The Unknown Fritz Leiber

Thursday , 8, June 2017 18 Comments

This is not the Fritz Leiber you’re looking for.[1]

Apparently, Fritz Leiber Jr. – born December 24, 1910[2] – is an unknown science fiction author among modern readers, at least according to this io9 article from several years ago.


Noted contemporary Poul Anderson was quoted as having said that in the late 30s and 40s Leiber was writing “a lot of the best science fiction and fantasy in the business.” [3]

He was prolific, amazingly vivid in his writing, and active almost right up to his sudden death in 1992.  While many of his most prominent contemporaries passed away before “the Great Delisting” Leiber spanned the gap, and more importantly was beloved by fans for his skillful public persona (no doubt dividends of his past on stage[4]) and his habit of engaging personally with fandom – indeed, in addition to receiving many different fan awards over the years he was a participant in groups such as Hyborian Legion and LASFS, contributed to fanzines (Vorpal Glass, Amra).  So why is he not as prominent today as he might deserve?

I think one of the comments on that io9 piece more or less explains it – Grglstr writes:

“I think he’s not as well known by the kids today because most of his best work is in short story form, and people haven’t quite figured how to peg him in either SF, Fantasy or Horror, because he excelled in all three. “

I say more or less, because I think Grglstr[5] misses an important point: that this division between SF, fantasy, and horror is really a fairly recent thing that was only just starting to congeal in the late 70s, in part thanks to Don Wollheim’s success[6] – many of the writers of Leiber’s generation regularly mixed together elements of what we would now call science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  It still happens of course, but it often causes comment – even by the late 80s and early 90s, work by writers like Celia S. Friedman[7], whose blending of a SF past (interstellar colonization) with fantasy themes (magic! vampires!) in her Coldfire Trilogy left many of my friends scratching their heads.  Is this SF? Is it fantasy?

But take things back a decade or two (at least) and this kind of category bending wasn’t really all that unusual – in fact, I wonder if Leiber’s SF and horror riddled “sword and sorcery”[8] isn’t sort of the other side of the coin from Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances – in the former, a familiar fantasy is spiced with dashes of SF and a frisson of horror, while the latter takes something that is ostensibly SF and makes the colours bolder by applying a veneer of archetype fantasy.

To be fair, though, Grglstr[9] has a point – a huge proportion of Leiber’s work is in short form, which sadly doesn’t have the shelf-life of novels and is also an under-appreciated art form in the current era.  This does make it more challenging for new readers to really see him shine, despite the excellent anthologies that have been published over the years.

A small subset of potential fans will be familiar with Leiber mainly through his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, which earned him a healthy stipend in his later years, owing to RPG giant TSR paying residuals for the rights to use the Lankhmar setting and certain eponymous characters.  But despite the enormous popularity of this flavour of sword and sorcery story among fantasy gamers, I wonder how many realise that these stories were written by Leiber over a span of 50 years, printed and reprinted in periodicals and anthologies for various generations of readers?

And why is it these stories in particular that have been remembered when the man has a dauntingly long bibliography and there are so many other great stories in Leiber’s canon? (dare I say greater?)

I wonder if it’s a combination of factors:

  • First, we have Leiber’s strong association with Dungeon’s and Dragons, via TSR’s interest in using his work
  • Second, we have a solidification of genre divisions during the peak of TSR’s popularity in the 80s.
  • Finally, we have the combination of market shift phenomena that led to many backlist works that had been printed and reprinted for decades no longer sitting on those spinner racks at rest stops and drug stores.

Could it be that the result has been that Leiber has been unfairly recast as a “one trick pony”?  If so, it’s a dreadful shame.

The io9 article mentions Our Lady of Darkness (1977)[10] which is indeed an excellent book, but let’s not forget Leiber’s first ever book in print: Night’s Black Agents (1947) – while this is actually a collection of shorts, I think that along with a later collection A Pail of Air (1964)[11], a good Fafhrd collection, and Our Lady of Darkness we get to see the full scope of Leiber’s amazing range.  Oh, he has had some flubs – who could fail to, considering how prolific he was?  But make no mistake that there’s far more gold.

