Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gummitch and Friends

And so the Fritz Leiber marathon comes to an end, though I'm sure I'll be visiting again. There could not be a more fitting book with which to end this temporary obsession than Gummitch and Friends.

This anthology collects stories about Gummitch, the hero of the brilliant short story "Spacetime for Springers" and other cats, and in one case, feline aliens. Despite the greatness of "Spacetime for Springers" there is very little in these stories that is traditionally speculative fiction, though there are hints at fantastic elements, most notably with the idea of cats being human-level intelligent and capable of psychic communication. But even that idea gets shorter and shorter shrift in the collection, as Leiber's attention is distracted by other things. The non-Gummitch cat stories are a mixed bag—"The Great San Francisco Glacier" is a romping farce that continues to reflect Leiber's passion for his adopted city, down to the very building he was living in. Also included is the Hugo-winning novella "Ship of Shadows" which is both haunting and thoughtful, well worth reading. The collection of stories provides an interesting overview of Leiber's career, but not from a perspective of "best of" but his take on a particular topic, in this case, cats. As a result, a reader can see the power of Leiber at his best and how his mind worked on the stories that were not quite as good but still contain enough of him to be appreciated.

What makes this book a fitting conclusion for my personal journey is its unfortunate print history. Leiber and his wife had worked with the publisher, Donald Grant, and artist Roger Gerberding to create a slip-cased, illustrated collection of Leiber's cat stories. And according to the notes at the beginning of the book, they were to gather together at a convention in order to sign the bookplates for the special editions. Unfortunately, Leiber suffered the first of the series of strokes that led to his death on that trip, and so the book remains in an odd way incomplete, with Leiber's name on the bookplate but without the accompanying signature.

More importantly, the first half of the book contains memorial essays about Leiber by writers who knew him and were influenced by him. The collection of names is impressive, including Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Ramsay Campbell, Robert Bloch, Andre Norton, and Poul Anderson. They are each powerful in their own right, speaking of memories of time spent with Leiber the man as well as with his works, showcasing his many talents both personally and creatively. Ellison's essay is perhaps the most heartfelt, angry at a world that may never appreciate the genius of Leiber because of its genre-based restrictions. It's also odd to think of Stephen King having literary idols rather than being one himself, but his story of meeting Leiber is touching and compelling

The result is a really mixed bag of writing that I could only recommend to a dedicated fan of Fritz Leiber, especially considering the perhaps prohibitive cost of the book. Readers interested in this Leiber fellow can find the best stories in this collection from other sources more readily available. But if you have read and loved Leiber beyond the Fafhrd stories, this volume is perhaps the most fitting bookend one could imagine for Leiber's career since it displays him in all of his literary phases, as well as containing tributes to him as a man and as an author as well.

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