Monday, November 12, 2007

Review - The Wanderer

The Wanderer
by Fritz Leiber
1965 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I guess I need to say that I don't hate Fritz Leiber. I didn't like The Big Time and as I'll make very clear in a few moments I didn't like The Wanderer, but I have enjoyed his short fiction. His Lankhmar stories are some of the short list of sword and sorcery fiction that I enjoy. And I disliked The Wanderer for a different reason than I disliked The Big Time.

The Wanderer is a forerunner of the disaster films that would become stylish about a decade after its publication. One night a psychedelic planet with roughly the mass of Earth appears just beyond the orbit of the moon and starts eating our natural satellite. Initially it appears in the sky as a purple and yellow yin yang symbol which should rather firmly establish that this book was written in the 1960's. Naturally this causes many bad things to happen as the tidal stresses pull on every fault line and cause massive flooding. The new planet is quickly nicknamed the Wanderer by the people trying to survive its arrival.

The book is a scattered set of survivor stories from around the world and these range from entertaining (the treasure hunters taking advantage of a very low tide to search for sunken ships) to tedious (the black girl trying to get a random rich old white man out of Florida before the state goes underwater) to just plain crazy (the "three interracial weed brothers" wandering the streets of New York in something that reads like a bad Cheech and Chong routine). Unfortunately tedious covers the bulk of them since most of their stories just have the characters standing around being stunned by the devastation rather than taking any kind of action. Most of the rest feature characters drawn only as broad stereotypes which just makes the story feel bland at those points.

One plot line is given the bulk of attention. An astronomer and wife of an astronaut decide to stop at a beach party for UFO enthusiasts on the night the Wanderer appears. Just after the new planet arrives the astronomer is abducted by one of the aliens for some kinky catgirl sex (welcome Google searchers, by the way) but the catgirl drops her alien superweapon in the process and this ragtag group attempts to survive and take it to the authorities.

The catgirl initially reads like a joke and when confronted by the astronomer she begins to act like a stereotypical superior alien patronizing the inferior humans. Initially this contradiction annoyed me but in one of the novels better moments the astronomer points out all of the exact same contradictions that bothered me. Turning the expectations over in this instance worked really well (and it makes all of us nerds feel better since we now know that calling catgirls out on their inconsistent behavior will lead directly to kinky catgirl sex)

One of the best things about The Wanderer is that Leiber clearly put some thought into how a new planetary body suddenly appearing would affect the earth. I think he overestimated how quickly the shift in ocean levels would occur (if my understanding is correct it would take at least several days for the tides to settle into their new rhythm while Leiber has it occur in a few hours) but he used it for dramatic effect. He makes it very clear that the Wanderer's arrival is a disaster that has cost millions of lives.

Where The Wanderer falls very flat is in the justification for this. After hundreds of pages of death and disaster around the world Leiber then attempts to build sympathy for the aliens living on the Wanderer and fails miserably. They make half-hearted attempts to save a handful of people, for example. They try to justify their destruction of the Earth and the moon by saying they're on the run from what is essentially the Interstellar Man ignoring the fact that if they needed a large rocky body our solar system is full of them away from the Earth (no one ever uses Callisto in science fiction; it wouldn't be missed). The beings on the Wanderer are callous, selfish, and destructive and because Leiber spends so much energy trying to justify their attempted genocide in the novel is brings down the whole thing.

I'd say that The Wanderer is about half of a good novel. Without the boring digressions to thin plot lines or flimsy justifications I would have liked it a lot more. The big idea is interesting but in the end I have to say that I don't think Leiber's writing was quite strong enough to overcome the flaws. The Wanderer just drifts around like its namesake and never quite manages to find its feet.