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The Wanderer
Fritz Leiber
Victor Gollancz, 346 pages

The Wanderer
Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber was born in 1910 to parents who worked in the theatre. After studying psychology and physiology at the University of Chicago, he spent a year at a theological seminary. He worked as an editor for the Science Digest, and as an actor and drama teacher, before turning to writing. He is well known for his fantasy titles such as the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, Our Lady of Darkness, Conjure Wife, and "Gonna Roll the Bones," which appeared in Dangerous Visions and won both a Hugo and a Nebula. He is also the author of 1958 Hugo winner The Big Time, and other SF titles in the Change War series. Fritz Leiber died in 1992.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich
Fritz Leiber Tribute Site
Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar
Fritz Leiber Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Marc Goldstein

Perhaps best know for his sword & sorcery stories featuring Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, Fritz Leiber wrote successfully across a number of genres, including horror, fantasy, and science fiction. His epic SF disaster novel, The Wanderer, won Leiber the Hugo in 1965 (he also won in 1958 for The Big Time). Among the list of previous Hugo winners, The Wanderer stands out as one of the more obscure choices. While Leiber remains a well-regarded writer, his Hugo-winning novels have frequently fallen out of print. Gollancz publishers have recently recognized the importance of Leiber's magnum opus, and included it in their collection of classic SF reprints.

The plot kicks off when an artificial planet, quickly nicknamed the Wanderer, materializes from hyperspace within earth's orbit. The Wanderer's gravitational field captures the moon and shatters it into something like one of Saturn's rings. On earth, the Wanderer's gravity well triggers massive earthquakes, tsunamis, and tidal phenomena. The multi-threaded plot follows the exploits of a large ensemble cast as they struggle to survive the global disaster.

If you read The Wanderer with an eye toward the rich, sympathetic characterizations that distinguished Leiber's sword & sorcery efforts, you'll be disappointed. Many of the subplots, particularly those focusing on characters from disparate lands like South America, Europe and Asia, convey the global scale of the catastrophe, but otherwise don't seem to go anywhere. The episodes are just too brief for readers to develop any attachment to the characters. It's clear, however, that Leiber intended it this way. He seems to be borrowing pen pal H.P. Lovecraft's concept of a hostile cosmos populated with god-like aliens who are utterly indifferent to the plight of humankind. Leiber supports the story's thematic pessimism about humanity's role in the universe by intentionally avoiding characterization. Indeed, the actions of the human characters have little impact on the final outcome. Our lot is merely to try to survive the onslaught of forces beyond our ability to understand or control. The Wanderer is a story that must be read as existential horror.

With The Wanderer, some pundits give Leiber credit for laying the groundwork for the modern disaster story sub-genre. This is a somewhat dubious legacy, if taken at face value; it follows that The Wanderer not only prefigured excellent work like John Brunner's quartet of "awful warnings," but also made possible the glut of cheesy Irwin Allen movies from the 70s.

While some critics slammed The Wanderer for exhibiting more scope than depth, it went on to win a Hugo nonetheless. And it isn't difficult to see why The Wanderer took Hugo home. Leiber ingeniously blends genres, recasting the disaster tale within a science fiction context. Leiber's jaunty prose provides a sly, ironic (and welcome) counter-point to the grim proceedings (though the street lingo that he weaves into the narrative has grown dated). The Wanderer also demonstrates that Leiber was no mere science fiction dilettante. He displays a self-consciousness awareness of the genre's history and clichés, and clearly enjoys engaging scientific speculation and explication (however dubious the science, Leiber's enthusiasm remains infectious). Furthermore, The Wanderer ranks among Leiber's most ambitious works of art. Its reach extends beyond the merely global; rather, it encompasses a depiction of the civilized universe that recalls Olaf Stapleton's vast, intimidating cosmos. Leiber's pessimism about humanity's role in the universe adds to the novel's revolutionary luster, as it directly undermines the presumption of many golden age SF writers that the universe was just waiting passively for humans to colonize it.

Gratefully, the Gollancz reprint gives SF readers the opportunity to rediscover this lost classic for themselves.

Copyright © 2001 Marc Goldstein

Marc is the SF Site Games Editor and the principal contributor to the SF Site's Role Playing Department. Marc lives in Santa Ana, California with his wife, Sabrina and cat, Onion.

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