The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown

Paul Malmont demonstrated both his love of early pulp fiction and his lush imagination in 2006, when he united authors Walter Gibson (The Shadow) and Lester Dent (Doc Savage) in an adventure worthy of any of their stories in his debut novel, THE CHINATOWN DEATH CLOUD PERIL.

Malmont’s latest, THE ASTOUNDING, THE AMAZING, AND THE UNKNOWN, continues this wonderful trend by speculating the results of the factual joining during the Second World War of two titans of science fiction’s Golden Age: Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

As Golden Age historians know, Heinlein recruited Asimov in 1942 to be part of his research group within the Philadelphia Naval Yard, a gathering Heinlein called his “Kamikaze Group.” Along with fantasy author Sprague de Camp, the two were asked essentially to develop some of their fictional ideas into military realities: paint to make battleships invisible, weather control, and force fields and other fantastic devices that could be used as weapons.

Then a German spy is found washed ashore near an abandoned energy facility in Long Island. The U.S. military learns that the Germans were searching for the secrets to a “wonder weapon” that was developed and clandestinely tested by Nikola Tesla, the legendary inventor and chief competitor to Thomas Edison in the development of the electricity current. Tesla’s work may have resulted in a death ray powerful enough to destroy bomber planes in mid-air.

The Kamikaze Group, joined by L. Ron Hubbard (an alumnus of Malmont’s earlier novel), an elderly Walter Gibson and several other factual and imagined characters set out to find Tesla’s secret weapon before the Nazis seize it. Their adventures take them through tunnels deep below Manhattan to battles in the North Pacific and various other far-flung locales in a classic race against time to control the future.
Malmont’s structure is overly complicated at first. An opening chapter sets the stage for a long flashback that recalls the main narrative. (Sadly, those players we finally recognize in the opening chapter never reappear at the very end to tie everything together.) Then several cross-cut scenes take place before the action finally focuses on Heinlein and his cronies.
Once there, however, the characters and events move smoothly and effortlessly forward. Malmont’s research and affectionate devotion to science fiction shines through as he seamlessly incorporates the plausible science that motivates the fiction, just as Asimov or Heinlein would do. The pacing is vigorous and full of delightful cliffhangers that propel us through each “Episode” within the “Issues” (Malmont’s playful substitutes for sections and chapters).
In the midst of this, Malmont also allows time for us to glimpse the personal doubts and conflicts of the main characters. The young Asimov, for example, struggles with the challenges of his newly married life and the private realization that he knows more about the behavior of robots than humans. Heinlein, earlier declared the best author in the new but wildly popular field of science fiction, has given up on writing, convinced that it’s more important to make the future happen than dream up stories about it. Then he meets the woman who will later become his second wife and reignite his career as the genre’s most essential practitioner.

Occasionally, Malmont includes brief vignettes that tug at the heartstrings of genre cognoscenti, such as a train ride where Heinlein gives a pile of pulp magazines, along with a tossed-off comment (“So it goes”), to a young soldier from Indianapolis whose name happens to be Kurt.
THE ASTOUNDING, THE AMAZING, AND THE UNKNOWN is a must-read, and without question one of the best and most enjoyable novels of the year. Reading it is as close as we’ll get to the thrill of being completely swept away in the kind of stories and heroic deeds those early pulp magazines provided.

But we’re lucky. We don’t have to wait a whole month before we find out what happens next. —Alan Cranis

Buy it at Amazon.

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1 Comment »

Comment by Henry Hopper
2011-08-05 16:34:57

I just finished this myself, and was less impressed. Though I enjoyed The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril a great deal, this followup reads more like fan fiction than literature to me. For example, L. Ron Hubbard’s character serves no real purpose to the larger story despite the amount of face time he receives. Hubbard seems to be in the novel mainly for the author to have fun with the origins of Scientology.

The placement of famous figures from the era in cameos got grating halfway through the novel. It got to the point where I was more surprised when some minor character *wasn’t* a movie star or future science fiction writer. I half expected an unmotivated detour to Ohio so one of the characters could meet a precocious eight year old named Harlan for a page or two.

I also felt the characterization was a little hollow. The Isaac Asimov in the novel reads as if it were based solely on Asimov’s own autobiographical writing; the accounts of other writers who actually knew Asimov reveal a more boisterous person than depicted in the novel. Sprague de Camp is barely shown to have a personality, and Robert Heinlein comes across more like the hero in a Howard Hawks movie than a human being.

Still, the novel moves along at a rapid pace, and the parts dealing with the pulps is fairly fascinating. I don’t doubt the author did his research. Unfortunately too much of it is on the page. As it is, this novel felt like a thin shadow of a novel like Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which is obviously the model Malmont was grasping for.

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