Book Review: A Pail of Air, Fritz Leiber (1964)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1964 edition)

4/5 (Collated rating: Good)

My only previous exposure to Fritz Leiber was his enjoyable and highly experimental Hugo-winning novel The Big Time (1958) — an unusual story (evoking a one-act play) whose characters are soldiers recruited from all eras of history relaxing in between missions during a vast temporal war.  The same sort of invention and incisive wit abounds in the collection A Pail of Air (1951).  Against a post-apocalyptical backdrop that runs throughout most of the stories, Leiber’s stories are chimeric (and satirical) parables on a vast spectrum of themes — the mechanization of the future, gender relations, endless war, media saturation…  The stories shift between whimsical delight and gut-wrenching despair.

This collection of eleven stories from the early 50s to the early 60s is highly recommended for all SF fans — especially the title story  “A Pail of Air” (1951),  “The Foxholes of Mars” (1952),  “Bread Overhead” (1958),  “The Last Letter” (1958), and the best of the collection, “Coming Attraction” (1950).  His short SF work is easily as good as his contemporaries — Kornbluth and Sheckley.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*soem spoilers*)

 “A Pail of Air” (1951) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  The second best story in the collection…  “Let me tell you about the Nest.  It’s low and snug, just room for the four of us and our things” (10).  The Nest, layered with carpets and furniture, with its fire that burns pure oxygen protects the narrator and his “Ma” and “Pa” and “Sis” from the post-apocalyptical world outside.  A world where the temperatures have dropped so low that the elements in air have freeze in layers.  But while out collecting a pail of oxygen the narrator sees something move…  The Nest and its occupants is the perfect metaphor for turning inwards, retreating from the forces that swirl outside, and Leiber ruminations on whether those raised in such an environment will ever want to leave.

“The Beat Cluster” (1961) 3.25/5 (Good): A somewhat successful work of social SF — the Big Igloo is a space bubble (with accompanying small dwelling bubbles), created from ultra-thin self-sealing plastic, clustered around a staffed Research satellite.  The Big Igloo itself is inhabited by various hippies and beatniks who tend algae, sunbath,  grow yeast cultures, meditate, study, create art, etc.  However, the US government, always keen on squashing such counter-culture endeavors, wants to evict them.  But, maybe this time the Beatniks will resist…  Powers’ cover for the 1964 edition illustrates this story.

“The Foxholes of Mars” (1952) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  Mars is a vast nuclear war zone filled with wastelands and machines of deaths and desperate hateful men engaged in endless struggle….  The narrator engaged in the struggle with the Martian enemies undergoes a crisis where he asks himself probing questions: “Why did he hate the soldiers of the enemy so little? […] His relationship with them was limited, almost abstract.  How could he hate something so different from himself in form?” (44).  He engages in fantasies of killing his own men whom he seems to hate even more than the enemy due to their obsession with killing: “Dying at his hand, they might for a moment understand their own vicious hypocrisy” (45).  But soon he is caught up in the allure of promotions…  And soon he is deluded by the grand promises of the war…  A brilliant and fascinating parable of the psychological ramifications of war — and of course, Leiber’s well-known pacifistic tendencies are on show.

“Pipe Dream” (1959) 3.5/5 (Good):  Simon Grue has unusual Russian neighbors that seem to adhere to every Russian stereotype: they drink copious amounts of vodka, and down tubs of caviar…  Are they White Russians or Red Russians?  Grue has no idea what they doing on the nearby roof until he finds a small mermaid-like tadpole creature in his bathtub.  Unfortunately, he drops it behind the tub and it dies before he can rescue it.  A truly bizarre piece of weird fiction filled with odd imagery with phrases such as these: “The pipe hanging between water tank and pent-shack became in his imagination a giant umbilicus or a canal for a monstrous multiple birth” (63).

“Time Fighter” (1957) 3/5 (Good): A humorous but slight story that manages to poke fun — in a metafictional way — at the SF genre: “A real science-fiction enthusiast has to be a little crazy and a little sane, a little dreamy and a little skeptical, a little idealistic and also a little hard-headed” (66).  George Mercer, a middle aged SF fanatic, fits the bill.  And he is easily seduced by Dave’s subtle advertising — Dave promises that he has a time machine and needs some money.  But perhaps George sees the truth about the gadget but everyone else believes he fell for an embarrassing scam.

