Given that science fiction is so closely tied to publication in magazines, I shouldn't be surprised that the first paperback original to win the Hugo for Best Novel didn't come along until 1965. It's 'The Wanderer' by Fritz Leiber and it's the eleventh winner. It's also Leiber's second win, after 'The Big Time' in 1958.
Both his winning novels were new to me when reading for this project, though I'd read a lot of Leiber's short fiction and adore his Ffahrd and the Gray Mouser stories. 'The Big Time' seems to be remembered better today and 'The Wanderer' seems to have most negative criticism, but I think that I enjoyed 'The Wanderer' more, as sprawling and oddly focused as it is. Perhaps it's because it's such an unusual novel, not just for Leiber but for anyone.
The first unusual aspect is that it explores a situation through an ensemble cast who appear in clumps which, for the most part, don't meet at any point within the novel or interact in any way. Sure, two groups meet early on, but that's about it. Each of these characters are in the book to highlight how different (or how similar) their reactions will be to a common threat.
That threat is the title character, if it can be described as such. It's not a sentient being, but it does contain many of them. It's a planet, one built and populated by an advanced alien civilisation with science advanced enough that it builds planets from scratch, fills them (yes, inside) with uncounted people and congregates them around suns so densely that little light escapes to suggest to us that they might be there. As the word planet stems from a Greek word meaning "wanderer", that's what many people start calling it when it emerges suddenly out of hyperspace to dismantle the Moon for fuel.
Of course, a planet of a similar size to ours appearing as close as just the other side of the moon means that this is a disaster movie in prose. All the various characters in play struggle to survive the results of the Wanderer being so close. It triggers frequent earthquakes, prompts volcanoes to erupt and creates tides eighty times their usual size across the globe. As you can imagine, this wreaks utter havoc and the water in our oceans is hurled about to flood cities, carve out new seas and completely reshape our map, utterly uncaring about who and what might be in the way at the time.
Another unusual aspect is that the lead characters are a wild mix of people of science and, well, people who aren't, what Wikipedia currently describes ably as "intellectuals, dreamers, charlatans and misfits". This comes to be because the former, Paul Hagbolt and Margo Gelhorn, are enroute to watch a total lunar eclipse from an observatory in California when they come upon a "flying saucer symposium" and stop in for the fun of it. The latter are the staff and attendees of the symposium, who range from skeptical debunkers to outrageous believers via sociologists and mystics. They're all still there when the Wanderer shows up.
I should add that this is an undated but presumably reasonably near future from 1965, in which the Vietnam War is still ongoing and the Cold War has continued to expand in space. The Americans and the Soviets have moonbases and the latter have reached Mars, a chilling place to be when the Wanderer shows up to destroy their home planet. Talk about sudden perspective! Margo has a husband, Don Merriam, who's an astronaut on the moon as the Wanderer appears; he's the only one to make it off safely.
A third, and much appreciated unusual aspect, is that these characters could easily have become the spur for humankind to find the expected solution and saved the day, but they don't. Given the sheer scale of devastation that the Wanderer prompts, I don't think it's a spoiler to point out that there is no solution, never mind a quick and easy one. In fact, one of the clichéd ways out of this sort of thing does crop up late in the novel and promptly dies a quick and worthy death. We try. We fail. The universe moves on.
However, that sounds emphatically depressing but this book is far from 'On the Beach' or any number of modern zombie outbreak novels. Our main group is always hopeful, even when they're confronted with other horrors as unlikely as the Black Dahlia murderer back in business. Other individuals or groups express their own hope in their own ways, people as different as stoners in Harlem; a poet walking back to Wales; a smuggler turned treasure hunter at sea off Vietnam; a young couple in New York writing a play; and a gentleman not far into a solo crossing of the Atlantic.
For some, that hope vanishes, which is when Leiber suggests that we all fall immediately prey to our sexual urges. There's a surprising amount of sex in this novel for a book that isn't salacious in the slightest. The polygamous man doesn't sleep with either of his wives and the non-married couple don't either. However, a young couple climax on a rollercoaster when the Wanderer appears, an abductee receives an impromptu handjob from an alien catgirl on her flying saucer and two high ranking military officers who hate each other decide to drown mid-coitus during a mutual auto-erotic asphyxiation moment. I'm not sure which one is kinkiest.
I do like how so much of this riffs on differences and similarities. One of the best points the book has to make is that the aliens who show up to steal our moon and simply don't care about switching on the anti-tide technology they own up to having to avoid killing, destroying our civilisations, killing untold millions of monkey people like you and me and effectively ending our species, are "intellectuals, dreamers, charlatans and misfits" just like the folk at the flying saucer symposium who are our most effective leads.
I like less how science fiction is used within the book. It isn't a stretch to see that astronaut Don Merriam is an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan who brings those stories back to mind as his ship falls through the hollowed center of the moon. It's less believable that one of the Harlem stoners starts talking about Pellucidar during a walkabout. Mentioning Doc Smith's Lensmen makes a lot of sense, given where we end up - creating characters for little apparent reason except to subtly parody other writers doesn't. Maybe the millionaire Knolls K. Kettering III isn't supposed to be what I think he's supposed to be. I hope not but I doubt it.
I enjoyed this romp but, unlike the last half dozen winners of the Hugo for Best Novel, it doesn't feel like it has a fair claim to its prize (while I'm doubtful that Stranger in a Strange Land was the best SF book of 1962, it is at least a credible Hugo winner because of what it did and its impact as it did so). Annoyingly notable is that the last book to feel unworthy as a Hugo winner was 'The Big Time' by the very same Fritz Leiber and that's odd to me because he's a fantastic writer. I should clearly go back to his short work and check out some of his other novels to get a bigger picture.
Next month, I may toss a coin because the 1966 Hugo for Best Novel was, for the first time, awarded to two different books in a tie scenario. I haven't read either but both are regarded as classics. Expect one of them next month and the other in January. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by Fritz Leiber click here
For other Hugo winners click here