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.