The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber

I really enjoy Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stuff, but I haven’t read much of his science fiction. I picked this up thinking a Hugo winner would probably be the best place to start. Unfortunately, I was severely disappointed.

An advertising blurb inside the front cover makes it appear that this was one of the first sf stories to concern itself with “real people”, the “Joe Dokes, the oddballs, the neurotics”, et cetera. The book is constructed as a set of parallel stories of various people around the USA and the world, reacting to the appearance of a new gaudily-colored planet that suddenly appears in orbit around the earth. But these parallel stories don’t interact, and very few of them move the story along by revealing anything about the mysterious planet. In the end, a couple of characters get transport to the new planet and everything is explained to them, but none of the others get any opportunity to learn anything significant about the new planet. One major storyline, with a group of vagabond UFO-watchers trying to locate a scientist with the US Space Service peters out without contributing anything to our understanding of the planetary intruder.

It may be that the scientific mystery is not the point of the book, and that we should focus on the character vignettes and personal stories instead. But I also had trouble feeling sympathetically toward any of the characters, probably because their 1960’s viewpoint is simply too foreign to me now. So the story really didn’t engage me from this angle either.

It may be that the multi-viewpoint story structure was truly new in sf in 1964, and that’s what the Hugo voters responded to. Or it could be that the field was weak: the other finalists were Brunner’s The Whole Man, Pangborn’s Davy, and Cordwainer Smith’s The Planet Buyer, none of which are much remembered today. Today the book doesn’t seem to have much more than historical interest.

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