The two thieves also had the relief of knowing that, with the satisfaction of a job well done, they were going straight home now, not to a wife, Aarth forbid! - or to parents and children, all gods forfend! but to Thieves' House, headquarters and barracks of the all-mighty Guild which was father to them both and mother too, though no woman was allowed inside its ever-open portal on Cheap Street.This won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella presented in 1971 for work of 1970 (so the 1971 Hugo but the 1970 Nebula). Leiber had been writing both prose and poetry about the heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser since 1939. In 1970 he published two stories set very early in internal chronology: an origin story for Fafhrd, “The Snow Women” (the origin story for the Gray Mouser had appeared in 1962), and this tale of how the two first became a partnership in the city of Lankhmar. In these post-Pratchett days, we can forget that Ankh-Morpork is very firmly built on Lankhmar’s foundations, but it’s pretty easy to see the elements that Discworld drew from Leiber.
Lankhmar is more sexy than Ankh-Morpork, and the story revolves around Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser attempting to impress their girlfriends by taking on the Thieves’ Guild. The Guild, however, has sorcerous support, and in a horrific passage the two women are killed by magic (or “fridged”, as we would say now) and the two heroes destroy the Guild in revenge. In an attempt to move with the times (and against his own past record) Leiber does give the two women a bit of intelligence and character, but it does not do them much good.
However, it’s well-written and entertaining, and fans who had been following the Lankhmar stories will have lapped this up just as Doctor Who fans enjoy Missing Adventures.
The title of course refers both to Oberon’s grumpy greeting to Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 scene 1, and to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits in Crete. Neither has much bearing on Leiber’s story.
Since I had the time to do it, I read several of the other novellas competing with “Ill Met in Lankhmar” for the Hugo and Nebula that year. Two others were on both shortlists. One was “The Region Between”, by Harlan Ellison, whose third chapter is actually numbered 1¾; its second paragraph is:
And yet alive. More completely alive than he had ever been, than any human being had ever conceived of being. Alive with all of the universe, one with the clamoring stars, brother to the infinite empty spaces, heroic in proportions that even myth could not define.I found this a fairly indigestible and self-indulgent piece. It is one of five stories by different authors which all started with the main character’s death; we cycle through confusing and disjointed fonts and prose to discover the meaning of God. Not the New Wave at its best.
The other story on both final ballots was “The Thing in the Stone” by Clifford D. Simak, the second paragraph of whose third section is:
At fault, Daniels knew, had been his obsession withthe creature in the stone. The past was nothing—it was the creature in the stone that was important and to tell of it, to explain it and how he knew that it was there, he must tell about his listening to the stars.I liked this a lot more. It’s a story about an isolated man in rural America who finds himself eerily linked to another world, in this case past geological ages. It is therefore of course a fairly typical Simak story, and maybe doesn’t stand out all that much from the rest of his work, but it ticked a lot of my boxes.
Leiber’s Fafhrd story “The Snow Women” also qualified for the Hugo ballot, but he withdrew it. The other two novellas contending for the Hugo were therefore “Beastchild” by Dean R. Koontz, which I was not able to track down in its originally published form, and “The World Outside” by Robert Silverberg, now available as the sixth chapter of The World Inside, the novel about a future society living in immense tower blocks and reproducing like crazy. More specifically, it is the chapter about the man who decides to leave his home tower block and explore the surrounding countryside. The second paragraph of its third section is:
But in the end he goes without telling anyone.It’s a rather brutal story - in the world outside the World Inside, people use birth control and women actually have the right to refuse sex, both things which shock the protagonist. On his return home he is immediately executed in case he should spread heretical ideas of how society might be different. I can see why it got onto the ballot, but I can also see why it didn’t win.
There were three other stories on the Nebula ballot. I did not bother tracking down “The Fatal Fulfillment” by Poul Anderson (one of the same set of stories as “The Region Between”) or “A Style in Treason” by James Blish. “April Fools Day Forever”, by Kate Wilhelm, was the only novella by a woman on either final ballot. (There were no works by women at all on the Hugo ballot for the written fiction categories; the Nebulas had one story by a woman in each category, two by Kate Wilhelm and two by Joanna Russ.) The third paragraph of “April Fools Day Forever” is:
What she wanted to do was call Martie, but she didn't. His boss didn't approve of personal phone calls during the working day. She breathed a curse at Hilary Boyle, and waited for Martie to call her. He would, as soon as he had a chance. When she was certain that there was nothing else she should do, she sat down in the living room, where one log was burning softly. There was no light on in the room and the storm had darkened the sky. The small fire glowed pleasingly in the enormous fireplace, and the radiance was picked up by pottery and brass mugs on a low table before the fireplace. The room was a long rectangle, wholly out of proportion, much too long for the width, and with an uncommonly high ceiling. Paneling the end walls had helped, as had making a separate room within the larger one, with its focal point the fireplace. A pair of chairs and a two-seater couch made a cozy grouping. The colors were autumn forest colors, brilliant and subdued at the same time: oranges and scarlets in the striped covering of the couch, picked up again by pillows; rust browns in the chairs; forest-green rug. The room would never make House Beautiful, Julia had thought when she brought in the last piece of brass for the table and surveyed the effect, but she loved it, and Martie loved it. And she'd seen people relax in that small room within a room who hadn't been able to relax for a long time. She heard it then.It’s a tremendously creepy novella, set in a 1970 society where the death rate has suddenly accelerated and the birth rate drastically decreased. The heroine and her husband, struggling with their own efforts to start a family, find themselves embroiled in a sinister conspiracy which seems to be linked to the bizarre demographic changes. Unfortunately I felt that the ending was a cop-out that undermined the internal logic of the rest of the story, but up until the last couple of pages I really enjoyed it.
So, did the voters of 1970 get it right? I’d have found it a tough call between Leiber, Simak and (for the Nebula) Wilhelm myself; but in the end I think I too would have voted for Leiber.
- “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is available in the collections Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Darkness, Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber, The First Book of Lankhmar, as a double with Leiber’s “Ship of Shadows”, and in various other ways. Several of those also include “The Snow Women”.
- “The Region Between” is available as a standalone publication.
- “The Thing in the Stone” is the title story of a Clifford D. Simak collection.
- As noted above, “The World Outside” can be found as chapter six of The World Inside.
- “April Fools’ Day Forever” is included in the Kate wilhelm collection The Infinity Box, and in the Kate Wilhelm Gateway SF Omnibus, which has twice the content for the same price.