Fritz and Justin Leiber. Photo by Andrew Porter, n.d.
By Justin Leiber
I was first struck by the influence of Fritz’ writing on himself in the summer of 1968. My wife Leslie and I were living in Buffalo. I hadn’t seen my father in a couple of years. Fritz was driving in from Los Angeles to do a science fiction workshop at Clarion College in nearby Pennsylvania. We were to see him at Clarion and then he was to visit us in Buffalo. I had just finished reading Fritz’ A Specter Is Haunting Texas, then serialized in Galaxy Magazine.
The specter in question is a tall and very thin native of the satellite communities who must wear a support exoskeleton to visit a Texas which some two hundred years hence has annexed much of North America. Scully, an actor by profession, becomes a useful symbolic figure in the bent-back revolution against the ruling class of Texans, who use hormones to reach Scully’s eight-foot height without mechanical support.
Science fiction is replete with stories in which the protagonist and a small band of conspirators try to free “the people” from an evil dictatorship. Such stories reveal and reinforce a belief that is common among SF readers: that the character of society is determined by a technocratic elite. “Revolution” in this view happens when a good elite, with fresh intelligence and technology, takes over the dumb masses from the bad elite.
Scully, to the contrary, is just a co-opted speechmaker, a spectral mascot. Scully, artist-actor like Fritz, does not change the world—he reflects it darkly. (The Communist Manifesto begins “A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism ...” I asked Fritz whether anyone in SF had noticed the source of his title. He said no.)
When I saw Fritz that summer of 1968 he was sporting all of 140 pounds on his six-foot-five frame—a mighty gaunt reduction from the accustomed 200 or so pounds. He was Scully, or so it seemed to me. He had the somewhat silly giddiness of Scully. And he was putting on a crazy dramatic act (at Clarion anyhow). I still have a clear vision of this cadaverous scarecrow capering about and teaching fencing at a drunken backyard party at Clarion. You have to remember that this was the height of the Vietnamese War; LBJ had just withdrawn from running for a second term, which relieved the worries of Galaxy’slawyers (Specter begins “Ever since Lyndon ousted Jack in the Early Atomic Age, the term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.”).
You might get a little of the style of the apparition of Clarion, “Scully” Leiber, if you see Fritz striding through that strange film Equinox. Equinox was first shot with Fritz and four quite amateurish actors. No sound. Later a pro villain, Asmodeus, and sound were added for commercial distribution. Fritz wasn’t around at the time to dub. Hence, though you see a lot of him in the film, he says nothing. He just runs endlessly through the underbrush clutching a magic book. (A much younger, handsome and inexpressive Fritz appears in conversation with Robert Taylor for a second in the Garbo movie Camille.)
The same “Scully” version of Fritz turns up in the two other major-award-winning stories of that three-year period, Ship of Shadows and Gonna Roll the Bones. In Ship of Shadows (1969), the protagonist, an ancient and alcoholic floor sweeper of a space bar, shadow boxes his way to reality, sobriety, eyesight, and teeth. (When he visited me in New York City in spring 1970Fritz gave a little talk on his false teeth which I can only describe as brilliant. To speak of such a subject with wit and insight, careful attention to precision and economy of expression, is characteristic of Fritz. Though he never lost his conversational gifts his basic diet at that time appeared to be several vitamins and a quart of hard liquor a day.)
In Gonna Roll the Bones (1968), one finds recognizable—if myth-proportioned—visions of Fritz, his wife Jonquil, mother Virginia, and the Cat (that is, my father, mother, grandmother, and Gummitch [see “Space Time for Springers” for more on the last]). The protagonist, Joe Slattermill, the Quixote of the crap tables of all times and climes from Vicksburg to Vega, saunters out to shoot dice and comes up against death himself. Fritz drove back to LA. from Buffalo that summer of 1968 in a Datsun that Jonquil had named “Dunkirk,” in honor of the little boats of that desperate evacuation of the British Army from France in the summer of 1940. Fritz stopped in Vegas. According to one tradition, he had to cash in his spare tire for gas for the last leg into LA. (See “Night Passage” for a joyful evocation of sexuality and long night drives in the desert after the gambling casinos).
“Nature imitates Art” as Oscar Wilde put it. Like Joe Slattermill, Fritz won in losing. Gonna Roll the Bones ends “He turned and headed straight for home, but he took the long way, around the world.”
In “Waif” (1974) and related stories Fritz does some analysis on his sexuality. Indeed Fritz has written—looking back several decades—about the sexuality submerged in some of his earliest works.
