conceptual fiction
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
The Wanderer

by Fritz Leiber
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

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
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.

Related Stories
Fritz Leiber at 100
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

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-
.  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
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.  
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A Reading List
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

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The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

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Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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