Destiny Times Three (1945) by Fritz Leiber

DestinyTimesThree1I’m starting to wonder if Fritz Leiber’s early fiction is where it’s at in terms of sophistication and daring, while his later fiction is pure career fancy. If so, it’s probably an observation longtime readers of SF have already noticed, but of the small assortment of his works I’ve read, it’s becoming a pattern.

Leiber’s 1945 Astounding serial, Destiny Times Three, blends Nordic myth, Persian poetry, and a little bit of Wells into a multiverse story that explores a provocative moral question: What would you do if you found out your multiverse twin exists in a miserable dystopia and they resented you for having the better life?

A sense of guilt toward his dream-twin was the dominant fact in Thorn’s inner life. (23)

At first, it is just a “dream-twin”, as everyone in Thorn’s world is wracked with “nightmares with the same landscape. As if each dreamer were looking through a different window at a consistently distorted version of our own world” (14). But Thorn, a scientist studying the strange shared dream phenomenon, feels pulled toward Yggdrasil and stumbles into the “botched worlds” that branch off the main trunk of his world, not-so-incidentally swapping places with his twin from an authoritarian, industrial dystopia:

In three days, he had seen three worlds, and none of them were good. World III, wrecked subtronic power, cold battlefield for a hopeless last stand. World II, warped by paternalistic tyranny, smoldering with hate and boredom. World I, a utopia in appearance, but lacking real stamina or inward worth, not better than the others—only luckier. (110)

Would the real World Order please stand up?

A world where two great nations, absorbing all the rest, carried on an endless bitter war, unable to defeat or be defeated, forever spurred to new efforts by the fear that past sacrifices might have been in vain. A world that was absorbed in the conquest of space, and where the discontented turned their eyes upward toward the new frontier. (116)

1945. Leiber wrote this in 1945.

Not much is written about Destiny Times Three, and it seems like what little I can find focuses on Leiber’s character building and science. (Who reads Leiber for his science?!) Yet the majority of this little 100-page story concentrates on tensions between worlds, the humanity that inhabits each, “the Great Man” tinkering that accompanies global political tension, and criticism of the idea of utopia and the dehumanizing superiority toward non-utopia inhabitants:

Everywhere happiness – or, rather, creative freedom. A great rich surging world, unaware, save for nightmare glimpses, of the abyss-edge on which it danced.

Maddeningly unaware. (58)

DestinyTimesThree2It’s not about the science, it’s not about the character building; it’s an allegory of political events. What we have here is a sober interpretation (and projection) of events during the tail end of World War II in the European theatre, minus the patriotic lust and dehumanizing zeal that accompanies most science fiction of this era. With Leiber’s balanced, critical eye on the diplomatic stage– well, I know we’re not supposed to praise SF authors for their foresight, but damned if Leiber seems to side with history on this one.

The utopia that’s not really utopian. A multiverse twin trapped in a dystopian regime. A group of men with too much power and the ability to divide the world timeline into branches. An empathic illustration of humanity on the other side. A condemnation of the powerful.

The first thing that struck Thorn—with surprise, he realized—was that the Servants of the People looked in no way malignant, villainous, or evil.

But looking at them a second time, Thorn began to wonder if there was not something worse. A puritanic grimness that knew no humor. A suffocating consciousness of responsibilitity, as if all the troubles of the world rested their shoulders alone. A paternal aloofness, as if everyone else were an irresponsible child. A selflessness swollen to such bounds as to become supreme selfishness. An intolerable sense of personal importance that their beggarly clothes and surroundings only emphasized. (72)

But you chose to play at being gods, and even ignorant and well-intentioned gods must suffer the consequences of their creations. And that shall be your fate. (123)

(The Yalta Conference occurred just the month before this was published.)

