The novel “The Silver Eggheads” by Fritz Leiber was published for the first time in 1963. It was originally a novella that appeared in the “Magazine of Fantasy & SF” in January 1959 and was expanded later.
In the future, writers just provide the basic ideas to wordmills, machines created to materially write novels. Writers just show off to their fans adopting ways and looks precisely defined in their contracts.
One day writers rebel against their situation and destroy all wordmills but when they try to write something like their colleagues in the past used to they realize they can’t do it. Panic breaks out among publishers, but one of them has an ace up his sleeve: the silver eggheads.
“The Silver Eggheads” is a satire of the publishing industry but also about the way in which masses use books as a consumer products. When the novel came out it received a not very warm welcome because everyone felt targeted so today it’s one of the least known works by Fritz Leiber.
Actually Fritz Leiber’s satire isn’t very subtle but in some ways it seems to have been prophetic. In fact over the decades we’ve seen several examples in the field of science fiction of writers unhappy with the management of publishing in which books are treated as industrial mass products. In the ’70s Robert Silverberg had even announced his retirement for this reason even though luckily he changed his mind. In the ’80s Greg Bear expressed his impatience with a publishing market that made business decisions that privileged products of limited quality and originality but easily readable to more sophisticated and imaginative works that obviously required a greater commitment from readers.
Today there are best-sellers created in managers reunions: we don’t have wordmills yet however publishers make market researches to know what kind of product is more likely to sell and what kind of advertising is more likely to get the interest of people who see it. It may happen that the best-selling books are simply trendy but their artistic content is limited. When an author becomes particularly famous anything he writes can be sold and you can only hope that the quality is at least decent. In all these cases a lot of people buy books because they’re treny and maybe they don’t even read them: they simply put them on display to show that they bought them.
If we expand the topic to other media “The Silver Eggheads” seems even more prophetic. Think of the television shows based on trivial subjects to attract the general public: if results are bad the series just gets canceled after a few episodes. Think about the state of science fiction cinema, where many blockbusters are made of spectacular special effects that hide a minimal plot sometimes ripped off from some old story. Think of the actors who communicate with their fans through public relations experts. Think also of some tehcnological gadgets that many people buy because regardless of their quality they’re trendy.
Fritz Leiber’s satire isn’t subtle but it’s certainly rich, with many different characters including robots, which can have a gender and have their sex life. Actually characters aren’t very developed by Leiber’s standards but “The silver eggheads” is to be considered a comedy so this isn’t a problem.
“The Silver Eggheads” can still leave doubts regarding the way in which Fritz Leiber describes the publishing industry including readers but it can also be funny. Today it may not be easy to find an edition of this novel but if you find it it’s worth reading it.