While I work on new stuff, you get another retro review, another in what seems to be popular posts on Fritz Leiber.
From January 22, 2011 …
Review: Changewar, Fritz Leiber, 1983.
The Change War sprawls across all time, its combatants the alien Spiders and Snakes. The object? Well, no one is completely sure and that includes the humans drafted into fighting it. They’ve rationalized why they must fight because they really don’t have much choice. (The most famous installment in the series, Leiber’s novel The Big Time, does end with a possible explanation for the war.)
This is a looser collection of series stories than you would normally expect. Given the nature of the Change War, there is not a clear chronology. Many stories do not share any characters with each other or The Big Time. There are a couple of stories which do not obviously seem part of the series except, of course, Leiber tells us they are by putting them in the book. All the stories stand on their own and offer varying sorts of pleasure, so the collection is worth reading apart from being a Change War collection.
“Try and Change the Past” was the first short story written for the series and cleverly works out one of the basic ideas behind the series: the Law of the Conservation of Reality. A new Snake recruit tries to avoid getting drafted by changing history – specifically his wife fatally shooting him. The story can be seen as an answer to Ray Bradbury’s famous “A Sound of Thunder”.
The narrator of “The Oldest Soldier” is — rather like Leiber himself — philosophically and temperamentally inclined to pacifism. But he’s accepted the necessity of war and has set out to learn military history and hangs out with veterans at a local Chicago bar. But they’re not all WWII veterans. One tells stories of the Change War.
“Damnation Morning” has an alcoholic checking into a hotel room to commit suicide and getting an unpleasant life review by a Snake recruiter.
“When the Change-Winds Blow” is one of the stories that don’t obviously seem part of the Change War conflict. A man on Mars sees a vision of a Gothic cathedral. It’s a beautiful story mixing literature (the story of Robert and Elizabeth Browning), architecture, and the mourning for dead loved ones.
“Knight to Move” is a playful story featuring ex-Nazi soldier Erich von Hohenwald (featured prominently in The Big Time), a chess tournament, and speculation on how the games a culture plays show whether Snakes or Spiders have been manipulating them.
“A Deskful of Girls” is a creepy, erotic novelette on the mystery, allure, origin, and manipulation of sexual charisma. The narrator meets one Dr. Emil Slyker, an unpleasant psychotherapist who also fancies himself a black magician and has some blackmail material on one of his patients, a megastar and sex symbol. But the narrator finds out that Slyker isn’t the quack he first seems. And Slyker is also in for some surprises. It’s Leiber’s comment on “1950s sex goddesses”.
Unlike “A Deskful of Girl”, “No Great Magic” has a quite obvious connection to the Change War because it features the same narrator as The Big Time, Greta, and several of the novel’s characters also appear here. This time, though, Greta finds herself amnesiac and serving as a wardrobe mistress for a theatrical troupe in New York City. The company undertakes a bizarre performance of Macbeth with an added, anachronistic prologue by Queen Elizabeth and odd costuming. A very entertaining mixture of Shakespeare, theater life, and plot surprises that reminded me strongly of another Leiber story, “Four Ghosts in Hamlet”.
While I’d recommend this collection to anyone not familiar with the Change War series, completists looking for all of the series may be a bit deceived by the promise of this book’s cover. As near as I can tell from various bibliographic sources, it does not collect all the Change War stories. Changewar collects all the short stories – though the connection of a couple of its stories to the series escapes me. If you buy Changewar and the Ace Double The Big Time / The Mind Spider & Other Stories, you’ll have all but one of the stories in the series.