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  • TITLE: You're All Alone
  • AUTHOR: Fritz Leiber
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1950
  • CAREER AWARDS: World Fantasy Award life achievement, Stoker life achievement, SFWA Grand Master, SF Hall of Fame Posthumous Inductee
  • WEBSITE: www.gothicpress.com/leiber.html

This novel has a history as fascinating as its plotline. First published as a novella in Fantastic Adventures Magazine in 1950, Leiber expanded it for publication as a novel three year later. Unbeknownst to him, Universal Publishers taglined it "they were peeping toms—ravishers of womanhood—lustful despoilers of everything decent!", added gratuitous and greedily-motivated sex scenes, then bound it with another pre-pornage gripper, Bulls, Blood and Passion ("each kill roused in her a merciless love-lust"). The original novella was re-published by Ace in 1972 under its first title, and, as if in some weird parallel universe, Leiber followed suit and inserted his own sex scenes then re-released it in 1980 as The Sinful Ones. I guess the last is the "authorized" version, but my copy is signed by Fritz so I don't dare break the paperback spine by reading it. I'll just have to wait for the cinematic version starring Jena Jameson as Jane Gregg. The following review is of its 1972 original and sadly tamer version.

You're All Alone is an example of an exemplary idea presented in a mediocre fashion. The execution has certainly suffered from a half a century of culture, technology, and mores at exponential speed, but the plot is strictly boilerplate delivered in pulp prose. It is enjoyable to read as, say, a Cornell Woolrich mystery, so you endure the melodrama and hackneyed character scripting to see if there's more about the What If? around the next plot twist.

The What If? Well, let's let Leiber set the stage:

His feelings were like those of a man in a waxworks museum, who speaks to a guide only to find that he has addressed one of the wax figures . . .

What if the whole world were like a waxworks museum? In motion, of course, like clockworks, but utterly mindless, purposeless, mechanical.

What if a wax figure named Jane Gregg had come alive and moved from her place—or been removed, unalive, as a toy is lifted out of a shop window? What if the whole show was going on without her, because the whole show was just a machine and didn't know or care whether a figure named Jane Gregg was there or not?

--Ace, ISBN 44195146095, PBO, c.1972, p.15

Just as Leiber introduces his What If? as a simile, it should be understood as a metaphor for another conceptualization rather than trying to assimilate it as a factual experience for the characters. This, of course, is a huge leap across suspension-of-disbelief territory. Leiber softens the landing, but never quite breaks the fall. I mean, exactly how does someone "wake"? Or, "half-wake" (p.78), for that matter? And, where'd Daisy come from, bigger than any dog with eyes "like red coals in its short, ash-colored hair" (p.106)? Leiber tries the old deceiver's trick of misdirection with bolsterings like the hero dreaming he's a puppet (p.56) or "in a Chaplin film" (p.66), and even groany prose like "they were prince and princess no longer, but wizard's children with stolen cloaks of invisibility" (p.83). I'm sorry, but the leavings of Leiber's What If? are just too incoherent.

But remember, the buzz in the coffeeshops of the '50s was all about oppression from the Military-Industrial Complex and a new philosophy from across the Atlantic called Existentialism. Among the tattered copies of Ginzberg and Kerouac littering the café tables were fresh translations of Nietchez, Sarte, and Camus. In this respect, Leiber's What if? can be viewed as a response to the unfeeling coldness engendered by timely thinking, as it works better as a representation of an indifferent universe birthing alienation, conformity, and acquiescence at the expense of individuality. The reaction to it is more important than its physical reality. Besides, it is working from a very common, shared feeling. Haven't we all felt that the corporation we work for has "no more feeling than a sausage grinder for the life oozing through it" (p.23)?

What is more disheartening, however, is that besides our hero and heroine, all the so-called "awakened" people are monsters. The three main adversaries—the "big blonde", the "portly man", and the "young man with a crew haircut" (p.43)—are inhumane opportunists, that "glory in being able to do whatever they want, no matter how cruel or obscene, in a dead world that can't stop them" (p.76). They delight in rape, torture, and "vicious little impertinences" of the general, somnambulistic population, but have tired of merely "throwing pepper in the eyes of [the] doll[s]" (p.94). The real fun comes when their victims are awake. The other group of villains, described only as four men in "black snap-brim hats" (p.39) must be the clean-up crew for Murder, Inc., or, to get more prophetic, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Our heroes escape the novel idealistically hoping to find other "people capable of love and sacrifice" (p.110). Leiber, it appears, is uncannily predicting San Francisco fifteen years later.

If being borrowed by other artists is the highest form of praise, then Leiber holds reservations to sit alongside Dumas, Dickens, and Shakespeare. It is hard to believe that the Wachowskis didn't read this before creating The Matrix; never mind Dark City or even The Sixth Sense. And Philip K. Dick wasn't represented in the pulps until two years after You're All Alone was published. This may not be Leiber's ceremonial banquet, but even his table scraps are saporous.

© copyright 04/02/2006 by Larry Crawford

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