I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. We’re checking in with Fritz Leiber again, though he’s letting us stay on Earth this time. Please keep all hands and legs inside the vehicle as we enter our second decade of sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
published in 1964
A big purple-and-gold planet from outer space (though really, where else would a planet come from?) shows up in orbit next to the Moon. Across the globe, members of the human race struggle to fold this new planet into their worldviews even as the gravitational effects of the Wanderer kills thousands. Above all, they wonder: who belongs to this strange new planet? And what do they want with us?
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
(Side note regarding the cover of the edition I read: what the hell does that spaceship have to do with anything? It appears nowhere in the novel.)
Well, Fritz dear, once again I love the way you write and wish to strangle you for your female characters.
I swear, Leiber has one of the most insidiously awful cases of Perpetual Male Gaze I’ve ever seen. Because however perceptive they might be, however intelligent, at the end of the day, women are for teh sexytimes and only want teh sexytimes. Am I the only person who finds it really uncomfortable to read the works of a man who clearly has deep-seated issues with women? Is it just a girl thing? I haven’t noticed much of the reverse in what I’ve read – is that because, as a women, the thoughts of women who are annoyed at men are more natural to me? Or is it because misogyny is a thing and misandry isn’t?
Setting that aside, I really did like this book. Normally I don’t like disaster novels. I find them depressing and disheartening and frankly unsettling. I don’t really want to think about how unprepared I am for the apocalypse, thank you very much. But I enjoyed this one. Maybe it was because the Wanderer itself captivated me; plus, planets and spacetravel and whatnot are always so much more interesting than “electricity doesn’t work any more oh noes”. And, as always, Leiber has a great writing style. I loved all the literary allusions/romanticism/mysticism/hallucinatory musings (and I’m sure I missed half the references.) Probably my favorite? The fact that planet means ‘wanderer’, and the Wanderer is a wandering planet. I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.
Also awesome was the fact that Leiber took the time to think through the physical effects of the Wanderer’s presence so close to the Earth and then told us about them in terms of the mathematical relationships involved. Real science in science fiction – we need more of it! Granted, sometimes the math is included in a “I’m so much smarter than you” or “I want to make my story sound all official” way, but in Leiber’s case, as in the case of E.E. Smith and others, he’s telling us numbers and ratios and relations because he expects that we want to know. He’s not showing off or trying to prove himself; he’s relaying information. This is why I like hard science fiction: it respects the readers enough to assume that they are curious about and capable of understanding an explanation of the way the universe works. Now, if only somebody could write awesome hard SF without the misogyny…
Speaking of E.E.”Doc” Smith: love all the references to him. It’s sad that he’s so forgotten these days; even non-SF people have heard of Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury, but nobody remembers Doc. Admittedly his writing style is atrocious, but the Lensmen stories are still awesome, and he is the grandfather of science fiction. Hell, he practically invented the space opera.
The book does suffer from a few too many plot-lines. Some of the plots were wholly unnecessary and/or underdeveloped; better to have had fewer and given them the depth they deserved. I can’t decide if the gradual dropping-off of plot lines as characters died was masterful or stupid.
Mixed thoughts on the end as well. A little too sudden – but maybe that’s how it was supposed to be? I mean, the Wanderer’s visit to our Solar System is kind of like a car parking on top of an anthill – the ants are thrown into turmoil and chaos for a few days (hours), but then the interloper is gone again and life returns to normal, even with the damage done? It is kind of realistic.
Onwards to the social equality review!
Race: Le sigh. There are characters of other races – Blacks in the south, a Southeast Asian, some Brazilians, the odd weed-smoker of varying shades of brown. None of them feel as fleshed-out and real as the others though. And the main group is, por supeusto, all white.
Gender/Sexuality: Rather more women than usual, but the way they’re handled…FRITZ YOU IDIOT STAHP. I swear, Junot Diaz had Leiber in mind when he said, “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck.” Basically the only women who never have sex over the course of the book are the little girl and the middle-aged Black houskeeper. Highlights:
- The (man-hating, naturally) lesbian who has sex with a man because…because clearly when you’re about to drown with a guy you can’t stand and you aren’t attracted to, the only logical course of action is to have sex and try to orgasm at the moment of death?
- All the men want Margo, but Margo only ends up wanting the much older man (married with kids, by the way) who is mean and possessive and blatantly obvious about his objectification of her.
- Tigerishka, the alien humanoid cat who runs around naked. She does serve some purpose in the plot, but feels more like a wet dream than an actual character. I dislike female characters who exist solely to titillate the menfolk.
Leiber does flirt with polyamory at one point, with the relationship of Don/Paul/Margo, but of course it could never be realized, even though polygyny is totally okay.
Other: I didn’t notice anything in particular, though there’s definitely some fatphobia going on with the character of Wanda.
In the end, I really did enjoy the book for it’s excellent prose and literary themes, and the fact that it treated scientific realities as a matter of course. On the other hand, by the end of the book, I no longer had any respect for any of the characters except Miaow.
Did I mention Miaow is a cat?
OVERALL RANKING: 9 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).