Can the award-winning science fiction novels of the past actually still be worth reading several decades later? Do they have messages, technology, and characters that are pertinent in modern society? Have I just been reading rehashed versions of past award-winners? There's only one way to find out...
read and review the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning novels.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Wanderer, by Fritz Leiber

The Wanderer, by Fritz Leiber, was the 1965 recipient of the Hugo Award for best novel. If you'll recall, this was his second novel to win the prize (and I didn't like the first one, The Big Time, at all).

The Wanderer is set on Earth in the mid-1960s, and is a fairly standard natural disaster story. The natural disaster, in this case, is caused by unnatural means; however, for most of the book's characters this matters little or not at all as they deal with the repercussions on a small, localized scale. As in The Big Time, Leiber's characters are rather two-dimensional--we get snapshots of their personalities and how they react to the expanding global disaster, but for the most part they're described mainly in terms of the cliche they represent: hipster, druggie, scientist, astronaut, treasure-hunter, etc. (for the record, there are WAY too many characters to make this book an easy read). Leiber also continues to play with language in this book, which at times becomes a tad cumbersome. Occasionally, this word-play brings something unique to a scene, such as an 11th-hour sex scene described mostly in terms of the characters' surroundings.

Leiber name-drops several classic science fiction writers, including Heinlein, H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, E.R. Burroughs, and Doc Smith. Several of his characters work in snide critiques of the genre, which I enjoyed. "Science fiction is as trivial as all artistic forms that deal with phenomena rather than people" was one that seemed to be a statement against the all-action, no-character books that Leiber was trying hard not to write.

This book felt like the product of it's time, particularly the inhabitants of the Wanderer itself--"we Wild Ones, we Recalcitrants, we Untamed," whose government began to nibble at their freedoms millennia ago. They're the ultimate rebels, and like many fringe groups in the mid-60s, just want the government to leave them alone to do as they like. Interestingly, Leiber leaves the ultimate decision of whether they're the good guys or the bad guys up to the reader.

There were many things about this book that I found intriguing and fascinating, but in the end I felt that the general wordiness and the number of distinct character-threads made it difficult to read and follow. In my opinion it's better than many of the earlier Hugo winners, but it can't compete with most of the modern stuff I was reading at the same time. Rating: 3/5


  1. I think that's a pretty fair assessment. I kind of wondered what would have happened with an aggressive editor trimming the cast and maybe expanding on some of the more interesting stuff.