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Based on an incredible true episode of World War II history, Paul Malmont?s new novel is a rollicking blend of fact and fiction about the men and women who were recruited to defeat the Nazis and ended up creating the future.
In 1943, when the United States learns that Germany is on the verge of a deadly innovation that could tip the balance of the war, the government turns to an unlikely source for help: the nation?s top science fiction writers. Installed at a covert military ...
Based on an incredible true episode of World War II history, Paul Malmont’s new novel is a rollicking blend of fact and fiction about the men and women who were recruited to defeat the Nazis and ended up creating the future.
In 1943, when the United States learns that Germany is on the verge of a deadly innovation that could tip the balance of the war, the government turns to an unlikely source for help: the nation’s top science fiction writers. Installed at a covert military lab within the Philadelphia Naval Yard are the most brilliant of these young visionaries. The unruly band is led by Robert Heinlein, the dashing and complicated master of the genre. His “Kamikaze Group,” which includes the ambitious genius Isaac Asimov, is tasked with transforming the wonders of science fiction into science fact and unlocking the secrets to invisibility, death rays, force fields, weather control, and other astounding phenomena—and finding it harder than they ever imagined.
When a German spy washes ashore near the abandoned Long Island ruins of a mysterious energy facility, the military begins to fear that the Nazis are a step ahead of Heinlein’s group. Now the oddball team, joined by old friends from the Pulp Era including L. Ron Hubbard (court-martialed for attacking Mexico), must race to catch up. The answers they seek may be locked in the legendary War of Currents, which was fought decades earlier between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. As the threat of an imminent Nazi invasion of America grows more and more possible, events are set in motion that just may revolutionize the future—or destroy it—while forcing the writers to challenge the limits of talent, imagination, love, destiny, and even reality itself.
Blazing at breathtaking speed from forgotten tunnels deep beneath Manhattan to top-secret battles in the North Pacific, and careening from truth to pulp and back again, The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown is a sweeping, romantic epic—a page-turning rocket ship ride through the history of the future.
“A rollicking adventure . . . Great fun . . . The Astounding is the very definition of a page-turner.” —The Onion A.V. Club
“A giddy ride . . . spills, chills and thrills." —Time Out New York
“Delightful . . . Madcap . . . It’s so much fun that it virtually defines what light fiction should be.” —Library Journal (starred review)
"A 1940s adventure story, full of historical characters and breathtaking near-escapes, this novel will appeal to the little boys in grown-up readers." —Newark Star Ledger
“Paul Malmont launched his affectionate and entertaining secret history of twentieth-century American pulp fiction with The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril in 2006. The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown is the second novel in this sequence, and the focus turns to famous science fiction authors including Robert Heinlein and the young Isaac Asimov. Together they tackle the mysteries of Nikola Tesla and winning World War II in an adventure that swoops from romp to chills, from humor to dread. Malmont’s big, lush novel is sly and charming, nostalgic and intriguing fun.” —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
“Paul Malmont’s whirlwind novel celebrates the grand era of science fiction by taking its legendary writers as characters in a wholly original romp through WWII-era technology and intrigue. The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown beams its readers right into its world with all the dazzle of a newly uncovered and improved Tesla transmitter.” —Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club
“Watch out, Earthlings! The fathers of science fiction are on the prowl again, trying to save the world from the Nazis in Paul Malmont’s delightful romp. The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown delivers thrills, laughs, intriguing speculation, and even a little romance—much like the best sci-fi. A treat!” —Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row and Paradise Alley
“Malmont’s funny, zesty, brain-teasing love letter to sf heroes affirms the glory of creativity and science, sacrifice and courage.” —Booklist
“A wild trip . . . Malmont lovingly embraces the fact-fiction synthesis employed by the writers he brings to life . . . Fans of the original pulps will surely enjoy the ride.” —Publishers Weekly
In 1943, alerted to German scientific advances that could turn the tide of World War II, the U.S. government calls upon a group of noted young science-fiction writers to halt the Nazi threat by making imagined phenomena real.
