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.


Publication Date: February 13, 2011
Fritz Leiber at One Hundred

by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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