The Wanderer, or Adventures in Reviewer Parallax


From the Couch to the Moon has put up her review of Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer.

In the interest of helping you make informed decisions about your choices in book bloggers, I’m posting my retro review, from September 9, 2010, of the same book.

I think she does have a point about Leiber’s “eye-winking tributes” to science fiction.

Larry Niven told me he’s fond of this novel.

Review: The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber, 1964.

Lucifer’s Hammer sort of set me up for disappointment with this novel. Both novels flip back and forth between a large cast of characters before and after a disaster that comes from the heavens. Both depict that destruction in full immersion 3-D, Dolby Digital IMAX glory. Both are pretty rigorous in their science at the beginning though this novel, due to its plot twists, ends up in space opera territory. Still, a story where the moon gets chewed up, millions die from tidal waves, and civilization starts to fray should be more entertaining than it turns out to be.

The characters are colorful enough, all met on the eve of a lunar eclipse. They include a group of “saucer students”, an American astronaut on a lunar base, a man sailing solo across the Atlantic, a has-been actor on a mission to bomb the Presidential Palace of Nicaragua, a sex-crazed couple in New York out to compose a musical, a couple of poets in the UK, a would-be treasure hunter off the seas of Vietnam, a captain ferrying fascists on an atomic-powered liner en route to a coup in Brazil, a science fiction fan who falls in with a dying millionaire, and a German scientist who absolutely will not accept any evidence of the apocalypse apart from his own instruments. The Black Dahlia killer just may put in an appearance too. They are all interesting, colorful, their segments generally at the right length.

The plot? After a lunar eclipse, another big object appears in the sky, the moon starts to get ripped apart, and massive tidal devastation – along with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes – is caused by that object. The first hundred pages mysteriously dragged for me, though. I think less ominous foreshadowing and anarchy and strife – at least on stage – than in the longer Lucifer’s Hammer explains my dissatisfaction.

However, the latter part of the novel introduces a new and surprising element very much in keeping with some of Leiber’s short fiction which sides with the dangerous and eccentric over an enforced safe, sane order of things. Aliens, cats, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and interspecies attraction all make an appearance too.

Read it for the characters and that last third and not for disaster porn.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

3 thoughts on “The Wanderer, or Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

  1. fromcouchtomoon June 8, 2015 / 9:58 pm

    “Adventures in Reviewer Parallax” Love it!

    Considering this was over a decade younger than Lucifer’s Hammer, and most of a decade before the onslaught of ’70s disaster movies, can we agree that The Wanderer is ahead of its time, aged as it may seem now, with Lucifer’s Hammer being derivative of that?

    Did Larry Niven told you he’s fond of this novel because it was part of the inspiration for Lucifer’s Hammer? Or do you two just shoot the breeze very often (and if you do, you should ignore my Niven posts. Probably better to just stop reading my blog altogether.)

    It seems like everyone is in agreement about the characters in The Wanderer. They are bigger than life, unforgettable, while the plot kind of goes all over the place. Still, I think the timing of this novel may have blown people away with it’s multi-character, multicultural collage on top of actual sciency-sounding disaster jargon. I get why it won the Hugo that year. And I did think it was fun, albeit unwieldy, read.

    • marzaat June 9, 2015 / 9:11 pm

      Well, in the five minutes or so we talked, we just talked about Leiber in general. We actually talked more about Leiber’s “A Pail of Air” though he did mention The Wanderer.

      Niven and Pournelle have mentioned many times that Lucifer’s Hammer was something of an accident. They were originally writing what became Footfall, but their editor told them to forget about the aliens and concentrate on the idea of a cometary impact. (The original plot of Footfall had the aliens targeting comets into Earth prior to invasion. To be honest, I don’t remember if the published version did or not even though I’ve read it.

      You bring up a good question of context. Sure, Wyndham and Christopher had done disaster novels, but no full on, long, multi-viewpoint, bestseller style disaster novels.

      People may have been wowed by that aspect of Leiber’s book at the time. Then, years later, post-Lucifer’s Hammer, it didn’t seem that great. In fact, it seemed kind of weird, in a bad, discordant sort of way, with the final third of the book. (Though I suspect cats in space contributed to that Hugo win.)

      And, as you pointed out, the science was worked out. (Leiber did edit Science Digest.) The Locus column he did for years was heavy on astronomy.

      And some readers seem to need extra help in recalibrating themselves to read older fiction whether it’s the outdated tech and science, changed mores, “failed” predictions, or that they’ve been exposed to the nth generation copy of an idea that was once fresh.

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