[Dec. 8, 1960] Signs of Aging (Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid)

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.

2.5 stars.

14 thoughts on “[Dec. 8, 1960] Signs of Aging (Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid)”

  1. It does sound a bit derivative. The two couples are Skylark; and in 1948 Clarke wrote an obscure short story about a long abandoned black cube.

    But the cube being found on Earth, and the hero being picked because it was a childhood present, are original. If there was a sequel made on this, there could be a lot done with the Cro Magnons(?). I only hope they wouldn’t be made Flintstone simple figures, whose only use for technology was bashing each other over the head with it.

  2. It was better than I had feared after reading some of the promotional material. It’s certainly flawed, but not a terrible read. I’d say it was better than last year’s Pirates of Zan/Ersatz, which garnered Leinster a Hugo nomination.

    The biggest problem is probably the lone genius inventor who is the master of a hundred widely different disciplines. Very Smithian, but hasn’t reflected anything remotely close to reality since Thomas Edison packed his labs with brilliant men. I also don’t think you can make fiberglass air-tight and the biology is a bad as the physics.

    I do think it’s unfair to dismiss Sandy and Pam as mere stenographers. They’re doing the cryptography, both coding and decoding, and that’s not an easy job. It’s also strongly implied that Sandy is the main reason Burke’s business was actually able to function as a business. They are a tad on the stereotypical side otherwise, it’s true.

    Why does Leinster write such short sentences? Short and repetitive. A staccato style like the burst of a machine gun. I am going to blame Hemingway. Leinster’s sentences are a bit more complex that old Ernest’s and he’s not above a contraction or two, especially in dialogue, but I think we’re seeing some influence here.

    And the vignette with the Russian astronaut was beautiful.

      1. I dunno, I’m about halfway through and I like it a lot so far.  It’s not “deep”, but it’s decent entertainment I can knock off in an hour or two.  That’s the kind of stuff Leinster writes.

        Hey, not everything has to be like Leigh Brackett or Andre Norton…

  3. I happen to know that in 1967 (whoa, it’s almost like I’m from the future or something!) this novel will be made into an absolutely abysmal movie by the British production company Amicus. Called “The Terrornauts” the movie is truly stunning in its awfulness, so it’s a must-see for connoisseurs of bad SF movies. At least it wasn’t a *good* Leinster novel that was butchered.

    1. I’m guessing that you’ve never seen “The Navy vs The Night Monsters,” which was based on Leinster’s “The Monster From Earth’s End.”

  4. Well, if we’re going to pretend to be able to see into the future (1967 isn’t too far away; JFK should be in the last year of his second term, I’d be willing to bet) let me join in the fun.

    Let’s see.  British film?  Must have a screenplay by some British SF writer.  But who?  Not John Wyndham or even Arthur C. Clarke; they’re both a little too well-known to work on a really bad movie.  I’ll pick a name at random, that you may not know.  How about the new writer John Brunner.  British fellow, has written a handful of novels and several short stories, but nothing of particular note.  Yes, I’ll predict that he’ll do the screenplay, not to his credit.

    (I wonder if most SF films will be in color by 1967.)

    1. Six or seven years from now… heck, color TVs might even be cheap enough to own without a second mortgage.  More and more stations are adding color programming, though not many people actually own a color television.

      I guess that’s due to the asymmetrical nature of broadcasting.  One transmitter bought with corporate funds can serve thousands of receivers bought with individuals on revolving charge plans, unless they have enough in savings to dip into for an expensive luxury item like a color television…  still, when the price comes down, as it surely will, at least there will be something to watch.

        1. I keep hearing that, but we don’t have FM radio here yet.  Well, technically we’re within the broadcast zone, but there’s some kind of “shadow” effect from hills between here and the tower or some other technobabble.  Some of our friends have one of those fancy Telefunken console hi-fis that has short wave and FM, but between the kids and pinochle we’ve never had a chance to listen to it.

          I don’t understand this whole giant-German-radio thing.  My wife wants a Grundig console with “blond” wood to match her furniture.  I don’t see why she can’t buy an American RCA or Emerson radio; we have the technology to make little ones that sit on the shelf instead of monsters you have to have delivered…

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