Malmont, whoseChinatown Death Cloud Peril(2006) turned noted science-fiction and pulp writers of the past into intellectual action heroes, returns with a lively tale involving "death rays," secret underground crypts, vanishing objects and mysterious boxes. The writers, led by Robert Heinlein, include L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov, Walter Gibson and Sprague de Camp. When their personalities and egos aren't clashing, they bond together to investigate secret experiments by the late Nikola Tesla, legendary competitor of Thomas Edison in the so-called War of the Currents. Tesla was testing the long-distance transference of energy when he succeeded in zapping millions of trees in Siberia from the U.S. The writers' pursuits take them from city to city and ultimately to a ship in the North Pacific where things have a way of suddenly disappearing. This book, the title of which was taken from the names of pulp journals, is as much a comedy of brainy errors as it is an adventure. Heinlein, whose tuberculosis ended his Navy career, must contend with the self-fixated Hubbard, who hadn't yet entered his Scientology phase, and the insecure Asimov, who hadn't yet written the first of hundreds of novels. The men all have women problems, Heinlein with his open marriage back in California, and Asimov with his lonely wife in Philadelphia. As close to parody as the novel gets, Malmont maintains a love for science fiction and its ability to bridge "what is known and what is about to be possible." Like his role models, he never sells his story short.
A larkish imagining of sci-fi greats becoming part of one narrative they can't control. A fun novel, and an informative one in tracing the origins of the genre.
Writers like to write about writers almost as much as moviemakers like to make movies about moviemakers. On second thought, maybe more. Considering only twentieth-century books and films, the litany of famous directors who have created cinema about Hollywood is considerably smaller than the catalogue of famous writers who have fictionalized fellow scribblers. From Thomases Wolfe and Mann, through Herman Wouk and Philip Roth, down to David Lodge and Jay Parini, authors like nothing better than writing about the glories and sufferings of themselves and their peers.
Many times the author protagonist is an emblematical invention, even if roman ? clef elements might exist. But equally often, and especially of late, the ink-stained hero or heroine of such books is an actual historical personage, shanghaied willy-nilly into the living author's schemes. If Poe or Twain had heirs, there'd be identity-theft lawsuits galore!
Using a famed author as one's protagonist is as enticing as it is problematical. Such figures come with ready-made biographies and fan bases, both of which can aid the living writer in constructing the story and securing a readership. On the other hand, so many ineluctable biographical facts can constrain the imagination. Incorporating ready-made historical quirks and incidents into one's narrative can look like cheating, a default on the fiction writer's primary responsibility to invent. And any perceived inability to capture the subject's definitive personality and charisma can turn off readers as well.
I speak knowledgeably, as an unrepentant, veteran committer of such literary sins. My story collection Lost Pages features over a dozen tales starring such writers as Robert Heinlein, Thomas Pynchon, Franz Kafka, and Philip K. Dick. Additionally, I've employed Albert Camus, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman in other outings. The creation of new adventures for beloved scribes is a dicey business, but incredible, invigorating fun when you can bring it off. At least it feels like that from my self- centered writerly perspective—and also, I hope, from the viewpoint of like-minded readers. Novelist Paul Malmont boldly and outrageously doubled down on the whole author-as-protagonist gamble with his 2006 adventure The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. Not only did Malmont daringly feature an entire salon's worth of real authors as his troupe, he set his tale in the pulp era, circa 1938, that Golden Age of Magazines when fiction writers were arguably more respected and democratically influential than they ever were before or since. His novel managed to be both a total immersion in the pulp-writer lifestyle, objectively viewed, and a thrilling adventure of the sort commonly produced by those folks. (Malmont's wild-eyed scenario involved poison gas, revenants, and a wily Oriental Menace, to name a few aspects.)
