Young People Read Old SFF

A Pail of Air

Fritz Leiber

Another first for this series: Fritz Leiber is the first author included in this series whom I have met—at a convention in London, Ontario shortly before his death in 1992.

Fritz Leiber had a long, varied career, from the mid-1930s to the early 1990s. His long list of awards includes the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, the World Fantasy Award, a who’s who of major awards. He worked in a wide variety of genres: sword and sorcery (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), modern fantasy (Conjure Wife), science fiction (The Big Time), Stapledonian-scale space opera (The Wanderer) and others. Despite this variety, I knew I would pick “A Pail of Air” for this series, specifically due to this passage:

"So I asked myself then," he said, "what's the use of going on? What's the use of dragging it out for a few years? Why prolong a doomed existence of hard work and cold and loneliness? The human race is done. The Earth is done. Why not give up, I asked myself—and all of a sudden I got the answer."
(...)
"Life's always been a business of working hard and fighting the cold," Pa was saying. "The earth's always been a lonely place, millions of miles from the next planet. And no matter how long the human race might have lived, the end would have come some night. Those things don't matter. What matters is that life is good. It has a lovely texture, like some rich cloth or fur, or the petals of flowers—you've seen pictures of those, but I can't describe how they feel—or the fire's glow. It makes everything else worthwhile. And that's as true for the last man as the first."

(...)"So right then and there," Pa went on, (...) "I told myself that I was going on as if we had all eternity ahead of us. I'd have children and teach them all I could. I'd get them to read books. I'd plan for the future, try to enlarge and seal the Nest. I'd do what I could to keep everything beautiful and growing. I'd keep alive my feeling of wonder even at the cold and the dark and the distant stars."

But will this resonate with younger people? Let’s find out!


The physics and geology of the story are hard to swallow, but are quickly forgotten when we consider the ridiculous way the Nest works. Spacesuits made of recycled plastic bottles and tape? Hacked together spacesuits that can deal not just with vacuum, but with trudging through oxygen snow at near 0K? We haven't even talked about the Nest itself yet, a blanket fort with an open chimney into vacuum and a pure oxygen atmosphere that it somehow holds onto. This just about the limit of what I'm willing to accept for the purposes of a story that is billed as science fiction. Even the disbelief of the other humans in actual pressure suits doesn't change the fact that it's just too far. Maybe if the Nest was pressurized, with airlocks, and the air needed no be cycled to remove the high CO2 air while Oxygen boiled out of the buckets. Maybe if the father's story included the many years the Earth could hold onto an atmosphere just through geothermal heating.

That's probably my biggest gripe with this story. It could've been written in a more believable way, and it wasn't. The science is just too wrong for me to enjoy it. Other than that, it's just a story of "we thought we were the last humans on Earth, turns out there are more."

—Jamie

The more I think about the story, the less I like it. When I finished, I thought I really enjoyed the story – I wanted to read more about the world, and the only thing that annoyed me about the story was the fact that the narrator is a kid, and stories narrated by kids are annoying. As I thought more, I realized that the other family members were kind of annoying too. The mother doesn't do much (although I appreciated the acknowledgement that at times she was the one who kept the family going), the sister is even less useful than the narrator, and at some points I honestly thought the post-apocalyptic world was just a crazy delusion that the father brainwashed his family into believing.

The world and backstory were interesting. After the story ended, I wanted to read more about the world, which tends to be my measure of a “good” story. And I definitely felt like I wanted to read more. But then I thought about it... do I? Other than the cool post-apocalyptic world, what did the story have going for it? The plot? It was fine, but not overly exciting. The characters? Not really. The ending? I didn't really feel like anything interesting happened at the end. Aside from my (completely illogical) belief that the whole story was one big delusion, there weren't really any twists or plot turns. So, was the story well-written? Maybe. Was it well-thought-out? I'm not sure...

Still WAY better than Asimov, though.

—Lisa

Has it aged well?

Yes. It creates a world separate from ours, but familiar enough to be relatable. Who knows how a lone family would act after 10+ years without human contact with anyone else? Hey, I feel weird socializing with other people after a few days at home – this is why studious students are generally weird pseudo-humans.

It’s a little frustrating that the mother and the sister are basically like pets. They’re just pure instinct. The boy describes them doing things, but they never have voices. Same with “the young lady”. All of the dialogue in the story comes from male characters, except for Ma’s line when they mention leaving, which is “But I wouldn’t know how to act there and I haven’t any clothes.”

I don’t know if the astrophysical aspects of the story are plausible. It’s like magical realism with probably implausible details. Sure, there’s such a thing as a dark matter star (?). And yes, elements would reverse-sublimate like that (?).

It reminds me of…

Science fiction books with good world-building. I kept thinking: okay, sure? This is how this boy thinks, and it makes sense to him. Like sci-fi hidden as fantasy, and the science is removed enough from current reality to make advanced science seem like magic.

The tone of the story reminded me of Oblivion (a 2013 movie). That may be an insult to this story, but it has the same sense of isolation. They’re in a pod separate from everyone else, thinking that there are no other humans left. Anyone other than the family is an alien.

Other Thoughts

The scientist father is evidently a person who is good at doing, not at teaching. The internal monologue of the ten-year-old boy has hazy vocabulary which is overly simplistic.

On the other hand, this benefits the story by making it long-lasting and more believable. It’s easy to suspend your disbelief when it’s a story from the mind of a child.

Okay, I looked up “pussy caffay” – apparently, it’s pousse café: a layered drink that’s not so popular these days. Side note: “pussy caffay” is a not a term you want to Google.

Conclusion/Rating out of 10

One of the better ones so far.

—Mel

I just can’t cope with the science in this story. They’re using blankets to protect themselves from vacuum? They’re breathing pure oxygen but they somehow haven’t turned their entire shelter into a raging inferno? I don’t even want to get into the whole black hole stealing the Earth and the atmosphere turning solid.

With suspension of disbelief thoroughly shattered, I find the rest of the story very lacking. Our survivalists are not-at-all-surprisingly not the only survivors on the planet. I mean, if you can survive in a blanket fort I’m pretty sure someone else somewhere will have figured this out somewhere, out of all the people on Earth. I get that they’ve been alone a long time, but assuming that they are solely responsible for the continuation of humanity seems overly self-important, not to mention impossible.

Having the parents called Ma and Pa just makes me think of the Little House on the Prairie series. It felt like the author was going for the American pioneer, self-sufficiency idea, up to and including them rejecting the initial offer of civilization on the grounds that they wouldn’t have anything to wear. I understand that they’re supposed to be overwhelmed by all the changes, but it just feels like I’m supposed to be admiring their ingenuity and independence, and that isn’t at all the kind of story that appeals to me.

I am very frustrated with the female characters in this story. Ma and Sis seem to exist only to be clingy, complain, and be overemotional. The nameless young woman that finds them is busy being objectified by the 10-year-old narrator. The last sentence about maybe she’ll wait for him to grow up made me very uncomfortable. An entire world that he never imagined existing just opened to him, but he’s going to focus on hoping this woman will wait for him to be twice his current age so he’s old enough for her? Ending the story with this line is a decision that makes me uncomfortable. It makes me think that the author felt this was a hopeful, forward looking ending, when to me it just came across as creepy.

I started off disliking this story for the bad science, and ended being angry about the treatment of the female characters. There’s really nothing here to recommend it.


—Mikayla