"Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a pulp science fiction writer out of my hat!"
Author Paul Malmont knows his pulp stuff, no doubt about it. He's that really bright kid sitting in the back of the class, frantically waving his hand in the air, desperately hoping that the teacher will call on him so he'll be able to stand up and announce to one and all: "look how much I know!"
THE ASTOUNDING, THE AMAZING, AND THE UNKNOWN, his 2011 novel, is built upon a corker of a premise. Set smack dab in the middle of WWII, the story centers upon three of the greatest pulp science fiction authors of all time: Robert Heinlein (whose work appeared in the magazine ASTOUNDING, Isaac Asimov, whose early stories were published in AMAZING and L. Sprague de Camp, whose work was regularly published in UNKNOWN. By the way, I met L. Sprague de Camp once, remind me to write about that encounter sometime in the future).
These three men were actually assigned to the U.S. Naval Yards in Philadelphia during the war. They were tasked with the mission of brainstorming super weapons (both offensive and defensive) that could be used to defeat the Axis powers. They, along with a team of scientists, worked on various experimental devices and prototypes that had their basis in the wonder weapons found in the pages of the pulp science fiction magazines. That much is true and here's a photo of the three men from that time period.
Left to right: Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov
In the novel, the three men get wind of a mysterious experiment conducted by Nikola Tesla in 1908. It seems that Tesla's bold attempt to harness electricity inadvertently created a "death-ray" which may or may not have caused the explosion in Tunguska, Russia that year. Tesla's laboratory and his "power tower" were shut down but his notes and some of the technology used in the experiment are rumored to still exist. The three sf writers/scientists quickly seize upon the notion of finding the lost technology and recreating it to use the "death-ray" against the Nazis.
That's enough right there to spin a pretty good pulp yarn and Malmont does so to a point. The trouble is, he's so intoxicated with his love of the era, the men, the magazines, the stories, the whole pulp milieu, that he simply can't leave well-enough alone. It's not enough to have just Heinlein, de Camp and Asimov involved in this adventure. Oh, no. Malmont gives us a veritable who's who of both pulp writers and other famous figures from history. Who else is in this book? Hell, who isn't?
All three of the men's wives are in here, as are pulp writers and editors including L. Ron Hubbard (who is sort of the D'Artagnan, Fourth Musketeer of the group), Walter Gibson (THE SHADOW), Lester and Norma Dent (DOC SAVAGE), Norvell Page (THE SPIDER), Hugh B. Cave, John W. Campbell, Jr., Hugo Gernsbeck, Frederick Pohl, Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman and Cleve Cartmill. Plus, James Stewart (yes, that James Stewart), Nikola Tesla, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein. I suspect that many of the other characters are real people as well but these are the names I recognized and Malmont does not include a "who's who" addendum (which is sorely needed, as was one more really good, thorough edit; there are several mistakes a sharp editor would have caught and fixed).
The result is that there's just too damn much going on here and most of it gets in the way of the main narrative. The story is told in a series of stops and starts, a herky-jerky rhythm made up of one part plot advancement, three parts information dump (if you listen carefully, you'll swear you can hear Malmont yelling "look what I know!"). For instance, the Philadelphia Experiment, an attempt to make a U.S. warship invisible to radar, is in here (which alone would make a pretty good yarn) and it's revealed to be a magic trick essayed by Walter Gibson but the explanation is clumsy and really doesn't figure in the overall story.
Throughout the book, people keep talking about the future, about making it happen, about living to see it, to see something that only exists on the printed page, given life, shape and form. About halfway through the book, I too started thinking about the future. Mainly, the next book I'm going to read when I finally finish this one. A book by one of the writers in this story, a writer who knew how to tell a story and not get bogged down with too much extraneous detail.
I met Paul Malmont once. He was a nice, sincere guy and his deeply felt devotion to the same stuff I like was abundantly clear. His previous novel, THE CHINATOWN DEATH CLOUD PERIL, used the same concept of having real pulp writers involved in an adventure story. In that book, set in the 1930s, Lester Dent, Walter Gibson and L. Ron Hubbard (along with Louis L'Amour) teamed up in a story that was equal parts adventure and pulp history lesson. I wanted desperately to love both that book and THE ASTOUNDING... but I just can't. I respect Paul Malmont and his work. I love the idea of these books, but the execution leaves something to be desired. I like reading about the history of the pulps. I like reading pulp fiction. There's a great book out there that combines both subjects (ala Michael Chabon's brilliant THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY) but neither one of Malmont's novels is that book. Enthusiasm, affection and knowledge of the pulps is great. But you've still got to tell me a corking good story, one that keeps me turning the pages to find out what happens next and sadly neither of Malmont's books do that.
They're both still well worth reading for pulp aficionados but readers who don't already get the pulps will wonder what all of the noise is about.