Stranger in a Strange Blog

I am not a science fiction writer.

That sounds like a strange introduction to my guest-blogging appearance on Tor.com, so let me clarify my statement a little. I’m here because I’ve written a novel called The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown.

It’s not science fiction either.

But it is about Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard.

And what those writers knew about science fiction could fill a book.

Before I get into how I put these guys into a completely true, totally fictional world of Tesla secrets, death rays, invisibility, teleportation, WW2, and, well, the entire German Army, let me tell you why I did it.

My first novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, was about pulp magazine writers in the 1930’s, including Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage, and Walter Gibson, creator of The Shadow. Both Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard play pivotal parts in those events. It was during the course of that research that I discovered that Heinlein and young Isaac Asimov went to work for the military at the Philadelphia Naval Yard at the urging of their legendary editor John W. Campbell and that they had been joined there by L. Sprague de Camp—one of America’s first really good fantasy writers. Add into the mix a legend that seems to have appeared in the 60’s that during the time Heinlein, Asimov and de Camp had been working there that a Navy Destroyer Escort had vanished from the base, appeared moments later Virginia, then rematerialized—the Philadelphia Experiment—the story should have written itself.

Except, of course, it didn’t because they never do.

First of all, de Camp himself disavows any knowledge of the Philadelphia Experiment in his autobiography, Time and Change. That’s fine, it’s to be expected that the Powers-That-Be would have gotten to him at some point. Then there was the fact that there was a pretty cool 80’s time-travelling movie (remember when a Michael Paré movie could be cool?) about the Philadelphia Experiment. But the mystery of the USS Eldridge was only one element out of many. Most importantly, I realized as I started outlining the story that teleporting a ship, or exploring Nikola Tesla’s possible culpability in the Siberian explosion of 1908, or even revealing the real river that still flows beneath the Empire State Building wasn’t going to be, well, big enough. What was big enough, what I was really writing about, was that these characters were present at the creation of something powerful — the unleashing of a powerful elemental force — the big bang of American science fiction.

Although Edgar Rice Burroughs had had incredible success with his Mars, Venus, Pellucidar and Caskpak series, and Jack London had dabbled in speculative fiction in The Iron Heel and some other works in the early part of the century, by the start of the great Pulp Era in the late 20’s, most science fiction was just another low-rent genre littering the newsstand. There was a dearth of both quality and quantity. Hugo Gernsback reprinted Verne and Welles and other earlier writers when he couldn’t find enough material to fill the pages of his new Amazing Stories mag. With so many mags for sale, it was a word-sellers market, and if a writer knew how to write a few different kinds of sports, war, adventure, detective, romance, or cowboy stories, then that’s what they stuck with and someone would probably publish them. It was also probably easier to easier to write another story about a broken-down boxer getting one last shot at the title than worrying about the rules of physics and plausibility that even the least rigorous science fiction writing requires.

So why are we are reading the Tor science fiction community site instead of “Tor Boxing Tales”? Because the right people were in the right place at the right time. Editor John W. Campbell, who took over the mags Astounding and Unknown, insisted upon quality. The science had to be solid (or at least give the appearance of solidity). Just as importantly, the stories had to be good (or last least good for the pulps). Hubbard, Heinlein, de Camp, Merrill, Asimov, Pohl, Smith and Bradbury understood the rules and applied a passion to them that just wasn’t found in the other genres. In the pulps, these writers were challenged to be as smart as they could be, as long as their stories entertained.

I found the idea of creative freedom unleashed through a group to be incredibly interesting and that is the heart of The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown. Following Campbell’s dictum, what little science there is is, well, I used plausible earlier, and I think it still applies. Nikola Tesla did try to build a mysterious prototype communications and energy transmission tower at Wardenclyffe on Long Island. The Nazis did try to build a long-range bomber capable of reaching New York from Berlin, dropping its payload, and returning. Heinlein and his team, known as the “Kamikaze Group” spent a little time and effort on invisibility and weather control. And delving into the science behind each of these events in order to present them simply, in ways that enhance the story and as close as I’ll ever come to writing science fiction. And that was a blast.

What really mattered to me was the story of the writers who seized an opportunity to make the future come true and succeeded by inspiring the imaginations of generations. Now that’s a story worth telling.

It’s not science fiction, I’ve been upfront with you about that. You can get science fiction, primo stuff, on any street corner these days — even in movie theaters and on television.

But you’re only going to find one pure, uncut, dose about science fiction. I’m talking about power and love at its, earliest, most primal age — when the future was an unwritten book. And that’s in a story that pits Heinlein against Hubbard, Asimov against the Nazi threat, and all three of them against their own human failings even as they struggle to put into words the very limits of their imaginations.


Paul Malmont is the author of The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, out this month from Simon & Schuster. Find out more at www.thatamazingbook.com and the Facebook page. He tweets from @pmalmont

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