A Specter is Haunting Texas by Fritz Leiber, © 1968, hardback, Walker and Co.
This is the 36th in my series of Forgotten Books.
Well, it has been a long time since I read this beauty. That late 60’s timeframe produced some wonderful novels and some adventuresome storytelling. I remember the summer I read this novel I also read STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner, ISLE OF THE DEAD and LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazny, and NOVA by Samuel R. Delany. I have re-read the others and it was now time to get back to the Leiber.
Fritz Leiber enjoyed a long, well respected career, starting in the 30’s and continuing up until the 1980’s. He wrote some amazing masterpieces. Novels such as GATHER, DARKNESS, CONJURE WIFE, THE BIG TIME, and OUR LADY OF DARKNESS and short fiction like “Catch That Zeppelin”, “A Deskful of Girls”, “Smoke Ghost”. “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”, “Lean Times in Lankhmar”, “A Pail of Air”, “Gonna Roll the Bones” and more showed him to be a master at either length.
As Todd Mason pointed out in last week’s Forgotten Book comments, Leiber created Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in the 30’s and revisited the pair in each subsequent decade. The early stories and the later stories read well side by side.
A SPECTER IS HAUNTING TEXAS (ASIHT) is a fascinating novel combining several areas of Leiber’s personal interests. First published in the tumultuous period of 1968, it is a novel of civil rights, of revolution, of acting and the Arts, of free love, and politics.
Our hero (the titled Specter) is a young, “Thin” actor named Christopher Crockett LaCruz, nicknamed” Scully” due to the skeletal appearance he presents in his titanium exoskeleton. He is from a small place known as “the Sack” which is in orbit near the moon. He has lived there all his life and while he is nearly nine feet tall he weighs less than 100 pounds (minus the exoskeleton). Earth gravity is more than six times what he is used to and he needs the exoskeleton to perform any function.
Scully has come to Earth to research a mining claim of his parents. Unfortunately, rather than landing in Yellowknife ion Canada, he is transported to Dallas, Texas, Texas. Following the nuclear war, Texas has become the dominate western power covering 90% of North and South America, missing only parts of California and far northern Canada. Texas being the great area that it is demands “greater Texans”. So, by means of a growth hormone, the wealthy and powerful Texans now measure 8 feet tall. The Mexican serfs that serve them are all four and half feet tall. Scully comes from a very liberal background in the Sack which was initially settled by longhairs and other undesirables. He is upset by the injustices he sees in the treatment of (insert whatever ethnic slur you wish here). Here he meets the lovely Rosa Morales (“La Cucaracha” or Kooch).
He also meets the ruling Texas class with names like Elmo Oilfield Earp or Governor Cotton Bowie Lamar and his daughter Rachel Vachel. Crockett is attempting to get rights to a pitchblende mine while others are trying to use him for their own purposes. Following a fight at the President’s mansion, Scully awakens to find himself set out naked on the lawn. With no developed muscles and no exoskeleton, he is nearly done in by this treatment.
But he does escape and, with the help of Rose and Rachel, he finds himself a lead player in the new Mexican revolution. He is the specter of Death inciting the serfs to riot against their oppressive overlords. It is an acting gig but he has strong feelings toward the Mexicans. He also is interested in both the women but they never seem to allow him to be alone with either of them. Gradually they try to bring about the rebellion while they journey to Yellowknife so he can finish his transaction and return to the Sack before permanent damage is done to his body.
It is a relatively short novel, even though it was initially serialized in three parts in Galaxy Magazine. My little old book club hardback ran to just 250 pages. But while it is a fascinating book, there are some troubles. I have been a Texan for nearly 50 years and my wife has never lived anywhere else. The Texans here are painted with a very broad satiric brush and it is hard to go with that image. The ethnicity issues and the liberal use of the various slurs to denote Mexicans, African Americans, liberals, and whatever other group that displeases them is one thing that makes the book somewhat off putting.
But, in the time context, this was serious business. When this novel was being written, the Civil Rights Act was still new, Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, and Cesar Chavez was looking at the lettuce fields and migrant workers in California. George Wallace had blocked the entry into Alabama universities by black students just a couple of years earlier. The world was in upheaval and Leiber obviously wanted to address some of those issues through the satiric means of science fiction and broad farce.
It is a little jarring now, more so than when I read it 40 years ago. But I enjoyed it a lot then and still did now. It is a book that has had a number of editions over the years so it should not be too hard to find a reasonable copy on line or in your used bookstores
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.