Burgs Sunday book review
Reviewed by Ed Sears of Shawsville. He works at the Meadowbrook Library.
This book’s title is taken from the names of three of the best-known fantasy and science-fiction pulp magazines of the 1930s-1940s.
In Paul Malmont’s previous novel, “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril,” the heroes were Walter B. Gibson creator of the Shadow and Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage. Both Gibson and Dent make appearances in Malmont’s latest book, although they play minor roles.
“The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown” is set during World War II. The allies have intelligence that the Germans are working on a super-long-range bomber that could take off from German-held territory and attack the United States. The book describes a race to find Nikola Tesla’s lost diaries and try to perfect and activate the death-ray machine that he had once tested then abandoned. The death ray could in theory destroy a whole fleet of bombers.
When the book opens, the U.S. Navy has recruited a team of the brightest minds from the science fiction pulp magazines to work at the Philadelphia Naval Yard using their creativity and futuristic thinking to aid the war effort. These fictional characters keep the personalities associated with their real counterparts. Robert A. Heinlein is their leader and the best science fiction writer in the business, but ready and willing to fall in love with coworker Virginia Gerstenfeld, who would later in real life become his third wife. Isaac Asimov is portrayed as the stereotypical nerd, vastly intelligent, but a wimp who is afraid of heights and has no clue how to treat his unhappy bride. L. Sprague De Camp appears as a know-it-all naval officer, an expert at ancient engineering, history and myth.
Heinlein, Asimov and De Camp really did work at the Philadelphia Naval Yard during World War II doing scientific research for the Navy so some of the book is based on fact. L. Ron Hubbard, a pulp writer of that era also plays a role. He is not part of Heinlein’s group and is the least sympathetic character in the book. Hubbard is portrayed as sleazy and prone to strange visions and fantasies. The novel hints at his thinking and ideas that would later lead to “Dianetics” and Scientology. Besides the main plot line, the book spends much time examining the often dysfunctional relationships these men have with their wives.
Many other historical characters such as Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury are brought in for cameo roles, so many in fact that they slow and confuse the story. It takes so long to introduce all the different characters and plot lines the story drags in the early part of the book. It becomes much more readable when the team goes on a search to find Tesla’s missing diary and undertakes an effort to get his long abandoned death-ray machine working.
For me, the strong points of the book are that it realistically portrays the authors who wrote the best science fiction stories and books I read as a teenager. In addition the book blends historical fact and fiction in a way that keeps the reader guessing which is which. Several times, I wanted to check historical sources to see if some event in the book really happened. Did Heinlein and crew really make the destroyer escort USS Eldridge disappear at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during WWII? Did Nikola Tesla really cause the 1908 Tunguska explosion in Siberia by testing a giant death-ray machine from the Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island? Read the book and find out.
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