Novella Review: “Ship of Shadows” by Fritz Leiber

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller. F&SF, July 1969.)

Who Goes There?

By 1969, Fritz Leiber had been in the game for thirty years (a long time, mind you), and yet unlike most of his contemporaries he had not started to rest on his laurels, or, even worse, embarrass himself in front of his peers. Isaac Asimov became known as a pop scientist, releasing the occasional short story but mostly spending his time on articles and science books. Robert Heinlein went silent after The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and when he returned he seemed to have lost his magic touch (imagine waiting four years for a new Heinlein novel and you get I Will Fear No Evil). Theodore Sturgeon was mostly not writing at this point, although he was gaining himself some major Trek cred and he would soon return to the magazines with fresh material. Clifford Simak was pumping out about one novel a year, but the late ’60s were not exactly peak years for him. Yet Leiber not only remained productive but played nicely with the New Wave kids, fitting in with authors a generation younger than him; even at this relatively late stage of his career he remained restless.

“Ship of Shadows” was written specially for Leiber’s F&SF tribute issue, and as should probably be expected of a special author tribute story it goes just a bit farther than the average Leiber yarn. Whereas Leiber tends to jump between SF, fantasy, and horror with his fiction, “Ship of Shadows” dabbles in all three genres, though it can ultimately be considered science fiction for reasons I’ll get to much later. On the one hand this is a perfect recipe for disaster, or at least a muddled story, but the hodgepodge of genres paid off, as it won the Hugo for Best Novella. It’s also a reread for me, but it’s been a couple years, and as it turns out I remembered even less of “Ship of Shadows” than I thought I did—which is not necessarily a mark against it!

Placing Coordinates

First published in the July 1969 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. Incidentally this is one of those old F&SF issues I actually have a physical copy of, which is cool. Being a Hugo winner, “Ship of Shadows” has been reprinted quite a few times over the years, first in World’s Best Science Fiction: 1970 (confusingly covering fiction from 1969), edited by Terry Carr and Donald Wollheim. Naturally it would also appear in The Hugo Winners, Volume Three; it was supposed to appear in the previous volume, but Isaac Asimov, by his own admission, had somehow forgotten to include it. We also have the Leiber collection Ship of Shadows, very creatively named no doubt. If you’re an avid collector then there’s Masters of Science Fiction: Fritz Leiber from Centipede Press, although I do wanna warn you that a copy of this pristine hardcover will run you in the hundreds of dollars. Sadly it looks like there aren’t any reprints in paperback or hardcover that are currently available new, but on the bright side you have a lot of second-hand options.

Enhancing Image

Spar is an elderly (or at the very least decrepit) member of Windrush, some kind of ship that may or may not be the world entire. It’s amazing that Spar is able to accomplish anything given that a) he’s half-blind, and b) he’s a raging alcoholic. Indeed we start with Spar nursing himself through a hangover, which compounds his already poor eyesight, but quickly things “improve” when he comes across a talking cat—yeah, a talking cat, and it’s not a hallucination. The cat, to be named Kim, is clearly intelligent, and while there are “witches” on the ship who have cats as their familiars, Kim seems to be acting on his own. The two bond and start a sort of business relationship, with Spar providing Kim with a home and Kim providing him a service as rat catcher. Meanwhile Spar works at the Bat Rack (I sense a Halloween theme going on here) as a bartender’s assistant; said bartender is Keeper (get it? like barkeep? but also his brother’s keeper…?), who gives Spar something to do while also trying to not have him waste away on booze.

Know how you shouldn’t get high on your own supply? Same goes for drink, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure Spar is an addict.

A few things to note about the Bat Rack and the people who frequent it. Much of the novella’s action happens in or around this bar, which gives the story a vaguely theatrical tingue, what with there being only a few locations of note. The characters also have tangled personal and professional relationships, and it might be easiest to understand them as if in the context of a film noir, and why not, the setting and the character archetypes fit the bill well enough. Spar is our nominal hero who, much like the typical film noir protagonist, is knee-deep in his vices, with Keeper as the straight man. Suzy is a barfly who has a bit of a maybe-maybe-not going on with Spar, being much less the femme fatale than the film noir protagonist single obligatory lady friend, if he even has one. There’s Kim, the humorous and callous sidekick who arguably functions as the id to Spar’s ego. Then there’s the Big Bad™ of the story (not a spoiler, trust me), Crown, who is all but said to be the local pimp, as well as a big deal at the Bat Rack.

