Leiber’s The Big Time had been my second least favorite book so far in this project (though it was light-years better than the book that shall not be named), but at least it had interesting ideas, even if I didn’t enjoy the execution. So, would Leiber redeem himself in The Wanderer? Did he deserve the second Hugo he received in 1965?
The short answer: No.
The book revolves around what is actually a compelling and imaginative concept for a disaster story, and from about 30 to page 100, I was prepared to dub this a thrilling page-turner. One evening, a new planet appears next to the moon. Inhabitants around the Earth watch in awe. Then the new planet’s gravity hits: there are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and massive tidal waves that drown entire nations, all over the globe. Within a day, the moon cracks in half and gets gobbled up by this new planetary body that humans dub “The Wanderer.”
From there, things get weird. The Wanderer is actually a planet-sized spaceship, and soon flying saucers are picking up some of the main characters and taking them up for a chat. From this point on, the novel gets worse and worse.
Not that there aren’t problems right from the start. First of all, we’re definitely into the ‘60s now (although the presence of a moonbase suggests that this novel takes place a little bit later). Every ‘60s cliché is present, many of them executed with a disturbing awkwardness: horny and rebellious teenagers, black potheads from Harlem, New Age weirdos, Vietnam, a Latin American coup, a moon landing. It’s nice to have different perspectives on the novel’s wondrous and destructive events, but there are just too many, and most of them have no grounding or context. I can’t really tell you what was happening in the Vietnam scenes because frankly, I didn’t care. And, it would’ve been nice to have some characters who weren’t some sort of obvious stereotype.
The characters are the fundamental flaw here. Not only are they one-dimensional stereotypes, they never react with anything approaching verisimilitude. The dialog is awful. I said that The Big Time was all about Leiber establishing his characters’ voices, but that they felt too artificial. His dialog had gotten even worse by the time he was writing the Wanderer. People have very contrived conversations; the main characters are actually talking about the possibility of planet-sized spaceships cruising through hyperspace RIGHT BEFORE The Wanderer appears. Subtle way to sneak in some exposition there, Leiber.
I haven’t even gotten into the novel’s odd sexuality, including a bizarre and horribly awkward human-alien sex scene. The only people to whom I would ever recommend this novel are members of the furry community. I’ll just leave it at that.
By the time we learn that the inhabitants of the world destroying "Wanderer" are space bohemians just cruising about the galaxy to escape “the man,” I wanted to punch this book in the face.