The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown by Paul Malmont
Published by Simon and Schuster, July 2011
Review by Mark Yon
In the world of Science Fiction, the range of potential subjects is such that not only can we deal with vast distances but also a variety of ‘what if’s’. Indeed, we can also blur the lines between reality and fiction, through alternate universes or just by playing with what happened.
Here’s a great example of a book that mixes real events with fiction, and real people with some fictional.
The real events involve the war work of some of our legendary science fiction writers: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, L. Ron Hubbard. It is well documented in books, such as William H. Patterson’s recent biography of Robert A. Heinlein, that these writers worked together under Heinlein at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyards.
Here things are taken a step further, in that Malmont supposes that in 1943 this gang of intensely serious, studious and gifted authors are actually involved in a covert war mission. The so-called Kamikaze Group, led by Bob, are given the task of turning the science-fictional flights of imagination into something real. Ron and Isaac are employed to create an invisibility paint but really want to make scientist Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower work as a Wunderwaffe, a ‘wonder weapon’. The rumour is that Tesla has made this work, but shut it down following its initial tests. Tesla is now dead, believed by some such as Gernsback as murdered, so its purpose is unclear. Is it an energy beam with unlimited power, a weapon of mass destruction or a means of providing free energy to those who want it? And does it work?
In order to determine whether Tesla’s ideas work, the Group travel from California to New York and to the Aleutian Islands and the Kingdom of Tonga in search for components of Tesla’s machine. Following their covert activities is the FBI, convinced that the Group is working on an Anti-American Communist plot. The end of the novel is a race between testing the potential super-weapon and avoiding those out to cover up the secret, people who will not stop at killing those who know about the device.
There’s a lot of fun as our fictional/semi-fictional characters intermix with real people: Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell and Albert Einstein, to mention just a few. We also have the return of William Gibson (creator of The Shadow) and Lester Dent (creator of Doc Savage) who were in Malmont’s first book in the series, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and who aid our group in times of need.
What is engaging here is the way that Malmont fleshes out the SF authors that we think we may know quite well. They are all quite quirky. Bob is seen as a film-star like leader who has pretty much given up writing SF, and who has a decidedly odd wife, Leslyn, diagnosed as an insane alcoholic. Ron is a character generally seen as a weaker link in the group. Having being demoted in the Navy, going through a separation and having career issues, he spends a lot of time with women and drinking, whilst dabbles in religion and secret societies. Isaac is perhaps the brightest but one of the most neurotic - a shy, geeky guy who writes galaxy-spanning SF whilst afraid of heights and who is trying to make his recent marriage work. Sprague de Camp , who with Catherine Crook/de Camp is one of a couple with near-royalty status in the science fiction fraternity and whose levelheadedness and sensibilities act as a useful sounding post through the novel.
It must be remembered that this is fiction, though some proceedings here are based on real events and comments in the biographies and autobiographies of the authors included. Whereas there is a risk that our view of the ‘real’ authors may be coloured by their fictional exploits, the characters themselves are generally treated with respect and have understandable (if at times unlikeable) motives. At times this can be a little unnerving – some of them have sex! – but generally their characteristics fit what we as readers imagine the authors to be like.
This is a great novel that celebrates the fledgling days of the genre and mixes it up with an excitingly fast paced, pulp-style plot. We have secret agents, hidden underground chambers, dead bodies, betrayals and obscure satanic rituals. There’s even a little romance. Most of all, though, there’s a warm reverence for the originators of SF pulp.
A great surprise and recommended for anyone with a love of ‘the old stuff’.
Mark Yon, December 2011.
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