The Best of Fritz Leiber

Continuing with the Fritz Leiber theme, here’s a retro review from Sept. 3, 2010.

This collection has two Change War stories related to Leiber’s The Big Time.

Review: The Best of Fritz Leiber, Fritz Leiber, 1974.Best of Fritz Leiber

It’s the centennial of Fritz Leiber’s birth. Unfortunately, Leiber, winner of numerous awards, writer of many styles, adept in horror, fantasy, and science fiction, is something of a forgotten author. Or, more accurately, remembered for little more than a sword-and-sorcery series.

There are no stories from that series about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser here unlike the recent Night Shade Books’ Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber. That collection, though, is a retrospective of Leiber’s entire career. This book collects Leiber’s favorite stories from about two-thirds of the way into a career that covered more than 50 years. Still, the collections share six stories.

Writer’s favorites are not always reader favorites. I personally wasn’t excited by “The Night He Cried”, an attack on what Leiber feared would be Mickey Spillane’s pernicious influence on fantasy. “Little Old Miss Macbeth”, sort of a science fantasy in a post-apocalypse America, didn’t strike me as more than an exercise in mood.

“Gonna Roll the Bones” is science fantasy too but successfully blends dicing against the Devil in a spaceport with marital discord. “The Man Who Never Grew Young” follows the life of an immortal of our time in a universe where time now runs backward, Egyptian monuments devolving back to quarried stone, nomads leaving the Nile for the desert.

Other works are successful retoolings of mainstream stories. “The Ship Sails at Midnight” outlines the effect of a woman who becomes a muse, crutch, and inspiration to a group of men. The sexual and psychological rewards and pitfalls of the situation are well depicted. “The Foxholes of Mars” deals metaphorically with Hitler and World War One.

Political satire and suspicion of centralized technocracies is a theme in a surprising number of stories. “Sanity” and “The Enchanted Forest” all take a dim view of trying to build “normal” societies with no room for the eccentric and aberrant. “Poor Superman” is not only an attack on the grandiose promises of Scientology and Dianetics but the totalitarian faiths of the 20th century.

“Coming Attraction” and “America the Beautiful” are both stories of Brits coming to America and learning, through relations with women, of hidden sexual fetishes and social neuroses. In the first story, it’s a post-nuclear war America with a mania for masked women and female wrestling. In the second, a story from 1970, America’s relentless quest for perfection and a clean environment has fetishized catastrophe.

Sheer pageantry is on hand with “The Big Trek”, where a man joins a bizarre calvacade of aliens leaving man to his nuked out Earth and going to the stars, and “The Big Holiday”, about an American holiday of the future. Disaster on a grand scale is here in “A Pail of Air” where a wandering comet has knocked Earth out of its orbit and the atmosphere has condensed into vast drifts of frozen gas.

“Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee” is about the ultimate earwig, a rhythm which threatens to so compulsively grip the human mind as to destroy human civilization. It struck me as a very Alfred Bester type story. So did “The Good New Days” to a lesser degree. It’s a satire on Beatniks and set in a polluted, over automated society where having a job is the ultimate status symbol. “Mariana” treads some of the same solipsistic ground that Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint does from almost the same time.

“The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity” has been an influential story with many writers taking up the notion of intelligences haunting the technological infrastructures of man. The original is still charming.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser may be missing but there are stories from two other Leiber series. “Space-Time for Springers” is the first installment about hyper-intelligent super-kitten Gummitch. There are two Change War stories. “Try and Change the Past” shows, with a man’s attempt to avoid being fatally shot by his wife, to what lengths the universe will go to preserve historical reality. “A Deskful of Girls” is kind of tangential to the series, a high tech vampirism used to steal, in a ghostly, faintly sentient, ectoplasmic form, the sexual charisma of would-be starlets and “sex goddesses”. A tale that’s both erotic and social criticism.

Leiber contributes notes to all his stories, and Poul Anderson’s introduction reveals Leiber the man and artist.

Leiber’s sheer versatility means that large numbers of stories may not be the reader’s thing, but this is definitely a place to start in appreciating a fading legend.


More fantastic fiction reviews are indexed by title and author/editor.

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