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.