Bullet With His Name
by Fritz Leiber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1958

included in —
Day Dark, Night Bright

November 2004

Testing gifts

Fritz Leiber's science-fiction novelet "Bullet With His Name" falls in the long and fascinating tradition of testing gifts, loaded goodies tossed in our lap — which may be fortunate or unfortunate or even fatal, but usually surprising. As with information provided by oracles or prophets or other god-inspired sources, god-given gifts often have vague outlines (when studied), or sharp edges (when handled), or both.

The sufferings of Job in the Bible, and the Apple of Discord that leads to the Trojan War, are varieties of tests that the recipients might better have declined if they could; not to mention the many resulting victims of plague and war respectively. A. E. van Vogt's story "A Can of Paint" (1944) is a more light-hearted example, but their name is Legion.

Leiber's gifts are given to one ordinary man in contemporary Chicago as an extra-terrestrial test of humanity. The two smallest testing gifts from the surveying aliens are physical items, samples really, but quite impressive in themselves. You've read about just such inventions from time to time, but the news turned out to have been hoaxes or wishful thinking. The other several gifts could be called talents or powers, and they are doozies.

One aspect of many such testing gifts is that the recipient has no idea how to use them; or what they are good for, or bad for; or even (in this case), that he is being "gifted" at all. Quite a challenge.

The dramaturge tweaks the curtain

Fritz Leiber often playfully includes side-windows or loose-ends in his creations, so even single stories more tightly plotted than his sprawling Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series may leave you entirely satisfied — but still looking askance at something that doesn't resolve.

The author writes himself a bit part in "Bullet With His Name", just a couple of paragraphs where he claims to be the narrator. Most unusually, this self-introduction is in the middle of the story. Still more oddly, if taken at face value, this tweaks aside a stage curtain that momentarily flashes an even grander spacetime than the story ever shows us.

A speculation on titles

Why this title? A bullet with his name (or no bullet ...) is a standard soldiers' phrase, reflecting the fatalistic and almost necessary presumption that in battle there is, or is not, a bullet predestined for you. So don't agonize over your chances of survival, just get on with your task. Leiber's testing gifts given to the main character could have been given to some other representative fellow; he is a conscript rather than an adventurer-hero deliberately attempting to climb a glass mountain, wager with God or Devil, or anything like that.

Here's a little speculation on titles and creativity. My memory tends to confuse "Bullet With His Name" with Leiber's short story "Try and Change the Past". The latter is in his Change War series, first appearing in Astounding Science Fiction, March 1958 — almost simultaneously as monthly magazines go. The phrase bullet with his name fits "Try and Change the Past" perfectly, quite as well as that story's own title. On the other hand, the bullet (if we want to call it that) need not have been written into "Bullet With His Name" at all, but seems crafted to justify the title; other developments might have served as well.

Read both stories and see if you don't agree. I suspect that Leiber's bubbling inventiveness came up with two stories out of that one phrase, or one story that in the course of development fissioned neatly into two.

That shorter and simpler Change War sibling, "Try and Change the Past", has been much reprinted; but the standalone "Bullet With His Name" seems to be underrated. It's been anthologized only once that I can discover, by Groff Conklin in Worlds of When (1962); and only recently included in any Fritz Leiber collection: Day Dark, Night Bright (2002).

"Bullet With His Name" is a fine example of the testing gifts type; and aren't we all so gifted and tested?


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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