Leiber, Fritz (Reuter), (Jr.)

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Poul Anderson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020

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 corrupted air pervading a modern industrial city. (pp. x-xi)

The novels were inevitably excluded. But any discussion of Leiber's work, or of science fantasy as a whole, must consider them. They are few in number, but each is unique and, with two exceptions, of major significance in the development of present-day imaginative literature.

The first exception is Tarzan and the City of Gold, "only" a delightful continuation of Burroughs. Come to think of it, though, a scholar of English letters would find it most interesting to trace out how Leiber managed to convey the flavor of his model while avoiding all its crudities, outdoing Burroughs in every way that counts, and throwing occasional philosophical and moral issues into the bargain….

Doubtless many will argue with my assertion that The Green Millennium is not a landmark. It is, in the sense of being a fine book, highly recommended. But it carries further the world of "Coming Attraction" and "Poor Superman,"… and thus does not break new ground—by Leiber's standards—however inventive and often astoundingly witty it is. (p. xi)

[Several] of Leiber's stories are part of a series incorporating the many-branched time-lines whose origins were described in the short novel Destiny Times Three. Ranging from a placid utopia through a cruel dictatorship to a freezing ruin of an Earth—and beyond—this novel is more than a fast-paced chase story; it is a vatic study of power over nature and over man, so easy to misuse and so nearly impossible to use rightly.

Similarly, Leiber wrote a number of stories in what has come to be known as the Change-War cycles…. The heart of the cycle is in another novel, The Big Time. Few comparable tours de force exist anywhere in literature. The action takes place continuously in a single setting, a station outside the cosmos to which half-crazed soldiers from all time and space are sent for a little rest and recreation. Beneath the flamboyancies, tension racks up notch by notch toward a breaking-point climax followed by an ironic dénouement. It's fantastically good theater—literally. How I wish to see it staged!

Being such a virtuoso...

(This entire section contains 1020 words.)

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performance,The Big Time doesn't seem to have had any followers. I admit to keeping it in mind while writing my own A Midsummer Tempest, but cannot claim that that employs the dramatic unities as the former book did. Evidently nobody in our field can match Fritz Leiber here.

He went on to a different technique, the out-and-out satirical, in The Silver Eggheads. This account of an ultra-mechanized future lacks the misanthropy of a Swift but bites just as hard. I really think its blend of sardonicism, earthy (even slapstick) mirth, and underlying compassion is best likened to Aristophanes. (pp. xii-xiii)

[The Wanderer] concerns the effects on a large and varied cast of characters of a mobile planet coming near Earth. All kinds of things happen, all fascinating. But I have a reason for singling out the relationship, which eventually becomes erotic, between the human Paul and the highly evolved, feline-like Tigerishka. Leiber flinches no more from the fact that we are sexual beings than he does from the fact that we are limited, usually ridiculous, and ultimately mortal. (pp. xiii-xiv)

To be thus aware of mortality, and of the ancient deeps within us while we live, is not morbid but mature. Leiber can even laugh with them—not at them, which is an evasion, but with them. He does so in A Specter Is Haunting Texas. The satire there is more stark than in The Silver Eggheads, more reminiscent of Huxley or Heine though with a strong dash of … shall we say Buster Keaton? The hero, born and reared on the Moon, has in its low gravity grown up excessively tall and thin. Forced to visit Earth, he must wear a skeleton-like supportive framework which, with his black garb, makes him Death discarnate to the inhabitants of a crazy-quilt of nations formed after a nuclear war. One of his loves is equally a Death figure, the other Flesh itself. Needless to say, the author never puts it this crudely or obviously, and the overones are infinite. Perhaps no other modern writers except James Branch Cabell and Vladimir Nabokov have gotten such fun out of the human tragicomedy; and they, for all their wit, havé never had Leiber's uninhibited gusto. (pp. xiv-xv)

Poul Anderson, "The Wizard of Newhon" (copyright © 1974 by Poul Anderson; reprinted by permission of Ballantine Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.), in The Best of Fritz Leiber by Fritz Leiber, Ballantine Books, 1974 (and reprinted by Doubleday, 1974, pp. vii-xv).


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Fritz Leiber