In “Adept’s Gambit” (1947 publication, though written years before), we find that grand sword and sorcery pair Fafhrd and Gray Mouser in the ancient Tyre of this world, rather than their now customary world of Nehwon with its adventure, vermin, and vice-infested Lankhmar—that classical medieval port, the one full realization of a city of which we find hints throughout the literature of sword and sorcery. At the center of “Adept’s Gambit” is a reclusive, evil young man who experiences the world voyeuristically by sending his sister out under his mental control. Fritz has remarked that he would not have realized at the time he wrote it how much the story suggested about his own sexuality. Fritz, an only child, spent much of his childhood with staid and ancient relatives while his impossibly romantic father and mother toured with his father’s Shakespearean repertoire company. He secretly burned the sheets of his first wet dream. It would seem wholly natural that his first literary mentor was H.P. Lovecraft and that his first stories were supernatural horror, part of the attempt to revive that quintessentially Victorian sensibility, decadent romanticism, in which the reek of sexuality pervades a landscape of alabaster corpses, little girls in white, unspeakable cellars choked with leprous toadstools, all “splashed with a splendid sickness, the sickness of the pearl” (G.K. Chesterton).
What is extraordinary about Fritz is that he has explored the genre and himself with clarity and determination. In a way, A Specter is Haunting Texas is the supernatural horror story turned inside out: with the specter as point-of-view we get a picaresque farce, Scully is an explicitly sexual specter, brimming with life and fun, revolution and ribaldry. And, above all, Scully is a professional actor (as his father) from Circumluna. When he comes to Earth for his brief weeks as a specter, the Shakespearean figure is literally true for him: “all the world’s a stage. “
In “237 Talking Statues” (1963), Fritz makes a kind of amusing peace with his literal father, Fritz Leiber, Sr., or “Guv” as we called him. Guv was a major Shakespearean actor in the 1910s and 1920s. Fritz, under the name “Francis Lathrop,” appeared in Guv’s repertoire company in its last tour (1934). The Depression meant the end of such companies. Guv’s had survived as long as it did because it had a two-year contract with the Chicago Civic Theatre. Fritz now thinks that Guv knew the last tour couldn’t succeed but it would mean that father and son would tour together at least once and it would provide Hollywood exposure. The final tour seemed planned so that there would be a good run in Los Angeles before the financial collapse. In any case, Guv went on to do character roles in the movies and settled into a house in Pacific Palisades. Guv peopled the Pacific Palisades house with statues and paintings of himself and Virginia (Fritz’ mother), usually in Shakespearean roles; others were represented in less profusion—a statue of me at age four was the major figure in a modest backyard fountain; Fritz has a head Guv did of him over the hall of his present-day San Francisco apartment. Guv also liked to paint young women in bathing suits, working from his photographs. The Guv’s artwork was what you might expect of a man who had also put together a fine darkroom and shop, meticulously maintained and stocked with a very large number of tools, cabinets, and devices that he had made for himself.. The kitchen, for example, was brightened by walls peopled with nursery-book characters that would gratify a professional Disney in their craftsmanship and unpretension.
In “237 Talking Statues” we find “Francis Legrande II,” a mildly alcoholic midlife failure, making his peace with his dead “famous actor” father who, just like Guv, peopled his home with theatrical self-images. Francis talks to his father, who speaks out of one or another of his self-statues, particularly the part of Don Juan. Francis speaks of his jealousy and suspicion; his father arranges his own exorcism with affection and dispatch. Mother is persuaded to let one of the cluttering images go.The Don Juan statue is donated to the Merrivale Young Ladies Academy.
Fritz Leiber, Sr. in 1940.
The Guv died in 1949. Fritz and Jonquil wound up their Chicago affairs in 1958 and moved to Los Angeles. For a few years they lived in the Pacific Palisades house with Virginia. Then they moved a couple of miles down the coast to Venice, a low-rent hippy-haven with remnants of the canal system that justified the name. Fritz moved north to San Francisco after Virginia’s, and finally Jonquil’s death in the end of the 1960s. Virginia herself appears, appropriately, as Fafhrd’s implacable mother Mor in “The Snow Women” (1970). In some sense she also appears in that story as the eighteen-year-old Fafhrd’s first (and last) respectably betrothed Mara. Single and double analogs of Jonquil also appear in the Fafhrd-Gray Mouser saga. But more on that subject later.
Fritz has continued the Guv’s renaissance person tradition, though in a more literary and arcane, more theoretical and less manual, way.
