REVIEW SUMMARY: Continuing from the guilty pleasure of the voyeuristic look at the pulp author heroes of my childhood in The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, Malmont follows Heinlein, Asimov and other science fiction giants as fact meets fiction again in a race to create super-weapons and super defenses against the Axis in World War II.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: John Campbell assembles a team of science fiction writers to work with the Government during World War II. Led by Robert Heinlein and joined by Isaac Asimov and others, the team works to make science fiction a reality to help the war effort. Lost manuscripts and testing notes from Nikola Tesla lead the team on a merry chase for a super-weapon that could end the war.
PROS: As with The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, hard to tell where fact ends and fiction begins; great tie-ins with the previous novel; believable characterizations of our heroes, Heinlein and Asimov.
CONS: My mama always told me that voyeurism was bad, but in this case I’ll make an exception. (Sorry, Mom!)
BOTTOM LINE: Picks up where the first book left off; with strong characterizations of Heinlein and Asimov, and return appearances by Gibson, Dent and Hubbard, an enjoyable blend of historical fact with adventure fiction.
An interesting confluence of events in my reading chronology ends with this review. Shortly after reading and reviewing Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, which features Doc Savage author and co-creator Lester Dent, I was invited to read the first new Doc Savage in 18 years by Will Murray, based on notes from Lester Dent.
The cycle is complete with this novel, which includes Dent and Walter Gibson from the Chinatown book, but features Robert Heinlein (who also appears in the first book), Isaac Asimov and other science fiction writers.
I must admit to feeling that I was invading the privacy of my author heroes, as if they were reduced to tawdry tabloid stories. Marital issues? Mental asylums? Sex? Not Lester Dent and Bob Heinlein! No way. These guys were superhuman, above the petty concerns of the masses. (Lester and Norma Dent are portrayed as the quintessential all-American couple, and though I never had the honor to know them, as a Doc Savage fan boy I think this is as it should be.)
And therein lies the subtle elegance of these two novels, the blending of fact and fiction in a way that makes the reader question which is which. Several times, I caught myself asking “Did that really happen?” and being tempted to do research to answer that question. But I did not, because that would have spoiled the effect. As Malmont writes, or has Dent say in the first book, the difference between pulps and reality are the “lies” the author sticks into the story.
The story itself revolves around Heinlein, who is leading a team of science fiction authors working for the government to try and make science fiction a reality to aide the war effort, and a young Asimov, who is on the team. L. Ron Hubbard (who was in the first novel along with Heinlein) joins the team after partially getting thrown out of the Navy. A side story involves Hubbard’s encounters with different new age and old school religions and philosophies as he questions the direction of his life and loves, apparently as a precursor to his Dianetics book (a future Malmont subject??).
Through their attempts to help build super-weapons and super-defenses, Heinlein and the team (put together by John Campbell) discover an old experiment by the late Nikola Tesla, an experimental version of which may have been responsible for the destruction of a forest in Siberia. (Heard of Tunguska?) As with the Chinatown novel, the authors become the adventurers, finding old safes under the Empire State Building, escaping through forgotten underground rivers, engaging in one-upmanship pranks with their Navy cohorts, experimenting with science, and generally trying to save the day like the heroes they write about. They get harassed by the government from all sides: the part that hired them, the part that thinks some scifi writers are commies, and the part that may want Tesla’s invention for themselves (if it really works).
Well placed cameos are made by Jimmy Stewart, Albert Einstein and others, but the focus is squarely on Heinlein and Asimov, and to a lesser extent Hubbard, with their wives, girlfriends, marital struggles and infidelities on display. This lends more than a sense of realism, it provides the sort of stresses in their lives that real humans have. L. Sprague de Camp also plays a supporting role on the team.
A few searches around the Internet will lead you to some clues as to what is fact and what is fiction (these two articles by Bob Silverberg from Asimov‘s magazine, for instance). But, again, it is that blend, and the characterizations of our author heroes that make this as enticing a read as the first book.