We know some things to be true: Robert A. Heinlein recruited fellow science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to work in a research lab at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during the Second World War. There is a persistent rumor associated with the Navy Yard–the alleged disappearance and reappearance of the USS Eldridge in the “Philadelphia Experiment” of October 1943. Earlier that year, L. Ron Hubbard was relieved of his U.S. Navy command after a shooting incident in Mexican territorial waters, and there are conflicting stories of what he did for the rest of the war. Hubbard was also involved with Jack Parsons, who was simultaneously a pioneering member of the American space race program and one of the nation’s highest-ranking occultists. And the publication of “Deadline,” a short story written by Cleve Cartmill at the urging of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, led to a federal investigation into the possibility that science fiction writers were leaking atomic secrets to the enemy.
From Shelf Awareness:
Paul Malmont takes all these historical tidbits–along with some of the legends about Nikola Tesla–and bundles them into a rollicking novel in which pulp fiction writers become real-life adventurers. (The Astounding, The Amazing, and the Unknown invokes the titles of three of the most prominent science fiction magazines.) There is also a bunch more real-life figures who make cameo appearances, whose identities will remain concealed to preserve the surprise for readers. Sure, the story tweaks the historical record in a few places; “Deadline,” for example, wasn’t actually published until the spring of 1944. It’s clear readers aren’t meant to take all of this too seriously, though, as the plot becomes increasingly baroque, with more than a few ingenious twists along the way.
Malmont’s rich characterizations do much to obscure any questions of accuracy. In the midst of a hunt for a super weapon to defeat the Nazis, Heinlein and Asimov are distracted by the fissures in their marriages; Hubbard, frustrated by his failed efforts to be a war hero, takes some of his first steps towards the formulation of Scientology. (Malmont plays this straight down the middle: Hubbard is opportunistic and self-aggrandizing, but not a scheming mastermind–more like a guy who’s tired of being a hapless victim of circumstance). And just about every writer in the story is obsessed with the business of writing, whether it’s about hanging on to their status at the top of the pulp market, trying to sell more stories to better magazines, or even getting out of the pulps completely and writing “real” books. It’s because this re-creation of the literary and fan communities that emerged during the science fiction boom feels so accurate that all the other stuff seems, even if only for a few moments, utterly plausible… and remains entertaining even after disbelief returns. –Ron Hogan
Shelf Talker: Malmont inserts some callbacks to his first novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (2007), which took a similar approach to pulp stars of the 1930s, but readers can enjoy this new story with or without that one under their belts.