If anyone can claim the title of “Dean of Modern Science Fiction,” it is Murray Leinster. For decades, the gentle old man of the genre has turned out exciting interstellar adventures leavened with humor and hard science.
But old men are prone to losing their faculties, and I fear we’re seeing the first signs of it.
I was sent an advance copy of Leinster’s latest novel, The Wailing Asteroid, last month. The premise is excellent: a few years from now, an object within the solar system suddenly begins broadcasting a repeating plaintive musical message. The transmission is indecipherable, but clearly of artificial origin and of automatic nature. A wunderkind engineer by name of Joe Burke realizes he’s heard this music before, in a dream he’s had since he was 11, when his father brought home a strange little black cube from a 20,000 year old archaeological site in France.
The music isn’t all Burke got from the dream; included in its details were the clues to build a hand-weapon of almost limitless power, one which he adapts for use as a space drive. Burke, with the help of a yachting buddy and an introverted savant, as well as his fiancee and her sister, decides to build a craft that will take them to this mysterious wailing asteroid.
Once there, the team finds an abandoned fortress filled with unfathomable weaponry. There isn’t a shred of written material, but it is clear that humans crewed this structure. Who built this outpost, and against what was it built to defend?
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Except it is written in what I can only term “The New Leinster.” He writes in short sentences. There are no long ones. Why should he write that way? I do not know. I only know that they are repetitive. They repeat. Why should Leinster write short sentences that repeat? I can’t know. It is annoying. It is difficult to read. There are no long sentences.
Pared down properly, the whole thing would be a novella, and it would be a nice addition to two issues of Analog. But it’s not, which makes it a slog, though you will want to find out what happens.
I applaud the active inclusion of two women among the book’s stars. It would have been nice if Leinster had given them more to do than stenotype, cooking, and pining after their fiancees (Burke’s fiancee’s sister falls for the yachting chap). On the other hand, I suppose we still live in a world where men aren’t allowed to take shorthand and home economics classes, and the story is set in the near future. How progressive can Leinster be? In any event, it’s hard to get too upset about characters as thin as the ones Leinster has written. Their dialogue is interchangeable and written in the same choppy format as the non-dialogue prose. The science is flawed, too, particularly orbital mechanics, and the rest is zap-gun stuff as you might find in pulps from the 30s.
However, the few-page vignette devoted to the doomed cosmonaut who is dispatched before Burke begins his journey, is almost worth the price of the book. And the story is interesting despite Leinster’s efforts to the contrary.