Lexias: A Century of Leiber
By Matthew Cheney
21 March 2011
I am not, by any means, a Leiber expert, though I've certainly been aware of his work ever since I read my way through the Hugo Winners anthologies available at the library when I was twelve and thirteen. (Leiber won a lot of Hugos.) I didn't really understand those stories; to be honest, I didn't truly understand lots of the stories in those books, but Leiber's remained especially opaque to me. It wasn't until a few years later when I read "Smoke Ghost" in David Hartwell's The Dark Descent that I decided this Leiber guy truly was something impressive. "Smoke Ghost" is one of the few short stories ever to really give me chills. Elements of it have dated a bit, certainly, but I've used the story in a couple of college courses over the last few years, and so I know it retains its creepiness for many first-time readers even today.
I've continued reading Leiber off and on ever since "Smoke Ghost" inserted icicles into my nervous system, but there are lots of lacuna: for instance, I've not read very many of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, though I've been intending to do so for a while now, since they are such seminal works of sword & sorcery (he gave the field its name, after all). Many years ago, I read his Hugo-winning novels The Big Time and The Wanderer, but neither appealed to me much then. Instead, it's been a handful of short stories that I've come back to quite a few times. Some those stories seem to me as masterfully structured, carefully written, and provocative as any stories by any other American writer of their time or, for that matter, our own.
Many of the stories that most impress me were brought back into print last year in a Selected Stories edited by Jonathan Strahan and Charles N. Brown, published by Nightshade Books. If you haven't read Leiber before, it's a great introduction. (Though missing a few wonderful stories, as the editors would, I'm sure, agree.) It's got "Smoke Ghost" and "A Pail of Air" and "Gonna Roll the Bones" and "Ill Met at Lankhmar" and "Catch That Zeppelin!" and plenty of others that are among Leiber's best, including "Coming Attraction," which I'm going to discuss at more length in a moment, and the single best cat story I've ever read, "Space-Time for Springers."
The sequel (of sorts) to "Coming Attraction," "Poor Superman," was not included, probably for reasons of space, and this is unfortunate; it's well worth seeking out, because it contains such marvelous paragraphs as this:
It was America approaching the end of the twentieth century. America of juke-box burlesque and your local radiation hospital. America of the mask fad for women and Mystic Christianity. America of the off-the-bosom dress and the New Blue Laws. America of the Endless War and the loyalty detector. America of marvelous Maizie and the monthly rocket to Mars. America of the Thinkers and (a few remembered) the institute. "Knock on titanium," "Whadya do for blackouts?" "Please, love, don't think when I'm around" America, as combat-shocked and crippled as the rest of the bomb-shattered planet.
If science fiction had been created just to allow a paragraph like that to exist, it would be plenty enough justification for me. Ignore, for a moment, what the paragraph is saying, and just look at how it says it—the repetition, of course, the pile-up of detail, but more than that: the rhythm of the consonants and vowels bouncing off each other in the phrase "juke-box burlesque," the m's in "America of marvelous Maizie and the monthly rocket to Mars" (note monthly there: so precise, yet weird—not weekly, not regularly-scheduled, not frequent, not easy, not ordinary, not newfangled, but monthly), the sharp, hard, cutting sounds of "as combat-shocked and crippled" which then get a little eye-of-the-storm softer in "as the rest of the bomb-" and then sizzle and shudder into "shattered planet."
Leiber was the son of fairly well-known Shakespearean actors, and did a bit acting himself, which may explain some of the performative power of his words—a paragraph like the above begs to be read aloud, to be felt in the mouth and conveyed through the whole body. It's wonderful not just for its sounds, though. The details are exciting in their specificity, yes, but also because of what they are—for instance, the utter, horrible perfection of "your local radiation hospital," which is not just a radiation hospital, but your local; the ubiquity is the essence of the horror. (I'm typing these words only a few days after the terrible earthquake in Japan and what is right now an uncertain and frightening situation with some nuclear power plants. Radiation hospitals don't seem so far-fetched.)
The details also work efficiently to create an entire world. We can imagine this world, and more than that, we can imagine some of the forces that brought it into being. Leiber knew enough of history and society to know that no culture is just one thing—off-the-bosom dresses can co-exist in a world of blue laws, and, indeed, often have. They need each other if either is to maintain its meaning and power.
The mask fads mentioned in the paragraph are an important element of "Coming Attraction," my favorite Leiber story, and one of the most powerful representations of insidious misogyny that I know.
"Coming Attraction" takes place after what the story calls World War III, a world where radiation masks were once essential, and "led to masked wrestling, now a fantastically popular sport, and that in turn led to the current female fashion. Only a wild style at first, masks quickly became as necessary as brassieres and lipsticks had been earlier in the century." The (first-person) narrator notes that masks changed the accent of sexual desire: "A British anthropologist has pointed out that while it took more than 5,000 years to shift the chief point of sexual interest from the hips to the breasts, the next transition to the face has taken less than 50 years."