Oh, and then there’s Doc—the sage.

Regardless of where we actually are, we’re almost certainly not on Earth; for one thing, the method of timekeeping in Windrush is different. “Workday, Loafday, Playday, Sleepday. Ten days make a terranth, twelve terranths make a sunth, twelve sunths make a starth, and so on, to the end of time,” so says Spar. There’s a four-day cycle, ten days in the equivalent of a week, and so on, although this doesn’t help with understanding the setting so much as it helps give the impression that the setting itself is not totally understandable. Not much is explained in at least the first half of “Ship of Shadows,” partly because Spar, being our POV character, doesn’t know a whole lot himself, but also partly because his ability to comprehend his surroundings is hampered by his blindness. While everything being described as a “blur” got repretitive for me, I get that there are only so many words you can use to convey the fuzziness and lack of depth of poor eyesight.

Windrush is a curious setting for what swerves between fantasy, horror, and SF, as the descriptions of the ship’s interior very much imply that the story, on the whole, falls into that last genre. What complicates matters is that aside from the “normal” people aboard Windrush, there are also apparently witches, vampires, and even zombies, although tellingly these creatures of the night are not confronted directly (unless I’m missing something); for example we hear a good deal about witches, but we never see a witch or see witchcraft performed. The closest we get to witchcraft is actually medical science, plain and simple, and nobody aside from Doc understands how modern (or I guess it’d be considered futuristic) medicine works. Doc, whom Spar comes to with hopes of restoring his eyesight and even giving him a new pair of teeth, is the real hero of the story if anything, but since he’s a supporting character we’re not always sure what he’s up to.

Doc, who is maybe not the oldest (although he would be up there) but certainly the wisest of the cast, is also seemingly the only one aware that there was life prior to the current dynamic in Windrush. More than anything he represents the standards of our civilization, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that Doc, being the only truly civilized man on a ship full of barbarians, has a little black bag that amounts to the story’s MacGuffin. Little black bag? A doctor’s bag that can do anything? Does this sound a little but like the equally sought-after MacGuffin of C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag”? Similarly there’s a tinge of pessimism about humanity’s future, and how Doc’s equipment is the ony thing keeping what’s left of humanity from teetering off a cliff. Take Doc’s response to Spar’s request for new eyes and teeth, which is as bitter as it is solemn:

After what seemed a long while, Doc said in a dreamy, sorrowful voice, “In the Old Days, that would have been easy. They’d perfected eye transplants. They could regenerate cranial nerves, and sometimes restore scanning power to an injured cerebrum. While transplanting tooth buds from a stillborn was intern’s play. But now… Oh, I might be able to do what you ask in an uncomfortable, antique, inorganic fashion, but…” He broke off on a note that spoke of the misery of life and the uselessness of all effort.

Leiber was not only aware of Kornbluth but was close contemporaries with him, although the two have starkly different worldviews. Doc’s little black bag, and generally the narrative of how it will take a select few “smart” people to prevent humanity from blowing itself up, are definitely in keeping with Kornbluth’s writing, but let’s not kid ourselves; this is merely paying homage to a fellow great writer, rather than pastiche. For the most part “Ship of Shadows” reads like Leiber—not exactly classic Leiber, as it is grimier and bloodier than his early ’50s standouts, but it has the theatrics, the inventiveness, and the sense of wit one can expect from him. Had Kornbluth not already been dead for a whole decade he may have written a New Wave piece not too dissimilar from “Ship of Shadows.” Just beware that this is Leiber in an unusually dark vein (though not without a snarky sense of humor) by his standards.

F&SF used to (I guess they still do it, but we’ve only gotten one of these since 2002) dedicate special issues to authors deemed important in the field, especially authors who have contributed immensely to F&SF, with Leiber of course being one of the authors to receive this treatment. The tribute story, written specially for the issue, tends to be a novella, though not always, and typically you can expect the author indulge in as many of their fetishes (in the non-sexual meaning of the word) as possible while also, ideally, delivering a fine read. Eventually I’ll review Poul Anderson’s “The Queen of Air and Darkness,” which also won a Hugo, and that novella is, for good or ill depending on your biases, very Anderson-y; similarly “Ship of Shadows” is up there with the most Leiber-y of works, and as a result of that it’s a bit muddled but also highly entertaining. It also has the advantage of being, like much of Leiber’s best work, pretty compact all things considered; it’s a novella, sure, but only maybe 20,000 words in length, and Leiber gets a lot of mileage by the gallon with this one.

