A few weeks ago, the 100th anniversary of author Fritz Leiber's birth passed largely unnoticed. The literary community offered up no tributes. No celebrations or symposiums were held. Perhaps that should come as little surprise. None of Leiber's books are in stock at my local chain bookstores, and most of his writing is out of print. Yet few authors of the 20th century anticipated the storytelling of the current day with more prescience than Leiber, who passed away in 1992 at age 81.
A wide range of recent novels—from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books to Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road—reflect Leiber’s clear, direct influence, while other era-defining literary series, from Harry Potter to Twi- light, draw on the same mystical-meets-the-everyday recipe that Leiber mastered decades ago. The term magical realism didn't exist back in the 1930s and 1940s, but Leiber could very well have trade- marked it long before the Latin Ameri- can literary lions turned it into a Nobel Prize-winning style. But Leiber’s impact is perhaps even more evident when one leaves behind prose fiction, and instead looks at other contempo- rary vehicles for storytelling: movies, graphic novels, video games, role- playing games, and other ways in which tales come to life in the modern day. When I was a freshman in college, my roommate devoted innumerable hours to Dungeons and Dragons, a pioneering open-ended game with clear borrowings from Leiber, just as today, my youngest son spends hours immersed in an on-line multiplayer game that bears uncanny similarities to Leiber’s adventure stories. Many of us, it seems, live in a Leiberian universe —or at least escape there in our free time.
Fritz Leiber’s life story was almost as strange and wondrous as those he concoted for his books. At one point or another in his life he was a movie actor (you can see Fritz Leiber working with Greta Garbo in Camille), chess champion, board game inventor, comic strip writer (for the Buck Rogers series), editor of an encyclopedia, minister, student of psychology, student of philosophy, student of theology, writing teacher, Shakespearian stage actor, inspector for the aerospace industry, skilled fencer, speech instructor (at Occidental College in Los Angeles) and, of course, science fiction and fantasy author. Despite these considerable talents, Leiber spent his final years in humble surroundings, residing in a one-room apartment in San Francisco’s tenderloin district. Harlan Ellison has described Leiber writing his stories on a manual typewriter propped over the sink in his cramped quarters.
Leiber drew on his odd hodgepodge of skills and personal experiences in crafting his stories. His considerable skills as a chessplayer—Leiber won the Santa Monica open in 1958—are reflected in a number of tales, perhaps most notably in “The 64 Square Madhouse,” which presents the extraordinary concept (at least back in 1964, when it was published) of a computer entering a chess tournament. Leiber’s deep knowledge of Shakespeare—he played Malcolm in Macbeth and Edgar in King Lear—shows up in countless stories, for example “No Great Magic” which features an acting troupe that, through the wonders of time travel, performs Macbeth for Queen Elizabeth I and the Bard of Avon himself. Leiber’s brief stint as a minister is reflected in the religious themes of various tales—he credited it as an aid in writing Gather Darkness, although his teachers at the General Theological Seminary would not have been pleased with the practitioners of witchcraft serving as heroes and the priests playing villains in this novel. And, of course, Leiber’s talents as a fencer are echoed again and again in his adventure stories, especially those featuring Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, the former character modeled after the author himself.
“There’s a lot in a name,” Leiber once noted. And his gave him no end of troubles. “I’m forever having to explained,” he griped, “that it’s pronounced LYber not LEEber, and correspondingly spelled Leiber not Lieber.” His first name was equally problematic. “Fritz” was used as a term of derision applied to German soldiers in World War I, and the future author found teachers and friends who refused to accept that any patriotic American citizen would go by such a despised name. Yet Leiber was more American than most of his detractors—his paternal grandfather, a German immigrant, had fought as a Captain on the Union side in the Civil War, and his mother’s American roots could be traced back to the Revolution.
The future author was named after his father, Fritz Leiber, Sr., an itinerant actor of some renown, who early recruited his son into the thespian arts. Leiber Jr. devoted years to stage drama, and also tried his hand at a Hollywood career. Like so many of Leiber’s early initiatives, these efforts did not go very far, but held him in good stead in later life. Leiber’s stage presence, rhetorical skills and stature—he was 6’ 4” —made him a standout figure at science fiction conventions and other gatherings where he had the prepossessing impact in person that many authors can only achieve on the printed page.
Another career stepping-stone paved the way to Leiber’s debut as a published author. In a strange move for an apparent non-believer, Leiber entered the General Theo- logical Seminary in Manhattan and was soon operating as a minister and lay reader at nearby Episcopal churches. Leiber justified this move, despite his lack of deep faith, as a commitment to social work. "To an actor a priest is just one more role or part," he later wrote, "a particularly easy one since a priest is just a sort of actor who puts on shows in churches." But around this same time, Leiber began publishing children stories in The Churchman.
Leiber’s religious vocation was short-lived, but he con- tinued to write tales and submit them to various periodicals. Although his early interest gravitated to science fiction, Leiber decided that fantasy stories would be easier to write. With his story “Two Sought Adventure,” accepted by John Campbell and published in Unknown in August 1939, Leiber not only embarked on a new career as a pulp fiction author, but he also introduced the two most famous characters of his career, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, who would eventually appear in more than three dozen tales written over a period of a half-century.
Leiber could not take credit for inventing these two adventurers. Instead, his friend Harry Otto Fischer had first sketched them out in a letter to Leiber dating back to 1934. "For all do fear the one named the Gray Mouser,” Fischer had written. “He walks with swagger ‘mongst the bravos, though he’s but the stature of a child." The Mouser, modeled on Fischer, was accompanied on his exploits and intrigues by Fafhrd, a dour but dangerous swordsman from the Cold Wastes of the North, some seven feet tall, who served as Leiber’s alter ego. Leiber took these hints and parlayed them into one of great adventure series of the century, the quintessential “swords and sorcery” saga, still unsurpassed so many decades later.
