The Night of the Long Knives
By Fritz Leiber
Dover Publications – July 2015
ISBN 9780486798011 – 112 Pages – Paperback
Originally published in a 1960’s issue of Amazing Science Fiction, this Fritz Leiber novella gets a nice thrifty paperback edition release from Dover Publications as part of their wonderful new Doomsday Classics series. If you are like me you’ll vastly prefer reading these as actual copies rather than poorly formatted digital versions.
I have limited experience with Leiber, so I was intrigued by this just as an excuse to read something by a classic, well-known name in SFF. And as a post-apocalyptic story it intrigued even more.
The post-apocalyptic field has become overcrowded, particularly with a boon in entries by mainstream authors who for whatever reason reject classification within the speculative or fantasy genres. In most cases I’ve been disappointed by these newer works because they fail to add anything significant to the corpus already built by genre and mainstream authors alike. Reading Leiber’s story I did not have this feeling at all. A part of me realized that this was written at a time before these stories were a dime a dozen. So to a degree I gave it grace. Still, I enjoyed the novella regardless of any thematic novelty because while familiar, Leiber writes it with remarkable skill, with elements neither overly complex nor simplified.
The Night of the Long Knives comes from an era full of post-apocalyptic imaginings: the Cold War. As typical throughout forms of media, disaster comes to the world via nuclear annihilation. The United States has been transformed into a waste, the Deathlands. Radiation-scarred survivals struggle for resources in competition and deep mistrust. Two drifters, Ray and Alice, meet upon the site of a crashed flying ship that has made an emergency landing in the barren wilderness. The two form a fragile alliance of mutual benefit faced with the opportunity before them: a possible way out of the Deathlands into one of the few pockets of civilization that may remain.
Along with the survivor of the crashed craft, this makes just three characters in a novella with a rather straight-forward plot. Leiber creates a journey for the reader with explorations of the character’s psychology, their words and actions. As with most post-apocalyptic fiction the key interest is how humans react to one another. The most frightening aspect of The Walking Dead is not the zombies, but what the characters – good or evil – are capable of. The most frightening aspect of The Night of the Long Knives is not the nuclear devastation, but the destroyed basic humanity, the impossibility of bonding. The most frightening aspect of the Cold War is not the nukes, but the nationalism of humans.
The dialogue in The Night of the Long Knives is particularly strong, making each of the characters into people that readers can relate to, at least in some significant, deep fashion. Leiber makes you feel the devastation, the hope and the despair in ways that Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series would later do in Epic Fantasy – or Stephen King of course would with his epic post-apocalyptic The Stand. The emotional and physical struggles of the characters in Leiber’s novella will probably not be anything surprising to a reader. Despite that general familiarity, Leiber’s words remain compelling and still relevant to our hearts over half a century after they were written.
Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.