Swords Against Death is the second of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books, featuring the archetypal characters of Fafhrd the barbarian and The Grey Mouser the rogue. The book includes stories spanning from 1940 to 1970… which I imagine, if you’re reading the book attentively and know this, would leave you watching for signs of change and development in the author’s writing style. As for me, it wasn’t really apparent to me, as I read the stories, that they were written across such a long span of years. That isn’t to say there weren’t shifts in tone and style, or that there wasn’t apparent development in style, but that development shifts in ways that feel as if they are nonce adjustments to the theme and mood of each story, which is interesting, and could–depending on your reception of the book–either be a damning observation, or high praise.
I can’t pretend I didn’t stumble on a few moments of apparent sexism or racism in the stories–the illusion-persona of one interdimensional character in “Bazaar of the Bizarre” veers straight into the kind of territory explored by Edward Said in Orientalism, for example, though of course that’s an outlandish illusion, which might explain the caricature somewhat… I still found it uncomfortable, though. And there is a degree of sexism that is hard to deny, even if it comes in occasional spurts. (But, you know, a line like “Girls were for dessert,” said by one of the heroes… well, yeah. That should make us uncomfortable, I think. A few pages later, he protests that he’s paid for a girl, too. Er… okay. Things not to emulate. And it’s not like it’s been purged fully from our genre, either.)
At the same time, I’ve also begun to try consciously not to not ask perfection of books. Every book has its virtues, and its flaws–okay,
almost every book , er, most books do? maybe “many” books do?–and with Leiber, it’s hard to mistake those pleasures and virtues, along with the flaws; there’s a reason he’s been so imitated. I think it’s possible to see the virtues of a book and to dislike its flaws at the same time. I’ve more than a couple of novels or short stories that have apparent identity-politics much congenial to my own views, but which clearly lack some of the other virtues that Leiber puts on display in these stories. He makes me laugh, he gets me into the stories in a way a lot of “adventure” writing doesn’t, and he really does celebrate male friendship–maybe even geeky male friendship is what is being celebrated–in a way I must confess I haven’t really seen before in fiction; that’s something worth celebrating, too, after all–not more worth celebrating than female friendship, or friendship across the lines of sex or gender or whatever, of course, but still worth celebrating anyhow, and as someone who had to relearn the importance of guy friends as an adult–not with gravitas, so much as with a kind of relaxed bluntness and shared respect–I think it’s actually important to celebrate healthy forms of male camaraderie… which sometimes includes not taking everything so seriously, or shrugging off the medieval (no, really, Medieval, and rooted in law and custom of primogeniture) notion that to really be a successful, fully adult man, you need to marry, settle down, have kids and property, and so on; if you didn’t, you were a mere juvene; a kid, basically–and juvenes were a social problem in Northern France, since whole classes of men had to endure the status in order to keep land and money in the family. The whole juvenes issue, really, makes an interesting comparison to the boy-men in so much of our media (and many real-life young men today); in both cases, a crisis of masculinity and the problematizing of male friendship has as much to do with the upsurge in sexism as any literary celebration of male friendship.
In other words, I think celebrating male friendship can be an important part of a thoughtful feminist-positive agenda… in part (but not only) because declaring such celebrations as inherently sexist doesn’t invite much except anti-feminist backlash. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where that’s the only relationship that gets celebrated, but likewise, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where it’s never celebrated. Thankfully, neither is the case in our world… not anymore, anyway.