Naturally, he is an expert chess player. He won the Santa Monica Open shortly after moving from Chicago to LA. The Chess Review published his version of the real first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, “The Moriarty Gambit” (1962). Scene, the first round of the brilliant (and quite real) London International Tournament of 1888. Game, a winning double-rook sacrifice, the most impossibly gaudy of all the grand mating combinations in which the opponent’s Queen is drawn away from the action by the forced “gift” of two rooks, so that the minor pieces may spring a mating net around the opponent’s king. The game and players are not actually recorded in the official records of the Hastings International because both Holmes and Moriarty withdrew from the tournament after the first round.
Fritz is an accomplished fencer. At the University of Chicago he studied psychology and philosophy; there was even a mercifully brief flirtation with religion at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. And he is a very knowledgeable student of magic, drugs, and psychic powers, though a wholly skeptical one.
He is also a great student (professor?) of cities. “Smoke Ghost” (1941) cunningly transforms the “blasted heath” of tradition into the lonely, smoke-ravaged rooftops of warehouses in downtown Chicago. In “Catch That Zeppelin” (1975), we tour Manhattan both in present day and in an alternative world. Fritz can show you what he has deduced to be Sam Spade’s movements through the streets of San Francisco in the Maltese Falcon just as he has toured so many through the countless byways of mythic Lankhmar. Joanna Russ has her adventurer, Alyx the Picklock, remember having an affectionate brawl with Fafhrd in what must be Lankhmar’s Silver Eel, and in Fritz’ “The Best Two Thieves in Lankhmar” (1968) Alyx turns up, as an observer of Fafhrd’s silliness, in the back of the same tavern). Fritz’ second novel in the “Change War” series is set in late Republican Rome—it has yet to be completed because it has, according to Fritz, become an excuse for reading ever more extensively about the Eternal City. In Fritz’ recent novel, Our Lady of Darkness (1977), we even find “Thibaut de Castries” Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities.
It is characteristic that Fritz’ visual art is minor key. I have a picture over my desk of San Francisco’s skyline that Fritz did with his spatter-paint technique. When I was a kid “little books,” cartoon stories of “Terrinks,” “Molly,” and “Pommer,” appeared on birthdays. Fritz and his friend Harry Fisher (Fafhrd and Gray Mouser) made a Lankhmar game decades ago. The two were recently reunited as guests of honor at a fantasy game convention organized by TSR Games, which now markets a commercial version of Lankhmar.
By far the most valuable device in Fritz’ present apartment is a good astronomical telescope. It gets systematic use. Indeed, Fritz’ telescopic work helped him discover a tiny degeneration, now successfully laser-arrested, in one retina. Since you look through a telescope with only one eye, you can pick up such damage early. Fritz’ first thought, after eliminating stellar phenomena, was that there was something amiss with the telescope; then he worked back to the eye. Outward vision is inward vision: “he headed straight for home, but he took the long way, around the world.” This incident is the theme of this essay in a minor variation. Fritz found what was amiss in himself in his art.
Recently, Fritz showed me a short piece that recounts his examination of his cheap, functional, hour-minute, digital-display, electric clock. The prose is a model of clarity and concision: an exercise in observation, deduction, discovery, and more deduction, that is a miniature, a bit of Cellini goldwork, of disciplined thought and investigation. The final discovery that the clock has a 67-second minute and a correlative 53-second minute in each hour is reached through a series of observations and deductions that give us a sharp picture of what ought to happen when one thinks about the discontinuities between the physical features of machines and the rather different cognitive functions—such as giving the correct time—that we want them to exhibit
What makes this intellectual paradigm so interesting is that it maps a territory that is characteristic of the best of recent work in human cognitive psychology. Fritz read my article, “Extraterrestrial Translation” (Galileo Seven) and part of my Structuralism (G.K. Hall, 1978), in which I write as a professional philosopher about cognitive psychology, and then he handed me his piece about his electric clock. Padre, padrone: father, master. Perhaps it’s comfort that Fritz mentioned that when he was taught to play chess, Guv decided that he wanted to learn too; Guv beat the kid. Grand-padre, grand-padrone.
Fritz was an editor of Science Digest from 1945 to 1957. Particularly during that period he produced scads of articles on scientific subjects. One standard family activity of the late 1940s, when I was about a nine-year-old, was the old collation march around the dining room table, assembling copies of New Purposes, a mimeo magazine that Fritz got out, with a little help from his friends—and for his friends. Reflecting on that period in my own life, I am struck by the degree to which I was being shown the future. When Marshall McLuhan danced into the cultural gestalt in the middle sixties, I was able to yawn. Mcluhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride, appeared at home shortly after its publication in 1951—it contained a substantial analysis of Fritz’ “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949). The Mechanical Bride had the standard McLuhan scam: it fell “stillborn from the press” because the audience was out of phase. Doing hard puberty at the time, I was particularly taken with the lingerie ads that McLuhan analyzed.
