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Leiber, Fritz

Entry updated 12 November 2021. Tagged: Author.

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(1910-1992) US author, father of Justin Leiber; his work runs the gamut from sf through fantasy and horror, with many tales achieving an eloquent Equipoise that enabled him to jostle various genres together, riding them with a freedom unusual for the period of their composition, making him a powerful model for later writers. Leiber majored in psychology and physiology at the University of Chicago, then spent a year at a theological seminary. His subsequent career included periods as an editor (chiefly with Science Digest) and as a drama teacher. He wrote a draft in 1936 of The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich: A Study of the Mass-Insanity at Smithville (February 1996 Omni Online; 1997), a tale that would have eventually appeared in Unknown had the magazine not folded, though the narrative ultimately unpacks as an exercise in Time Travel; but he became seriously interested in writing primarily through voluminous correspondence with a college friend, Harry Fischer, who in 1934 suggested the characters of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the Heroic-Fantasy duo whose adventures were central to Leiber's career. Both men worked intermittently on embellishments to the saga, as described in detail by Leiber in his essay "Fafhrd and Me" (included in The Second Book of Fritz Leiber, coll 1975) and further discussed in Fafhrd & Me (coll 1990 chap); Fischer was important to Leiber as both a friend and an inspiration, and was the model for the small and nimble Gray Mouser, the very tall Leiber being the model for the likewise tall Fafhrd. The first published story of the sequence, and Leiber's first published story, is "Two Sought Adventure" (August 1939 Unknown; vt "The Jewels in the Forest" in Two Sought Adventure, coll 1957); he was still adding to the saga half a century later. The publishing history of the series as a whole is complex, perhaps – given the fact that most of the vts and resorts that confuse the picture are posthumous in origin – unduly complex. The first collection of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser material is assembled in Two Sought Adventure (coll 1957; exp and rev vt Swords Against Death 1970); Leiber's own multi-volume version of the sequence, published without much regard for internal chronology, comprises, in terms of that internal chronology, Swords and Deviltry (coll 1970), Two Sought Adventure (coll 1957; exp and rev vt Swords Against Death 1970), Swords in the Mist (coll 1968), Swords Against Wizardry (coll 1968) – including "The Lords of Quarmall" (January-February 1964 Fantastic), for which Fischer is credited as co-author – The Swords of Lankhmar (May 1961 Fantastic as "Scylla's Daughter"; exp 1968), Swords and Ice Magic (coll 1977; with six of the eight stories cut vt Rime Isle 1977) and The Knight and Knave of Swords (coll 1988). Further iterations of the sequence can be found in the Checklist.

From fairly prosaic beginnings the series developed into a complex and enjoyable cycle owing little to the standard Cliché of its subgenre (for which Leiber is credited with coining the widely used description Sword and Sorcery). The mood varies from sombre introspection to broad comedy, and there is a very wide range of invention. On its original publication, the long story Ill Met in Lankhmar (April 1970 F&SF; 1990 dos) won both Hugo and Nebula awards. The Swords of Lankhmar, which adds a strong element of sophisticated fetishistic Sex to its other virtues – as does the weaker book-length title story in The Knight and Knave of Swords – has strong claims to be considered the best modern Heroic-Fantasy novel, as well as Leiber's own best novel.

Leiber was noted also for his fantasies in modern settings, and was an influential model for the evolution through the 1980s of the subgenre of Contemporary Fantasy, a form later to be called Urban Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; Leiber's work, in fact, more closely resembles British Urban Fantasy – a genuinely urban form (see Cities), with elements of Steampunk and Fantasy of History (see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy) enriching the mix – than it does Urban Fantasy in its American guise, where it can be defined as a rebranding of paranormal romance, without necessary marriages. Leiber's examples include: the seminal "Smoke Ghost" (October 1941 Unknown), which superbly captures and animates the hauntedness of life in the modern City; Conjure Wife (April 1943 Unknown; assembled in Witches Three, anth/omni 1952, ed Fletcher Pratt; as a solo book 1953; vt Burn Witch Burn 1962), a novel of twentieth-century witchcraft which has twice been filmed – as Weird Woman (1944) and Burn, Witch, Burn (1961; vt Night of the Eagle) – as well as being adapted for television; "The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity" (March 1962 F&SF); and Our Lady of Darkness (January-February 1977 F&SF as "The Pale Brown Thing"; 1977), a subtle and touching Gothic with strong autobiographical elements which won a World Fantasy Award. Other fantasy tales include "Gonna Roll the Bones" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison), which won a Hugo and a Nebula and later appeared, with other tales of interest, in The Ghost Light (coll 1984), which won a Locus Award, and was further published as Gonna Roll the Bones (graph 2004) illustrated by David Wiesner; it describes the fate of a compulsive gambler who finds himself playing dice with the Devil, the stake being his soul. "Belsen Express" (in The Second Book of Fritz Leiber, coll 1975) won both the Lovecraft Award and the August Derleth Award. Leiber's further awards for fantasy included the 1975 Grand Master of Fantasy (Gandalf) Award and the 1976 Life Achievement Lovecraft Award; the 1981 SFWA Grand Master award (see Nebulas) was presented for his work as a whole. During his lifetime he won altogether six Hugos (two for novels), four Nebulas and about twenty other awards; posthumous plaudits have also been granted.

