Fritz Leiber is a legendary name in science fiction and fantasy, up there among the stars with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke et al. I do not know whether the present book includes his best (since the author has endorsed it himself, it should), but it does have some fantastic stories.
Leiber calls himself a “Science Fantasy” writer in the introduction: it seems an apt term, because there is nary a hard SF story in the whole volume, and many of them are outright fantasies. The author uses the world of the future and imagined scientific advances as a prop to hang his stories on, which are mostly fantasy.
The story nearest to a hard SF story in the volume, A Pail of Air
, is also my personal favourite. Earth has been “abducted” by a passing dark star, pulled into its gravitational field and taken away from the Solar System. The atmosphere has frozen in the absolute zero of space, the different constituents each freezing at a different temperature and forming layers atop the soil, with water at the bottom and oxygen at the top. A scientist and his family have managed to survive by creating an almost-hermetically-sealed-room with a fire which is never allowed to go out: they replenish the oxygen periodically scooping the frozen layer from outside and allowing it to evaporate. The story is told by the young son of the scientist, who has been born on this dismal dead planet. The story is a wonderful paean to mankind, determined to survive no matter what.
A couple of stories are surreal vignettes, disturbing in their dark intensity. Interestingly, Leiber says that both these stories “almost wrote themselves”. The Man Who Never Grew Young
is the story of an eternal in a world where time flows backward: all around him, he sees people grow young and go back into their mothers’ wombs, but he is destined live for ever. In Mariana
, the world of make-believe is taken to its logical conclusion – which is (terrifyingly!) ridiculous.
These stories span the period from the end of the Second World War in the nineteen forties to the cold war period of the early seventies: and many of the stories reflect the concerns of the era in their content and intent. Sanity
and Wanted: An Enemy
are straightforward in their concern with war and world domination. The Foxholes of Mars
and The Big Trek
are essentially moralizing stories about war, even with their SF setting – and I found them rather mediocre.
Leiber’s concerns about right-wing America are reflected in Coming Attraction
, Poor Superman
and America the Beautiful
. In two of these stories, the protagonist is British, and the story is essentially a look at one’s own country through foreign eyes. Even though the Soviet Union is a thing of history and the cold war is largely forgotten, these stories remain chilling remainders of where humanity can go when bigotry and paranoia is allowed to dominate – something which is very valid almost all of the “liberal” democracies today.
Fritz Leiber is also a terrific satirist. As a person who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, the story Rum-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee
was especially hilarious for me: new age philosophy, modern art, jazz music and pop psychology are all put together in a hilarious romp of a tale and lampooned. But for all that, it is still a valid fantasy. The same is also true for The Night He Cried
, where Mickey Spillane and his brand of hard-boiled detective fiction is mercilessly slaughtered.
There were also a couple of stories I could not quite “get” - Little Miss Macbeth
and the multi-award-winning novella Gonna Roll the Bones
. However, this is not to take away from the power of these stories: only a confession of the limitations of my aesthetic sensitivities.
Running across all these stories is the common theme of human existence, the sheer joy of it, even in extremely adverse conditions. This is the real courage to live, as epitomised by the scientist holding on on a destroyed earth in A Pail of Air
Courage is like a ball, son. A person can hold it only so long, then he has to toss it to someone else. When it’s tossed you way, you’ve got to catch it and hold it tight – and hope there’ll be someone else to toss it to when you get tired of being brave.
If I should choose one passage to describe Fritz Leiber’s philosophy (if there is such a thing!), this would be it.
Fritz Leiber says:
All I ever try to write is a good story with a good measure of strangeness in it. The supreme goddess of universe is Mystery, and being well entertained is the highest joy.
Any perceptive reader, I feel, would agree wholeheartedly with the entertainment part.