Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Wailing Asteroid

Murray Leinster The Wailing Asteroid (1960)
The Wailing Asteroid belongs to the science-fiction subgenre populated by persons who discover weird abandoned space stations full of mysterious control panels, although there's a chance I may actually be confusing an entire subgenre with the Space Patrol strip in the 1966 TV Comic annual. Anyway, this is Rendevous With Rama on a budget, loosely speaking, the story of a thoroughly Gernsbackian hero-inventor who builds his own spaceship - far in advance of anything either the Russians or his fellow Americans have been able to come up with - in order to investigate an ominous asteroid which is approaching Earth whilst emitting worrying noises - the asteroid I mean, not the bloke.

The novel is firmly of its time as they say, roughly representative of the great bulk of magazine science-fiction we tend not to remember or reprint these days because it wasn't written by Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, which is a shame. The female characters are seemingly brought along so that the men have something nice for their tea at the end of a hard space-day's exploring, but there's probably not much joy to be had getting pissy about it, and the sexism is fairly low-key, if not actually highly entertaining. Leinster's style is brisk and chatty, working just fine regardless of the reader's age - neither too dense for the kids nor too simplistic for adults, and it's probably not great literature, but neither is it in any sense bad, and it thankfully never reads like a book which wishes it were on the telly. Perhaps ironically and certainly bewilderingly, The Wailing Asteroid was adapted for the big screen as The Terrornauts starring, amongst others, Charles Hawtrey. I'd never heard of it until I read this thing, and all I can find online is the cinematic trailer, which suggests that the production was faithful to Leinster's original, if otherwise as creaky as fuck with effects which make seventies comedy sketches taking the piss out of bad special effects - visible strings with sparklers to suggest rocketry - seem almost slick. The novel is lacking a character who pulls faces and comments oooh - that's a nice big one, so I've no idea what they did with Charles Hawtrey.

Anyway, despite what one might expect from that which I've described thus far, The Wailing Asteroid takes all sorts of genuinely unexpected twists and turns, avoids most of the potential clich├ęs, or at least only commits amusing ones, and squares well with the main reason why I would ever pick up a science-fiction novel in the first place - namely the promise of the unexpected, that one should have no idea as to what will happen. This is why I've avoided giving away too much of what our guys and gals find when they reach the asteroid. I'm not saying it's wonders beyond imagination, but the book follows its own path rather than just ticking off the usual boxes in the style of anything involving evil empires, plucky rebels, and rag-tag fleets.

There's no such word as rag-tag, by the way. It only ever appears in sentences describing large numbers of crap spacecraft and is never used in real life, so if we could all stop perpetuating it, that would be great.

Pardon me.

Anyway, yes - The Wailing Asteroid is great; probably not quite a lost classic, but certainly a lost thumping good yarn.

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