Fritz is above all prodigal in the variety of literary forms he has employed—and invented. Poetry from sonnets through the varieties of more gaudy meters, ten-page letter correspondences in the pre-twentieth-century manner, short stories written to fit magazine covers, essays on social questions, short plays, songs and chants, parodies of Robert Heinlein and Mickey Spillane, historical and crime tales, a still to be completed book on the fantasy novel, and so on.
What is striking is the degree to which much of this is motivated by friendship and the challenge of yet another form. Sonnets for Jonquil, a blue-covered mimeoed publication, contains some of Jonquil’s poetry and a note on her other writing, including a play that Fritz helped put on, plus some sonnets by Fritz about Jonquil.
“The Lords of Quarmall” (1964) bears the note “In 1936 my comrade Harry Otto Fischer conceived, began, and abandoned the story ‘The Lords of Quarmall.’ Twenty-five years later I decided I was up to the pleasant task of solving the mysteries of the tale and completing it without changing his words at all, except to add details of the plot. Harry, in some ways a very patient person, laconically commented that he was glad to discover at last how his story ended.” If you read that story, which appears in the fourth Fafhrd-Gray Mouser book, and distinguish Harry’s passages from the story that Fritz wove round them, you will have a curious lesson in comradeship.
(Have I forgotten to mention the stories and novels that have won Fritz more Nebula and Hugo awards than any other writer? And the fact that in 1979 he will became the only writer except Heinlein and Bloch to have twice been the exclusive guest of honor for the World SF Convention? Ah, but that’s the point. Though Fritz presents himself a free-lance writer by trade, with no high art pretensions, there is simply no one in SF with anything remotely like his prestige or talent who shows less of an interest in the big money or is more of a soft touch for fanzine editors who beg for a piece to give their magazines some class. Fritz simply likes to write a lot of different kinds of things and if half of them are ahead of their time or behind their time or so far out in left field that the people who have the right background to read it can be counted on your fingers—well, tough. “The Moriarty Gambit,” for example, calls for a reader who likes to play out others’ games from chess notation and who knows the Sherlock Holmes stories and is crazy about them.
But since Fritz is known for his award-winning SF writing, I want to say a little about one of his most original and form-forging works, The Big Time. 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 extraterrestrials who have the rare quality of flexibility and alienation that allows them to be drawn away from their ordinary lives and 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?
The cover for Starship, Summer 1979, featuring “Fritz Leiber and Eyes.” Cover artwork by Eddie Jones.
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. Two conservation laws were the hallmarks of 18th and 19th century science: 1) Mass (matter) is neither created nor destroyed, though it may change form from a liquid to a gas, enter into a chemical reaction, and so on; 2) Energy is neither created nor destroyed, though it can change from random heat to mechanical motion, sound, ranges in the electro-magnetic spectrum, and so on.
These conservation laws generalize cruder and more specific conservations and they have been generalized themselves in this century. We now have, as Einstein’s E = MC2 suggests, the law of the conservation of mass energy: the total amount of mass energy is conserved, though you can transform, as stars do all the time, one into the other.
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.
In another change war story, a big time recruit goes back to prevent his being shot in ordinary time, altering as little as possible so that no bullet hits him. Nature makes the proper hole in him with a meteor just as the bullet would, this mere improbability being the most conservative step nature can take in changing the continuum of history. 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, and 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 slightly 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. Take Karysia Labrys, originally of the ancient Crete of the Triple-Goddess, who gives the following description of the battle she has just returned from with a Lunan and a satyr:
Woe to Spider! Woe to Cretan! Heavy is the news I bring you. Bear it bravely, like strong women. When we got the gun unlimbered, I heard seaweed fry and crackle. We three leaped behind the rock wall, saw our guns grow white as sunlight in a heat-ray of the Serpents! Natch, we feared we were outnumbered and I called upon my Caller….
But I didn’t die there, kiddos. I still hoped to hurt the Greek ships, maybe with the Snake’s own heat gun. So I quick tried to outflank them. My two comrades crawled beside me—they are males but they have courage. Soon we spied the ambush setters. They were Snakes and they were many, filthily disguised as Cretans. . .
