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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Finding Fritz - Editing The Best of Fritz Leiber

posted by Jonathan Strahan @ 11:17 PM 

Fritz Leiber Jr, who was born just before Christmas in the winter of 1910 and died nearly 82 years later in the fall of 1992, was simply one of the finest science fiction and fantasy writers to ever have lived. His body of work is vast and impressive. He effectively birthed the urban fantasy with his story "Smoke Ghost" and wrote one of its enduring works in Our Lady of Darkness. He created major works of science fiction like his Change War sequence of stories and novella "The Big Time". However his greatest creation - the one that will most likely never go out of print - was the sequence of stories set in Lankhmar and featuring that unlikely pair of heroes, the giant Fafhrd and his diminutive friend the Grey Mouser. The seven volumes of their adventures are one of the towering achievements of fantasy, and one of the touchstone works of swords and sorcery (a term Leiber coined).

While Leiber is widely acknowledged within the science fiction and fantasy field, a large amount of his work is out of print or difficult to find, despite the best efforts of a number of publishers. This came up over drinks one afternoon in the late summer of 2008, when Locus publisher Charles Brown, Night Shade Press proprietor Jeremy Lassen and I were partaking of drinks and enjoying the sunshine on the Locus Back Deck. We shared our enthusiasms for Leiber's great works, Charles reminisced about Leiber and his visits to Locus HQ, and we hatched between us the notion that Night Shade should publish a short-ish collection of Mr Leiber's best stories.

There was much enthusiasm for the idea, which carried through that summery weekend into dinner with Leiber's agent, Richard Curtis. Before we knew it - almost literally before we realised it - it was agreed. Charles and I would select 125,000 words of Leiber's best stories. We'd find a suitable introducer for the volume and it would be published by Night Shade in 2010, with the intention that making those stories available in a classy, stylish, but affordable volume might increase the profile of his work and hopefully introduce it to a wider audience.

And, over the past few months Charles and I have worked to make that a reality. An introducer has been arranged and the writer of a posssible afterword discussed. We've also carefully been working up a shortlist of stories that could go into our volume (tentatively titled 'The Best of Fritz Leiber'). As you can imagine we're eager to make sure the book is the best possible introduction to Leiber, containing his best and his most famous stories, the kind of book you could hand to someone who had no exposure to his work that would explain to them exactly what he was on about, that would be the best possible chance of hooking them so they might go looking for more.

As we discussed our list the idea arose that we might open a discussion here on the Locus blog with interested readers, giving the broader Locus community a chance to suggest stories, to argue recommendations, and to generally voice an opinion on what might or might not work. Charles and I are both extremely opinionated, and are more than capable of making such decisions, but it seemed to us both that the discussion was one that was worth having.

So, we're posting the longer version of our short list for the book here. This comprises more than the number of stories we can include in the book, so is not the official table of contents. It's merely the list from which we'll most likely compile the ToC (unless we're persuaded otherwise). We invite you to look the list over, give it some thought, and then jump onto the comments and let us know what you think. Is the core of a great book here? Have we missed an obvious selection? Have we got it horribly wrong, or just exactly right? Let us know what you think.
  1. A Deskful of Girls (1958)
  2. A Pail of Air (1951)
  3. Adept's Gambit (1947)
  4. America the Beautiful (1970)
  5. Bazaar of the Bizarre (1963)
  6. Belsen Express (1975)
  7. Catch That Zeppelin! (1975)
  8. Coming Attraction (1950)
  9. Four Ghosts in Hamlet (1965)
  10. Gonna Roll the Bones (1967)
  11. Ill Met in Lankhmar (1970)
  12. Midnight by the Morphy Watch (1974)
  13. Poor Superman (1951)
  14. Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee (1958)
  15. Sea Magic (1977)
  16. Smoke Ghost (1941)
  17. Space Time for Springers (1958)
  18. The Button Molder (1979)
  19. The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars (1983)
  20. The Girl with the Hungry Eyes (1949)
  21. The Man Who Made Friends With Electricity (1962)
  22. The Man Who Never Grew Young (1949)
  23. The Night he Cried (1953)
  24. The Winter Flies (1967)
  25. Two Sought Adventure (1939)
Note: These stories are listed in alphabetical order by title, and not in proposed running order.


Anonymous DB said...

You can't have a Best of Leiber without "Space-Time for Springers" in it, and since you have "Space-Time for Springers" on your list, I am content.

July 5, 2009 11:46 PM  
OpenID princejvstin said...

You have "A Pail of Air", a Lankhmar story, "Catch that Zeppelin" and
"Coming Attraction". Looks good to me!

July 6, 2009 6:41 AM  
OpenID mlamprey said...