Leiber’s greatest gift may have been his ability to combine the fanciful with the realistic. He aimed for this odd combination from the start of his career. In “Smoke Ghost,” published in Unknown in 1940 he created a modernized spook story, with “a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories in its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul.” In “The Hound,” featured in Weird Tales in 1942, he followed the same line, evoking “supernatural beings of a modern city.” Most famously, in Conjure Wife—made three times into a movie, with a fourth on its way—Leiber situated a coven of witches in a modern university. Here the wives practice spells and charms, while their skeptical husbands are unaware of the magic protecting and assailing them from all sides—a premise from which our author extracts much uproar and comedy.
A similar emphasis on "magical realism," infuses the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. The duo are depicted as vulnerable, fickle, and down-to-earth in a way that was rare in the 1930s. This was, after all, an era of larger-than- life heroes. Superman had just made his debut a few months earlier, and a host of other protagonists from the period—Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Captain Marvel, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Lassie, Dick Tracy—all worked out, in their various ways, a simplistic good-versus-evil worldview, not much different than the matchup destined to unfold on European battlefields a few weeks after the publication of the first Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tale. Leiber would have none of this vanilla virtuousness, and in his adventure series he embraced the anti-hero ethos, breaking many of the most cherished rules of genre writing.
Readers raised on The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and other fantasy adventure tales will be especially surprised by the bawdiness of Leiber’s oeuvre. “I dote on sex and scandal,” he once wrote, and these figured prominently in both his storytelling and his life. In his early seventies, Leiber wrote a brief memoir, and filled much of it with the intimate details most scribes leave out of their autobiographies. "Here's one fantasy writer," he bragged, "who will try to give [readers] the straight dope." Sci-fi author Marc Laidlaw recalls his surprise when, at age 15, he sent a fan letter off the Leiber, who responded with a note scrawled on the back of a racy postcard which “tipped one way then the other, showed a buxom cartoon woman alternately clothed and nude.”
The rewards of authorship were meager—during his prime writing years, Leiber held a day job, and found that his fiction contributed only somewhere between a tenth to a fifth of his modest total income. But an even bigger challenge to his productivity as an author came from alcohol, with both the drinking and struggle against it draining away energy he might have devoted to literary work. At one point in the mid- 1950s, Leiber experienced a four year dry spell as an author—which coincided with a period that was anything but a dry spell in his private life. But when he came back with The Big Time, his finest science fiction novel and Hugo winner from 1958, Leiber was stronger than ever— seemingly armed with a large number of fresh ideas that had accumulated during his absence from the typewriter.
As I look upon the various jobs and hobbies that filled Fritz Leiber’s life, I am perhaps most struck by one that is not on the list, and for which our author would have been perfectly suited—namely screenplay writer. I’m even more surprised that Fafhrd and Gray Mouser haven’t yet served as the basis for a blockbuster motion picture series. In many ways, these characters are much more aligned with the sensibility of modern audiences than the more idealized figures that populate the fictive universes of Middle Earth, Star Wars and Narnia. And Leiber’s sly and witty dialogue is ready-made for transference from the written page to the silver screen. Leiber, recall, immersed himself in the world of acting and drama long before he started writing stories, and his literary output shows his knack for setting the stage and striking the right rhetorical tone.
Leiber is remembered nowadays for his panache as a storyteller, but he also took far more care in the formal structure of his works than did the majority of his contemporaries. From the start, he adopted tight constraints for his works—for example borrowing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ approach of moving two plots forward simultaneously in alternating chapters. In The Big Time, a time travel tale in which time stands still, he observes the three Aristotelian unities in a narrative so austere in its construction that it could be adapted to the stage with a single set and small cast. But his most daring formalist experiment came with The Wanderer, winner of the 1965 Hugo Award for best novel. Here Leiber pursues 15 major plot lines (as well as a few minor ones) in the course of a disaster novel that transpires over two days. The novel follows a strict chronology, with no flashbacks, but changes its setting every few paragraphs. The closest analogy is Don DeLillo’s Underworld from 1997, but Leiber is even more extreme than DeLillo is imposing strict rules on his narrative. Science fiction fans of the current day have been too quick to dismiss this work, complaining about its unwonted intricacy, which makes extreme demands on readers. Yet, by any measure, The Wanderer stands out as one of the most ambitious genre works of its era.
Of course, most science fiction fans of the current day will have no opinion at all on this work—since they are blissfully unaware of Fritz Leiber. I note that, as I write, none of his books rank among the bestselling 50,000 titles at Amazon.com. Yet if modern-day audiences have more than passing familiarity with today’s video games, or hit films, or have any experience of sword-and-sorcery tales or stories of wizardry, they have probably picked up second- hand or third-hand on Leiber’s legacy. Yet this is one instance in which they are advised to go straight to the original source.
In truth, many of the icons of the Golden Age of pulp fiction have not aged well, their works as out-of-date as the T- Model Ford and wind-up Victrola. But Leiber’s best work comes across as fresh and modern to an almost uncanny degree. I will stop short of predicting that the same sort of posthumous accolades that Philip K. Dick has enjoyed will next be showered on Fritz Leiber. But few genres authors are more worthy of a hard second look from today’s readers, and fewer still can pass the century mark and still have so much to say to contemporary audiences. For all Leiber's obsession with mixing real life with the magical and mystical, this may be his most impressive—and certainly his most lasting—trick.