The Wanderer

by Fritz Leiber

Cover image

Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: February 1964
Printing: April 1976
ISBN: 0-345-24907-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 318

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Suddenly, silently, after a few early warnings seen only by astronomers and not understood, a new planet appears next to Earth's moon. It's strange yellow and purple face swirls as its gravity changes trigger earthquakes and eruptions, devastating tides, and the capture and destruction of the moon. People are stranded or killed all over the world and off it, one of the astronauts on the moon is drawn into the alien planet, and a small group of UFO enthusiasts struggle through the chaos on the California coast trying to find someone who can analyze what's happening.

This plot may sound familiar to an experienced SF reader, and indeed this is a standard SF disaster novel. It goes through the stock stages of prelude and warning, disaster, aftermath, and revelation (the story ending before rebuilding starts). Leiber uses a huge cast to try to give the reader a feeling for the scope of the disaster and skips between characters at a dizzying pace. In short, readers of novels like Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer or Footfall will be on familiar ground here. It would not surprise me at all to learn that this was an inspiration for that later work.

Some of the dialog and attitudes date this book, making it hard to forget it was written in the 1960s, but otherwise Leiber does a decent job at characterization. The quirky personalities and problems of a band of UFO watchers are a great way to pull the reader into the book. Unlike the stock macho military figures of Niven and Pournelle novels, these characters feel human. They're confused, scared, weird, and occasionally incompetent. They don't dramatically save the world; they spend most of their time trying to figure out what to do and only stumble across some answers by accident.

Unfortunately, The Wanderer is plagued with other problems, chief among them the huge cast. The UFO enthusiasts are only one of many narratives, and while they get a lot of screen time, they're sharing it with too many others. Leiber gives the reader some warning early in the first chapter when he lists off the names of his major characters, all sixteen of them (and he adds a few more later). Through the early part of the book, the narrative jumps between them all like a crazed cricket, sometimes as fast as every other paragraph, hurting characterization and leaving me confused as to who was being discussed despite reading most of this book in one sitting. Thankfully, Leiber kills off a fair percentage of the cast during the disaster phase of the plot, which helps the end of the book, but by that point much of the damage is done. The overall impression left is a disjointed one.

Another serious problem are the aliens and the explanation behind this rogue planet. Leiber captures some of the eerie otherness of UFOs at first, but he doesn't sustain it; one character has a weird out-of-body tour that almost works, but another meets a catwoman alien who's all too human and all too annoying. I got extremely tired of her constant "cats are better than monkeys" refrain, and she badly fails to be the extremely intelligent, superior being she's touted as. The explanation for the wandering planet, when it comes, receives very little depth. The book seems to be leading up to some deeper revelations and plot than just the simple work of survival in the wake of random disaster, but alas, the rest of the plot disappears in the end.

There is little reason to read this book other than interest in the history of the genre. Leiber's characterization is better than many other SF disaster books, but he still suffers from many of the same problems and has an additional lack of satisfying plot or believable aliens. I did like the homage to E.E. "Doc" Smith in the basic concept, and at times I felt some attachment to the main group of characters, but those weren't really enough to salvage the book. With half as many characters and more resolution, I would have enjoyed it more. As is, not recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-09-05

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21