The story's main heroes were Walter Gibson, creator of the Shadow; Lester Dent, Doc Savage's amanuensis; and L. Ron Hubbard, of later Scientology infamy, but in the late-Depression year of our story merely a brash and upcoming pulpster. Along with these mainstays we also encountered such figures as H. P. Lovecraft, John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, and, briefly, Siegel and Shuster peddling their crazy "Superman" property, a cameo appearance that instantly reminds us of Michael Chabon's allied outing in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
. The style of Malmont's writing is, by turns analytical, journalistic, affectionate, elegiac, philosophical, and, well, pulpish. He reconstructs his characters and their era with historical fidelity and empathy without feeling chained to total textbook accuracy. The rivalry between Gibson and Dent comes off as highly believable, as do Hubbard's outsized ambitions. Likewise, Dent's passion for his wife, Norma, and Gibson's wavering love affair with magician's assistant Litzka provide plenty of authentic romance. Malmont blends this verisimilitude with outlandish blood-and-thunder action, thus illustrating his central conundrum: "Where does pulp end and reality begin?" Taken all in all, the book delivers both thrills and meditative reflections on the writerly condition.
He is not, of course, the first author to utilize elements of this particular cast and era. Notably, Richard Lupoff gave HPL an outing in Lovecraft's Book, and David Barbour and Richard Raleigh sent both Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard afield in Shadows Bend. But Malmont trumps his predecessors by the intensity of his novel's immersion in the pulpster milieu, and possibly in sheer storytelling virtues as well.
Malmont's The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown (its title harking back to three SF magazines of the era) leaps ahead a few years after the "amazing adventures of Gibson & Dent" to the middle of World War II and the venue of the Philadelphia Naval Yards, where several conscripted SF authors are at work for the military: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp. This historical nexus is well known to many fans of the genre, and Malmont's choice was anticipated in "Green Fire, " a similarly premised novella co- authored by Eileen Gunn, Michael Swanwick, Pat Murphy, and Andy Duncan. Can Malmont bring new verve and insights to the scene?
We begin with a framing story, as physicist Richard Feynman and friends are being feted, postwar, on Long Island. Prompted, Feynman launches into the account of these 1943 adventures, asking his listeners, in a phrase that parallels the prior book's enigma, to determine "where the science ends and the science fiction begins."
The cast is introduced through the lens of their most personal relationships. Pedantic and jokerish young Isaac Asimov and his new bride, Gertrude, are experiencing marital troubles, partly due to her parochial loneliness and lack of sophistication. Confident Bob Heinlein, in charge of this R&D gang of scribes, is cosseting his mentally disturbed wife, Leslyn. Only elegant L. Sprague de Camp and his beautiful spouse, Catherine, seem at ease. Together, the men enthuse about science fiction, dishing dirt on their peers, dreaming of the fabulous stories they will write, and trying to apply the ethos and technics of SF to the war effort. Enter the lost scientific mysteries of the recently deceased Nikola Tesla. (We learn that Tesla's unfinished death ray was responsible for the famed Tunguska event in Siberia.) Enter three familiar faces from the previous outing: sociopathic egomaniac L. Ron Hubbard; jovial Lester Dent; and weary, fading Walter Gibson. Enter Lt. Virginia Gerstenfeld, soon to be the second Mrs. Heinlein. Enter Jack Parsons, rocket engineer with Aleister Crowley pretensions. Enter suspicious G-men, hot on the trail of supposed spies in the SF community. Enter young soldier Kurt Vonnegut, Professor Albert Einstein, Air Force pilot Jimmy Stewart, and more writers such as Hugh Cave, Judith Merril, Fred Pohl, Ray Bradbury, and Cleve Cartmill. The result? A seething scrum of high-minded conversation and low-down deeds.