I know, I sound like a broken record, but "Horrible Imaginings" is to me his finest late work; intimate, original, even radical. It's long though.

July 6, 2009 7:37 AM  
Blogger Richard Parks said...

"Lean Times in Lankhmar"

A tough job, with so many great stories to choose from, but this one should be there too.

July 6, 2009 8:17 AM  
Blogger F. said...

Much that I love Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, I think there are too many. Since "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars" is not one of my favorites, I'd take that out.

July 6, 2009 11:44 AM  
OpenID mlamprey said...

I agree with F. I'd be really fine with a Leiber collection that didn't contain any F&GM, since that stuff has been collected numerous times and is not hard to find. I'm more interested in having a nice hardcover containing harder to find stories. Well, now I'm thinking of things like Horrible Imaginings, The Button Molder, The Black Gondolier, A Bit of the Dark World and The Terror From the Depths. What a thankless task you've set yourself. - Marc Laidlaw

July 6, 2009 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Robert Nowall said...

Ballantine used "The Best of Fritz Leiber" on a collection back in the 1970s. I'm assuming that you know that, actually. Other than that, sounds fine. You don't plan on taking up space by shoving something as long as, say, "The Big Time," in there , do you?

July 6, 2009 1:22 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

Marc: Assembling a best of Leiber is a thankless task, but you do get to re-read him, and that's very rewarding. We'll not include much Lankhmar in the end, for pretty much the reason you suggest. One story, maybe two. And they won't be very long ones either. I will make a point of taking a second look at "Horrible Imaginings", but if it's very long then there's not much chance. -- Jonathan

Robert: We are aware that the title's been used before. It's a placeholder, but we may go with it. As to "The Big Time", maybe :)

Richard: I'll pull out "Lean Times...." and take a second look. Thanks for the tip.

July 6, 2009 1:46 PM  
Blogger Magister said...

I agree with F. and Marc regarding "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars" -- IMHO, the best Fafhrd & Mouser are the earliest ones (plus "Ill Met in Lankhmar").
One or two Lankhmar stories sounds fine to me.

I'll also second Marc's suggestion for "The Terror from the Depths". A non-Lovecraft Lovecraftian story that nevertheless gets praised by S. T. Joshi is a towering achievement. (On the other hand, that one is not too difficult to find, since I think that it is available in the latest version of TALES OF THE CTHULHU MYTHOS.)

Well, no matter what the final contents, I'm definitely getting it! :) - Martin

July 6, 2009 2:33 PM  
Anonymous Al Reynolds said...

I'm glad to see The Man Who Made Friends With Electricity in there, a favorite of mine.

July 6, 2009 3:49 PM  
Blogger Rich Horton said...

On your list already and essential (to my mind): "Coming Attraction" (Duh!), "Midnight By the Morphy Watch", "Four Ghosts in Hamlet" ...

But a couple later stories that I completely loved are missing: "The Rite of Spring" (1977) and "The Death of Princes" (1976), especially the former, which has long struck me as somewhat underappreciated.

Other than those I might mention stories I'm sure you've thought of and rejected -- and of course space is limited and with any such writer there will be stories left out! -- but I still like "Ship of Shadows", and "Nice Girl With Five Husbands", and "237 Talking Statues, etc.".

July 6, 2009 4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't dispute any of the stories on your list, but my favoirte Leiber story is "The 64-Square Madhouse" which also happens to be my favorite chess story. I would second "The Rite of Spring" as well.
Roger S.

July 6, 2009 6:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also have to echo that the Lankhmar stories are available in various editions so why not add some others. I love "Ship of Shadows" - which gets better each time I read it - and "Nice Girl with Five Husbands", "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" (quite prescient, I'd say, "Try and Change the Past", "A Bad Day for Sales", "Mariana" and for a kick "The Inner Circles" or "The Beat Cluster". What you have is great though but some of these are etched in my memory forever.

July 6, 2009 11:13 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

Hey anonymous. There *has* to be Lankhmar in the book. I know that the stories are available elsewhere but that's not the point. This book is supposed to be two things. (1) A one-stop introduction to Leiber and everything he's about and (2) a selection of his best, most popular and most important work. While omitting Lankhmar makes sense if you already have it, it doesn't make sense in terms of a true Best of Fritz Leiber. It's too large a part of what he did to omit.

July 6, 2009 11:46 PM  
Anonymous Gregory Benford said...

I think you're right, must have some F&GM stories.

July 7, 2009 12:58 AM  
Anonymous Robert Nowall said...

I think I'd buy a copy whatever's in it. My Leiber collections are relatively inaccesible these days, and are all battered old paperbacks in any case. Something in hardcover or trade paperback would be welcome...

