The Observatory: Fritz Leiber, the Man Who Was Married to Space and Time

(Fritz Leiber, circa 1969.)

Our favorite authors don’t always come to us at such a young age; it happens a lot, but not all the time. No doubt I still would’ve fallen head over heels for Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut had I discovered them in college instead of high school. But some discoveries take longer than one would think. Given how they are such kindred spirits, it’s startling to know that H. P. Lovecraft did not start reading William Hope Hodgson until fairly late in life. Despite his connection (for both better and worse) with Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp did not start reading the tales of Conan until long after he had started writing fantasy of his own. And similarly, I had not read so much as a word of Fritz Leiber until I was in my early twenties; mind you I had only turned 27 this month. All this despite Leiber, regardless of the genre he tackles, quickly becoming one of my favorites.

It’s hard for me to remember now what my first Leiber story was: it had to be either “Gonna Roll the Bones,” by virtue of its appearance in Dangerous Visions (ed. Harlan Ellison), or it was his 1950 story “Coming Attraction,” which appeared in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (ed. Robert Silverberg). The former is a somewhat nightmarish fantasy, an allegory for addiction which explicitly tackles gambling but more implicitly alcoholism (there’s a good deal of overlap between gambling and heavy drinking) while the latter is a grimy post-nuclear fable that would become emblematic of material published in Galaxy Science Fiction. Indeed “Coming Attraction” saw print in one of the very first issues of Galaxy, and for the next few years Leiber and that newfangled magazine would have quite the fruitful relationship—see his equally classic post-apocalypse story “A Pail of Air.” It was during that productive period of 1950 to 1953 that Leiber really showed himself to be a top-tier science-fictionist, although labeling him as just that would be doing him a disservice.

Fritz Leiber was born on Christmas Eve, 1910, in Chicago, which for decades was his home turf, though he would adopt San Fransisco in the third act of his life. In the first years of his career as a writer he often went by the byline of Fritz Leiber, Jr., to differentiate himself from his old man, who was then known as a Shakespearean actor. Fritz, the son, started out as an actor like his father, both on the stage and even nabbing some small roles on the big screen, but he realized that acting was not in his future, despite his physical stature and his voice which carried enough weight for two men. Listen to his speech, “Monsters and Monster Lovers” (which was also printed in Fantastic), delivered at Pacificon II, and you can easily detect an alternate timeline where Leiber starred in Universal horror movies, like an American Boris Karloff. His background as a thespian would even inspire some of his fiction; his Hugo-winning novel The Big Time reads like it was meant for the stage.

Leiber would not debut officially in the field until 1939, at the age of 28, but he was already prepping his pen for a few years at that point. His first genre story, “Two Sought Adventure,” published in the August 1939 issue of Unknown, introduced not only Leiber to the SFF magazine world but also his most lasting creation, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. It’s worth noting, though, that while “Two Sought Adventure” was the first story published to feature everyone’s favorite barbarian-thief duo, it was not the first written. Leiber had apparently written “Adept’s Gambit” in 1936 (as far as I can tell the novella was more or less in its final form here), but it would not be published until the collection Night’s Black Agents came out in 1947—a whole decade later. Leiber’s struggle to get his work (more specifically his fantasy) published was a speed bump that would appear several times throughout his career, less aimed at Leiber in particular and more indicative of fantasy’s precarious place in the mid-20th century.

(Night’s Black Agents. Cover by Ronald Clyne. Arkham House, 1947.)

One of the few sympathetic voices to fantasy in the ’40s and ’50s was Arkham House, founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei with the mission statement of preserving the works of Lovecraft via book publication, though certain contemporary authors were also picked up. It’s no coincidence that Leiber got his early horror and fantasy collected alongside the likes of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Ray Bradbury; not only was he was a practitioner of weird fiction, but he was even correspondents with Lovecraft toward the end of the latter’s life. No doubt Lovecraft had a profound impact on Leiber, but what’s curious is that you probably wouldn’t guess this from reading the fiction collected in Night’s Black Agents. Early horror outings like “The Automatic Pistol,” “Smoke Ghost,” and “The Hound” (the last of which I reviewed recently) don’t have a cosmic flavor so much as an urban one. These stories are not about bookish introverts who stumble upon eldritch terrors, but average city slickers who confront classic supernatural forces as transplanted to 20th century cityscapes.