Leiber is one of those under-re-printed (is that a word?) authors, and I’m very glad to see that in the last few years since the offending io9 article some new editions of his work are seeing the press again – it’s always been fairly easy to find a new edition of the Lankhmar stories, but to be honest I don’t think the Fafhrd tales are really where he shines.

Leiber’s writing has a fine sense of timing and poise – a skill that perhaps he learned from his time on stage, and which I’m sure served him well in the pulpit.  He was beloved of many while he was alive, and I can hardly believe that he could be characterized as “the least known SF author you need to know.”  This is the man who, after a lengthy dry spell, came back to publishing welcomed with an entire F&SF issue devoted to his new stories[12] (July 1969) and an enormous outpouring of appreciation from fandom.

I think that the SF&F world lost a bright star when Leiber passed in 1992, and I look forward to re-reading quite a bit of his work over the coming months, for which I’m sure Amazon will be thankful.

By the way – THIS is the Leiber you’re looking for, and one of my favourite photos of the man:

A still from the film Equinox (obviously) signed by Lieber in 1982. Scan via fan Will Hart:

I think this image says more about the man than any of the words I put before it.

[1] But it is a Fritz Leiber – Senior, rather than Junior played Caesar with the Three Stooges in Cleopatra (nyuk nyuk nyuk!).  Junior, the subject of this post, was also an actor (unavoidable, having been raised among such unsavory sorts) and in fact not only appeared with his father in Camille (1936), The Great Garrick (1937), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1939 – uncredited speaking part) but toured with his parents – who were noted Shakespearean actors in addition to his father’s extensive film credits – in 1928 and again in 1934, and returned to the screen in Equinox (1970) and The Bermuda Triangle (1979).  This last is an odd addition, as it’s a documentary but Leiber’s role is a dramatic one.

[2] Thanks Santa!

[3] I have seen this quote bandied about, and had to do some digging to confirm it, but it appears to be from Anderson’s introduction to The Wizard of Newhon: The Best of Fritz Lieber (1974: Doubleday). I’m still seeking confirmation from someone who actually has a copy of this book in front of them if anyone cares to assist? Assuming anyone reads these footnotes of course, which I write mainly as an amusement for myself.

[4] And as a lay preacher! Lieber Jr apparently had a B.A.(hons) in philosophy, and later certified as a lay preacher.

[5] Dear lord, what are parents thinking these days when they name their children?

[6] More on that in a later post.

[7] Another under-remembered and underappreciated author who spanned the Great Delisting, who I think I will cover in a later post as well.

[8] A term he’s actually credited with coining in his correspondence with fanzine Amra, in a response to Moorcock’s demand for a term in 1961.

[9] No, really – what were they thinking!? Buy a vowel for goodness sakes!

[10] Expanded from a short “The Pale Brown Thing” first published in F&SF in 1971.

[11] I have a particular fondness for the titular story “A Pail of Air” since I clearly remember reading the story years and years (and years) ago, but more recently came across the radio play adaptation in an archive of the excellent Galaxy Magazine sponsored series X Minus One (listen here!) as I was exploring the classics.  If, like me, you have limited time to actually sit and read, but have lots of time when you could listen, I heartily recommend the many collections of pulp era radio adaptations available online!

[12] July 1969 – and my how that magazine has changed. It’s hard to imagine someone with Leiber’s bibliography getting that kind of re-welcoming today.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Thanks for the post, Kevyn. I love that picture from Equinox.

    I prefer Leiber’s fantasy, but his Change War stories and his horror (Conjure Wife, Gather Darkness and others) are excellent. Conjure Wife has been produced for screen, radio and television; I think its influence is underestimated, just as Leiber is under appreciated.

    Thanks again.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      I personally think Leiber should probably be on the same shelf as Bradbury, but because he never really crossed into slick territory and – more importantly – never wrote one of those iconic cold war SF novels that so often find themselves on classroom reading lists he gets little attention beyond the Fahfrd/Mouser tales. What’s really interesting here is that Leiber was academic in an era when university degrees weren’t a dime a dozen: he had a Bachelor of Philosophy in psychology and physiology, and attempted religion-oriented graduate studies twice. Along with the unquestionable education in classic stage-oriented literature (mainly Shakespeare) he certainly had the literary chops – and it shows in his writing – but because he fails to check the boxes to qualify his work as literary/slick he gets memory holed.