It took Jesse from Speculiction to point out to me the subversive commentary of Leiber’s Hugo award-winning The Big Time (1958), where the one-room story is situated inside the vacuum of an intangible Cold War-like background. Destiny Times Three is less abstract, more blunt, with paragraphs of prose dedicated to critical commentary. I have no idea if Campbell’s Astounding readers in 1945 ever noticed the commentary, or cared, but it’s full of red flags:

What’s this Martian invasion? Is it real? Or an attempt to rouse your world into a state of preparedness? Or a piece of misdirection designed to confuse the issue and make the Servants’ invasion easier? (96)

1945. 1945.

It’s stylistically Leiber, with punch and jazz, and an abundance of en dashes— his brilliance interrupted by more brilliance in every paragraph. Exciting and dynamic, with lots of narrative momentum propelled by morally gray characters (Clawly and Thorn resemble Loki and Thor) and the tantalizing multiverse riddle of the twin. It’s a rapid read; devote a Saturday afternoon to this one.

DestinytimesThree3Structurally, it has the stitched-together feel of the serialized format, but there’s also the sense that something much bigger could be going on, which a little research confirms that Leiber had epic plans for this story. Unfortunately, due to the pressures of pulp publishing and war rationing, there was no appropriate outlet for Leiber’s original 100,000 word intentions and what we get is this truncated Leiberian vision. Somehow Leiber manages to preserve that sense of promise, and there’s this lingering sense of a bigger, disembodied story haunting the margins of the pages. The reader can appreciate Leiber’s original intention, even if none of it is explicitly written. It’s quite a feat for this 100-page book.

The Big Time (1958) stands out for its unique, surreal structure. The Wanderer (1964) is silly fun. (And “Gonna Roll The Bones” (1967) took the long, uncomfortable way of making a shrug-worthy point, and let’s not talk about debaucherous Ffhard or whatever his name is.) But Destiny Times Three (1945) seals my fannishness for Fritz Leiber. This is a special book that I highly recommend.

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11 thoughts on “Destiny Times Three (1945) by Fritz Leiber

  1. See, I keep telling you guys, but there IS some good SF from the ’40s…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. marzaat says:

    Thanks for the review. You’re right. I’ve not seen much on this one, and I haven’t read it myself yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      You must check it out!

      There’s a Boucher review from 12 years later that I’m tempted to track down just to see what he says about it. I would love to know what the contemporary audience thought about it, though.

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  3. Ooooo cool. As much as I love your snarky reviews, I was excited to add this one to ye ole to read list this morning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yay! This is a neat one… and fairly easy to snag the first edition for that cool cover art 😀

      As for snarky, well, I do have Moon is a Harsh Mistress coming up next month. So far it hasn’t gelled into complete paragraphs yet. Just me throwing out mocking one-liners for an entire post.

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  4. I’ve (so far) only read Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books, but for those it holds certainly true what you surmise, namely that the early ones are brilliant – inventive, witty, and generally exhilarating – but are getting worse and worse as the series progresses, ending in the tired self-parody of a final volume that I found actually painful to read.

    Liked by 3 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I probably need to try some early F&GM stories. I’ve only read a couple of later ones, and did not finish them for exactly the same reasons.

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      • I strongly recommend it giving early Fafhrd & Grey Mouser a try – if you read nothing else, read “Lean Times in Lankhmar” which is certainly one of the best Sword & Sorcery stories ever written (even though swords nor sorcery play a major part in it). Not wanting to advertize myself here, but if you really are interested – I actually did posts on all volumes of the series on my blog a couple of years back.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. […] I ended the month on a high note, reviewing Fritz Leiber’s impassioned invisible-epic Destiny Times Three (1945!), an exciting read on multiple levels and my favorite Leiber so far. So glad I snagged a 1st […]

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  6. […] Destiny Times Three by Fritz Leiber – I mean, look at that cover. I prefer to not collect physical books, but I am the proud owner of that cover. Now compare that cover to the other covers on the list. And that’s the difference you get inside, too. It’s an allegory based on multiverse theory that’s actually a criticism of the idea of utopia and the dehumanizing effects of class structures. It’s also a sobering, and surprisingly accurate, projection of events after WWII. I have a love-hate relationship with Fritzie, but this is my favorite by him. Most people will find it dry and boring, but I was blown away by his perceptiveness. […]

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