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Author imagines sci-fi writers in World War II intrigue

| Sunday, July 3, 2011

They were part of the war effort, but the members of the Kamikaze Group during World War II were far from the frontlines. Science-fiction writers Robert Heinlein, Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, a geek dream team based at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, were charged with developing weapons that were the real-life versions of the death rays, invisibility cloaks and force fields that populated their works.

Never mind that science fiction wasn't always based on science facts. Because Heinlein, de Camp and Asimov dared dream of jet packs, robots and space travel, some factions in the military -- and many readers -- believed the impossible was plausible and doable. Even if their research during the war failed to produce wondrous secret weapons, their stories left an indelible mark on the scientific community.

"They gave so many people, including the subsequent generation of baby boomers, dreams," says Paul Malmont, author of the novel "The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown." "I'm sure, if you talked to anybody who was part of the Apollo program, they would have gone straight to Heinlein and Ray Bradbury as the main inspirations for what they were doing."

The plot of Malmont's story is firmly grounded in the pulp fiction that was popular in the 1940s. After a German saboteur washes up on a beach on Long Island, N.Y., the Kamikaze Group learns about German interest in an invention that could change the course of the war. Heinlein and his peers pursue rumors about a secret weapon developed by Nikola Tesla, which, if it exists, would be able to stop fleets of ships and squadrons of aircraft at the press of a button.

"I wanted to deliver on the promise of the pulp covers themselves, the stories that always looked like they were going to be in those magazines," Malmont says. "All those authors were the ones who got to me when I was a teenager, especially Robert Heinlein. I wanted to try to capture some of the innocence and enthusiasm, but also the fun back then of writing."

Who was the king of the pulps at this time• One of the candidates -- at least, the one who takes center stage in "The Astounding ... " -- is a certain Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. Or, as he would later become known, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

Malmont casts Hubbard, who was also in the author's first novel "The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril," as comic relief, a contentious fellow with boundless energy and a penchant for getting in trouble. But, if Malmont takes artistic license with Hubbard's (and everyone else's) character, he tried to be accurate about the quality of Hubbard's writing.

"He was pretty important in the pulp era, and he did write a lot," Malmont says. "But he was a hack. I hate to put another writer down, but it's not debatable. And he generated a lot of (pulp stories)."

Malmont, who has written for the Cartoon Network, VH1.com and Microsoft, currently works at an interactive advertising agency in New York. He sees a connection between the technological wonders the 21st century and the rise in popularity of science fiction in the 1940s.

"The Golden Age of science fiction is kind of a metaphor for my contemporary experience with the birth of new media," Malmont says. "The book is about a new genre, and it must have been special to be a part of something new that you think is taking off. I've been a part of that with the projects I've worked on before the dot.com boom started. We were all saying back then, 'This is going to be great,' and, to some extent, it is changing the world.

"And I try to make the point that, since then, that era has changed the world in a lot of exciting and unexpected ways. Those guys, in particular, influenced so much of pop culture, science and our reality. I definitely tried to put in some of the enthusiasm and energy and excitement of being around something that's a new form that has new possibilities, a new future."

Additional Information:

Capsule review

Call it truth in advertising: Paul Malmont's 'The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown' is all of those things, a joyous romp grounded in the golden age of science and pulp fiction in the 1940s. The author's cast -- writers Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard, with cameos by Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla -- are wonderfully realized. Humorous and clever, 'The Astounding ...' is an opus waiting for Hollywood to call.

• Rege Behe

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