Saturday, August 25, 2012

1965: The Wanderer

              I don’t think I like Fritz Leiber’s work. At least not his science fiction work. Observant readers may remember that I reviewed Mr. Leiber’s 1958 Hugo Award winning novel The Big Time a little while ago. It wasn’t bad but it was hardly my favorite Hugo winner.  The novel was too long on ideas (inter-time war, rest stations outside the universe, Venusian satyrs, etc.) and too short on pages (129). The Wanderer, Leiber’s 1965 winner, is the exact opposite. It’s too long at 320 pages for its core idea. That and it just isn’t a very good book.
                Let’s start with the core concept: an Earth-sized planet appears suddenly in the sky (called the Wanderer by the people of Earth), havoc ensues, and people around the world react to it. At its core, this isn’t a bad concept. The havoc from the massive gravitational changes such as hurricanes and tidal waves make for a good backdrop. It all falls apart from there. The story is told from multiple perspectives, so many in fact that I can’t remember all of them and so randomly that often times when a plot thread was brought up I couldn’t remember anything about it. It did not help that most of these didn’t go anywhere. The story of Wolf Loner (not the last in a series of bad names used in this book) who is sailing across the Atlantic by himself is without a point. Same with the story of the atomic cruiser hijacked by revolutionaries. Nothing happens. There are too many threads that never weave into whole cloth.
                This would be more forgivable if the main characters and stories were more interesting. With few exception, both the stories and characters are uninteresting and ridiculous. The one exception was about Donald Merriam, an astronaut stuck on the moon when the Wanderer arrives. His escape through the Moon while it is being ripped apart is great. Leiber’s description of the events is excellent and filled with enough uncertainty to keep the reader guessing. Sadly, the other stories don’t fare as well. One of the main threads is the travels of the Saucer Symposium, a group of alien watchers and theorists, as they escape from a Southern California beach. Donald Merriam’s finance, Margo, and his friend, Paul, are part of that group. Not much comes of this plot either except for the group running into the typical post-disaster craziness, Margo cheating on her finance with a breaded married professor, and Paul getting abducted by some of the aliens that live on the Wanderer. We'll come back to the abduction in a moment. As the Saucer Symposium runs into homicidal soldiers and violent teens, I wondered if every post-apocalyptic story has to do this: show that people are violent animals if the veneer of civilization is stripped away. I see this all the time (zombie apocalypses always do this) and its getting old. Maybe it wasn’t as cliched in 1965 but it certainly seems that way now. Margo’s seduction by the professor seems less like a seduction than the acts of sexual predator. Creepy.
                There was promise after Paul is abducted but that plot doesn’t go well. I was excited because I wanted to see the aliens that lived on the Wanderer. Sadly, the aliens were a major disappointment. All of them are anamorphic animals. The alien that abducts Paul is a cat woman. It’s very lame. It doesn’t help that Paul describes her in very sexual terms making me wonder if Leiber was an early furry. I won’t even get started on the ridiculous of alien society and the purpose built planets surrounding stars as an egg covers a shell.
                Obviously, I was not a fan of The Wanderer. It was certainly not my least favorite Hugo Winner, it will take quite a lot to be worst then They’d Rather Be Right, but it is pretty low on the list. Fritz Leiber is one of the pioneers of Sword and Sorcery so maybe those are better. Next up is the first tied year in Hugo history. One is the science fiction classic Dune by Frank Herbert and the other is an obscure book called This Immortal by Roger Zelanzy. How do they stack up? Wait and find out.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

1964: The Way Station

                The Way Station (originally called Here Gather the Stars) by Clifford D. Simak was a pleasant and enjoyable yarn. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. The story of an American Civil War Veteran who manages an interstellar way station is well told and the characters especially Enoch Wallace, the previously mentioned veteran, are relatable characters. The Way Station was just nice to read.
                As I wrote those lines it felt like I was damning this book with faint praise but that really isn’t my intent. Simak’s The Way Station (also called Here Gather the Stars) does what a number of Hugo Award winners try to do and fail: tells a story with a message without bludgeoning the reader over the head with it. For perhaps the five of you that regularly read this blog, you may remember that the 1955 winner They’d Rather Be Right (or as I called it They’d Rather Be Preachy) is the most egregious offender in this regard though it is hardly alone. A Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein also had this problem, though Heinlein was a good writer so his mouth piece characters actually seemed like people (most of the time).  But Simak doesn’t do this. The Way Station deals with fear of nuclear holocaust, love over violence, and multi-species interaction without a gentler manner.
                As mentioned before, Enoch Wallace is an American Civil War veteran who manages an interstellar way station. The way station is in his Wisconsin boyhood home, which has been covered with an indestructible film to protect it from the elements and intruders. The building also slows down time meaning that Enoch has barely aged in 100 years. The way stations transmit the biological information of the various alien travelers and recreate them at each stop. When they leave, the body stays behind and the biological material is recycled to be used again. Enoch spends much of his time conversing with these travelers until they move on. The aliens are all unique and interesting. Many of them are not even close to human which is something I have always liked. Too much science fiction is Star Trek-like with their aliens: are just humans with pointy ears. When he is not visiting with the passing aliens, Enoch walks in the woods, reads, spends time with holographic friends, and plays in a simulated shooting gallery.
                For most of its length, The Way Station seems to be composed of somewhat unrelated subplots until coming together at the end. These plots include intrusions by a government agent, a deaf mute girl with strange powers, and a looming nuclear war which is causing concern among the galactic community that humans need dumbed down until they can be less violent. It all works together nicely with leisurely pace that makes for a nice relaxing read. It’s not to say that there are no stakes and that Simak doesn’t make them seem real because he does. Just the pace is so perfect that when events start to get serious I felt I knew the characters and the world so it all had more meaning.
                I especially liked the character of Enoch. Partially, I must admit, because he reminds me of me. He loves to meet knew new and different people (in this case aliens). He is voracious reader and cares about the world around himself even though he barely interacts with it. Enoch is not without his flaws though. To help combat loneliness, his house produces holographic friends to keep Enoch company. These friends are computer generated images of people he knew from his time before he became the keeper of the way station. One of them is a friend of his from the Civil War. The other is a woman, who is not one woman Enoch knew but a combination of three women. The parts with these always seemed saddest of the book as showed how isolated and alone Enoch is and how he yearns companionship. Over the course of the book, Enoch lets these two people go. I felt it was the right thing to do but I felt remorse for his loss.
                While the threat of nuclear war reminded me that the book was written in the 1960s, for the most part, The Way Station feels timeless and was an enjoyable story. I think I will have to check out more of Mr. Simik’s work.