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.