Obituary: Fritz Leiber

John Clute
Sunday 13 September 1992 23:02

Fritz Reuter Leiber, writer, actor and editor, born Chicago 25 December 1910, books include Night's Black Agents 1947, Gather, Darkness] 1950, Conjure Wife 1953, The Sinful Ones 1953, The Green Millennium 1953, Destiny Times Three 1957, Two Sought Adventure: exploits of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser 1957, The Mind Spider and Other Stories 1961, The Big Time 1961, Shadows with Eyes 1962, A Pail of Air 1964, Ships to the Stars 1964, The Silver Eggheads 1966, The Night of the Wolf 1966, Tarzan and the Valley of Gold 1966, The Wanderer 1967, The Secret Songs 1968, Swords Against Wizardry 1968, The Swords of Lankhmar 1969, A Specter is Haunting Texas 1969, Swords and Devilry 1971, Catch that Zeppelin] 1975, Our Lady of Darkness 1977, Black Glass 1978, The Change War 1978, Ship of Shadows 1979, The Ghost Light 1984, The Knight and the Knave of Swords 1988, married 1936 Jonquil Stephens (died 1969; one son), 1992 Margo Skinner, died 5 September 1992.

THERE HAS been no figure more honoured in the world of science fiction than Fritz Leiber, and no one more elusive. Though he gained more of the field's numerous awards than did more famous contemporaries like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, he never came to dominate the field as they did. More subtle and more boisterous than any of his peers, he was also perhaps more damaged than any of them, and his career suffered from his intermittent disappearances from public view, sometimes for years on end.

These absences were caused by severe alcoholism, about which Leiber wrote openly; but the sympathy and love of his colleagues could not rescue him from having to restart his career more than once. Like Heinlein and Asimov, Leiber began to publish in 1939, and like them his first significant editor was John W. Campbell Jr, of Astounding Science Fiction, though Leiber's first story was published in Unknown, a sister magazine which gave its authors scope to indulge in a wide range of fantasy. Within a few years he wrote for Campbell's magazines two of his most enduring novels, Gather, Darkness] (1950, in book form) and Conjure Wife (1953, in book form), the latter being twice filmed.

After at least one long intermission, he then went on to publish a large number of stories and books in a wide variety of modes, including The Green Millennium (1953), a satirical vision of the United States, The Big Time (1961), a closet-drama time-travel tale told with such claustrophobic concision that it could easily be transferred to the stage; and The Wanderer (1964), a rambling and exuberant science-fiction epic full of wisdom and chutzpah. Again and again he returned to the field; and each new book seemed a new start.

To one series, however he stayed faithful for the whole of his long life; and it may be for his many fantasy tales about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that Leiber will be best remembered and most loved. Starting with 'Two Sought Adventure' (1939), which was Leiber's first published story, and continuing until the end of his active writing career, this sequence gave the subgenre of 'sword-and-scorcery' (a term he invented in 1960) a maturity and sanity it did not elsewhere possess.

The friendship of the gullible Nordic Fafhrd with the trickster-like Mouser provided the field with a convincing model of adult heterosexual pair-bonding; and their adventures, hilarious and secular and sly, influenced generations of imitators. In The Knight and the Knave of Swords (1988), a collection which contains the last of these tales, Leiber closed off his own career by commemorating the long fight against death of Harry Fischer, the close friend and fellow alcoholic who first fabricated the two characters in letters written in 1934. In the series, the Gray Mouser was based on Fischer, and Fafhrd, long-limbed and bumbling and vulnerable, was Leiber's vision of his own personality.

Tall, gangling, gregarious, theatrical and melancholic, Leiber indeed made a plausible Fafhrd. From his birth in Chicago in 1910 to actor parents - the Fritz Leiber who appears in standard encyclopaedias of film was his father - he led a life marked by stress, penury and flashes of good fortune. His first marriage lasted until the death of his wife Jonquil Stephens in 1969, and his son Justin has become a well-known writer; four months ago, already seriously ill, Fritz Leiber married Margo Skinner, his companion for the previous two decades. For much of his life he held down full-time jobs, while at the same time coping with his addiction and managing to write 40 books; in his seventies he was still wrestling with his drinking problem, but in his last decades he was able to produce his best work.

Through the supernatural Gothic intricacies of Our Lady of Darkness (1977), his last major novel, glows a muscular decency, and an awareness of the complex realities of modern urban life, that arguably did much to shape the modern genre of urban fantasy. In this late prime he also wrote several moving tales, like Catch that Zeppelin] (1975) and Black Glass (1978), in which autobiography and fantasy meet with a strange, serene gaiety. Inside the field of science-fiction fantasy, his heirs include James Blaylock and Tim Powers; outside the field, urban fantasists like Mark Helprin show signs of his haunted compassion.

In the end, however, Leiber was too various to found a single tradition. Nor, unlike many of his contemporaries, was he a dreamer of abstract visions. As the 44 tales assembled in The Leiber Chronicles: fifty years of Fritz Leiber (1990) demonstrate, his main legacy was an inclination of mind and spirit toward the given. He was a lover of the world.

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