the lives of his characters, so that their subsequent disruption will have some meaning for us, rather than being an experience that is happening to someone else we do not care about.

The Wanderer [an alien planet] appears suddenly in the night sky, immediately following an eclipse of the moon. (p. 33)

The Wanderer destroys and "devours" the Moon, and the tidal disruption of the Earth causes widespread earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and fires. Leiber's first-page parallel with the Earth and the human soul is very important, for the "deep fissures" are physical and emotional.

The added element of The Wanderer that so excites the imagination is the wandering planet itself. Unlike other stories, the causal agent in the disaster is not natural. The planet is an artificial construct; the inhabitants live throughout the interior of the sphere and move it around the galaxy. It is truly a wanderer….

The people of the Wanderer are rebellious types, fleeing from an oppressive galactic civilization that is slowly drowning out the lights of the galaxy. The picture that is drawn of that civilization is in distinct contrast to most science-fiction images; it is highly pessimistic, even though it does acknowledge a "superior" civilization. In a great many science-fiction stories, the offer from such an advanced extraterrestrial culture affords the bright promise of high technology and sophistication. In The Wanderer, however, the promise is grim…. (p. 34)

It is an appalling picture of the Universe that Leiber presents, yet ultimately as believeable and likely as that of one dominated by benevolent super-cultures, or lying open to human exploration in a parallel to the Great Frontier (with aliens/Indians occasionally in the way of civilization's expansion). (p. 35)

At the conclusion of the novel, a second planet arrives and a cosmic battle between the two visitors is briefly featured. The Wanderer departs with the police planet in pursuit. Leiber leaves us, however, with a feeling of ambiguity…. Although this disaster has ended, there is nothing that humans can do to avert a later and more final one.

Leiber's next science-fiction novel, A Specter Is Haunting Texas, also has elements of a "hard" science-fiction book. Unlike The Wanderer, however, it is composed of broad satire and betrays Leiber's gift for black humor. In this post-World-War-III world, most of the United States has been destroyed, and Texas has spread its borders to encompass most of North America. The Texan obsession with bigness has been personified in its white rulers, hormonally grown to giant stature. The other inhabitants, the Mexes, have been deliberately stunted and enslaved to further magnify the egos of the white Texans. Throughout the novel, Leiber satirizes then-current political figures and the institutions that fostered them: "Ever since Lyndon ousted Jack in the Early Atomic Age, the term of a President of Texas has been from inauguration to assassination. Murder is merely the continuation of politics by other means."…

Into this world Leiber drops the intriguing character of Scully La Cruz from a free-fall community orbiting the Moon. (p. 36)

The story moves quickly, through the charm of Scully's character and Leiber's undeniable gift for evocative visual imagery. The novel includes what surely must be the most vivid and believable description of what it would be like to be trapped in gravity for the first time in one's life….

In a somewhat atypical fashion, A Specter Is Haunting Texas has a "happy" ending. On the personal level at least, Scully's problems are solved. The revolution, in which he had little emotional investment, is less of a success. Leiber is not given to simplistic solutions. (p. 37)

[In the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser], Leiber has created what amounts to a saga, a heroic mythology built around two highly-developed characters. He has carried them from youth to near middle-age, and at the same time he has created a wholly fascinating secondary world, as complex and richly imagined as anything in "high" fantasy. (p. 38)

The earliest Fafhrd and Mouser stories were fairly simple adventures. Unlike the heroes of most sword-and-sorcery tales, Leiber's two characters rarely disengage themselves from a predicament through brawn (although Fafhrd is in many ways the physical stereotype of the hulking barbarian, and both are adept swordsmen) but rather through a combination of wit and luck. Leiber, to some extent under the influence of H. P. Lovecraft, succeeded in infusing the stories with an atmosphere of melancholy; Nehwon (read backwards: Nowhen) is a land under the hands of capricious gods, and chaos rather than order is the general rule.

Most important, though, are the characters of the two heroes. The interplay between the small, clever Mouser and the towering, complex Northerner Fafhrd is intriguing from the earliest stories, and becomes more so as Leiber gains better control over his writing and "learns" more about the two characters.

The relationship between the two is that of two men, loyal to each other, occasionally jealous of the other's perhaps better fortune. From time to time one grows tired of the companionship, and conceives the notion that he could do better alone. Always, though, they find their lives intertwined. (pp. 38-9)

In the later stories, Leiber seems more sure of himself and his characters. He allows each to occasionally play the fool. Leiber also begins infusing a little of the real world into his created Nehwon, sometimes successfully, sometimes with jarring notes of anachronism….

In the most recent stories, however, this infusion from the outer world includes some of the author's reflections on the problems of hard drinking and finally introduces women characters who are more than complications or love interests in the lives of Fafhrd and the Mouser. (p. 39)

Taken as a whole, the saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser can be considered "mere" adventure stories. There is a very real tendency among some critical schools to denigrate the adventure story as being of lesser value than other types of fiction…. It must be remembered that the form itself is not indicative of value. The tales of adventurers embroiled in warfare and magic derive from the epics of Homer, the Icelandic Eddas, and such "adventure stories" as Beowulf. These stories continue to be important, and continue to be written, because they tap some aspect of the human subconscious that other types cannot reach. There are archetypes in all good fantasy, as in these stories, that touch us at a profound level if we allow them to. (p. 41)

Although we have noted a number of consistent themes in Fritz Leiber's fiction, it should be clear that he is in no danger of being termed a "one-story" author. Perhaps more than any other writer in the field of speculative fiction, Leiber has written in a wide range of styles and forms, ranging from social commentary to horror (often interweaving the two), black comedy to whimsy. Whenever he has dealt with a traditional science-fiction element, he has invested it with a new approach (e.g., time travel in The Big Time). (p. 42)

While other science fiction writers were producing adventures that spanned the galaxies, Leiber dealt with people, not in the mass but as individuals. It is perhaps this, his concern with and empathy for people as thinking, feeling, unique entities—an empathy shared only by such rare writers as Theodore Sturgeon—that has made Fritz Leiber one of the best-loved creators of speculative fiction. (p. 47)

Jeff Frane, in his Fritz Leiber (copyright © 1980 by Starmont House), Starmont House, 1980, 64 p.


Justin Leiber