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The Wanderer

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Leiber's second Hugo-winning novel is better than his first (The Big Time), but it has a host of its own problems, not the least of which are the stereotypes, both societal and gender specific, along with sexual situations he may have thought were bold and risqué, but in truth are lame and another instance of stereotypical gender roles. There are also sections that reflect the racial antagonisms of the times, with that word used several times. Unfortunately, certain segments of the current SF reading audience would accept all of these without complaint. The story takes too long getting to the good parts - there are several dazzlingly well-written passages - but in the end it is still a disappointing book, especially for an award winner.

There are a wide variety of characters spread out all over the globe, but the three main ones are two men and one woman who have been friends since high school, and all have a connection to the space program. Don Merriam is an astronaut, stationed on the Moon; his fiancé is Margo Gelhorn; Paul Hagbolt, who works in public relations for the space program, is Don's rival for her affections. Paul and Margo are together one night to observe a full lunar eclipse. She persuades him to attend a meeting of a local UFO group, and he relents only because he wants to be with her and wants her to be thinking of him rather than Don. Neither know anyone from the UFO group, so they make up nicknames for them; Doc, Beardy, The Little Man, Turban, Ramrod. We do later learn their real names, and most feature in part of the action throughout. What doesn't make sense, because it's written in third person, is that the majority of times they are still referred to by these nicknames, and it was hard for me to remember who was who the few times their real names were used.

Just as the eclipse is full, Earth is witness to the sudden, mysterious appearance of another celestial body near the moon. Is it an alien craft, or, since it seems as big as Earth, is it another planet? It is dubbed the Wanderer, since the word planet is derived from a Greek word with that meaning. It is later learned that it is a planet, but not a natural one, rather it was manufactured, so in essence it is a planet-sized starship. Throughout the book there are short sequences of other people and their experiences in observing the Wanderer and its effects. The Moon is fractured by the strong gravitational pull of the newcomer, and earthquakes, tsunamis and enormous tidal shifts wreak havoc on Earth. Merriam is able to escape the destruction of the Moon, but his craft is captured and brought inside the Wanderer. At about the same time, Hagbolt is teleported onto a small alien ship which has descended toward Earth. He had been holding Margo's cat, whom the cat-like alien falsely assumes is of the dominant species of our world. All of the action on Earth is repetitive, as people flee the rising tides and attempt to shelter from raging storms, dodge the quakes and the fires that ensue. It's a puzzle why he introduced so many other characters since we learn so little about them, and at least half drown or die from other causes. Even the major characters aren't developed completely, it's hard to care what happens to any of them.

The only satisfying sequences are of Don on the Wanderer and Paul in the alien ship. If he had developed this aspect of the story more and spent less time on insubstantial characters it would have been much better. The aliens are telepathic so they are able to communicate in English. Paul comes to know his abductor as Tigerishka, and she eventually explains why they are in the solar refuel. The Moon is being broken up and taken aboard as reaction mass for their hyperspace engines. Don is given a glimpse of the many species that inhabit the Wanderer, as well as the research they are conducting, but he's not sure if he actually experiences it or if it's just a dream or images telepathically transmitted to his brain. Likewise, Paul cannot be sure that what Tigerishka tells him of her culture is the truth or just a rationalization for their actions. Tigerishka's tale of their origins, of vast galactic communities of manufactured planets saturating the cosmos, reminded me of scenes from a Stapledon novel, and the interior of Wanderer evoked memories of Clarke. There is another element to the story, concerning the Wanderer and its plight, but I won't reveal that, but it also deserved more explication. Paul concludes that it isn't that the aliens were unaware Earth was inhabited and that their presence would cause damage, but that they just didn't care. Their own needs took prescedence.

The Wanderer is in the solar system for only two or three days, then it disappears just as mysteriously, yet its effects will last forever. What little is left of the Moon might eventually form a ring around Earth, or else burn up in the atmosphere. The rotation of the Earth has slowed some, but there's no way to know if that will continue or if it will settle into the new pattern. For sure, the tides will be less in the future, only being affected by the Sun. Millions, maybe billions, have died. Maybe things will be rebuilt and civilization will reassert itself. No way to know really, since the book ends abruptly. No resolution, never a sequel. Finish the story as it suits you. Or not, maybe don't read it at all. I don't think you'll miss it. If you do want to, I'd suggest finding a used copy somewhere. The current paperback through Amazon is overpriced in my opinion.


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Fritz Leiber



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