“The 64-Square Madhouse” (1962) 4.25/5 (Good):  Fritz Leiber was a chess fanatic and it certainly shows in this imaginative story.  Sandra Lea Grayling is sent by her newspaper to cover a revolutionary chess tournament despite her lack of chess knowledge.  What makes the tournament unusual is the nature of one of the competitors — an American machine programed by a psychologist to play chess and even “read” its opponents.  Many readers will be annoyed by the extremely “primitive” nature of the chess computer but who else but Leiber could pull off a SF story about a  chess tournament?

 “Bread Overhead” (1958) 4/5 (Good):  One of the more whimsical satires of American consumerism of the collection…  “Made up of tiny wheaten motes / And reinforced with sturdy oats, / It rises through the air and floats — / The bread on which all Terra dotes!” (191).  The drive for the lightest bread is Puffy Product’s chief desire — in fact, bread so light that it floats!  Only a weighted wrapping keeps the loaves on the ground….  The serpent-like walking bread factories / wheat harvesters snake across the fields disgorging their puffy bread products.  But, an unfortunate error means the puffy loaves are lighter than ever and all float away! Of course, bread so light contains almost no nutritional value.  As the bread cloud float across the ocean and towards the famine stricken Ukraine hilarious and unintended result….

 “The Last Letter” (1958) 4/5 (Good):  Another whimsical satirical romp in the vein of “Bread Overhead.”  In a post-apocalyptical world where the human survivors are shepherded by robots — in large hive-communities — who take care of their every need.  It is also a world overcome advertising and vast robotic devices sort the mail at amazing speeds.  Richard Rowe, who has not been given the necessary attention by attendant robots, sends a letter — the first letter in untold years — to a woman he sees, Jane Dough.  The letter causes the sorter machines and various attendant machines to expire or go mad…

“Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee” (1958) 3/5 (Average):  The least intriguing story in the collection…  I found the satire and premise rather forced and uninteresting: “Once upon a time, when just for an instant all the molecules in the world and in the collective unconscious mind got very slippery, so that just for an instant something could pop through from the past or the future or other places…” (145).  Simon Grue, and avant-garde painter à la Jackson Pollock makes the perfect splatter on his canvas.  And at that moment, the effects of the perfect spatter instantly pops into the minds of other intellectuals with startling world-changing results.

“Coming Attraction” (1950) 4.75/5 (Very Good): Easily the best story in the collection and perhaps one of Leiber’s most famous and frequently anthologized works.  In a post limited nuclear war America, the British narrator observes the societal changes that have swept the US due to the “great psychological insecurity” resulting from competition with the USSR.  Wysten Turner encounters a masked woman whom he rescues from a car replete with hooks designed to snag the dresses of passing women.  Leiber doles out fascinating commentary on strange fetishes, future gender relations (where women are masked), masked mix-gender wrestling, unusual fashions…  The insecurity abroad results in new ways to control at home.  A fascinating satire of late 40s/early 50s culture — the subject matter is much more in the vein of 60s works.  Our narrator is also being manipulated, and flees in shame when the bizarre tableau’s true nature is unmasked.

“Nice Girl with Five Husbands” (1951) 3/5 (Average): One of the poorer stories in the collection — Tom Dorset, an artist plagued by his recent inability to create, wanders from his cabin.  Soon unexplained winds of time whisk him one hundred years in the future.  Tom doesn’t realize he’s in the future and rather simply behind on the times.  The group he encounters practices group marriage — a girl has five husbands and an assortment of kwives, “co-wives.”  Although the story as a whole was unsuccessful, Leiber’s world building touches are delightful — for example, the children are brilliant and occupy themselves with unusual tasks: “‘Please mutate my poppy seeds, Mommy.’ A little girl had darted to Joyce from the children’s table. ‘You’re a very dirty little girl,’ Joyce told her without reproof.”  But soon Tom is swept back to his own world.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

23 Replies to “Book Review: A Pail of Air, Fritz Leiber (1964)”

  1. I think I heard the radio dramatization of A Pail of Air. It was either Dimension-X or X Minus 1. It was quite good. A lot of those Galaxy Magazine stories that got on the radio turned out quite well. I think they are all available on archive.org if you are interested.

    1. I found that the radio dramatization (it’s X minus 1) ruined the great story! (haha). It not only added stock 1950s sexism that Leiber generally avoids — i.e. along the lines of “she looked at the mirror, you know, what women do all the time” — but also replaced Leiber’s beautiful lines with cliché-ridden ones. It was a painful listen…. The original is so much more beautiful, stirring, and inventive.

      1. I think we were at odds over Slan, as well. Of course in this case, I haven’t read the story. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have liked the radio version much, either.

