Books: ‘The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown,’ by Paul Malmont

Michael Dirda
Critic July 20, 2011

This much is true.

In 1944 the science-fiction magazine Astounding published a short story called “Deadline.” In it, the author, Cleve Cartmill, described a superbomb very much like what was then being developed in New Mexico by the physicists of the Manhattan Project. Worried that there had been a major security leak, the FBI questioned both Cartmill and Astounding’s editor, the legendary John W. Campbell.

It is also true that the science-fiction writers Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp worked together at a naval laboratory in Philadelphia doing research for the war effort.

Perhaps even more astounding and amazing, if not entirely unknown, is the fact that L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, was himself once a prolific pulp-magazine writer, a president of the major writers guild of the time and part of a sex-and-magick cult run by Jack Parsons, one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Let me stress that all these items are part of the historical record. You can look up many of the details in William H. Patterson’s biography of Heinlein, Asimov’s memoirs, and various histories of science fiction and Scientology.

At this point, however, novelist Paul Malmont enters the picture. In his previous pulp-historical thriller, “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril,” the heroes were none other than Walter B. Gibson and Lester Dent, the creators, respectively, of the Shadow — “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” — and Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. Fans of that earlier book will be pleased to learn that both Gibson and Dent reappear, albeit as subsidiary characters, in “The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown.” (The odd title plays off the names of three of the best-known fantasy and science-fiction pulp magazines.) In these pages Malmont discloses still another thread in the “secret history” of the 20th century.

Suppose that a motley group of hack writers, famous for cranking out tales of bug-eyed monsters, robots, gosh-wow space cadets and faster-than-light travel, actually discovered that a superweapon, one as powerful as any imaginary death ray, was not only possible but had actually been invented. What if Wardenclyffe Tower — a scientific folly designed by Nikola Tesla early in the 20th century — was more than just a giant broadcasting antenna that never quite worked?

As a certain colonel tells Heinlein and company: “There have been rumors ever since Wardenclyffe was shut down that Tesla was up to something else there other than trying to create a new form of electronic communications. Something potentially devastating. In these letters he wrote in the last year of his life he claimed to be able to use an invention of his to knock an entire fleet of aircraft from the skies or sink an armada in an instant. . . . I need you to help me find out what happened at Wardenclyffe. We need to know why the Nazis consider it a Wunderwaffe. A wonder weapon.”

In recent years, books like “The Amazing, the Astounding, and the Unknown” have become increasingly common, as the barriers between fiction and nonfiction, and especially between fantasy and history, have grown more porous. Real and imaginary people mingle freely in most 19th-century steampunk stories. Tim Powers, for instance, features the poets Percy Shelley and John Keats as major characters in “The Stress of Her Regard.” Mark Hodder’s “The Strange ­Affair of Spring Heeled Jack,” winner of this year’s Philip K. Dick Award, turns explorer Richard Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne into Victorian-era secret agents.

Still, “The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown” is a somewhat troubling case. Just when you’re settling down for pulpy adventure, the book grows soul-bruisingly serious. Throughout, Malmont contrasts the search for the truth about Tesla’s Tower — did it, for instance, cause the famous 1908 Tunguska explosion in Siberia? — with sometimes painful accounts of the domestic and sexual lives of his characters. So we hear about open marriages, suicide attempts, life traumas, erotic rituals, sexual difficulties and all sorts of marital unhappiness (and happiness in the case of the de Camps and the Dents). From having read several of the books used in Malmont’s research (they are listed in an appendix), I know that most of what he describes about these young writers isn’t fiction. While Malmont generally sympathizes with Heinlein, Asimov and even Hubbard, we’re always aware of who these figures are, of what they became, and even of how we once chatted with them on the phone or at a convention. Such knowledge generates a distinct aesthetic dissonance, even a slight revulsion, as if one weren’t only a novel reader but also a peeping Tom.

“The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown” feeds this confusion by its series of amusing in-jokes. John W. Campbell complains that he doesn’t want to be in “the Isaac Asimov mag business.” (Since 1977, Asimov’s Science Fiction has been a major sf magazine.) On a train Heinlein murmurs the phrase “So it goes,” then passes along some pulp magazines to a young soldier named Kurt, who has heavy eyebrows. While sailing to the Aleutians, Hubbard chats with “Herbie,” a Seabee who wishes he could see a desert, “a lovely, dry, brown desert full of hot sand.” Many readers, and most serious science-fiction fans, will smile at these sightings of Kurt Vonnegut and Frank Herbert, author of “Dune.” But after a while, one starts to look for them.

For the most part, our main heroes embody the qualities associated with their own fiction. Heinlein is the chief, omnicompetent and commanding but ready to fall in love (with Virginia Gerstenfeld, who would become his third wife). De Camp appears as the encyclopedic know-it-all, familiar with both ancient engineering and the byways of history and myth but also rabidly devoted to H.P. Lovecraft. Asimov is portrayed as the classic nerd: immensely smart, but wimpy, afraid of heights, preferring his typewriter to his unhappy bride. Hubbard comes across as the most complex character in the book: Brash, vulgar and sexually rapacious, he is already prone to strange visions and fantasies. To a large extent, the novel chronicles his early progress toward “Dianetics” and Scientology.

Despite its ambition, “The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown” never quite lives up to its title. It opens slowly, breaks up its narrative among too many different characters and plot lines, and is unpersuasively framed as a story related by physicist Richard Feynman. Frequent comic episodes, some verging on slapstick, don’t wholly come off. Nor are the big scenes — involving secret tunnels underneath the Empire State Building or the final showdown at Tesla’s Tower — altogether fresh. I couldn’t follow much of the science, and Hubbard’s feverish dreams reminded me of accounts of bad LSD trips.

Still, if you’re already a fan of any of the writer-heroes of this novel, you’ll probably be irresistibly drawn to “The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown.” And the book does have some good moments. It’s almost worth reading just to arrive at the pronouncement: “Oh my God! . . . You’ve vaporized Isaac Asimov!”

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.

THE ASTOUNDING, THE AMAZING, AND THE UNKNOWN

By Paul Malmont

Simon & Schuster.

418 pp. $26

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