The Wailing Asteroid
by Murray Leinster

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Avon: New York, 1960
143 pages

Amazon Kindle: 2013

June 2013


The Wailing Asteroid begins matter-of-factly with the surprising reception of deep-space signals at Earth's satellite-tracking stations, apparently alien repetitive messsages. What is at least as odd is that free-lance production engineer Joe Burke, sitting in his car with his girlfriend Sandy, recognizes the signals:

A pause. Then the car radio, with night sounds and the calls of nightbirds for background, gave out crisp, distinct fluting noises, like someone playing an arbitrary selection of musical notes on a strange wind instrument.

The effective was plaintive, but Burke stiffened in every muscle at the first of them. The fluting noises were higher and lower in turn. At intervals, they paused as if between groups of signals constituting a word. The enigmatic sounds went on for a full minute. Then they stopped. The [announcer's] voice returned:

"These are the signals from space. What you have heard is apparently a complete message. It is repeated five times and then ceases. An hour an nineteen minutes later it is again repeated five times ..."

After first hearing the news about the signals from space, Burke takes Sandy to his business to play her a tape he made a year earlier, on which he'd attempted to reproduce sounds from a recurrent dream he's had since age eleven:

The reels began to spin on the recorder's face. Burke's voice came out of the speaker, "These are the sounds of the dream," it said, and stopped.

There was a moment of silence, while the twin reels spun silently. Then sounds came from the recorder. They were musical notes, reproduced from the tape. Sandy stared blankly. Disconnected, arbitrary flutelike sounds came out into the office of Burke Development, Inc. It was quite correct to call them elfin. They could be described as plaintive. They were not a melody, but a melody could have been made from them by rearrangement. They were very remarkably like the sounds from space. It was impossible to doubt that they were the same code, the same language, the same vocabulary of tones and durations.

The Wailing Asteroid (Leinster), Richard Powers, Avon 1960 Above we may see the two foundational strata upon which Murray Leinster builds his science-fiction novel, The Wailing Asteroid.

The first is prosaic: day-by-day realistic life presented plausibly. A straightforward introduction to the arrival of alien signals from space. Burke with his girlfriend in the car on a spring evening. Assembling a device which, scaled-up, promises to provide sufficient motive power for a spaceship. Burke gathering a small team of people he knows to build a small spaceship, almost entirely from off-the-shelf parts and a technique he'd developed for building yacht hulls. Traveling to the Asteroid Belt. — Leinster makes all this reasonable and satisfying; and as a self-taught successful inventor himself, if he'd only known the secret of the drive he surely could and would have built such a craft.

The second is dreamlike: although it is Burke's engineering skills and inventiveness that make possible a journey to discover the source of the alien signals, his motivation comes from a fragmentary dream recurring since childhood, of mysterious and suspenseful longing. With the protagonist dream-driven, it is not surprising that emotion, deeply-felt and conflicting and reflected-upon, is more visibly present than in virtually anything else by Murray Leinster.

The Wailing Asteroid has a kind of covert prehistory. The challenge faced by Burke and his team, and the world, dates back to Leinster's thoughtful but primitive 1945 novelet "Things Pass By" — and I suspect in conception to the 1930s. Otherwise the novelet and novel share virtually nothing, and the novel is not a rewrite of the novel: it's a complete re-visualization from the ground up — and from deep-space inwards. In every way but one (a heroine possessing both scientific training and personal initiative), the novel far outshines the earlier novelet: a smooth style; a series of fascinating mysteries; an eventually clear super-challenge; plausibie actions taken throughout; dream-intensity of some emotions; engaging and differentiated characters; an everyday sense of reality grounding a vast vision in space and time, all reasonably explained.

That's a lot to accomplish in a not-very-long novel, and Leinster does it beautifully. I first read The Wailing Asteroid as a teenager, enjoyed it then and since. But with some novelistic and critical skills of my own, more recently I really can appreciate how carefully the novel is plotted and written. Read it first for fun; but when you re-read it, spare some attention for how very neatly the novel's details are fitted together by a master craftsman of words, an inventor, and visionary.

It occurs to me that while this novel has escaped the early-1930s confines of its prototype, nevertheless The Wailing Asteroid has virtues which a distinctive writer of that era, H. P. Lovecraft, might well appreciate:

  •  The novel is thoughtfully imagined, tightly plotted, and smoothly written.
  •  Lovecraft's dictum of giving major weight to the spatial journey itself is partially realized — if we include the careful fictional construction of the spaceship (as for instance Robert A. Heinlein does in Rocket Ship Galileo).
  •  The mystery of the wailing asteroid is skillfully built up, and grows in depth and complexity when the asteroid is reached.
  •  Dreaming is a major factor: this also grows and deepens.
  •  Leinster does his readers the courtesy of allowing his characters to maintain an attitude of brave scientific inquiry, despite the dangers, the fear and the awe which only intensify as they arrive at the asteroid.

Quite an achievement for a novel of modest length that begins simply with a flute-like signal, picked up on Earth and then heard via one's car radio on a spring evening. I wish it were several times longer.


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

The Wailing Asteroid (1960) cover
by Richard Powers

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