Friday, April 24, 2015

Sci-fi nerds save the day

To describe Paul Malmont's 2011 novel The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown in terms of current popular television, try combining The Big Bang Theory with Scorpion. What you have is a group of nerds becoming heroes.

Astounding, Amazing and Unknown were all science fiction pulp magazines published by John W. Campbell and popular during the 1940s, which is when this story is set. The heroes are some of Campbell's best writers, all just getting started at this time: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp and L. Ron Hubbard. Other writers, including Walter Gibson, Frederick Pohl, Judith Merril, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Lester Dent, play smaller roles, as do such real historical figures as Albert Einstein, Jimmy Stewart and Richard Feynman. When Malmont isn't dropping names, he tells a most enjoyable story, much in the same pulpy tone as his earlier novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.

As World War II winds down, top scientists are secretly at work on the Manhattan Project that will lead to the atomic bomb. But the Navy puts Heinlein in charge of his own secret team to try to use science to win the war, such as by making warships invisible. Heinlein and his fellow writers, like some Nazi spies, think Nikola Tesla may have discovered a potential weapon of mass destruction before his death, and they race to track down its secrets, although they are pursued more by the FBI than those Nazi spies.

Although the plot is fun, anyone who has read sc-fi from the 1940s through the 1960s will be more interested in how these writers are portrayed. Heinlein, in an unhappy marriage to an alcoholic, thinks he may be done with pulps. He yearns to write novels, great novels. De Camp is a handsome young man from a wealthy family who probably could be doing just about anything, yet his heart is devoted to writing fantasy. Asimov, the youngest and nerdiest of the group, is afraid of heights and just about everything else, but he is also the smartest and, in the end, impresses even his young wife with his bravery. Hubbard is portrayed as a kook who, when he isn't drinking, is consumed with mysticism, which will eventually lead him to Scientology.

Reading Malmont's novel makes me yearn to read some classic science fiction again, as well as to learn more about the lives of these four writers.

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