The Silver Eggheads
Four Square, London, 1966
(price: 5/-; 192 pages)
(first published 1961)
For Bjo, John and Ernie
The blurb on the back:
Meet some of the insufferably zany characters that inhabit the mad, gay, heady world of the 'arts'...
GASPARD DE LA NUIT - human journeyman writer. He has problems with n eager girlfriend, Heloise Ibsen (assigned to him by his publisher). What he really loves is the robot that actually writes his novels, which he oils with devoted care. His closest friend is
ZANE GORT - a fine, upstanding, self-employed robot writer, Zane writes books for other robots and is madly in love with
MISS BLUSHES - a censor-robot who is something of a prude and rather hysterical - very logical when you consider that he circuits are wired for censorship, but it makes life difficult for Zane. He turns for help to
NURSE BISHOP - a small, but formidably beautiful, human who plays nursemaid to a mysterious group of near-human entities who are owned by
FLAXMAN AND CULLINGHAM - human publishers of low cunning and deplorable language.
And there are many, many more ...
Gaspard de la Nuit, journeyman writer, ran a chamois along the gleaming brass baseplate of his towering wordmill with exactly the same absentminded affection with which he would somewhat later this morning stroke the smooth squirmy flank of Heloise Ibsen, master writer.
This is great fun. In the future, the business of creative writing has been passed on from humans to machines (an echo of 1984), whilst - paradoxically - writers are more famous and popular than ever before. The job of the writer is to sit with the wordmill while it does the writing, and then to be the public face of the book in a society where novelists are stars. In this context the image is the crucial bit of the job, and contracts stipulate every detail of his or her appearance: an apprentice is 'generally required to wear some such costume as a Grecian tunic, Roman toga, monkish robes, or doublet-and-hose along with a starchy wide ruff', a journeyman progresses onto something more Germanic and 19th century, while a master writer is 'licensed to wear levis and sweatshirt, get a crewcut, and smoke cigarettes in public.' (p.8)
Writers being contrary sods, however, they're not content to sit around, collecting the royalties and the adulation, and a rebel group of literary Luddites decide to smash up the wordmills in an attempt to reassert their historic role. Well, you've got to fight for your right to write. And then they realize that they have no idea what to do next. What exactly is the process of writing? No one's quite sure:
On the basis of mysterious traditions filtering down from the dim dark days when writers really wrote, most writers believed that writing was a team enterprise in which eight or ten congenial chaps reclined in luxurious surroundings drinking cocktails and 'kicking ideas back and forth' (whatever that meant exactly) and occasionally being refreshed by the ministrations of beautiful secretaries, until stories appeared - a picture which made writing a kind of alcoholic parlor football with bedroom rest periods, terminated by miracles. (pp.30-31)
All of this makes it sound like there's a logical and straightforward storyline going on here. There isn't. Leiber just throws in everything he can think of, from robot writers and their discovery of sex and love through to the preservation of living brains of great writers from the past. And it kinda works. The whole thing's a romp, in which coherence is cast aside in favour of imagination. Oh and it's very funny in bits as well.
visit an excellent Fritz Leiber site
ARTISTIC MERIT: 3/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5