There Be Spoilers Here

The big twist of “Ship of Shadows” is that it’s a generation ship story. Now, that may sound rather niche, but the generation ship story was, at least for a time, a pretty crowded subgenre (if it can even be called a subgenre) of SF. If you’ve read, say, Heinlein’s “Universe” or Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop then you know there are certain tropes to expect here. The thing about generation ships is that they sound cool on paper but realistically would run into a number of problems that are likely to jeopardize the whole operation, of which I would say the big three are: 1. the passengers or the crew commit mutiny and overthrow the ones in charge, 2. enough time passes that, depending on the sophistication of the ship’s design, the passengers might even forget that they’re on a spaceship, and 3. some illness or virus breaks out that, once it spreads, nobody on the ship is able to stop it, so we’d be looking at death or something not quite as bad. “Ship of Shadows” manages to tick all three boxes, because Leiber is going one step beyond with this one.

Whatever crew seems to be left on Windrush is clearly in charge of shit anymore, I suspect because they’ve tried to isolate themselves from the mostly ill passengers. Speaking of which, the passengers have almost entirely succumbed to the Lethean rickettsia, known colloquially as Styx ricks, with Doc the only person onboard who has the equipment and the know-how to treat symptoms; why then Doc and Keeper, who are demonstrably more rational, should give the reigns to Spar at the end is beyond me, but apparently it’s due to Spar’s position as the closest the drama has to an innocent soul. Awkward and unearned sex scene (well, implied sex scene) with Suzy aside, of course.

The novella’s climax is pretty over the top, almost reaching the levels of Titus Andronicus with how gruesome it is, although it must be said it lacks the camp factor of that infamous play. Not only are Crown and Ensign Drake disposed of in bloody fashion, but Suzy, who up to this point has been the only sympathetic female character of any substance, gets it maybe the bloodiest of all; there’s being fridged, and then there’s being fed unceremoniously into a meat grinder. Given Leiber’s history of quasi-pacifism, and how violence is often treated in his fiction (i.e., as something to be avoided), the brutality of “Ship of Shadows” further reinforces this notion that Leiber is pulling out all the stops—for both good and bad. Mostly good, but I was reminded rather uncomfortably that “Ship of Shadows” is one of those Leiber stories where he unintentionally comes off as much more of a woman hater than he really was.

Qualms aside, the ending is still one of those classic eureka moments, typical yes but often satisfying in a generation ship story where the characters realize that the universe is unfathomably bigger than their metal coffin. No wonder then that the twist is what I remembered more than anything (aside from Kim and the generally ghoulish atmosphere) from my first reading. Leiber loves his Halloween shit and he knows how to do the monster mash. That the ghoulish apperitions seemingly haunting Windrush are human drug addicts is maybe a little anticlimactic, but as another entry in Leiber’s continuing interest in the nature of addiction (especially alcoholism, which the man himself was prone to) it makes sense allegorically.

A Step Farther Out

I have to admit I’m a sucker for stories set on ships. Not a fan of actually being on ships, but stories about ships? Aw hell yeah. No wonder I like Melville and Conrad. A ship is the perfect setting to invoke paranoia, loneliness, nightmarish visions, a sense of isolation, all this negative shit that would be bad for the characters but good for us as readers. “Ship of Shadows” starts out as murky, intentionally so what with Spar’s eyesight, almost masquerading as fantasy before revealing itself to be SF in the second half, unfortunately sort of petering out at the very end. What makes “Ship of Shadows” so memorable is that while it would not be surprising if someone in their thirties wrote it, it’s a good deal more surprising that Leiber was pushing sixty at the time. There’s a bit of New Wave, a bit of satirical fantasy in the Unknown tradition, and a bit of that trademark Leiber quirkiness; the only thing it’s seriously missing is his thing for chess. It’s also a contender for Leiber’s most violent story, although your mileage may vary with regards to his treatment of his female characters (admittedly more brutal than the norm for him). In 1969, thirty years into his career (almost to the month), he was still searching for new avenues.

See you next time.


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