Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Wanderer (1965)

Subgenre: Hard scifi, disaster

Science fiction often has a shorter shelf life than most fiction, which is canonically explained away as us being very bad at predicting the future. After all, regular authors don't have to worry about having the entire basis for your story invalidated (Larry Niven's "The Coldest Place" is set on a tide-locked Mercury that doesn't exist), or having calculations show your inventions are astronomically unstable (Niven's "Ringworld") or having one of your crazy ideas becoming a punchline (Larry Niven's contributions to the Star Wars program). But it isn't these stories that have aged poorly - it's the "vintage sexism" of Star Trek miniskirts, and the racism of some of the Golden Age stories in which white scientists travel to different worlds - and battle the savages. Another perfect example of this is Fred Hoyle's novel The Black Cloud, which is compelling (though poorly written) - but so thoroughly stuck in 1950s gender roles that the primary responsibility of the female astrophysicist is to make tea for the real brains.

Books feel dated if they whole-heartedly accept and use the stereotypes of their era; there are lightyears separating 1956's The Stars My Destination and The Black Cloud, and it's because Bester writes real (if large-scale) characters and Hoyle doesn't.

I mention all of this, because I'm not entirely certain where on this spectrum Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer fits. On one hand, it has a real hard science fiction premise, capably executed - "What if an earth-sized planet suddenly appeared near the moon's orbit," and treats it squarely and honestly. Like Stand on Zanzibar, The Wanderer uses a broad cast of characters with disconnected stories, but it doesn't work as well here. Zanzibar uses the gimmick to show the breadth of its world, and to illustrate a society the reader doesn't know - but The Wanderer is trying to show how the 1960s United States (for the most part) would cope with a disaster. Unfortunately, most of the cast end up being stereotypes rather than individuals - the useless stoners, the loner in the ocean, the "loose" type, the gold-digger, and so on.

In fact, The Wanderer ends up as a fairly interesting portrait of the 1960s in its own right; watching as southerners try to hold to segregation even in the wake of massive devastation was particularly heartbreaking. I only wish that some of the side characters had been granted the same quality of characterization - the central group of UFO nuts (with the exception of the plain-vanilla protagonists) is weird in a very sincere, accurate way. Leiber gets the dynamic of outcast friendships right - mutual tolerance motivated by mutual interests and different talents - and it makes those characters stand out from the crowd.


  • Apparently, Leiber believes everything in life can be made better by inappropriate sex (inappropriate either in location, sexual orientation, or species). As a hint, this was the first cover a google search returned.
  • Great quote:
    They called the little moon-type rocket ships "Baba Yagas" because - Dufresne had first thought of it - they suggested the witch's hut on legs that ... runs about by night on those legs. It was rumored that the Soviet moonmen called their ships "Jeeps."

Hugo-worthy? I think so - this is classic hard sci-fi, and even though it doesn't approach the perfection of Rendezvous with Rama, and hasn't aged as well as some of its contemporaries, it's still a worthy title. B- (for today's readers)

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