ooks are time machines and we read them in our context at our peril (or rather, our down-our-nose smarminess).
The Wanderer copped a Hugo Award back in 1964, which was seven years after On The Beach (a story about a gentle yet depressing apocalypse) came out. Yet gone are the gentle civilians living out their last days in quiet contemplation of the doom that was settling over them. In The Wanderer, we’re back to people meeting their end with violence antagonism. Mobs. Guns. Killing. Drunkenness. All the things we Americans do well*.
So the story opens with a half-dozen openers – an American on a moon base. His girlfriend going for a drive (with her cat, which turns out to be remarkably lucky) with their close friend. And drunks in Wales. And revolutionaries in South America. And smugglers in the South China Sea. But several traces of something skipping through hyperspace are noticed, little wobbles of starlight coming right for us. And when it arrives, oh the humanity!
It turns out Wanderer (the name everyone agrees on) is a planet-sized spaceship which plops down close to Earth with remarkable precision. Its sudden mass captures our moon (goodnight, moon!) and begins to flex our own fault lines and stir up massive tides. And suddenly it’s calamity to everyone as volcanos erupt, lowlands flood and everyone goes circus-berserkus. End of days.
There are some very neat scenes: As the moon breaks up (the aliens will be crunching it up and sucking it down for fuel) the lone surviving astronaut launches in desperation but goes unconscious and loses his escape window. Plummeting moon-ward, he flies his tiny craft through the chasms breaking all through the moon, passing through its core in a CGI scene I’d love to see. Back on Earth, our primary victims (the astronaut’s girlfriend) settle in with some “saucer students” (UFO cranks) and have to deal with a vastly changed California. Some of the other characters we’ve been introduced to actually live to see the conclusion. A lot of them die in quick paragraph ends.
So, yes, a good book.
What made it even better is when we find out just why the Wanderer is here, what it’s fleeing from, and what is taking place offstage across the stars. When I read that, I actually found myself stunned. It was a truly terrifying and justified fear the Wanderers felt, one that left me with one of those echoing story thoughts, book-moments that stay with us. Yeah, thoughtfully grim.
So anyway, I pulled this one out an old book box. Been meaning to read it for a year (even carried it to India and back) and finally got it up into the stack. If you can find a copy, it’s worth your time. Death, disaster, and dismay – what’s not to like?
* = though I will admit that H.G. Wells wrote a pretty grim end-of-the-world in WOTH, with panicking trains fleeing London while plowing through crowds desperate to be taken aboard. That’s another nightmare I occasionally re-savor.