They had seen us when we saw them, and they loosed a killing volley. Heat- and knife-rays struck about us in a storm of wind and fire, and the Lunan lost a feeler, fighting for Crete’s Triple Goddess. So we dodged behind a sand hill, steered our flight back toward the water. It was awful, what we saw there; Crete’s brave ships all sunk or sinking, blue sky sullied by their death-smoke. Once again the Greeks had licked us!—aided by the filthy Serpents. Round our wrecks, their black ships scurried, like black beetles, filth their diet, yet this day they dine on heroes. On the quiet sun-lit beach there, I could feel a Change Gale blowing, working changes deep inside me, aches and pains that were a stranger’s. Half my memories were doubled, half my lifeline crooked and twisted, three new moles upon my sword hand. Goddess, Goddess, Triple Goddess... Triple Goddess, give me courage to tell all that happened.
Let’s suppose you did recruit such a fighter and equipped her with ordinary English, rather than the stilted language that scholars will likely use when they translate a popular, pre-literate folk epic poem like the Iliad. If you didn’t notice the rhythm in Kaby’s chant, read it out loud. The passage is in the meter of our oldest and noblest poem: classical hexameters. But also note the fierce feminism of Kaby. Joanna Russ’s Alyx is much like her, particularly in Picnic on Paradise (1968), and Russ’s work is recognized, correctly, as the first real entry of feminism in SF. But Fritz thought up Kaby in 1958.
I could make similar points about the rest of the cast. The narrator entertainer, Greta Forzane of Depression Chicago, Prussian Erich von Hohenwald, WWI poet-soldier Bruce Marchant, riverboat gambler Beau, Doc of a Nazi-occupied Tzarist Russia, Sidney Lessingham of 16th century London, and so on. The plot and action form a tightly structured roller coaster that leaves you breathless. But the Lunan Illilihis provides the final revelation, slid in so casually that I missed it until this last reading:
Feeling sad, Greta girl, because you’ll never understand what’s happening to us all, because you’ll never be anything but a shadow fighting shadows…. Who are the real Spiders and Snakes, meaning who were the first possibility-binders? Who was Adam? Lilith? In binding all possibility, the Demons also bind the mental with the material. All fourth-order beings live inside and outside all minds, throughout the whole cosmos. Even this Place is, after its fashion, a giant brain: its floor is the brainpan, the boundary of the Void is the cortex of gray matter—yes even the Major and Minor Maintainers are analogues of the pineal and pituitary glands, which in some form sustain all nervous systems. (p.169)
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 bigtime, 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.
In one of his brilliant philosophical puzzle pieces Jorge Borges has Shakespeare wonder that he has no “real me” inside but rather a vast cast, he is “everyone or no one.” Borges’ story concludes when God tells Shakespeare that he feels the same way. In another short-short, “Borges and I,” Borges, comparing his inner sense of self with the construction that is reflected by the body of his writings, concludes that “I do not know which of us is writing this line.” But all of this is simply more true of the writer than of most of us. Einstein once summarized what he thought was the philosopher Kant’s great insight so: Reality is set us as a Task.
In his initial choice of supernatural horror and sword and sorcery genres, shy Fritz would seem to have found just what he needed to lose himself in. These are pulp, lowbrow genres—no pretension in that. They impose on those who write them a special, colorful, and gaudy vocabulary and style. They also impose a special sort of atmosphere, landscape, and arcane lore: excepting SF, they are alone among pulp forms in combining brawny, physical combat with the cut and thrust of intelligence and secret lore.
Finally, these forms dictate clever, gimmicky plot construction and rapid action; even the kind of emotional punch is much restricted. One can, and people do, write recipes for these genres: from that it seems to follow that one reveals nothing about oneself in writing one except that one knows the recipe and can follow directions. Further, because these are both pulpish and minor genres, to write them reveals no pretensions to high art or fair fame. Rather, they generate a relatively small circle of initiates and playful semi-professionals—perhaps here Fritz found something of a replacement for “the company,” his father’s Shakespearean band.
This is the dramatic title for the article as it appeared in Starship, Summer 1979.
Of course, Fritz undoubtedly got some simple pleasure from picturing the sword and sorcery world of Lankhmar, from making a barbarian adventurer Fafhrd that had his height and none of his self-consciousness. But the artist, of course, has a craft and is trying to tell a story to someone else. Even if the artist starts with a simple, wish-fulfilling cast and dream, the artist is driven to make the dream more dazzling, compelling, and seductive. The wish fulfillment may be made more complete and less obvious to the reader: always the artist is forced to understand the magic, the machinery, with which the reader is bewitched. But the artist isn’t after self-therapy either, though that is a byproduct. That is the disanalogy with the telescope incident. When Fritz noticed something in the heavens that couldn’t be there, he checked the telescope, and finally worked back to the damage in his eye. Then, naturally, he got medical treatment. Now 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.
When the Id demands skillful pornography from the Ego’s endless spinning of wispy webs, it should watch out, for it may find by some sudden slight that it is not the king speaking to a humble player but the bull facing the matador.
