Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Astounding, The Amazing, And The Unknown!

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown by Paul Malmont is a rousing sequel to his novel The Chinatown Death  Cloud Peril, about the here-to-fore unknown adventures of pulp writers Walter Gibson and Lester Dent (both are also on hand for this adventure too). After too long a delay, I've at long last gotten around to reading this delicious story. This tale is set a few years later during 1944 when the momentum in the second World War was shifting to the side of the Allies (though of course they couldn't know that then). One of the best aspects of this novel is the way it presents the dread permeating the society as a deadly war engulfed the imagination and the resources of the entire globe.

At the center of this sprawling yarn is Nicola Tesla, the celebrated (now) genius who had among other things in his famous career tried to give the world free global communication and possibly power in 1908 with the Wardenclyffe Project, a grand mushroom-shaped tower which would broadcast energy worldwide. It was an unfinished project, which in our real world is becoming a museum to celebrate Tesla, but in this novel its the centerpiece of several schemes to possibly control the planet, if it works that is.

Drawn into this mystery are Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague DeCamp, and Isaac Asimov, three pulp writers collected by Astounding editor John W. Campbell as a braintrust of sorts for the military, their mission to dream up the war toys of the future before Hitler's boys do the same for the dictator. The center of their work in the city of Philadelphia is an experiment to render a battleship invisible to mines and possibly radar. We meet the men, their wives and their lovers as they wrestle with  each other, their superiors, and the enemy to accomplish their mission. The real and the fictional blend in fascinating ways in the hands of Malmont, a sure and confident writer.

Also along for this wild ride is one Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, another pulp writer who has had less than a distinguished Navy career and finds himself tagging along and finally apart from the above gang of writers as he follows his own part of the elaborate mission. His bizarre personal life, which includes peculiar and eccentric religious rites and strange sex, resonate through the story of what I might even call "the secret history of Scientology".

On display in a way which I've never quite seen is the world of fandom itself. These writers are strong personalities and they have history, history which is quite unseemly at times. Their feuds are at once funny and exceedingly callow, but we get a sense despite all that, these are men who truly believe in something outside themselves, wishing for something better and newer for the entire world.

We hear of a real-life story titled "Deadline" by Cleve Cartmill which scares the United States government so much they send agents to investigate what must have been a leak of national secrets. We meet other writers such as Norvell Page, Hugh B. Cave, Fred Pohl, and Ray Bradbury. We encounter celebrities doing service for their country like Jimmy Stewart and Albert Einstein. The story goes from Philadelphia to Alaska to New York City to the South Pacific and back again.

There's a lot going on in this novel which grabs you and never lets go. The story is full of humor and real danger, not just for our protagonists but for the world itself. We visit remote parts of the world and see little discussed parts of the great war. This is a rich novel which at once celebrates its pulp writer heroes but at the same time makes them human in ways which make you care about them even more.

Highly recommended reading.

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  1. I'm a big fan of Heinlein and Asimov, so I'll definitely check this out.

    1. I used to read a lot of Asimov, but I've read precious little Heinlein. (Stranger in a Strange Land and a few others) It's a big gap in my pulp understanding for sure.

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