Paul Malmont is the author of three novels re-imaging the lives of early 20th century pulp writers to thrilling effect: his first, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, placed ‘30s authors Walter Gibson (The Shadow) and Lester Dent (Doc Savage) in their own pulp adventure, complete with zombies and phantom freighters, and his second, Jack London in Paradise, took a look at that author’s mysterious later years in Hawaii. Malmont’s new novel, The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, takes us into the mad laboratory of the early sci-fi writers who were enlisted by the U.S. Navy during World War II to use their imaginative brawn and scientific know-how to create military super-weapons. (Loosely based on fact, amazingly. Or astoundingly).
I met Paul at a book conference a few years back, and we’ll both be at Comic Con next month. And because I’ve been increasingly interested in the interconnections between what his characters call “what’s real and what’s pulp,” I tossed him a few questions.
Thomas Mullen: While I was reading your book I happened to see X-Men: First Class and I couldn’t help but think of some odd similarities. The movie is a sort of prequel, showing the origins of mutant superheroes that we’ve come to know and love, with the occasional cameo from someone like Wolverine at a bar, and placing the story in a historical context (the Cold War). Your book traces the early lives of writing legends (like Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard), explaining their motivations and dreams, again with some cool cameos (like Ray Bradbury and even Einstein), and placing it in a historical context (World War II).
Paul Malmont: I love the literary mash-up form. I love when something you’re familiar with collides with something you aren’t. That’s my favorite kind of illusion. I’m a big fan of pop-culture shout-outs, and references and allusions. I think they work in things like X-Men and our books because they validate our love of these geeky things. If you look Alan Moore’s work, especially League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s just one huge geek-out. But at the same time, he’s trying to get down to the essence of why we still love these characters and these stories.
Philip Jose Farmer was a master of this, too, and he had such a huge influence on me. He created a family tree that linked all sorts of great fictional characters from Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan to James Bond and Nero Wolfe—the Wold-Newton Family. Win Scott Eckert and other fans had Farmer’s blessing to build onto the tree, so now its branches extend to Steve Austen, Buckaroo Banzai, Peter Venkman, and Buffy Summers. But Farmer was the first one to do the mash-up.
TM: Your book plays with the idea of imagination and how it can influence the real world. In this very unique writers’ workshop, sci-fi authors are conducting research for the Navy; on a chalkboard someone has written the following inspirational bullet points:
“CAN WE MAKE IT FLY HIGHER OR FASTER OR BY ITSELF?
CAN WE MAKE IT VANISH?
CAN WE BLOW IT UP BETTER?
CAN WE CONFUSE OUR ENEMIES?”
One character even explains that sci-fi writers, by imagining a future, actually do bring that world into being, by putting their visions on paper to catalyze their readers (mechanics and inventors and engineers), who will take that imaginary baton and run with it. I loved that motif.
PM: My first book was really about the redemptive power of the imagination–how the writers could always use theirs to pull them back from whatever brink they stood upon. My second was about the destructive power of the imagination–how it could turn to obsession and despair. So the theme of this one is what are the limits to imagination? How far can you take an idea before it breaks? Or breaks you? All these guys are so in love with different visions of the future and they really want to bring it about. But reality intrudes in the form of bureaucracy, relationships, an entire planet at war.
Something from Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ that made a big impression on me was the sense he created that the coming of the Messiah was so imminent, it could happen at any moment. It seemed to be in the air and it was what everyone was talking about. I tried to capture some of that sense for these writers. I think they felt that they were part of something so huge that they got swept up in it–creating the future.
By writing it out on that board, I’m trying to show what the stakes are. Can these guys, who put such faith in their imaginations, bend reality to their will. Writers try to convince you that what the world you’re reading about is, in some sense, real, and I’m using the Philadelphia Lab as the analogy for the creative process of a writer. That part introduces the brainstorming process when every idea seems glittering and golden. Then, throughout the book, we kind of track the progress of those ideas as they are written out, so to speak.
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