Monday, June 16, 2014

Review of Ship of Shadows by Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber was one of the genre’s most versatile writers.  Writing literary fiction at times, and pulp epic fantasy at others to keep the bills paid, he was also fully capable of writing horror, fantasy, and science fiction.  Capitalizing on the most recognized of his output, in 1979 Gollancz published a sampler of the author’s award-winning work.  Ship of Shadows brings together short stories, a novelette, novellas and a short novel that won the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, or Locus awards—some more than one.  Featuring atypical horror, the Weird, supernatural, alternate history, a deal with the devil, literary science fiction, sword and sorcery (a Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story, to be exact), the following is a review of the six selections.

Ship of Shadows opens with the eponymous novella.  Though technically horror, it remains a highly original, Weird text with a science fiction motif.  The story of the poor-sighted janitor named Spar who works at a space station bar, his life is anything by normal.  Drunk half the time and having few friends who respect him, his daily tasks put him in contact with a wide variety of characters on the gravity-less station, including a talking cat.  Strange events occurring with increasing rapidity around the supplicant, old man, Spar soon finds himself in the thick of danger—whether he wants it or not.  Leiber escalating the story wonderfully, what begins as obtuse threads waving disparately in the breeze are slowly braided into a yarn that has the reader in pure wonder as to what will happen next.  (See here for a longer review of the story on this blog.)

“Catch that Zeppelin!” is one man’s account of a bizarre experience he has walking the bustling streets of NYC one day. Going back in time to 1937, an alternate history scenario wherein the narrator morphs into Adolf Hitler becomes the new reality.  A restaurant discussion with his son (Dolfy) about the situations that could have been were events in history to have passed differently (e.g. Marie Curie, instead of the story’s Edison, gasoline powered cars instead of electric, the allies allowing armistice at the end of WWI instead of forcing unconditional surrender, etc.) ensuing, Leiber bursts the doors of possibility wide open.  Though innumerable ideas exist in parallel, getting one through the door of reality remains the difference, allowing Leiber to interrogate technical advances through the lenses of real and alternate history to strong effect.

Deal-with-the-devil stories are a sub-genre of literature as a whole, and “Gonna Roll the Bones”, the story of the poor miner Joe Slattermill and his trip to the local casino one night, is Leiber’s addition.  The hostesses and barmaids, dealers and other gamblers evoking an evil circus atmosphere, Slattermill seems not to notice as he settles himself into the first craps table.  Considering himself an expert shooter, he works his way from a handful of coins to a pile.  But then he meets the best.  Black holes for eyes, the Big Gambler settles in to take his shots, and Slattermill is forced to ante up.  From visuals to sub-text, structure to prose “Gonna Roll the Bones” is a delicious bit of storytelling, and one of the best deal-with-the-devil stories ever told.

An account of their first meeting, Ill Met in Lankhmar is chronologically the first story in the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories though published much later than when the duo first appeared in print.  Sword and sorcery adventure through and through, Leiber writes in a ‘high fantasy’ style that intentionally purples the warrior and thief’s first heist, as well as the foggy, gloomy midnight streets of the titular city.  Light fantasy fare, the novella serves not only to introduce the two to each other, but the reader to Leiber’s take on S&S. Popular amongst many readers, the duo’s adventures also serve as a balance (including financially) to Leiber’s literary pursuits with genre.  (See here for a longer review of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories on this blog.)

Leiber fascinated and horrified by the fascism and Nazism of his ancestral Germany, “Belsen Express” is the Gothic-esque story of the haunted commuter, George Simister, for whom the Nazi atrocities have a particularly painful resonance.  Historical and political commentary, Leiber escalates the story one day at time in Simister’s a fine sense of moody darkness. Evil lurking just off the page but never realized, sometimes what’s inside is as scary as the outside.

Closing out the collection is one of Leiber’s most well known novels, The Big Time.  Technically a novella, the 100 page story encompasses the past, present, and future in one place: an R&R station outside the bounds of time where soldiers fighting in the great Change War come to take a break from the action.  Greta Forzane one of the hostesses tasked with serving the soldiers, in the opening pages three come in needing to relax: a Roman legionnaire, a Nazi SS, and a British jack-of-all-trades.  A ticking nuclear bomb brought in soon thereafter, all manner of discussion on history, culture, socio-politics, and war unravel as the group tries to defuse it.  The Change War an uber-premise of far-reach, Leiber handles it with relevancy, and for that, penned one of the greatest sci-fi novels of the 1950s.  (See here for a longer review of the novel on this blog.)

In the end, Ship of Shadows serves as a superb introduction to the variety of genres and sub-genres Fritz Leiber wrote within through the lens of the various awards he had won as of 1979.  Wonderfully versatile, he was able to bring differing styles to whatever he wrote, and in the process carve out a unique place in the field. This place, unfortunately for Leiber, is more recognized as time goes on compared to when he was in his prime due to this inability to pigeonhole his writings.  Thus, modern readers looking to delve into Leiber’s fiction could do no better than to find this volume and experience the quality of the writer for themselves.

Published individually between 1958 and 1975, the following is the table of contents of Ship of Shadows:

“Catch That Zeppelin!”
“Gonna Roll the Bones”
“Belsen Express”

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