Fritz soon grew unchallenged by the supernatural horror and sword and 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, Specter and Our Lady of Darkness.
In You’re All Alone (1950), one of the narrowest and most dramatic expressions of paranoia that I have known is explored. The protagonist discovers that almost everyone in his present-day world operates like a Leibnizian “windowless” monad. They are all following a pre-arranged, automatic pattern that makes it look like they are interacting while in fact they are not—if you are one of the very few who can break out of pattern, no one will notice you, and indeed they all continue “interacting” with the empty space you are programmed to occupy exactly as if you were there. The “all” does not include a small number of evil breakouts who are exploiting the situation and hunting down everyone else who has broken out of the automatic interplay. Eerie effects come from manipulations of the automaton normals, from re-hiding in the automatic pattern.
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, which employs the same notion of breakout for the few whom the Snakes and Spiders can recruit (they do not break out of themselves, however, and Illy eventually suggests that the recruiter is really the demon-daemon Art), 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 (like “I” and “Borges”).
Gather, Darkness! (1943) is one of the first (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. (The French historian, Jules Michelet, saw medieval Satanism as the only available expression for the anti-feudal revolution—if the churchly hierarchy says that God wants all wealth and power to go to the temporal and religious lords, who is on the side of the poor peasants? Who is their spiritual resource?)
But, as I’ve suggested, when we get to A Specter is Haunting Texas (1968), 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 bentback 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. (”It is death to be a poet.”)
In Conjure Wife (1943) we have what Damon Knight insisted was the “necessarily-definitive” tale of witchcraft. The protagonist, Norman Saylor, teaches anthropology at a good small college. One day he discovers that his wife Tansy is practicing witchcraft. She reluctantly admits that she thinks she is protecting them with various devices; still more reluctantly she is persuaded to give her superstitions up, to discard her protectors. Naturally, strange and increasingly harmful events begin to multiply: disaster looms around them, taking Tansy’s soul eventually. Norman’s intelligence eventually forces him to give up skepticism and, eventually, to use symbolic logic in an attempt to derive the “r-formula” that will return Tansy from hints and variations in magic books. Tansy was, of course, defending Norman from the witchcraft of the women faculty and faculty wives. (Catch the English version of the novel on the late show under the title Burn, Witch, Burn.)
It is true that Fritz had had a brief teaching post at Occidental College and that Jonquil then, as always, had a fascination with witchcraft and had read much about it. On the other hand, Fritz taught drama and stagecraft. And Norman is the familiar neutral protagonist of this period. His blockheadedness is no real confession of Fritz, and Fritz has never been converted to a belief in the supernatural. Conjure Wife is Fritz’ first published novel and he did not return to the novel of magic until his latest Our Lady of Darkness (1977).
This latest novel plays upon a theme to which Borges has brought our attention, something that Thomas Pynchon’s work typifies: the pollution of reality by dream—or dream by reality, for it is the trickery of mirrors and artistic representation. The protagonist of Our Lady of Darkness is a writer of horror stories, Franz Weston, who just happens to live at 811 Geary Street in San Francisco, and has a landlady and some friends who happen to have the same names and characters as Fritz Leiber of 811 Geary Street has happened to have. Similarly, the engine of horror derives from the activities of various people in the first decades of the century, some real, some part real, so cunningly intertwined that the reader cannot see the seams. And the final tip of the engine that most closely attacks Franz is just his “scholar’s mistress,” the pile of pulp novels and source books that share Franz’ bed in that he lives in one room and often writes in bed.
Thibaut de Castries, decades-dead author of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities,who is the possible ultimate source of this attack, says of another book of his that is originally aimed at (the real) Clark Ashton Smith, “Go out, my little book into the world, and lie in wait in stalls and lurk on shelves for the unwary purchaser. Go out, my little book, and break some necks!”
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” (1974), 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 Fafhrd-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.
Well, I certainly have to admit that when I was a kid both my mother Jonquil and I called Fritz “Faf” or “Fafhrd” more than anything else. It is true that both Fafhrd and Fritz share impressive height and a taste for strong drink and songs. In 1934 Harry Fisher wrote Fritz a long letter in which he briefly mentioned a Gray Mouser who “walks with swagger ’mongst the bravos, though he’s but the stature of a child,” and a tall barbarian Fafhrd whose “wrist between gauntlet and mail was white as milk and thick as a hero’s ankle.”
