09 January 2010

Book Review: Gather, Darkness!

Gather, Darkness!
By Fritz Leiber (1943)

The late Fritz Leiber is best known for his wonderful stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, tales of sword-and-sorcery laced with wickedly sardonic humor that still amaze readers today. Leiber developed these stories to appeal to the crowd that read Unknown and Astounding Science-Fiction, pulp magazines edited by John W. Campbell, the most influential editor in the history of speculative fiction. Leiber was one of the stars of Campbell’s bullpen of authors who were re-writing the established tenents of speculative fiction in the 1940s.

Gather, Darkness! is the second of Leiber’s full-length works (following Conjure Wife, a modern-day fantasy about witchcraft that was published in Unknown). It appeared serialized in three issues of Astounding in 1943, and then in hardcover seven years later. Although a science fiction novel, Gather, Darkness! leans heavily on fantasy imagery to the point that I would classify it as science fantasy. The entire charade of the novel’s villainous world government is based on medieval dross and religious superstition. Science is always unleashed in the illusion that it is magic, a manifestation of a god or devil. What makes the book different from many standard tale of futurist dystopias is that the rebels against the tyrannical government also used the science-as-religion masquerade. Further muddying the moral waters, Leiber has the tyrants in angelic form, and the freedom fighters in demonic. For most of Gather, Darkness!, the reader teeters on the edge of wondering who is really the villain, and if anything will change for the better if the supposed rebels win the victory.

The year is 2305 according to the old reckoning. Leiber keeps the specific timeline of the past obscure, but during an era called the Golden Age (subsequent to the “Atomic Age”) humanity achieved almost universal prosperity and colonized other planets in the solar system. Then came war and collapse . . . and the evenutal rising of the most “perfect government” in human history to restore order. This government, known as the Hierarchy, consists of scientists who present themselves as a religious order of priests that rules over the rest of humanity for its own good. The priests have fabricated a deity, simply known as the Great God, and create sham miracles and magic using their advanced technology to subdue the population. With the exception of a small party called the Fanatics, all the priests of the various circles know and accept that the Great God and his miracles are a lie, but maintain the show to keep the commoners under their control.

However, as the novel begins, a force known as “The New Witchcraft,” has started to challenge the Hierarchy. Following the orders of the Black Man and the enigmatic Asmodeus, the witches use technology the equal of the priests to try to bring down the Hierarchy. The witches’ goal is to free humanity from the tyranny of the false religion, but they also use the fear of supernatural powers to frighten the people and turn them against the Hierarchy.

The ostensible hero of the story is a young priest, Brother Armon Jarles, whose doubts about the morality of the Hierarchy finally force him to act against it. In the beginning chapter, Jarles suddenly breaks the secrecy of the Hierarchy in public and starts to rail against it, shouting out the truth of fake Great God at the foot of the Cathedral. Jarles’s stand ignites two plans, long brewing on the opposing sides of the conflict, who use the rebellious priest for their own ends. As the battle between the Hierarchy and the New Witchcraft intensifies, some genuine surprises are in store for both Jarles and the reader.

If written today, Gather, Darkness! would probably weigh in at a hefty five hundred-pages, or possibly more; Leiber certainly has enough material and principle characters for such an enormous tome. But he manages to fit his whole story of the battle for humanity into a bit over two hundred pages. The economy of his scenes, his use of lacunae, and his choices about when to reveal pertinent plot information are excellent. Some characters and events remain sketchy, such as a potential female heroine who ends up second-tier to a elderly “genuine” witch, and the sudden introduction of an interplanetary angle in the last few pages comes too abruptly. The requirement (at least from Astounding’s point of view) of needing everything given a detailed scientific explanation sometimes drains away the mystery and majesty of the world, although Leiber’s detailing of how the witches genetically-created “familiars” operate is one of the book’s most interesting passages . . . and Dickon, the Black Man’s simian familiar, is its most memorable character.

Ignoring these flaws from the time period, Gather, Darkness! is as fine a work as you could wish from the yellowed pages of the 1940s science-fiction pulps, showing how the genre was growing up while still having its fun. The story contains plenty of action—the highlight is a gigantic attack on the Cathedral right at the moment the Hierarchy believes it will seal the allegiance of the commoners to it forever with a miracle—but eventually resolves itself on the micro-level of its characters. Leiber had not yet reached his peak when Gather, Darkness! was first in print, but he was rapidly climbing the mountain.