Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading Mr. Fritz Leiber

One of the fruits of my expedition to Grump's Book Peddlers this past semester is that I managed to get all seven books of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series for the bargain basement price of 14 bucks. These were the original 1960s Ace paperbacks, by the way, which came with its own surprises -- the 6th book, for example, has a full page ad for Newport cigarettes, which is the most Mad Men thing I can imagine in a fantasy collection.

Anyway, I was clued in to Leiber, not only because he's a pretty major figure who I knew little about, but because my work with Glen Cook this summer made me realize that I don't have a strong grasp of sword and sorcery as a genre -- and it's fair to say that, prior to Tolkien, S&S was the major single outlet for fantasy in the popular market. While I knew the basics of S&S, I hadn't consciously read much in it. What worried me slightly is that I read Jack Vance's A Dying Earth a few months ago and was appalled at how bad it was. It basically encapsulated every stereotype I had about S&S -- sexist, brainless adventure with a host of unpronounceable names and eye-roll-worthy history.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Leiber -- sure, he has all of the above and more, but he has a real skill in weaving together plot and incident, and he comes up with some cool things. I'm not sure if I"ll ever be a fan of Leiber. After all, the sexism is pretty atrocious, and I'm not a fan of picaresque plots; also, I usually like things of more psychological depth. Nonetheless, Leiber does have a fair amount of literary skill, and that impressed me. And for basically a collection of interrelated short stories, Leiber does manage to give his books a pretty fair climax.

For the record, I only read three of the seven -- #3, #5 (my favorite), and #6. Random things of interest:

  • Nehwon is just one world in a multiverse, and the heroes occasionally hang out on earth. (In Book #5, a German riding a two-headed dragon even makes an completely not-relevant-to-the-plot appearances!) That always strikes me as strange; I can't get past the feeling that the earth-world de-privileges events and characters in the other world.
  • Mouser's the clever southerner (and a Loki-figure!), Fafhrd is the brawny northern beserker barbarian (and an Odin-figure!). Keeping those tropes alive!
  • Metaphysics: Nehwon is a giant bubble floating through the ocean of eternity. Strange, captivating image, a little like Pratchett's Discworld in its implausibility, but it does contribute to the sense that you can't quite take Nehwon seriously as a world.
  • Leiber seems relatively multicultural (Fafhrd once dates a female ghoul) and relatively atheistic (certainly irreverent), but the sexism is pretty hardcore. It wouldn't bothered me at all when I was younger, and even now I can live with it, but I shudder to think what some of my less forgiving colleagues might do with it.
  • Leiber certainly populates his work with wonders and marvels -- some of the stuff is quite cool.
At any rate, out of curiosity, I looked to see what the scholarship on Leiber is like. Surprisingly, there isn't much. Perhaps that's a niche to be filled, although I don't quite know if I like Leiber enough to do it myself. Time will tell.

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