Friday, September 24, 2010

Selected Stories

"Only time will tell if we can stand the test of time."

I'm in the midst of an ongoing and fascinating conversation about genre and style with a friend of mine. What I find to perhaps be the most interesting aspect of the conversation is that he is an artist and I am (or at least pretend to be) a writer. He came to me with an interesting proposition about why speculative fiction remains somewhat n the gutter of literature, talking about the lack of good characters. This got me to thinking about the style of most speculative fiction writers, something I feel as though I am especially aware of. Writers like Meal Stephenson, Iain Banks, and China Mieville thrill me, sometimes not so much with the story they are telling, but with how they tell it—pretty much a thumbnail definition of style. But my friend admits to having difficulty in picking out elements of style in their writing. Pondering this for a bit, I realized that I have trouble describing elements of art. Sure, I can look at a couple of paintings and tell you why I think they are by different artists—a sort of high-level appreciation of artists' individual styles—but I can't talk coherently about the individual elements or how they are achieved. And he feels the same way about writing—he can identify different writers, say Hemingway versus Dickens, but talking specifically about the elements is hard for him. But even though we may have difficulty with that kind of conversation, we often know what we like, and we have a pretty good grasp of what is good, or at least what is really bad.

And so I quote Van Halen above. It's perhaps one of my all-time favorite bad lines from music. It's doubly trite, using two clichés and then putting them together in a tautology. If I were a big fan of Van Halen, I might try to argue that they are being ironic, being so over the top with their lyrics that they are laughing at us for trying to take them seriously. But I have trouble giving them that much credit, and so it is just bad.

That same friend and I have been going on a retro-excursion, jumping back and reading some of the works of Fritz Leiber. I recently blogged about Swords and Deviltry, which I thoroughly enjoyed, discovering elements of style in it that I was not able to see as a youth when I first read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. Then the lovely Mrs. Speculator kindly game the new collection of Leiber short stories entitled Selected Stories, and since my friend and I were talking about him and I had enjoyed Deviltry, I dove right in. And to my delight, an author that I had barely skimmed in the past was revealed to me for the great storyteller and stylist that he truly is.

The first story in the collection, "Smoke Ghost," is a truly creepy tale about an urban ghost. All the while you read the story, the feeling of dread that the protagonist has grows in the reader as well. Just as the character tries to convince himself he is be ing irrational, despite the growing evidence to support his supernatural visions, the reader has a difficult time remembering that "Smoke Ghost" is only a short story. The last few paragraphs of the story go roaring past the edge of suspense to terrible dread that takes the reader's breath away. Leiber accomplishes this with a smooth, flowing, conversational style that at some points becomes almost sing-song, luring the reader in with its simplistic façade. To be sure, it's a great story too—Leiber has a fascinating idea at the core of "Smoke Ghost" and he develops it in intriguing ways, but the power of the story he tells is only bolstered by his sentence structure and his word choice, making a sort of poetry in his narrative.

And so it goes throughout Selected Stories with very few exceptions. There are three Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, including "Ill Met in Lankhmar," Leiber's Hugo- and Nebula-winning short story. This story demonstrates the fullness of Leiber's characterization, pointing out his strength as connoisseur of human nature balanced the constant otherworldly-ness that hangs about just beyond the reach and vision of his characters, that is until the supernatural can no longer be ignored. And then the crisis is how these fully developed characters deal with ideas and powers beyond their capabilities.

Even the weakest story in the collection, "Horrible Imaginings," has this same sort of pattern running in it to great effect. An older man, alone in the big city and looking for some sort of interpersonal interaction, is fascinated by life in an apartment building and becomes more so at the mysterious "Vanishing Lady" he sometimes catches glimpses of in the building's halls. It becomes something of a quest for the man, and Leiber simultaneously fills out the character of the man and his solitary life, while ratcheting up the tension as the man searches for the lady, sometimes even questioning why he turns away from her when he most closely approaches her. "Horrible Imaginings" is a fine atmospheric piece, slowly brining the tension to a boil, but unfortunately the crisis and denouement simply do not deliver; it even feels like the story takes a sudden detour without much explanation, leaving the reader to wonder what really happened as the story came to close.

But be sure, the weakness of "Horrible Imaginings" is the exception that generally proves the rule for Selected Stories. Perhaps my favorite story is "Space-time for Springers," a delightful story of a cat's point of view on how the world works and his place in it. While it may sound as if I am damning with faint praise, it is simply the best story I have read with a cat for a protagonist, and Leiber absolutely nails how cats must think as they operate in a world not of their making. Leiber adds a tremendously poignant conclusion to the story that makes this perhaps the most memorable I have read in some time.

Selected Stories is a brilliant collection of short stories for both those who have never read Leiber and those who know him well. As an added benefit, it includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman that summarizes why you should love Leiber only as Gaiman can. The volume could act as a primer for how style and plot can best come together for dramatic storytelling, and it is clear example of why Leiber was named an SFWA Grand Master in 1981. The stories collected here have proven to stand the test of time, and while only time will tell if this splendid volume revives an interest in Fritz Leiber, my prediction is that it will.

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