The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber

TheWanderer1A predecessor to the disaster film genre, particularly the universally panned parody Disaster Movie (2008), where culturally-identifiable groups of people struggle, or amble, to survive against an uncontrollable, dangerous force. In the 1965 Hugo award-winning The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber introduces a sprawling cast of characters that spans the globe, while a UFP (unidentified flying planet) arrives in the sky and appears to consume the moon.

The shrewder souls thought: Publicity for a new horror film, or – aha—pretext for new demands on China and Russia. (ch. 14)

Every few years or so, some lazy publication like The Daily Mail or HuffPost will venture away from typical scare news tactics and post an article where some dingbat pseudoscientist forewarns the end of humanity due to X planet swinging round close enough to disrupt tides and shift tectonic plates. That’s usually followed by an influx of commentary from celebrity scientists with social media platforms to debunk the articles with, er, science, and the whole tumult dies down and people quit worrying about space-influenced catastrophes, and go back about their business of having barbecues and ignoring rapid glacial melting.

Playing with that astrology-inspired premise of celestial-influenced disaster, The Wanderer brings to mind those sensationalist warning stories and does it in a way that evokes the tongue-in-cheek drama of a National Lampoon-style take on the disaster film genre. It’s a fairly standard disaster plot, but with enough SFnal elements to evoke a few wondrous moments (e.g. rocketing through the middle of the moon as it splits in half), and with enough scientific elements to suggest that Leiber knows a thing or two about tidal forces and planetary distance. And if that doesn’t sell it, there’s also cat-person sex.

Science fiction is as trivial as all artistic forms that deal with phenomena rather than people. (ch. 1)

TheWanderer2Like The Big Time (1958), Leiber’s theatre background is present, primarily through characterization this time, where big personalities with names like Wolf Loner, Arab Jones, Barbara Katz, and Dai Davies maneuver within their own little microcosms while the macrocosm shifts and yields to greater forces. The personalities feel better designed for the stage: outrageous, two-dimensional, more stereotyped than nuanced. In The Big Time, this technique is less offensive as he sculpts his performers into historical depictions of a Nazi, a Roman soldier, and a cigarette girl, but it fails for modern readers of The Wanderer, where Arab and Pepe are the stoners, and a millionaire called “KKK” cusses out his Black servants.

But with a cast of over twenty characters in a meager 300-page book, Leiber has no time for nuance. His aim is multiculturalism— a stodgy sixties version, sure— and it succeeds in globalizing the feel of the disaster. And, frankly, the characters are fun—unforgettable— particularly when the wild Sally and Jake climax at the top of a roller coaster during the arrival of the Wanderer, or when “KKK” wakes from his slow death long enough to admonish the local racists for threatening his Black servants.

All culture is but a sop to infant humanity. (ch. 1)

Most enjoyable, however, is Leiber’s eloquent remarks on life (“the majority and the nuts spend most of their time the same way: satisfying basic needs” ch. 15.), including his extended metaphor of tidal music (ch. 21) and his eye-winking tributes to science fiction (“Either his escorts had the inertia-less drive at which everyone but science-fiction writers scoffed” ch. 19). It’s in these moments that the substandard plot comes alive as a conscious tribute to the genre, rather than just a mediocre space spin on the disaster novel.

Certainty’s a luxury. If you say things with gusto and color, at least you’re an individual. (ch. 15). — Gusto and color, that’s so Leiber.

TheWanderer3An unpopular Hugo winner among modern readers, I feel like this is a misunderstood book. It shows its age, but I don’t think modern readers can enjoy or even appreciate Fritz Leiber’s fiction without first recognizing Leiber’s theatre background as a major presence in his work. When viewed from a theatre perspective, elements of parody and shtick arise where most might misinterpret substandard cliché. Combine that with his penchant for eloquence and heavy sci-fi elements, and its early arrival to the disaster sub-genre, The Wanderer is a worthy classic in the field.

Really, science fiction was corrupting people everywhere. (ch. 12)

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21 thoughts on “The Wanderer (1964) by Fritz Leiber

  1. and go back about their business of having barbecues and ignoring rapid glacial melting.
    Keep calm and keep grilling.

    I snagged this one when it was on sale (#duh #ebookdeal), and your review makes me very glad that I did. Sounds awesome, and I’d put it near the top of my TBR pile except that my TBR pile has acquired sentience and re-arranges itself every few hours.