The narrator is British and visiting New York City, a place that seems to him frightening, degenerate, and alluring. I don't think it's an accident Leiber makes him British, playing off the stereotype of the stiff-upper-lip, very, very proper Brit. Someone for whom this New York is an alien planet. The story opens with him helping a woman who is nearly mangled by a car driven by crazed kids. Her name, he learns later, is Theda, and he is fascinated by her. He wants to care for her, to help her. She seems frightened and weak. He wants to be the good man, the chivalrous man. He detests all of the roughness he perceives around him in this horrible America. He especially dislikes the mixed-gender wrestling:
I don't object to ordinary wrestling matches, though they bore me, but I simply detest watching a man wrestle a woman. The fact that the bouts are generally "on the level," with the man greatly outclassed in weight and reach and the masked females young and personable, only makes them worse to me.
He discovers, though, that Theda is the girlfriend of a wrestler, Little Zirk.
Theda says she's afraid of many things in the world:
"I'm afraid of the lust that undresses your face. And—" her voice hushed— "I'm afraid of the wrestlers."
"Yes?" I prompted softly after a moment.
Her mask came forward. "Do you know something about the wrestlers?" she asked rapidly. "The ones that wrestle women, I mean. They often lose, you know. And then they have to have a girl to take their frustration out on. A girl who's soft and weak and terribly frightened. They need that, to keep them men. Other men don't want them to have a girl. Other men want them just to fight women and be heroes. But they must have a girl. It's horrible for her."
These words understandably disturb the narrator. They increase his desire to save Theda from whatever frightens her. He offers to take her to England.
Everything comes together at a nightclub. The boys who almost ran over Theda appear. They're threatening and macho ("There are times," the narrator says, "when an Englishman simply must be maltreated"). But Zirk steps in. He shoos the punks away. He isn't much interested in the Englishman. "You know I lost tonight, baby, don't you?" he says to Theda.
It's the narrator's chance, and he rises to the occasion, standing up for her honor and knocking Zirk to the floor. To his surprise, though, Theda attacks him with "dagger finger caps." She turns to Zirk. "There, there," she says to him, "don't feel bad, you'll be able to hurt me afterward."
The narrator realizes he has simply been used as part of an elaborate, sadomasochistic game. His reaction is what is most telling: he tears off her mask. He responds to her face not with desire, but revulsion: "Have you ever lifted a rock from damp soil? Have you ever watched the slimy white grubs?"
It's a moment that reminds me of Jonathan Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room", where a young man named Strephon discovers that his beloved is horrifyingly human when he wanders into her dressing room and finds the panoply of items she uses to create her beauty and attractiveness, including, most horribly to him, her chamber pot:
Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
Strephon doesn't love Celia the human being, he loves the illusion of innocence, purity, and fragile, intricate beauty that he calls Celia.
The narrator of "Coming Attraction" is similarly disgusted by the human elements of the woman he had set himself to save, and upon perceiving himself to have been used deceitfully by her, his shame turns to savage, disgusted anger:
I looked down at her, she up at me. "Yes, you're so frightened aren't you?" I said sarcastically. "You dread this little nightly drama, don't you? You're scared to death."
The narrator who had presented himself to us as the only decent man in the city has now revealed himself to be at least as hateful of women as any other man in the story, seeing a woman's actual face as the equal of slimy grubs in damp soil. He looks forward to returning to England, because there he can, presumably, continue to think of himself as a good and noble person. But he's revealed himself to us, and a return reading will turn up other clues that he finds any women who are not meek and helpless to be grotesque, repugnant, and unnatural. He was as taken in by the power of the masks to create desire as anyone else, and he had no more respect for the women beneath the masks than anyone else.
For all we know, Zirk could be a wonderful guy. We know nothing about his actual relationship with Theda, nothing about the extent of their power plays or the destructiveness of it. Zirk could be a monster or an ideal partner for Theda; the relationship could be brutal and coercive, or it could be fun for both. We don't have the evidence to judge.
But we do have plenty of evidence that the narrator is nasty piece of work, a man whose sympathy for and attraction to women is severely limited and utterly dependent on his being the one with power and control.
In the afterword to The Best of Fritz Leiber, another excellent collection of stories (primarily science fiction; Selected Stories does a better job of representing Leiber's mastery of SF, fantasy, sword & sorcery, and horror), Leiber said, "All I ever try to write is a good story with a good measure of strangeness in it." Now, more than a hundred years after his birth and almost twenty years after his death, we should celebrate that he accomplished not only that fine and modest goal, but much more as well.