The sci-fi genre is not known for its experiments in narrative structure. And in the 1950s and 1960s, when the genre struggled to advance beyond its pulp fiction roots—under the influence of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, Robert Heinlein and others with grander ambitions for speculative fiction—few would have expected Fritz Leiber to play a role in the revitalization of the idiom. True, Leiber demanded respect for his skills as a storyteller, and the sheer excess of imagi- nation that he brought to his tales, but for most fans he rep- resented the old guard, not the new wave.
Yet Leiber, one of the least predictable literary figures of the century, shook things up with The Wanderer, which won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1965. In this expansive work, Leiber simultaneously advances fifteen sepa- rate plots—changing scenes every few paragraphs. The closest counterpart in the literary canon is Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a similarly fragmented novel published to much acclaim a generation later. But Leiber adopts an even more challenging blueprint than DeLillo, squeezing all fifteen of his dramas into the same two-day period, and maintaining a tight, sequential chronology even as he shifts rapidly from scene to scene.
Despite winning the coveted Hugo, The Wanderer has often been criticized in recent years—attacked by science fiction fans who are put off by this same intricate narrative structure. The complaints are the obvious ones: too many characters, too many plots, too much jumping around from setting to set- ting. To be sure, readers raised on Star Trek or Harry Potter will only be frustrated by the complexity and constraints at work here. But I look at Leiber’s ambitious novel as akin to Slaughterhouse Five, another novel with an unconventional structure—Vonnegut's narrative jumps around as his protago- nist Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time. The book bravely flouts the usual rules of sequential storytelling, and might well be judged a failure by the conventional standards of the genre. Sci-fi writing, after all, eschews elaborate formalist conceits— it is about content, not form, and any attempt to reverse that priority is bound to face heated opposition. For a cinematic example from this same period, consider Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also was roundly attacked because its plot incorporated what appeared to be jarring discontinuities (especially if the moviegoer hadn’t read Arthur C. Clarke’s novel). Yet any study of sci-fi’s rise from its origins as pulp fiction escapism needs to give due consideration to these very same works, which aimed to remove the generic from genre stories, and took chances with something other than technological concepts.
The Wanderer begins with the sudden appearance of a large planet-sized object in the vicinity of the Earth. This unex- pected intruder shows no obvious hostile intent, yet its mere presence is enough to set off cataclysmic events. Its gravitational pull is sufficient to draw the moon into its own orbit, but the effects on Earth are even more deadly. The new planet now begins to control the tides, with the potential for them to grow exponentially—perhaps as much as 80-fold— over their pre-vious levels. Earthquakes are set off, as our planet’s crust adjusts to the new gravitational forces at work. Fires, landslides and tsunamis add to the destruction. Radio communication is shut down, overwhelmed by the new planet’s magnetic fields, thus crippling efforts to respond to the various emergencies. Amidst the confusion, gangs and marauders begin taking matters into their own hands.
Leiber reveals considerable skills as a so-called “hard” sci-fi writer throughout this work, where he revels in physics, geology, astronomy, mathematics, oceanography and what- ever other discipline he requires to depict his crisis scenario in the most specific and convincing terms. It’s hard to believe, on the basis of this easy erudition, that Leiber originally gravitated to fantasy stories rather than science fiction be- cause he had doubts about his ability to write convincing tales in the latter genre. Not just the descriptive prose, but even much of the dialogue of The Wanderer revolves around scientific concepts—since many of the characters are engineers, researchers or technology experts, amateur or professional, and their conversations are often devoted to speculation or analysis ofthe impact of the new planetary body on Mother Earth.
Yet Leiber is, here as elsewhere in his oeuvre, a storyteller first and foremost. This novel is character-driven, and the technol- ogy rarely intrudes on the unfolding drama. Yes, aliens from another galaxy do make an appearance in these pages, but the most pressing threat to homo sapiens in this book come from those old standbys: earth, water and fire. A short sum- mary of the various ways characters interact with the elements in these pages is impossible—suffice it to say that Leiber covers the globe and beyond, above and below. His story- lines include a sailor attempting a solo crossing of the Atlantic, a couple on a date at Coney Island, a gun runner operating in the waters off of Vietnam, a drunk poet in Wales, a group of flying saucer fanatics in Southern California, a General and his staff in a secret military bunker, an astronaut at a manned station on the surface of the moon, Brazilian insurgents who have seized a large luxury liner, and many, many others.
Once Leiber is off and running, you can never predict where he will end. He is just as willing to kill off a major character, as to press forward to a happy ending. And every once in while he tries for something so outrageous, that the reader has to stop and marvel at the sheer audacity. What other author would try to solve the famous Black Dahlia murder case in the midst of a sci-fi novel? Only Fritz Leiber, it seems, as demonstrated in one of the stranger passages in The Wan- derer. And when he concocts a romance, it may well bridge an age gap of many decades or an evolutionary gap of many millennia. As a staunch Shakespearian—Leiber acted in Macbeth and King Lear—our author knows well that “the course of true love never did run smooth.” But it is especially challenging when your beloved looks like a cross between a tiger and a monkey. All that, however, is par for the course, in the odd, wide-ranging book.
No, not everything shines in this work. Leiber's wry humor and his witty dialogue—so prominent in his masterpieces "Adept's Gambit" and The Big Time—are delivered in the smallest doses. I suspect that the author saw this as a darker story than his other efforts, a massive novel of global disaster on the grandest of scales. Even when he works for laughs, the humor is overwhelmed by the destruction depicted. Yet without a doubt, this is Leiber's most ambitious undertaking, and a must read for those who hope to come to grips with this seminal figure in 20th century genre lit.