This sequel is more naturalistic than its predecessor, with interpersonal drama coming to the fore, as if to reflect the changing zeitgeist. None of the writers emerge as caricatures of their public personas, but as earnest, breathing men and women. Malmont plainly has a blast recreating this dangerous, promising era and putting its inhabitants through their larger-than-life paces.
But for all of Malmont's scrupulous research and loving devotion to period detail, he makes one grievous error of speech, and not to mention it would invalidate my praise of his authenticity. He has our authors toss around the term "sci-fi, " which, alas, was not coined and popularized until the late 1950s, by master fan Forrest J. Ackerman. Putting it in the mouths of Heinlein and Asimov during 1943 is one of the more incredible features of an outlandish pulp plot.
The most fascinating thing about this book, once we applaud its vigorous storytelling and historical acumen, is its publication by Simon & Schuster as a non-genre release of distinction, rather than within as a science fiction novel per se. When the protagonists begin debating the obscure controversies among the Futurians—a fan group that included Asimov and Damon Knight among many other notables—I experienced a surreal moment of deracination. Even twenty or thirty years ago, such material would have been relegated to the pages of fanzines or novels from specialty small presses. Now it's mainstream. Has the geekification of the planet actually progressed to this incredible point?
Or is Malmont simply honoring the dream of science fiction's potency, as articulated by Heinlein in "Issue 1, Episode 6" of the novel?
An incredible future is just waiting for us; about to unfold. Everyone feels it. I think what we do as writers is lay out a conceptual framework for people who want to build that bridge to tomorrow?. I think what we're doing is helping inspire and guide people past the perils and pitfalls to a better day.If Asimov and Heinlein and their peers are truly among the twenty- first century's Founding Fathers, then Malmont is their Ken Burns.
Posted June 7, 2011
The Book Report: The Philadelphia Experiment, a real project that took place during WWII and produced a long-lived tale of a whole ship that *poof* vanished from Philadelphia Navy Yard, was seen in Norfolk, Virginia, then *poof* reappeared in Philadelphia in far less time than it would take to sail there, is the backdrop of this fantabulous beast of a Franken-novel. Facts are here aplenty, stitched to the imaginitive suppositions of the author, and the tale enacted by the great science fiction writers of the First Golden Age: Robert Heinlein, ex-Navy man and scientist; Isaac Asimov, unfit for combat service but a chemist earning his PhD at Columbia when roped into the Philadelphia Experiment; Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, L. Ron Hubbard (blech)...and their wives, their lesser lights, and a seemingly endless cast of characters famous if you know who they are, like Lyman Binch, the only person to work for both Tesla and Edison. The author propels his cast from pillar to post and back again. He puts them in incredibly perilous situations, he makes it impossible for them to survive, and then rescues them via last-minute coincidences and harum-scarum action. And in the end, after assembling the dramatis personae via the most unsubtle ruse of them all, he actually solves Tunguska, Wardenclyffe, and the Philadelphia Experiment, with a side order of conspiracy theory, in ~30pp. I'm exhausted. My Review: Fairly happily so, I admit. The dialogue bears down a little much on the side of "As you know, Bob..." and "the reason I've brought you all here tonight is...", but for most people under 60 that really is the only way he can tell his story and make it even faintly believable. What's most appealing about the novel is its true-to-the-pulps feel. I like the way it honors the genre of the dear, dead pulp science fiction mags of the 30s through the 60s by using--with a wryly arched eyebrow--their every convention, technique, and trope, then with a short coda, bringing the modern sensibility int harmony with the pulpish piffle that has quite enjoyably rollicked on before. Mr. Malmont sent me a very nicely inscribed ARC of the novel when I won it in a contest on his website. It struck me that he's a lot like the old pulp writers. He's an advertising copywriter who clearly loves popular fiction in the SF genre, and is at home telling tales to entertain you, his reader, as he entertains himslef. He's good at evoking mood and atmosphere. He's happiest when busiest, too. My god...wouldn't surprise me a bit to find out he was a robot. o.0
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Posted November 10, 2011
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