But one is skeptical, particularly considering the shyness with which Fritz started and his admissions that he felt, initially, overawed by and prepared to learn from young Harry. After all, it’s Harry that provided the initial description. Gray Mouser fits Harry’s vision of himself as Loki-like trickster, skilled swordsman, wit and dabbler in dark lore, and footloose adventurer and gentleman thief, onliest companion of the “seven foot” barbarian Fafhrd.
Cover of the special Fritz Leiber issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1969. Artwork by EMSH. Scan courtesy Jacques Hamon Collectionwww.noosfere.com/showcase/
Given just this pairing of city cat cunning and barbarian bear, and a certain humility coupled with a sense of story, it seems natural that Fritz’ first Fafhrd-Gray Mouser stories should have been written from the Mouser’s viewpoint; and that many of these stories have cunning and feline Mouser save the honest, unsophisticated barbarian giant from the sort of bewitchment or other exotic danger that that blockhead would walk into. You can’t have the tall barbarian saving the tiny Mouser, for there is no balance of amusing inversion in that. Fafhrd is the natural straight man, the butt of the jest.
And since sword and sorcery adventures are not read by swordsmen and rarely by confident, brawny brawlers, rather attracting bookish and brainy types who just fancy physical adventure, it is natural that the audience is attracted to Gray Mouser and his slipper victories over the big brawlers. (It belongs to the high comedy of art and life that when Fritz and Harry surfaced publicly as Fafhrd and Gray Mouser at the TSR game convention recently Fritz should have felt uneasy until he realized that, as Gray Mouser, Harry was attracting more attention and dominating matters, with Fritz suffering the problem of being Fafhrd rather than the author of the whole world. This is a second minor variation of the theme, a complement to the telescope story.)
So 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 humanlike 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. And, as I remarked some pages back, various family figures appear.
In the most recent novel Rime Isle (1977), the second half of the sixth volume, Swords and Ice Magic, a considerable further step is taken. Fafhrd and Mouser are hired by two woman councilors of Rime Isle, an atheistic and practical fishing community which is thereby somewhat estranged from the Lankhmar world and on the rim to others. Fafhrd arrives with a ship and small band of well-trained berserkers, and Mouser with a crew of Mingols and a band of disciplined Lankhmar thieves.
The story really began some time before when very faint versions of Loki and Odin appeared from another world and were gradually nurtured into somewhat more palpable existence by the councilors Afreyt and Cif, the gods Loki and Odin insisting that Rime Isle is threatened by hordes of Mingols, inspired by another deity.
Gradually, as defenses are prepared, it becomes clear that tricky Loki really intends a sea disaster in which all sides are destroyed and, even more clearly, Odin wants to see as many participants as possible killed in a land battle, with the remainder hanged.
Young Fritz found the Bulfinch picture of the Norse gods attractive, particularly of the mysterious and wise Odin. More recent research has made it clear that Odin was the center of a death cult. Here on Rime Isle Odin insists that his followers wear hangman nooses and carry a gallows into battle. Fafhrd, apparently less affected by Odin’s wiles, refuses to wear his noose around his neck but places it around his left wrist as a concession.
At the last moment both Mouser, who is directing the sea forces, and Fafhrd, on land, throw off the bewitchments of trickery and death. Neither their own men and the Rime Islers, nor their similarly inspired opponents, are drawn into the grand doom that the gods intend. All part somewhat dazed, except that the noose around Fafhrd’s hand draws tight and that famous bravo, now responsible protector of a practical and atheistic community, has no left hand.
To my natural query, “Conan Doyle unsuccessfully killed off Sherlock Holmes but at least he didn’t maim him,” Fritz rather tersely replied that it just seemed to him that no one was really getting hurt in the story. Ah yes, old trickster, but what does Prospero say on that island when he adjures his powerful magic, remembering that he is traditionally regarded as Shakespeare’s mouthpiece?—“I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book.”
Through history, the left hand has been the symbol of trickiness and death: we now know it as the hand of the right brain which may be full of visions but has not the words and reason of the left brain which controls the right (the writing) hand. That last point may even suggest that nature has a taste for the inversions of high art. Who knows what tales tell us?
Fritz Leiber assumes humility in writing or speaking of his own art. He will say that all he has ever wanted to do is tell a good story. His works, Borges-Shakespeare style, conceal and jest with their structures. How am I to reply?
In the “Moriarty Gambit” Fritz makes a solid point in distinguishing the real Sherlock Holmes from the “thinking machine” carefully analyzed by Watson in that first great novel A Study In Scarlet. Watson, wondering what his newly acquired roommate’s profession is, lists what kinds of knowledge Holmes possesses. Watson’s list, though Watson does not draw this inference, suggests that Holmes has systematically stocked his mind with what a detective might need, and, just as systematically, has not stocked it with irrelevant information (Watson is shocked that Holmes does not know that the earth orbits the sun).