In “The Automatic Pistol” we have a weapon which on the surface looks like any other gun (say, a Colt 1911), but which turns out to maybe have a mind of its own; in “Smoke Ghost” we have a classic ghost narrative, but the specter itself seems to represent something which can only be possible in a world shaken by the industrial revolution; in “The Hound” we have one of the most classic of monsters—the werewolf—but as a stand-in for the oppressiveness of skyscrapers and apartment complexes. This trend would continue with Leiber’s debut novel, Conjure Wife, published as a complete novel in Unknown in 1943, this time taking witchcraft and applying a few twists to it, first by replacing the typical Puritan settlement with a 20th century college campus and second by giving witches a different kind of role in society. The result is darkly comedic, if also problematic given our current understanding of gender roles (mind you that it would be a fatal error to take Conjure Wife too seriously or too literally). Being a landmark in fantasy literature, not to mention being a pretty enjoyable read to this day, Conjure Wife justifiably won Leiber a Retro Hugo for Best Novel, beating out his second novel and his first science fiction novel.

Leiber’s second and third novels, Gather, Darkness! and Destiny Times Three, are SF, with the latter capping off the first phase of his career. From the outset, Leiber wasn’t really a science-fictionist, but far more convincingly a fantasist; his best work from that first phase is mostly not his science fiction, which he didn’t write a lot of anyway. Whereas Leiber’s fantasy and horror felt basically fully formed (although obviously it would mature) from the beginning, the same cannot be said of his SF. Destiny Times Three, for instance, reads very much like A. E. van Vogt pastiche; it lacks the trademarks (namely his sense of humor) that so often define Leiber’s fantasy, especially his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Leiber would do a much better job at writing convincing (not to mention compelling) SF when he started contributing to the magazines frequently again in 1950—a level of crafstmanship he would retain, albeit somewhat sporadically (he would either write prolifically or nothing at all), for the rest of his career.

It could be during the aforementioned period of 1950 to 1953 that Leiber became a master of SF more out of necessity than anything; he had a strong incentive to take on the role of science-fictionist, as while the SF magazine market was booming during these years, things were not looking so good for fantasy and horror. Unknown went under in ’43, Weird Tales (or rather its first incarnation) was on its last legs, and there wasn’t much new blood to go around for magazine fantasy or horror. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser themselves were basically put on ice, not appearing at all between “The Seven Black Priests” in 1953 and “Lean Times in Lankhmar” in 1959. On the bright side, it was during this period that we got some of Leiber’s most famous and most anthologized short SF, including “Coming Attraction,” “A Pail of Air,” “The Moon Is Green,” and “A Bad Day for Sales.” Leiber becoming Guest of Honor at the 1951 Worldcon (it was Nolacon I) was very much earned, and his formidable level of quality in the early ’50s must’ve almost made him seem like a new man to the SFF readership.

When Leiber returned, after a short hiatus, in the late ’50s, he not only revived Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser but devised a new SF series: the Change War cycle of stories. It’s this point, from 1957 to about 1970, that could be considered Leiber’s finest era. Aside from winning a slew of awards, perhaps the most passionate (certainly the most unique) acknowledgement of Leiber’s talent and importance would have to be the November 1959 issue of Fantastic, which not only printed “Lean Times in Lankhmar” but had all of its fiction pieces be by Leiber himself, as a tribute to the man. Fantastic had debuted in 1952, but it was only under the new editorship of Cele Goldsmith in 1958 that it became arguably the best fantasy-leaning magazine on the market; more importantly in Leiber’s case, it became a safe haven for fiction of his which he could not have reasonably submitted elsewhere. At least one Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story a year would see print in Fantastic, until Goldsmith stepped down in the 1965, whereafter the series would be put on another (albeit briefer) hiatus.

