The novel “The Sinful Ones” by Fritz Leiber was published for the first time in 1953. Its protagonist Carr Mackay lives a very normal life until one day he meets a girl who looks upset and asks him strange questions. All of this happens in a few minutes and initially he dismisses the event but then he begins to feel increasingly estranged from his daily routine.
Mackay soon meets other people who behave in strange ways and some of them seem to keep an eye on him. Seeing the mysterious girl again he begins to discover a reality that seems disjointed from the usual one and the more he gets involved the more he gets confused. What’s going on?
“The Sinful Ones” is the third Fritz Leiber’s novel. During his career the author has proved he wasn’t tied to a specific genre and this novel proves it: is it science fiction? Fantasy? Supernatural? Maybe labelling it would mean limiting it forcing it within some arbitrary borders.
The basic concept of “The Sinful Ones” is that the universe is a kind of machine in which every object is a gear that moves in a certain way. Even living beings are actually moving at a preset pace, as if they were marionettes controlled by a machine. Some creatures however escape from this mechanism but the others don’t realize it and go on with their lives ignoring any event not preset by the mechanism that controls them.
The protagonist of the novel escapes from the mechanism when he meets a girl who already did it but he has to deal with other people who take advantage of that type of situation living as parasites to the majority of the people. From this point of view the author is a pessimist because in the novel most people who reach self-awareness start taking what they want knowing that those who live as puppets will continue to behave as if nothing had happened.
According to Fritz Leiber people really self-aware usually end up in small groups forming a sort of reign over their territory and the various bands can end up clashing with each other to strengthen their petty power. When Mackay is discovered by a local band he’s immediately perceived as an enemy even if he just wants to be left alone so he and his new friend are forced into hiding to save their lives.
Writing “The Sinful Ones” was quite an adventure that went on for decades. Fritz Leiber had started writing it during the Second World War but the magazine Unknown, to which he wanted to sell it, had ceased publication because of paper shortage. It was only after the end of the war that Leiber completed the novel making it longer in hope that one of the publishers who had started publishing books of that genre would buy it.
After some time Fritz Leiber sold a shorter version of the novel titled “You’re all alone” to the magazine Fantastic Adventures. It was only in 1953 that Leiber could sell the longer version but the publisher made some changes making some scenes more erotic. Many years later Leiber bought back the rights to his own novel, made a further revision and was able to publish the final version.
The story a bit chaotic of the novel had its negative effects. For example Leiber has shown in his career that he could develop the characters of his novels very well, instead in “The Sinful Ones” they leave something to be desired.
The protagonist Carr Mackay takes a long time to realize that something strange is going on and after a while he looks stupid. Perhaps in the short version of the novel it may work but in the long version Mackay’s understanding of the events takes too long. It’s true that having a shocked protagonist with his problems in realizing what’s happening to him in the face of exceptional circumstances is a mechanism to maintain tension in the reader but personally I find it annoying when it goes on too long.
In the novel there’s also the topic of solipsism with Mackay wondering whether other people are actually alive or they’re just a projection of his own mind. This concept however isn’t really developed and in the end it seems to be put there just because Fritz Leiber wanted to add some philosophy.
The villains of the novel aren’t developed and in the end their monodimensionality makes them seem not more awake than the people who live as puppets they take advantage of.
We’ll never know what would have been the result if Fritz Leiber had had the chance to write “The Sinful Ones” without interruptions and without others messing with it. The short version titled “You’re all alone” is certainly more faithful to his original idea while the long one is the work of Leiber which had the greatest misfortune. However it contains an interesting basic concept and especially if you’re a Leiber’s fan it’s worth reading it.