Leiber, Fritz (Reuter), (Jr.)

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Justin Leiber

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1692

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 reality through time-travel agents, transform something in the space-time-history continuum (replace Julius Caesar with a secret spider agent, throw a tactical A-bomb into the Peloponnesian War), but the rest of the historical continuum will conserve reality, it will change the absolute minimum needed to accommodate this intervention…. Time travel in ordinary time violates reality: reality reshapes the pattern of events so that the violation fits right in with a new reality of ordinary time.

What has to be the "present" in the continuum of ordinary time? The "present" is simply the slice of history that is most conserved, least changeable, most influential.

Formally, The Big Time maintains the most strict unities of classical drama. All the story takes place within a few hours and in one large room, a rest and recreation station outside of time. The cast—the Place is obviously a theater and the action dramatic—of entertainers and agents come from choice points in history, or slight-altered, "change-war torn" history. This provides the challenge of displaying very different accents and ways of thought together. The Place is like a ghostly theater in which characters from different plays meet. (pp. 12-13)

The mind is the big time. For we find there a constructed reality, a panorama of space-time-history that flexes and readjusts as one reconstructs the past and repredicts the future, reintegrates the macrocosm and microcosm: at the same time, in the mind's big time, there is the continual play of possibilities, of alternate histories and worlds. The cast of the Place worry that the Snakes and Spiders may have messed so much with the fabric of historical reality that it may fission, smashing the conservation of reality as an atomic bomb explodes the conservation of matter. But that's what madness is, isn't it? The Ego can put it together no longer.

You will also notice a view of the mind that is as old as Plato and as new as Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf: the mind is composed of many persons, forged in fear and love, from experience, history, and imagination, and when the mind acts or receives reports, it does so through one or another of these characters and must take account of that character's weaknesses. (p. 14)

[It] is part of my thesis that Fritz started with escapist, and deliberately unpretentious, genres—Id demanded gross meals, and shyness (murderous Superego) insisted on concealment in pulp genre—but, as Fritz improved his art and grasp of form, his artistic daemon, reflecting on past work and planning new, simply forced him to realize various pathologies in himself, forced him into better self-understanding….

Fritz soon grew unchallenged by the supernatural horror and sword & sorcery forms with which he began: once one gives oneself to art it may become discontent with simple tasks and low dreams. The first substantial works he made are rich in ideas and technologies, though retaining much of the atmosphere of the earlier tales. The unpretentious pose of professional pulp writer is maintained. The ideas and characters are there to wring the maximum punch from the dramatic, swift-moving action that clever plotting affords; style and narrative structure are unobtrusive. The protagonist is invariably an attractive and uncomplicated character with whom the reader may easily identify, both innocently awaiting the tricks that are in store. Though the protagonist often shares a couple of skills or experiences with the real Fritz—the writer has to know something about the settings he puts his characters into, surely—the protagonist is no confession of the real Fritz, nor is there any tricky interplay between protagonist and artist. All this begins to turn about in the later works. You're All Alone, Gather, Darkness!, and Conjure Wife of the 1940s are followed by The Big Time, [A Specter is Haunting Texas] and Our Lady of Darkness.

In You're All Alone … is one of the narrowest and most dramatic expressions of paranoia that I know…. It's a scary story, and should one stand back and think about it, suggests something about the writer (about a grim Chicago downtown business-and-bar world), but everything is done to lead the reader away from that issue, and the author has no place in the story. It's "you're all alone," not "I'm all alone," or even "we're all alone."

On the other hand, in The Big Time … we have not the simple paranoiac punch, but the gay, giddy, multileveled fabric of high art, of the "everybody and nobody," in which the Place, dancing with drama and history, is of course also revealed as the mind of Fritz Leiber and his Art….

[Gather, Darkness!] is one of the first and perhaps the classical novel of a future, post-WWIII world dominated by an authoritarian, medieval-modeled church hierarchy whose inner-circle employs a secret scientific technology to keep the superstitious public and lower priesthood under control. The action is dramatic and colorful, the technology cunning and charming, the plot stunningly well-constructed. One idea that gives the work its classical balance is the logic of a revolution against such a hierarchy of white magic: the revolutionaries will play satanists, a hierarchy of black magic which will dismay, frighten, or win over people who are adjusted to think in magical, not scientific, ways. (p. 15)

[But] when we get to A Specter is Haunting Texas …, we have a more multi-leveled, more comic and more realistic story of our post-WWIII future. Scully (Fritz, narrator, Death, Dark Art), actor from Circumluna, is dragged into the bent-back revolution against hormone-hiked, conquering Texans, who identify with LBJ and (no doubt) a certain war … And Scully knows that history is hardly ever a tale of technologically-inventive elites, coldly manipulating the credulous masses. You don't reason its craziness out, you sing it, chant it, farce it out. (pp. 15-16)

As Fritz' art has developed it becomes ever more willing to play and joke, to fool with words and themes, to inject comic gaiety into the midst of tragedy. (My favorite in the pure comic vein is "Mysterious Doings in the Metropolitan Museum,"… a tale of insect political conventioneering.)

I have suggested that as Fritz' art developed he came to employ richer and more complicated forms, came to use himself and his artistic self-image in his art, came to play the mirror tricks of high art. But one might argue that this doesn't fit the Fathrd-Gray Mouser stories with which Fritz began and which he has continued through his career. Surely, Fafhrd is a vision of Fritz himself, or so someone might object….

I am inclined to think that Fritz wasn't Fafhrd from the beginning. Though Fafhrd eventually becomes more Fritz-like. Certainly, there are some revealing and confessional changes as the saga develops. The first tales are quest stories in which the twain are lured into some doomful quest, drawn and nearly overwhelmed by some distant and lonely horror. The atmosphere strives for a relatively uniform feeling of somber eeriness mounting to arcane and chilling climax. As the latter stories appear, Fritz has a much surer and broader sense of language and plot. Comedy and gaiety invade the saga, romance and drunken silliness appear, and grand Lankhmar becomes central with its motley of religions, beggars and thieves guilds, necromancers and decadent aristocrats, gates and streets, mysterious houses and musty passages, shops and taverns, gods and human-like animals. My favorite is "Lean Times in Lankhmar," in which the penniless and disaffected twain separate, Mouser hiring himself out to a protection racket enforcer covering the religions that move up the Street of the Gods as they attract a following and down as they lose it, and Fafhrd becoming an acolyte of Issek of the Jug, swearing off booze and swords. The confrontation that must occur as Issek of the Jug moves up to the successful part of the street is managed with such astonishing deftness, twist upon twist, that one finds oneself laughing "too much, too much," only to have yet another carefully-prepared rabbit pop out of the hat, and yet another after that. The story plays effortlessly with the inversions of high art.

Fritz (and reality) seep into the saga world. Fritz has some fairly somber morals to point out about hard drinking that point much more to Fritz than to the Fafhrd of the very first stories. (p. 17)

Fritz combines an awesome and precise command of language with a joyous willingness to measure it against every sort of verbal challenge. Fritz' tendency to distinguish the smallest literary favor with precision and imagination is par with his tendency to treat even the most fetid and undistinguished humans with a respectful and friendly manner. (p. 18)

Justin Leiber, "Fritz Leiber & Eyes," in Starship, Vol. 16, No. 35, Summer, 1979, pp. 9-18.

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