Jonathan Strahan and Charles M. Brown, eds: Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories

I was about to start off this discussion of Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories by saying that Fritz Leiber needs no introduction. I’m not sure that’s true any more: there are several generations of fine writers in the field of speculative fiction between Leiber’s heyday and now, and I know how hard it is to keep up with what’s current, much less what was hot fifty years ago.

However, if I may rephrase myself slightly, “Fritz Leiber should need no introduction to fans of science fiction, heroic fantasy, and just plain weird stories.” Like most sf writers of his generation and even later, Leiber worked in several genres. (Remember that Jack Vance won awards for his mysteries, and Robert Silverberg left science fiction for a couple of years because editors were buying mysteries and not sf. I think everyone wrote horror stories.) Perhaps I should say that the idea of “genre” as something implying boundaries was more or less irrelevant to Leiber’s work. How does one describe a story such as “A Deskful of Girls” (a psychologist keeps the ghosts of his patients in files in his office) or “Space Time for Springers” (told from the vantage of a kitten named Gummitch, who is just waiting for the moment when he takes his first sip of coffee and transforms into a real child)?

Leiber is best known, in my universe, at least, as the creator of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, rascals and heroes who had a vast influence on the shape of heroic fantasy in the latter half of the twentieth century, and who make appearances here in three stories. Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to this volume, mentions something about his reaction to The Swords of Lankhmar that I think has major significance when discussing Leiber. Says Gaiman: “I couldn’t enjoy Conan the Barbarian after that. Not really. I missed the wit.” Conan has a lot in common with Leiber’s heroes, but he can be ponderously serious.

Wit is something that infuses Leiber’s fiction, although not always with the lightness characteristic of the adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Sometimes the wit — and I’m taking that to mean much more than sparkling repartee — is more fundamental, a matter of a finely honed awareness of irony. Take, for example, “A Pail of Air,” a strikingly original post-Apocalypse story in which, for a change, the disaster is not of our own making: the Earth has been pulled out of its orbit by a wandering star and now hurtles along through the dark of space, buried in frozen atmosphere and carrying survivors. In addition to being a captivating narrative, it’s a brilliant riff on human adaptability, leavened by a large helping of optimism. The world was, indeed, a very different place in 1951. (It also happens to be one of my own candidates for “Best Science-Fiction Story Ever.”)

Although many of Leiber’s stories have a dark edge — “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” featuring his unlikely fantasy heroes, is a case in point — there is still an enthusiasm, a zest for experience and a sense of wonder (wide-eyed but not naïve) that used to be part and parcel of science fiction.

Sadly, not all the selections here are successes, and even old favorites sometimes seem overwritten. Be that as it may, there are more hits than misses here, and ample demonstration of Leiber’s gifts as a storyteller. And that’s about all you can ask.

(Night Shade Books, 2010)

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