In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
It’s 1943 and World War II is going strong. There are rumors that the Nazis and the Japanese may be about to unleash a deadly secret weapon against America and people are afraid. But America may be able to create some secret weapons of its own, and who better to imagine and design them than the smartest science fiction writers of the age? So, under the direction of John W. Campbell (editor of the SFF magazines Astounding and Unknown), the Navy recruits Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and L. Ron Hubbard to turn their imaginations into scientific discoveries.
At first, the goals are simple: make the Navy’s ships invisible to radar, control the weather, defy gravity… But when the SF boys find out that recently-deceased (and possibly murdered) Nikola Tesla had a secret journal describing the construction and use of his own anti-aircraft deathray, pulp-style adventure ensues. Not only do they need to find out how Tesla’s weapon works (surely he used alternating current), they must also evade the War Department, which has suddenly taken an interest in their activities. It seems the Feds have read Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline” (published in Astounding) which describes how to make a nuclear bomb. But perhaps most frightening of all is that the SF geeks have to contend with a group of Navy sailor bullies. They can’t compete with them physically, but they can use their brains to get revenge!
The plot of The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown takes a while to get going and is interrupted frequently for the insertion of real facts and history because more than anything, Paul Malmont’s novel is a tribute to 1940s science fiction and the men who wrote and compiled it for the “mags.” Thus, readers will learn all about Robert A. Heinlein’s naval career, tuberculosis, hair loss, and how the biochemist who will become his third (and last) wife influences his politics. Readers will also learn about Isaac Asimov’s fear of flying and some history that explains the development of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology cult. Other pulp personalities such as Norvell Page, Lester Dent, Hugo Gernsback, William Gibson, and Frederik Pohl appear in unlikely but amusing places. I think Paul Malmont’s greatest accomplishment, though, is that he shows us how the imagination anticipates and creates scientific discovery and the advancement of our society.
The audiobook version of The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, which was excellently narrated by Christopher Lane and produced by Brilliance Audio, arrived on my doorstep at just the right time. I happened to be reading some pulps recently (always trying to catch up on all the SF history I missed by being born too late), including L. Sprague de Camp’s Harold Shea stories, which are lovingly mentioned by Malmont. Any science fiction fan has to appreciate Malmont’s obvious affection for the genre.
Not only was this a fun, and sometimes very funny story, but I learned a lot, too. I recommend that anyone who’s not familiar with the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and the way that John Campbell and his favorite SF writers changed the history of SF, do a bit of research before reading The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown. I think you’ll get much more out of it. But, even if you don’t, it’s astoundingly entertaining, as any pulp story should be.
‘“Oh, my god,” Reinhart said, in a low, horror-struck whisper, as de Camp help up a pair of familiar thick-rimmed glasses for all to see. “You’ve vaporized Isaac Asimov!”’
About two-thirds of the way through Paul Malmont’s “secret history” novel about giants of the pulp science fiction world engaged in a classified World War II mission, I had a sad realization. I am too old for this book. I don’t mean that this book is intended for children or young adults, and I don’t mean that the writing is immature. Malmont is an able writer who is clearly passionate about the material he covers in The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown. I just already knew much of the information he imparts with the breathless glee of a seven-year-old doing a magic trick at the dinner table.
Malmont heaps a lot onto his plate in this book, and most of it is great fun. How could you resist a book that has Isaac Asimov, Bob Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard as characters, a plan to make a ship disappear and re-appear, a “wonder-weapon” based on the work of Nicola Tesla, secret codes, underground vaults, mysterious devices, atomic weapons and sinister War Office spies? This story, set in 1943, should be a breakneck, sit-down-shut-up-and-hold-on wild ride of a story, and nearly half the time it is. The other half of the time, though, Malmont throws the whole shebang into neutral to share some bit of trivia about Heinlein, Asimov’s feud with Hugo Gernsbach, the diminishing popularity of The Shadow, or the antics of science fiction fans in the 1940s. He includes too many characters who serve no purpose except that they were actually around then. Gernsbach, for example, serves no purpose, and L Sprague de Camp, Heinlein’s second-in-command, does nothing to advance plot.
The book opens with an awkward and unnecessary story frame about J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman, then flashes us back to 1943, with an intriguing scene on an island in Long Island Sound, an interlude with Nicola Tesla… then veers away from those too. For the next forty pages we get name-dropping and pulpy trivia before the clues are brought together and the story starts.
Malmont is also afraid to do the most important thing in fiction; create characters. I think he reveres these Golden Age writers, so he clings slavishly to what has been written about them (mostly, by them) and does not imagine them as characters in the fictional situation he has created. No one has a character arc. The one exception is Gertie Asimov, Isaac’s young wife, who feels abandoned and insecure in her new marriage, in a new city with a husband who is never home (and when he is, is clacking away on the typewriter). Gertie finds her strength when she is menaced by the War Office goons, and also puts some heat into her sputtering marriage after she is inspired by the uncensored version of Spicy Detective Stories. Unlike anyone else in the book, Gertie faces challenges, learns and grows. A marked contrast to her is the character of Virginia Gerstenfeld. In life, Virginia “Ginny” Heinlein was a powerful force in Heinlein’s life. She supported his writing, challenged his intellect, changed his politics, and kept his legacy alive until her own death. In The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown, she serves no purpose at all. Since Gertie is perfectly capable of filling the role of Plucky Girl Sidekick, and she actually has motivations and something to lose, I don’t know why Ginny is even in this story.
Because Malmont chose not to fictionalize things, L Ron Hubbard, the smart, probably-crazy scam artist, is the most interesting character in the story. That’s good, except that Hubbard is not one of the primary team, and the story drags horribly whenever we’re forced to spend time with Heinlein.
Despite all this grousing, I didn’t hate this story. I loved the section where our band of heroes follows an underground river beneath the Empire State Building. The mis-direction around Tesla’s Wardenclyffe installation and the remote apparatus that went with it was thoroughly enjoyable, and I loved it when Heinlein et al made a boat disappear and reappear, like magic. Malmont’s descriptions of Tesla’s machinery are wonderful. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, like the passage at the top of this review. Heinlein’s sparring with his bureaucratic nemesis by spouting Groucho-Marx-like lines was funny every time.
I’m too old for this book because I’ve already heard or read about most of the trivia. Some I heard from second-string golden-agers, then in their geezer-hood, at science fiction conventions, but most I read in The Futurians, by Damon Knight. Far from eliciting a gosh-wow response from me, the retreading made me impatient, but if you haven’t read Knight’s book, and don’t check out these authors on Wikipedia, you may enjoy The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown.
I am the minority report on this book with my low rating. Most Amazon readers enjoyed it and our own Kat Hooper liked it far more than I did. This book suffered from my high expectations, but I do think Malmont is hampering himself. I think he would do better if, like Michael Chabon, he created fictional characters out of whole cloth and unleashed his storytelling imagination on them.