  • Bruce says:

    Leiber and John M Ford both wrote the kind of stories that make me think of a stage play- a small group of good characters swap good dialog, generally in a room about the size of a small stage. Good stuff happens, then they get together again and swap more good dialog.

    That’s not the rhythm of engagement I associate with Appendix N, the main vein of fantasy, or the Poul Anderson, Heinlein, Niven, Pournelle, Zelazny main vein of SF. I don’t read much horror, but I don’t think it quite fits that either.

  • Misha Burnett says:

    I strongly recommend Leiber’s novel “You’re All Alone”. It’s a book that is nearly impossible to classify, it could be equally well described as Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror, because the central conceit is not explained at all. The main character suddenly experiences an entirely new reality, without ever leaving his home town.

    That book scared me, and still scares me, thirty-something years after I first read it.

    • Oh yes, an excellent alternate universe cum existential horror novella that surely presages PKD – I’m pretty sure Leiber was New Wave before New Wave, actually.

      Amusing trivium: the novellawas originally intended for Unknown Fantasy, but the mag folded in 1943 and it had to wait for a taker – the first taker being erotica imprint Beacon, who inserted bizarre sex scenes to make it into a short novel (actually a double) in 1950. It didn’t get printed in its real form until Ace took it in 1972…one more thing to thank Wollheim for!

  • Andy says:

    You mean some new editions of his work ARE, not “is”, seeing the press again. Because the subject of the verb is “editions”.

  • Also please read OUR LADY OF DARKNESS. Gooseflesh awaits. That man could do creepy as well as he did action or comedy.

  • deuce says:

    Regarding Footnote #8… Fritz actually coined it in the fanzine, Ancalagon:

  • Alex says:

    DCC has been pumping Lankhmar hard lately, and the guy who does Hellboy has a newish Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser graphic novel out, so he might see a bit more resurgence.

  • baduin says:

    He was a pretty good writer, but the best thing he did was the reading of A Night of Malneant by Clark Ashton Smith.

  • Tyr says:

    One recurring theme in the comments section at i09 is the idea that pre-Year Zero writers may have had good ideas, but those ideas have since been handled much (always much) better by far (always far) superior writers. I see this comment often in discussions of Lovecraft, a writer whose originality and influence are hard to credibly deny, ideological impurity notwithstanding.

    I was surprised to see that argument applied to Lieber. He honestly is one of the finest writers I have ever read. Genre aside, he just had a beautiful command of English. I can’t but wonder who ranks as a good writer to these people, and what qualities would elevate them above Leiber?

    • TPC says:

      This discussion is a great example of what you’re talking about. The novel is described as “unlike anything you’ve ever seen”…except even the commenters have seen plenty like it before and mention some of those variations anyway!

      I don’t get how they live with that kind of constant contradiction.

      Also the novel sounds terrible. I’m utterly sick of linguistic “blackness” being limited to hiphop by sjw and other liberals.

      Maybe irritation will get the old wordcount up, lol.

      • TPC says:

        I found that discussion searching for more fritz leiber posts on the site.

        • Tyr says:

          I am sure that a search for any “bad old days” author on that site will bring up a discussion of how a new writer has improved upon their work by dumbing down the language and ideas and diversifying the cast. (A process known as Scalizification)

          As for “linguistic blackness,” Earth may be host to diverse African cultures and a vast, varied diaspora from the Dark Continent, but the rest of the universe evidently speaks only Jive.

          • Alex says:

            One of the funniest parts of Tarzan at the Earth’s Core was that the black cook from the American deep south talked liked a minstrel character but Tarzan’s personal squad of tribal African crack-shot riflemen all spoke nearly perfect English.

  • BardGeek says:

    A belated reply to your footnote #3. Sorry for the “belated” part; I’m just passing through, hunting for information on Leiber’s Night of the Long Knives. Didn’t find it here, but I do own a copy of The Best of Fritz Leiber. Anderson’s exact words are: “During all this time [from 1939 through his years at “Science Digest”] he acquired a wife and son and, between dry spells which readers regretted, wrote a lot of the best science fiction and fantasy in the business.”

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