Fritz points out that as one reads the stories it becomes clear that Holmes knows almost everything there is to be known. That he should play expert chess, though Conan Doyle fails to mention it, is thus natural. Well-made characters have an integrity that gives them dimensions outside what their written stories tell us, and certainly outside or even against what their authors explicitly state about them.
A professional writer writes about vocations, undertakings, locales that are familiar. If you know how hospitals work by all means set a story there. Dashiel Hammett had been a detective. Yet what is more familiar to a writer than writing, than himself?
In the punning play, paradox, and self-swallowing of high art there is important truth. But why not blunt truth? Or complicated truth straightforwardly presented? Bertrand Russell said that a philosopher-logician should be ever on the lookout for paradoxes, for they will be the best source for getting at the hidden structure of our language and thought.
One can say all this neurobiologically—art above all recreates and educates our cognitive abilities, sharpens ear and eye, tuning understanding and sensitivity. It serves something like the function of play among cats. Language is the human mind’s oldest technology and most basic and extraordinary cognitive capacity. The kind of art that most sensitizes us to language—that is, to logic and meter, to writing and artistic form, to the interplay between language and reality—is the art that appeals to our oldest and most powerful and most central faculty, housed in our distinctively human left brain. It is a blend of artifact and neurology that has made us different from the other mammals.
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.
One fundamental thesis I offer about Fritz Leiber is simple and compelling. The most concrete and revealing components of this phenomenon are a couple of bookshelves of written work and a man who now lives at 565 Geary Street in San Francisco, who of course is continuing the sorts of symbolic interactions that lead to more books on the shelf. The thesis I offer about Fritz Leiber is simple, because it so compactly explains the development of Fritz’ life and work in a way that holds up as a simple commonsense account, but also in a striking way at other levels.
The tale is that of an extremely intelligent and talented young man, doubtless with a taste for dramatics without self-revelation, for a language and life wholly outside his century that Shakespeare amply provided. At the same time he was cripplingly shy, horribly self-conscious, with a sense of guilt and failure, a sense of being out-of-joint with self and world that bred dreams and fantasies. If strong enough, a sense that can result in madness, like a space-time-historical continuum so pressed by Snake and Spider activity that it can tell no tale of itself and must fission, when art and science cannot flex enough, having neither the intellectual creativity nor the courage to hold the reality together.
I must tell you that the damage that was written into Fritz’ genes or, more likely, mad and murderous psychological effects of childhood are as real as vital statistics. Very clinically, this is someone who has had insomnia, a most reliable indication of psychological trouble, throughout his entire life; who has ministered to himself with alcohol and barbiturates in a way that slides into equating making oneself happy and putting oneself to sleep, between making oneself completely unconscious of the external environment/making oneself more sensitive and more responsive to it. The story is one of agile intelligence, of ego and art, fighting a long-term battle with self-destruction bred in the genes or the crazy chemistry of childhood.
The thesis is compelling because it derives from the works, makes sense of what Fritz has given his life to, and so makes sense of the giver.
This portrait sees Fritz as he is today and his work in that perspective. True. But we read books that way too. The end casts full illumination through the means, the earliest scene. Not that the big book of Fritz Leiber is complete. Fritz has more, much more, work in him. He still exhausts twenty-year-old fans by walking them around San Francisco. There is much brewing, stories capering seductively or raucously around his bed. Go, little stories, and fling his fingers on the typewriter keys. Fritz is an artist like the wild old Gully Jimson that Alec Guinness plays in The Horse’s Mouth, whose houseboat runs the Thames tide into the Atlantic and transfiguration, while Gully measures gigantic ocean liners as potential canvases.
Go little stories, and change street numbers so the fans can’t find him; fox the postal machines so his mail goes to Auckland, New Zealand, and viper the wires so that incoming calls move by spidery indirection from initial dialing to total confusion. Shake hailstones down large as spearmint blossoms if he dawdles in the streets or runs unnecessary errands. Sprinkle dust of Yeats and Poe, and toenail clippings of Robert Graves and Ingmar Bergman, in protective circles round his rooms. Go, little stories, and pull some strings. Fritz Leiber is for the stars.
*Reprinted, in a somewhat revised form, from Starship, Summer 1979 with the permission of Justin Leiber. A much longer version appears in Philosophers Look at Science Fiction, Nelson-Hall, 1982. Special thanks to Andrew Porter for making the original abridgement, and for the photo of Fritz and Justin. Special thanks to Robert Lichtman for supplying the text and scans of the Starship version.