It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel SO BORED AND ANGRY. If Fritz Leiber's 1965 Hugo winner proves anything, it's that the award isn't a stamp of guaranteed quality.
I'm not quite sure where to start with this one, because after I finally finished The Wanderer, late last night, I dug around online for a couple of seconds and found two other reviews of it — this mostly positive one by Marc Goldstein, and one by Sam Jordison headlined "Why on earth did Fritz Leiber win the Hugo?" that more or less mirrored my own feelings — which, combined, summed up most of the obvious points I could make about the book. Note that there are spoilers in both reviews, and that there will be here, too. (Usually I try to avoid them, but doing so here will not make this book any better, I promise.)
The Wanderer is about a mysterious planet that appears in Earth's night sky, and the devastating effects it has on our world: Most notably, its gravitational field wreaks havoc with our tides, leading to earthquakes and tsunamis and floods. Oh, and also the moon gets destroyed. The point of view jumps around the globe and onto the mystery planet itself, watching how numerous characters deal with this 2012-style catastrophe and ultimately also explaining what the Wanderer (that is what the planet is called) is and why it popped into our solar system. SOUNDS PROMISING, NO?
God bless Fritz Leiber — let me just get the obligatory mention of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and my love for them, out of the way — but this is an awful novel. One reason I took on this column as a biweekly effort is that I read fast, especially when I'm reading fiction, meaning I can tear through your average Hugo winner in a matter of days. Then I can put off actually writing about it until a few hours before it's due.
But this one was a slog starting about five pages in, principally because (1) not a single one of the dozens of characters is compelling, and (2) Leiber felt it necessary to include oodles of text that serve no purpose and that any editor worth their salt would have taken a chain saw to. For instance, in Chapter 29, it's revealed, by way of the omniscient narrator, that one couple traveling with the band of UFO aficionados who are the story's main characters ("the saucer students" — oh, should you decide to read The Wanderer, you too will come to hate those three words as much as I have) isn't actually married. That is the sort of thing that would be interesting to learn about a seemingly married couple if it had any bearing whatsoever on the rest of the book. But before you learn they're not married, you have no reason to think it might be the case; and after you find out, it never comes up again.
Oh, of course, there's room in a good novel for tidbits that don't serve to move the plot forward, but it feels like that sort of ornamentation constitutes a solid quarter of The Wanderer. Are the saucer students (oh, the fucking saucer students) trying to escape inland from the jeopardous California coastline? Then you will get a paragraph about one of them tripping over a couple of shovels, and how annoying it is. It doesn't happen when he's running from someone or in a hurry — he just happens to trip while walking.
And then there's the facile coincidences for Leiber's convenience. I'm not talking about how a pair of best friends happen to be the two characters who independently end up on the Wanderer together — that is the sort of storytelling device that we can suspend our disbelief over. I'm talking about how, all over the Earth (and on the moon!), characters independently start calling the new planet "the Wanderer," not because the news media are calling it that, but because that is the name they settle on of their own accord. And yeah, yeah, yeah — I know the word "planet" literally means "wanderer" and that is the point; it still strains credulity. As does the saucer students' totally random discussion of how a planet might be able to just appear out of hyperspace literally moments before a planet just appears out of hyperspace. COME ON.
Leiber clearly set his sights high with this novel, and it's too bad his reach so tremendously exceeded his grasp, because buried deep amid all the dirt are a few diamonds. When we find out what the Wanderer is and why it has come, it's definitely a reveal worth building up to — it's just that this particular build-up has been so long and seemingly pointless, and required us to spend so much time with so many annoying people. (Imagine Lost, just as it is, except everyone in the story is Kate.) And inspired by E.E. Smith's Lensmen books and Olaf Stapledon's The Star Maker, Leiber's description of a highly advanced interstellar civilization, where overpopulated artificial planets are themselves crowded densely around stars, is vivid and fascinating.
(Although it's kind of silly, too. Let's be honest: The time-honored convention of interplanetary civilizations just needs to die. Because it doesn't matter how advanced your technology is — you can't even get one planetful of people on the same page. Or maybe you could for a short time, after a Watchmen squid–type event or first contact with the Vulcans, but in pretty short order, those billions of people are going to start having different opinions, as will the billions of people on the other planets they're supposedly allied with. I will grant that you could have a set of seemingly united world governments working together or even combined into one regime — but they're going to spend a good chunk of time dealing with insurgent countries, or insurgent factions within member countries, and you're going to have other, less official interworld alliances springing up, too. This is an aside — that's why it's in parentheses — but my point is: Interplanetary civilization will be exponentially more complex than single-world civilization, not just bigger.)
I kept trying to eke more out of The Wanderer than I believe was there, because I was concerned I was missing something. Like, I only watched Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! once, on video, more than ten years ago, but I came away pretty convinced that, as stupid and pointless as the movie seemed at times, there was a rather existential message there about the inevitability of death. I thought maybe something similar was going on here, but then the saucer students (GOD) see everything wrapped up neatly and more or less happily in the end. I thought maybe there was some sort of pre–Earth Day environmental theme, because aboard the Wanderer are aliens who look like humanoid varieties of all the Earth animals, from spiders to horses to amoebas (except apes, of course — which, I mean, yeah, that makes sense), but apparently, it's just that aliens look like all Earth animals except us.
And I do not really buy the notion Goldstein puts forth in his review that Leiber was trying to do a Lovecraft thing here, about the indifference of the cosmos to humankind. For one, as Jordison notes, if Leiber doesn't want us to care about his characters at all, he spends an awful lot of copy on them; for two, ultimately the aliens do end up helping humanity, as best they can. (I do think I understand why on earth The Wanderer won the Hugo, though — if you look at the field for 1965, maybe it really was the best of the lot?)
It's interesting, if not surprising, that so far the quality of the Hugo winners has fairly closely corresponded to their place in the culture-memory. There is a reason Starship Troopers and A Canticle for Leibowitz are still familiar names today, and A Case of Conscience and Leiber's other winner, The Big Time, are not: The former two offer compelling plots, based on memorable ideas, featuring relatable characters and economical writing; the latter just don't.