July 7, 2009 2:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, plaudits. This is a worthy endeavour.
Second, I think you should have TWO collections--a SF collection and a horror/dark fantasy one.
But, if you only have one book, the stories that seem to be missing IMHO are "The Big Trek" and "Dark Wings".
Jean-Daniel Breque

July 7, 2009 5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, of course you have to include some Lankhmar stories - what's Leiber without that? But two or three would be fine to make way for more "obscure" stories that should be better known in the SF world. You list s great, I think the one I would most push for is "Ship of Shadows"

Bob Blough

July 7, 2009 10:41 AM  
OpenID txtriffidranch said...

I don't know: I think you pretty much have perfection with this lineup. However, and I say this only because this collection would be a bit of a repeat of Leiber's exemplary The Ghost Light collection of 25 years ago, drop in a complete surprise or two for those readers who might be too young to remember some of his more obscure pieces.

July 8, 2009 6:42 AM  
Anonymous Gardner Dozois said...

The essentials, of course, in my opinion, include "Coming Attraction," "America the Beautiful," "Smoke Ghost," "Space-Time for Springers," "A Pail of Air," "Four Ghosts in Hamlet," and "Adept's Gambit."

I'd echo the recommendation for "Lean Times in Lankhmar," one of my favorite F&GM stories and one of the lesser-known. Also a strong recommendation for "Scylla's Daughter," which, with "Adept's Gambit," may be my all-time favorite F&GM story, and also the only one that is an unambiguous cross with science fiction, since a time-traveller crashes into the story in the middle of it. "The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars" is one of the weakest of all F&GM stories, as indeed most late F&GM stories are pretty weak, and I think you could do without it; stick with the older ones. Even "Ill Met in Lankhmar," although it's one of his award-winners, is not as strong as some of his early stories. "Bazaar of the Bizarre," "Sea Magic," and "Two Sought Adventure" are fairly minor too. "The Bleak Shore" is strong, and pretty short too. If you had infinite room, I might also push for "The Snow Woman." But if you're going to match "Adept's Gambit" with another F&GM story, my vote would go to "Scylla's Daughter" or "Lean Times in Lankhmar."

"Poor Superman," "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee," and "The Night He Cried" are very dated joke stories, most readers today will not even get any of the satirical references, and I think you could do without them if room is needed.

You really should have a Change War story. If putting THE BIG TIME in proves to be impossible--as I think it may turn out to be--your best bet might be "Try and Change the Past," "The Oldest Soldier," or "Damnation Morning."

July 8, 2009 7:57 AM  
OpenID cititorsf said...

"Ship of Shadows" :D

July 8, 2009 8:14 AM  
OpenID mlamprey said...

Agreed with Gardner on Lean Times and Adept's Gambit (which as I recall is pretty long). Ill Met in Lankhmar felt gratuitous; same for the Nebula it won. It filled in a big blank, but was not in itself as compelling as other F&GM stories. I think across the arc of his career, The Button Molder is the only really strong late story in the volume; where again, Horrible Imaginings is a very fine, very late work (if you drop Smalls and Stars, it would be his only work from the 80s), and in some ways encapsulates everything he accomplished as the pioneer of urban horror, in that it goes one step beyond even Our Lady of Darkness.

July 8, 2009 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Alvaro Zinos-Amaro said...

One minor request regarding the title of this welcome project: It might help if it were called something other than The Best Of Fritz Leiber, to avoid subsequent bibliographic confusion with the original 1974 collection of the same name. You've probably already looked at that collection and The Book of Fritz Leiber (1974) and The Second Book of Fritz Leiber (1975). These, inevitably, share some of the material you've listed as under consideration for the current TOC, and in the unlikely case you haven't perused them may remind you of other pieces potentially worthy of inclusion.

I hope you, Charles and Jeremy continue to partake of drinks and sunshine on the Locus Back Deck for years to come :-)

July 8, 2009 3:48 PM  
Blogger Davide said...

Good selection - and I'd keep the Lankhmar stories in (it's "the best of F.L.", not "The best of F.L. except Lankhmar and a pair of other bits")
This said...
Considering the importance of the Changewar series for the time-travel subgenre (as A.C. Clarke pointed out) I'd add "Try and Change the Past", which basically defines Leiber's time-travel house-rules.
And "The Oldest Soldier", in itself a masterclass on how to develop and maintain tension and yet show nothing to the reader.
"The Sinful Ones" (later expanded in "You Are all Alone", or vice-versa) for its mechanicistic view of the universe.
And "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" for its early Lovecraftian vibe.

Just my two eurocents, of course.

Davide Mana
Torino, Italy

September 29, 2009 5:50 AM  

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