The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, my new novel, is what I like to call faction — a hybrid of fact and fiction. A fact: Thanks to editor John W. Campbell, golden age science fiction writers Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp were hired by the Navy to work on military research at the Philadelphia Naval Yard during World War II. A fact: L. Ron Hubbard was a pulp science fiction writer, a friend of Heinlein’s, and was court martialed for, well, basically incompetency during the war — yet he always claimed he was off on super-secret missions in the Pacific. A fact: Nikola Tesla built a strange communication tower at Wardenclyffe, Long Island. A fact: a legend has grown up since the 1960s that experiments in Philadelphia may have led to a ship being transported from the harbor, to Virginia, and back again. A fact: a spring-fed river appears under the Empire State Building and runs underground to Washington Square. Somewhere beyond those facts, my fiction begins.
I do a tremendous amount of research preparing for my novels. I have a responsibility to the real lives of the people I’m turning into characters; to plausibly connect what we know about their lives with what we don’t. One thing I really like to do, whenever possible, is visit the locations I’m writing about. Two things that I write about often in describing a locale are smells and sounds — two things that I don’t have to imagine if I visit a place. So, I thought for this Geeks of Doom guest blog post that I’d share some of the real world settings I visited and photographed (and one I visited but didn’t photograph and had to borrow photos from).
1. The Street & Smith Building — 15th and 7th Ave
I walked past this building for a dozen years, and admired it, before I learned that it had been the center of the pulp universe. John Campbell worked here. Doc Savage and The Shadow were born here. Astounding and Unknown things happened here. Then, one day, it all ended.
2. Wardenclyffe — Shoreham, Long Island
In the middle of an average suburban neighborhood is a fenced-in area. Beyond the fence is all that remains of Nikola Tesla’s vision for providing world communications. Or free energy. Or a weapon.
This building was designed by the great gilded age architect, Stanford White.
3. The Gibson Family Mansion — Germantown, Philadelphia
Walter Gibson, magician, and creator of The Shadow (and Astounding cast member) grew up in the biggest house in this neighborhood. Biggest, by far!
No wonder he had such a gothic imagination.
4. The Asimov Residence — Philadelphia
To the best of my knowledge, this apartment building was home to Isaac Asimov and his wife, Gertrude, during the period of time he worked with Heinlein at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.
5. The Heinlein Residence — Lansdowne, Philadelphia
This is the home that Robert Heinlein rented in the Philadelphia suburbs and for a few months was the center of the science fiction writing universe.
6. The Navy Yard — Philadelphia
This is the view that Heinlein, Asimov and de Camp would have seen upon their daily arrival for work at the lab.
7. The Lab? — The Naval Yard, Philadelphia
I’ll be honest. I don’t know if this was the lab. But it was the most amazing building in the yard, and one of the furthest from the gate—so I appropriated it.
8. The Edison Tower — Edison, NJ
This monument is sited at the location where Thomas Edison had his first big lab and lit the lightbulb. It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere and in disrepair. If you know anything about Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower project, you might notice some similarities. Coincidence?
9. 2 Fifth Ave — New York, NY
OK, I didn’t take these pictures. They’re taken from the Scouting NY website. But they’re pretty much the same as what I’ve seen there and about what I’d have taken if I’d had my camera with me. This building is just north of Washington Square, right near to where I went to college. Inside is what’s left of the fountain through which water bubbles up on overflow days, like when it rains. The underground stream begins as a spring under the Empire State Building and runs downtown. It still floods Greenwich Village basements every now and then.
And just behind it, you can see this little plaque.