Review- Leiber, “A Specter is Haunting Texas”

Fritz Leiber, “A Specter is Haunting Texas” (1969) – Fritz Leiber is probably best known for his sword-and-sorcery books, which I should read some day. I picked up this scifi volume of his at a library sale, amused by the title. I knew nothing about it going in.

It turns out to be the story of Christopher “Scully” LaCruz, a ham actor from Circumluna, an orbital society of scientists and “longhairs” who escaped from a mid-twentieth century nuclear war, two hundred fifty years before the action of the book. Scully goes down to Earth (wearing a special exoskeleton to cope with the gravity) to lay claim to a mine in Canada that he inherited. He winds up in Dallas, where he finds out that Canada, and much of the rest of North America, got taken over, post-apocalypse, by Texas. Now, Texas was an empire, inhabited by hormone-fed eight-foot-tall (Scully is also tall from having lived in zero G, but skeletally thin where the Texans are beefy) back-slapping, gun-toting yahoos, every Texas stereotype come to massive, cartoonish life. I couldn’t help but picture the first Texan Scully meets, the political fixer Elmo, as a gargantuan Hank Hill. The Texans run a sort of neo-feudal empire, enslaving the Mexicans and making cyborgs out of many of them (and all of them run about four feet tall).

Scully doesn’t really care about this, he just wants his mining claim so he can have enough money to save his theater troupe or something. But he gets sucked into various plots. First, one Texan faction tries to use him against the President (every President of Texas dies by assassination, traditionally). Then ragtag revolutionaries who want to overthrow the Texans and liberate the Mexicans enlist him in their cause. He’s a reluctant revolutionary at best, but as a ham, can’t resist a crowd that sees him as El Esqueleto, the skeletal harbinger of Death- redoing the old trope of Mexicans as greeting white people from abroad as gods. Also, he wants to get laid with two revolutionary women, one a tiny Mexican and another a huge Texan. So he goes on a tour northwards towards his mining claim, inspiring uprisings and learning ghastly truths about what the Texans are doing to the Earth’s mantle.

Leiber was closing in on sixty when he wrote this book and altogether it feels somewhat painfully like a middle-aged man trying to be With It circa 1968. Though, in a way, as both a scifi writer and an actor (he came from a theater family and acted some himself), Leiber could probably claim better hedonism and mind-expansion bona fides than most of the youth at the time. I think his sympathies were probably with “the youth,” both in the novel and in society at large, but from a foggy and at times patronizing distance. Both Scully and, I think, the author, treat revolution as essentially a child’s game, theater.

The whole thing is played as farce — like the sort of comedy Scully might put on with his company, get it?! — and you get the thing you get in a lot of writing by men circa 1960s-2000s where there’s a lot of stereotyping going on and you’re not sure how much of it is “genuine” vs satirical. You’re also not sure how much it matters. The whole premise of the world of the book is reversion to type on a racial scale. The Texans are the whitest white yahoos, having assimilated the rest of the white people of the continent to their empire. Mexicans are spicy, superstitious, physically small, and given to revolutions launched by dramatic gestures. Black people have “hip republics” on the coast, and the one black character is a jive-talking Buddhist monk. Native Americans live in teepees, Russians have genetically engineered themselves into bear-people, there’s a ranting genocidal German-Texan engineer, etc. Luckily for us all the book didn’t have any Jews or Asians. Leiber would presumably point to his farcical white characters as proof he’s an equal opportunity offender. Meditations on gender, or anyway, the
mentality of women, in a similar vein pop up throughout as well.

I’m less interested in offense here than I am in the fact that two hundred odd pages of ethnic farce with a bit of sex farce thrown in for variety gets old. I can almost feel people out in readerland thinking “aha! A writer who cares not for restricting moralism in prose! It must be good!” I, too, find the social moralism in a lot of contemporary criticism constraining but to borrow a contemporary phrase, “this ain’t it, chief.” The book didn’t lack for zip and it was oddly prescient, in some ways, like the prominence of Texan (and other southern) tropes and practices in reactionary white American manhood going forward. But in general, there’s not enough going on, ideas- or action-wise, to really justify the broad farcical elements. ***

Review- Leiber, “A Specter is Haunting Texas”

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