Leiber's first important work of sf is Gather, Darkness! (May-July 1943 Astounding; 1950), in which a religious dictatorship (see Religion) is overthrown by rebels who disguise their superscience (colourfully, if by far-fetched logic) as witchcraft. Destiny Times Three (March-April 1945 Astounding; 1957) is a neglected Parallel Worlds tale whose protagonists simultaneously inhabit three radically different time-lines. In the early 1950s Leiber became a regular contributor to Galaxy Science Fiction, for which he wrote a number of notable stories, chiefly social Satire, paramount among these being "Coming Attraction" (November 1950 Galaxy), which depicts an unpleasantly decadent future USA. The Green Millennium (1953) shows some similar thematic concerns, particularly regarding sexual mores. Leiber then fell silent for four years, through alcoholism (about which he was candid).

His return to sf in 1958 was vigorous, his first stories introducing the Change War series (see Changewar: a theme entry based on Leiber's work), built around Time Paradoxes generated by a war fought through time and space and Alternate History by two factions, the "Spiders" and the "Snakes". The sequence comprises The Big Time (March-April 1958 Galaxy; 1961 dos) along with most of The Mind Spider and Other Stories (coll 1961 dos; rev 1976), this material being variously reassembled as The Change War (coll of linked stories 1978; cut vt Changewar 1983). The Big Time, which takes place entirely in one room (an R & R location called the Place, for resting Time Police, sited beyond normal realities) is suggestive of a play in prose form, and reflects Leiber's background in theatre: both his parents were Shakespearean actors and his father appeared in many films; Leiber himself acted on both stage and screen, including a small part in the Greta Garbo film Camille (1936). The Big Time won a Hugo as Best Novel, as did his most ambitious sf work, The Wanderer (1964), a long Disaster novel telling of the havoc caused by the intrusion into the solar system of a strange planet which proves to be a World Ship. Its mosaic narrative technique, through which events are observed through a multiplicity of viewpoints, foreshadowed the profusion of such novels and films in Technothrillers in the 1970s and later. In his last sf work of substance, A Specter Is Haunting Texas (July-September 1968 Galaxy; 1969), an exoskeleton-supported Mars-born human (see Space Habitats) travels to a domineering Texas.

Leiber won a further Hugo for Ship of Shadows (July 1969 F&SF; 1989 chap dos), a novella first published in a special Leiber issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and before its release as a standalone title assembled in Ship of Shadows (coll 1979); and for the third time won both a Hugo and a Nebula for "Catch that Zeppelin!" (March 1975 F&SF), a vivid Alternate History story in which the Invention of pollution-free transport, and a clement ending to World War One, leads to a fragile Utopia. Selections of his best short fiction include The Best of Fritz Leiber (coll 1974) edited by Angus Wells anonymously, The Worlds of Fritz Leiber (coll 1976), The Ghost Light (also noted above) and The Leiber Chronicles: Fifty Years of Fritz Leiber (coll 1990) edited by Martin H Greenberg. Later compilations do not add significantly to the picture, though The Black Gondolier & Other Stories (coll 2000), Smoke Ghost and Other Apparitions (coll 2001) and Horrible Imaginings (coll 2004) are resorts providing some new perspectives and material.

Despite his many awards Leiber never quite established an identity as an sf writer in the way he had for his fantasy; for this reason his work has sometimes been undervalued. His work reflected a variety of enthusiasms – cats, Chess and the theatre are all recurrent motifs – and convictions, notably a distaste for sexual repression and hypocrisy; and he approached his material in various ways. His prose is ebullient; its idiosyncrasies occasionally appear mannered, but its baroque and colourful qualities are usually prevented from becoming slapdash by the force and precision of his narrative style, and by the appositeness of his imagery, at least in his fantasies. Leiber was never perhaps quite as comfortable in sf, where a straining for effect is more often noticeable. Many of his sf works, he revealed, were in fact fantasies rewritten when the fantasy market began to contract. By refusing to create an easily recognizable template for his sf and then adhering to it, he may have sacrificed some popularity; in compensation, he was the only sf and fantasy writer of his generation to be still developing and producing his best work in the late 1970s, and perhaps, in the twenty-first century, seems inherently more modern than any of his peers who, like him, began to publish before World War Two. His dis-ease with univocal modes of telling as a way to describe the world seems increasingly prescient. In 1976 he received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001. [MJE/JC]

see also: Anthologies; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arkham House; Arts; Astounding Science-Fiction; Crime and Punishment; Dystopias; End of the World; Fantasy; Far Future; Future War; Games and Sports; Generation Starships; Genetic Engineering; Gravity; Hitler Wins; Holocaust; Invisibility; Longevity in Writers; H P Lovecraft; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Magic; Media Landscape; Miniaturization; Mutants; Post-Holocaust; Rays; Robots; Secret Masters; Shakespeare; Supernatural Creatures; Transportation; UFOs.

Fritz Reuter Leiber Jr

born Chicago, Illinois: 24 December 1910

died San Francisco, California: 5 September 1992



Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Listed in order of book publication:

Change War

individual titles

collections and stories

works as editor


  • The Mystery of the Japanese Clock (Monica, California: Montgolfier Press, 1982) [chap: hb/Alex McCrea]
  • Fafhrd & Me (Newark, New Jersey: Wildside Press, 1990) [nonfiction: coll: chap: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser: pb/Charles Dougherty]

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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