        1. Haven’t read Slan yet — hehe.

          But yes, the radio adaptions really did iron out all the inventive phrases, intriguing scenes and replace them with stuff straight from the worst pulps… It’s really unfortunate.

  2. Great review, Joachim – Fritz is also one of my favorite authors.

    “…who else but Leiber could pull off a SF story about a chess tournament?” – He did it a second time, with “Midnight by the Morphy Watch,” which tied the (then topical) subject of American chess champion Bobby Fischer’s erratic behavior to the bizarre activities of the past American chess champion, Paul Morphy and the bizarre properties of a lost watch he owned – well worth a read.

    I remember liking “Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee” as it fit somewhat in the vein of the American Tall Tale which Leiber occasionally mined (as Lafferty did). Leiber revisited this genre and hit one out of the ball park, IMO, with “Gonna Roll the Bones” from Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions” anthology, combining the tall tale of a deal with the devil with a gritty, urban space-age setting and a deep theology.

    “Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee” also has a cameo appearance from Norman Saylor, who showed up in a number of Fritz’s stories and was the protagonist of his excellent novel “Conjure Wife” which has been repeatedly filmed (“Burn, Witch, Burn” was one of the titles). A great fantasy novel, and although a period piece concerning women’s roles in American society, I would call it a proto-feminist novel.

    “Coming Attractions” is without a doubt one of his best. I remember how unsettling I found it when I read it in high school, and it hooked me on Leiber.

    I’d also highly recommend his very creepy fantasy novel “Our Lady of Darkness,” set in the San Francisco he knew and loved and featuring characters from San Francisco history and roman-a-clef versions of Fritz and his acquaintances in the 1970s. Like his short story “Smoke Ghost” (set in his native Chicago) and “The Black Gondolier” (set in Venice, California), Fritz really pioneered the use of huge cities as settings for horror.

    It’s hard to stop once I start recommending Leiber books and stories. I don’t like sword and sorcery as a rule, but I even enjoyed his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

    1. Thanks! After A Pail of Air I’ll be looking for more Leiber collections — hopefully “Midnight by the Morphy Watch” comes up in one of them.

      I never really got into “Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee” — I saw what he was doing/going with the concept but it wasn’t as transfixing as the other stories in the collection.

      “Gonna Roll the Bones” sounds amazing….

      Wasn’t “Our Lady of Darkness” written after the death of his wife? He apparently spent a few years as a drunk (I think) before he wrote “Our Lady.”

      1. Yep, Fritz was very open about his struggles with alcoholism over the years (not just after the death of his wife, Jonquil, although that was apparently hard for him to recover from) – alcohol and alcoholism is a persistent theme throughout his works, including “Our Lady of Darkness,” where the protagonist, a thinly veiled stand-in for Leiber, is just tenuously recovering from the years-long binge after the death of the protagonist’s wife. His work was increasingly autobiographical over the years, as with his short story “Catch That Zeppelin,” where the “real” Fritz and an alternative world Fritz interact.

        If you can find a copy of the DAW paperback anthology “The Book of Fritz Leiber,” he has an interesting and very open autobiographical essay. He lived an interesting life, including some film work with Greta Garbo and some serious partying with John Barrymore.

        I had the chance to chat with him for a bit at the 1978 Worldcon when I helped him navigate from hotel to hotel in downtown Phoenix – a nice memory.

      1. Gotta Say “I’ll met in Lankhmar.”. I had the old Run request supplement, but I don’t think we ever got around to playing it ( CoC was our game). Our little small-town library had a bunch of the Alfred Hitchcock/Boris Karloff presents anthologies, which I devoured over and over again.

      2. Ah, so his sword and sorcery stuff… Yeah, it’s probably my least favorite sub-genre of fantasy. But everyone seems to say good things about it — and the novella did win the Hugo and Nebula awards!

  3. My first exposure to Leiber was through his fantasy work, but I too really enjoyed The Big Time when I read it several years back. I’ve read a number of these shorts and enjoyed them. I count him as one of my more enjoyable discoveries over the past decade and there is still much more of his work that I have left to read.

  4. I have argued that Leiber invented a forerunner of Urban Fantasy with ‘Smoke Ghost’ Another favourite is ‘Four Ghosts In Hamlet’ where his theatre background, drinking and fantasy all come together quite poignantly.

  5. I don’t care much for Leiber.The only stuff of his,I’ve read,is the novel,”A Spectre is haunting Texas”,which was very boring,and “Gonna Roll the Bones” in “Dangerous Visions”,of which I remember nothing.I couldn’t finish “The Big Time”.

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