    I didn’t know it was getting dissed by modern Hugo readers, but Leiber isn’t as en vogue as he should be… and yes, to read most of his works, you have to click with his theater background and oddball sense of humor. (He could write serious SF, I swear!)

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Grill golem. Wait, that doesn’t go here. Rabi’s Iron Council post got me started on that again.

      Your TBR pile sounds like a new VanderMeer book. Do you feel a brightness when you touch it? Does it scribble graffiti on your walls when you aren’t looking?

      In a barely committed, passing google, I noticed a lot of negative sounding reviews, even in some prominent places. Modern readers aren’t satisfied, but I was entertained. There are better Hugo winners, but it’s not the worst. (Because we know the worst, ahem, Scattered Bodies, ahem.)

      Serious SF from Leiber? Do go over to DialHForHouston.wordpress.com and check out the review of the nineties collection of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. It sounds super messed up.

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      • Do go over to DialHForHouston.wordpress.com and check out the review of the nineties collection of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.
        Nineties? It’s The Knight and Knave of Swords, isn’t it.

        *checks*

        *sighs*

        See, I actually like Fafhrd and the Mouser—not sure it’s your speed, effectively sword-and-sorcery noir more concerned with rapier-swift wordplay and baroque imagery than, y’know. plot and character and stuff. But there’s two stories I just couldn’t get into: the one where Leiber dropped them into real-Earth’s Middle East’s Middle Ages, because reasons, and Knight and Knave of Swords, where the series gained dementia and devolved into incoherent slobbering with the occasional wheeze of the previous stories’ strengths.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I read the one Fafhrd and Mouser tale in that Nebula Stories Six collection that Joachim adored so much. It was the only story I didn’t finish. My eyes glazed over and then I started organizing my desk drawer.

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  2. […] the Couch to the Moon has put up her review of Fritz Leiber’s The […]

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  3. marzaat says:

    In honor of your review, I dragged my old review of the novel and posted it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Loved it! A different point of view but with similar observations. Also includes a mention of a talk (A TALK!) with Larry Niven about LUCIFER’S HAMMER.

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      • marzaat says:

        Talk may be too much conferring too much on a five minute chat with him before he appeared on a panel at a convention.

        We did talk about Leiber, though.

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  4. “Really, science fiction was corrupting people everywhere.”

    Amen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. unsubscriber says:

    Three great covers there too! All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yep! Hugo winners tend to have a better variety of covers to choose from.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Joseph Nebus says:

      Oh, my copy’s got a different cover, though goodness knows what it would take to find my copy. But mine’s a more solid orange.

      I do remember feeling like I enjoyed much of the book yet somehow it disappointed. I’m not sure just why.

      James Blish (as William Atheling) called out the book on world-building laziness, though, pointing out that all the SFnal devices are props taken from other SFnal stories, rather than Leiber’s original creation. There’s a certain secondhand nature to the props. But that might have been Leiber’s intention, too, to make something that pulled together the pieces of stuff he happened to find into a new story.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Secondhand nature is a good word for it, although I attributed it to the theatre feel, but I’m also not familiar with the stories he borrowed from. I’d love to see Blish’s criticism.

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  6. marzaat says:

    Though the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser was the first Leiber I came across (in one of those Flashing Swords anthologies from the 1979s), I didn’t much like it, and I have to say I haven’t liked various installments I’ve come across through the decades.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I’ve read one Fafhrd and Gray Mouser short and I’ve never been so bored. Summaries I’ve read about other F&GM tales sounds just as uninteresting.

      Although I am curious about Leiber’s collaborations on this series with Joanna Russ and her Alyx character.

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  7. […] From Couch to the Moon and I have been talking about Fritz Leiber‘s The Wanderer, I thought I’d continue with […]

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  8. […] elements revitalize the stilted disaster novel tropes of Fritz Leiber’s 1964 Hugo-winner The Wanderer? (It’s Leiber, so why […]

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  9. […] if you’re looking for disaster fic, I recommend Fritz Leiber’s 1964 The Wanderer for a more entertaining depiction of shallow, provocative characters running around in […]

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  10. […] to be fully appreciated, but it’s more impressive than the fun, but schticky disaster novel, The Wanderer. Brunner’s The Whole Man might have been a tad more interesting if I hadn’t already […]

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  11. […] Big Time (1958) stands out for its unique, surreal structure. The Wanderer (1964) is silly fun. (And “Gonna Roll The Bones” (1967) took the long, uncomfortable […]

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