Sam Moskowitz

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1382

[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.

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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 individuals on them leading different lives. One, an Orwellian world, decides to take over the original earth. The interplay of three alternate situations is again handled in the Edgar Rice Burroughs technique. Nightmares are explained as contacts with our duplicates on alternate worlds, as are many of our superstitions. Influences of H. P. Lovecraft are stronger here than in any other major Leiber story. Fundamentally, the novel is a fantastic allegory, splendidly readable, with fast-moving action, and thoroughly polished. (pp. 295-96)

Leiber had felt a lifelong dissatisfaction with the sexual patterns of Western culture, holding that unhealthy frustrations contributed to the "sick" aspects of our culture. His personal preference rested with the social mores of The Last Men in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men …, in which men and women live in groups "… but in most groups all the members of the male sexes have intercourse with all the members of the female sexes. Thus sex with us is essentially social."…

Leiber's ideas on sex were presented in such impeccable good taste that there was little reaction to them. The opposite was true of Coming Attraction …, which in every sense epitomized his second big successful period as a science-fiction writer. Coming Attraction introduces a British visitor to post-atomic-war life in New York City, where it is stylish for women to wear masks (since many of their faces were seared by atomic blasts) and where a warped culture has arisen which Leiber artistically unveils with magnificent indirection and almost psychiatric insight to produce one of the masterpieces of short science fiction. (p. 297)

[Leiber's award-winning novel The Big Time is a tale] of a war fought by changing the past and the future, and it is told in the vernacular of a party girl who is a hostess of The Place, a timeless night club suspended outside the cosmos. The philosophical upshot is the comprehension by mankind of a higher state of consciousness, and its evolution from time-binding (the unification of events through memory) to possibility binding (making all of what might be part of what is). (pp. 298-99)

[The Wanderer is about] a lacquered planet which abruptly appears in space alongside the moon, causing earthquakes and tidal disasters on Earth. This was intended to be the definitive world-doom story, told in alternating vignettes of various stratas of society.

Sticking close to grim "realism" has paid off richly in science fiction for Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham, John Christopher, and various others, and it might have for Leiber, too, but he wouldn't follow the rules. Instead of settling for a single departure from the norm and then throwing the spotlight on human reaction, Leiber has connected the actions of his characters with bizarre extraterrestrial happenings.

The story builds with increasing fascination into a highly advanced epic, conceptually in the vanguard of modern science fiction and to that degree gratifying to the seasoned reader sated with predigested pabulum marketable to the masses by virtue of a self-imposed limit on imagination. The world-doom story, with the focus entirely on the fate and reactions of the "man in the street," has been told with high skill and extraordinary effectiveness for over 150 years…. Yet, it is quite possible that in The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber has shown that there are ways of writing science fiction so that it can hold both the basic and the advanced audience. In attempting to show the effect of the catastrophe on a dozen or more people concurrently, Leiber's effect becomes unartfully choppy. Nevertheless, though the reader moves bumpily along, he remains interested, never losing track of the disparate variety of characters and situations. As the invading planet is discovered to be a propelled world, inhabited by multitudinous diverse creatures working in harmony; with their revelation of the state of galactic civilization and travel through hyperspace, the story moves into superscience, but this is balanced and even made more acceptable by contrast with more ordinary events on earth and the reactions of the earthmen. (pp. 300-01)

The Wanderer is flawed but far from a failure. (p. 301)

While Fritz Leiber has made his mark, his story is in every sense an unfinished one. The Grey Mouser series has established him as the greatest living writer in the sword and sorcery tradition. A pioneer in the attempt to modernize the ancient symbols of terror, he has also gained recognition for spearheading a movement to the lore of fantasy and witchcraft in the body of science fiction. As a stylist he ranks among the finest writers of fantasy today, one possessing rare gifts of characterization and humor. Even as an entertainer he has something to say, taking definite stands on social questions.

Throughout his writing career the "branches of time" theme has fascinated him. In three of his biggest novels, Destiny Times Three, The Big Time, and The Wanderer, as well as in many shorter works, he has speculated on what might happen if the reel of life could be rewound and played out again. (p. 302)

Sam Moskowitz, "Fritz Leiber," in his Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction (copyright © 1966, 1964, 1963, 1962, 1961 by Sam Moskowitz; reprinted by permission of the author, World Publishing Co., 1966, pp. 283-302.

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