(Cover by Morris Scott Dollens. Fantastic, November 1959.)

The ’60s were a pretty good time to be Fritz Leiber; after all, he had, seemingly for the first time in his career, options. If he wanted to write a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story or some miscellaneous adventure fantasy then he could send it to Fantastic; if he wanted to write more “high-brow” fantasy, something more urban or literary, then he could send it to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; if he wanted to write SF there were several magazines waiting in the wings, including Galaxy, Worlds of If, and Amazing Stories. “How come Analog didn’t get brought up?” I’m not exactly sure when this happened, but it looks like Leiber abandoned what was then Astounding Science Fiction after 1950, presumably because he found editor John W. Campbell’s pushing of Dianetics, along with his increasing conservatism, alienating. Minus that, the field was open! It was also the most prolific Leiber was as a novelist since the ’40s, with five novels published in the ’60s, though it must be said that Leiber was never much of a novelist; he was more impressive as a practitioner of the short story.

With “Ship of Shadows” (written specially for an F&SF tribute issue) and “Ill Met in Lankhmar” in 1969 and 1970 respectively, Leiber became the first author to win the Hugo for Best Novella twice in a row.

You may have noticed that Leiber has been in the game for a long time at this point. 1939 saw the debuts of Leiber, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. van Vogt, and by 1970 Leiber was (with the possible exception of Sturgeon) the only writer from that class to still be producing work strong enough that the word “legacy” need not be applied to him. While the New Wave was rocking the scene and plenty of writers in their twenties and thirties were pushing the field forward, Leiber continued to play impeccably with writers a generation younger than him. He won two more Hugos in the ’70s, as well as winning the newfangled World Fantasy Award three times that decade—all for stories which, while maybe not the very best he ever wrote, demonstrated a persistence of vision. Whereas Asimov and Heinlein, two of the most important voices in the history of American SFF, were resting on their laurels at this point, Leiber took the ’70s as an opportunity to return to and refine what he had started out with: urban fantasy and horror.

His final novel, Our Lady of Darkness, was published in 1977, and it was his first major venture into urban fantasy since his 1950 novel You’re All Alone (review forthcoming) while also acting as a sort of bookend to Conjure Wife. Leiber did not retire at this point, as he continued to write short fiction, albeit not as prolifically, for several more years; but it did represent the last hurrah for what had been a remarkably consistent and yet adventurous career, despite the setbacks. He was given the Gandalf Grand Master Award in 1975 (the second person to receive it—Tolkien was the first, naturally) and the following year he was given the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, both acknowledging his enormous contributions as a fantasist. In 1981 he was made an SFWA Grand Master. Even with all this recognition, however, Leiber continued to elude mainstream notice, not becoming a pop scientist like Asimov or getting mainstream book deals like Heinlein; he was a star in SFF fandom, but outside of it he remained obscure.

It could be that Leiber never gained mainstream popularity because he didn’t seem to have a “brand” about him. The closest to a constant Leiber had throughout the half-century of his career would be Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but they never picked up traction like Howard’s Conan did; of course, Conan is now more treated as an icon than a character, and thus he is often misunderstood, never mind that Howard didn’t live to reap the benefits. Whereas Howard and Lovecraft are treated as “types,” as writers who are bound by their obsessions, Leiber is not so easy to categorize, his restlessness and spontaneity being used against him. It could be that Leiber’s lack of drive as a novelist (as novels sell more than short story collections) relegated him to being “merely” an exceptional writer at short lengths. Many writers who excel at the short form tried and often failed to jump to novel-writing when it became clear what the market favored, and while Leiber never sold himself out in this manner, he also, as a result, became (and remains so) hard to find outside of used bookstores.

Given that he was a better writer, line for line, than most if not all of his contemporaries (he and Sturgeon might be the only “Golden Age” authors whose works remain a joy to read simply as literature), and given that he possessed a vision which only aged, rather than withered or shattered, with the years, Fritz Leiber’s continued lack of appreciation among genre readers (especially younger readers) is nothing short of scandalous. His prime lasted not a few years, but a few decades.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: