How to attain literary popularity: First, take an artistic form beloved by geeks. Second, add a liberal dose of historical and pseudo-historical figures who helped create and define that form. Third—the most difficult step—send your genre-based characters on an adventure that reflexively fits their form. The result, ideally, is a critically acclaimed, popular novel that addresses comic books like The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, or magicians like Carter Beats The Devil. Or it could be The Astounding, The Amazing, And The Unknown, a fast-paced, pulpy novel channeling Golden Age science-fiction authors.
There is some historical basis for the events of the book. Robert Heinlein did, in fact, recruit L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov to join his research unit in Philadelphia during World War II. The purpose of that, according to The Astounding, was to engage in a rollicking adventure, tracking down Nikola Tesla’s greatest experiment, a corporate conspiracy, and possibly a Nazi fleet of superbombers threatening the entire Eastern Seaboard.
The Astounding is the very definition of a page-turner, as dozens of chapters fly by in a single sitting. Does having famous science-fiction authors and editors on these adventures make the book better? Maybe not, but they probably were necessary to get the book published. The book’s use of familiar names can be impressive, as with Asimov’s difficulties in understanding people leading him to sympathize with robots. Sometimes it’s cutesy—Heinlein meets Albert Einstein and berates himself for not having a single, simple word to describe Einstein’s deep understanding of the universe, a word Heinlein later invented for Stranger In A Strange Land. And sometimes it’s a little disturbing, as when Asimov and his wife argue about his desire for fellatio and her resistance.
Still, in spite of its somewhat odd relationship with real persons—some only recently deceased—The Astounding, The Amazing, And The Unknown is undeniably effective entertainment, and a gateway into the history of science-fiction pulps. It may not be great literature itself, but it’s great fun, and as with the pulps it describes, who’s to say the former can’t come from the latter?