Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fritz Leiber is Badly Overrated

I've read, I would say, about 2.5- 3 books worth of the Fafhrd/Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber.  Out of all of it, I think I would say: Ill Met in Lankhamar is a pretty decent story, there are a couple of interesting stories in about the second or third book, and the rest has made an impression on me ranging from 'none' to 'negative'.

I hit the wall today reading part of "Swords and Ice Magic", the sixth in the series.  I read the first three stories or so in the book, and I think it probably marks the last time I will bother with Lieber.  In this collection we have:

  • An inability to distinguish the difference between a story and a conceit, or the bare nub of an idea.  One of the stories was seriously: what if the bad guy split in two?  Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser would kill it.  Then they would go drink.  None of the first three stories are really enough content for more than a single scene.
  • Pointless disposable enemies, that appear meaninglessly only to be dispatched equally thoughtlessly.  I know these two have Plot Immunity, but the pointlessness and threatlessness of their opposition makes these supposed 'confrontations' totally without significance.  The antagonists are cardboard cutouts with swords.
  • Look, I'm not a lily-livered PC zealot.  But even I have some trouble with a story where the antagonist is a woman who was kidnapped to join a harem, and then goes nuts because she wasn't sexually assaulted by her kidnappers- who then is raped sane by the alleged hero of the piece.  That's right, the Gray Mouser holds her down and forces himself upon her, and she is then able to live a normal life where she contributes to society.  Morally ambiguous heroes are fine.  Raping people is not morally ambiguous.
  • The Faceless Wizard and the Wizard with Lots of Eyes that always ask Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to perform perfectly parallel tasks.  Cute the first time, increasingly lazy with every extra iteration.  Like the two protagonists themselves, there is really nothing to separate them other than their physical descriptions.  Leiber's characterization begins and ends with describing people as not looking like one another, and then having them always react to things in perfect diads.  I like cold food!  You like hot food!  We're such an interesting and complex pair!  I'm off to fetch the boots of the Frost Lizard!  You must fetch the hat of the Fire Sloth!  Let's overcome identical yet inverted challenges through hand waving!
  • And Then For No Reason, We Live.  Leiber sets up elaborate situations that permit his two heroes to survive- but it's always basically dumb luck or dumber antagonists.  Death's intricate scheme for killing them off is to randomly teleport enraged enraged mooks (one of whom is the insufficiently raped lass from above) into the heroes bedroom in the early morning.  But Death never counted on one thing: the fact that the good guys might wake up slightly early, for no reason at all.  What?
I picked up my first Fritz Leiber book after hearing him lionized by fans of classic fantasy, and I've kept going back in the hopes of discovering what the fuss was all about.  Frankly, I'm still wondering.

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