Gary Westfahl’s Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction

Westfahl-gernsbackHugo Gernsback occupies a unique role in the history of science fiction, but exactly what that role is at present has generated a fair amount of controversy. He has been depicted as the visionary creator of a new genre of forward-looking fiction, and equally as a high-handed editor who thought nothing of rewriting his contributors’ stories to fit his ideas. In spite of the legends, I don’t think Gernsback can legitimately be called the creator of science fiction, by any means. A number of writers, including Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, defined the parameters of the “scientific romance,” and one can, if one wishes, follow Brian Aldiss back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a first sketch of the means and concerns of the genre. However, as Gary Westfahl points out in passing in his Introduction to Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction, Gernsback, through his work as editor of the first science-fiction magazine, created the idea of science fiction: a genre built on a realistic foundation of known fact, utilizing rational projections to make predictions with a vision of technology – “science,” on Gernsback’s parlance – as the means of improving the lot of humanity, all displayed in a self-sustaining community – fandom, which has been a critically important part of the workings of science fiction since the days of Amazing Stories.

Gernsback himself was, as so many impresarios are, not always an easy man to deal with, from all reports. He also, as I’ve learned from comments by several writers who got their start in the early days, insisted on adherence to his formula for stories that he published. (Not in itself unusual, nor, really, a fault: just about every editor of importance during the Ages of the Pulps and the Golden Age left his or her stamp on the field in just that way.) Westfahl sidesteps this issue, or casts it in much more sympathetic terms than in usually the case, in the first section of the book, which is essentially a rehabilitation. He takes strong exception to comments by Brian Stableford and John Clute, which he describes as, first, “character assassination,” and second “an implicit assault on the power of [Gernsback’s] legacy.” If you are caught up in the minutiae of academic polemic, this first section might be of interest, but to my mind Westfahl engages in a bit of overkill in his attempt to establish the primacy of Gernsback as the seminal figure in a field that, when all is said and done, has small patience with authority. (A characteristic that still shows itself strongly in the emergence of slipstream and interfiction and the ongoing inability of anyone to say exactly what science fiction is.) My own feeling is that, while Gernsback may have defined an idea of science fiction, it was an idea that almost immediately took on a life of its own, and notwithstanding that the genre in its early days was as much the product of editors as writers – I don’t think anyone will dispute the influence of John W. Campbell, Horace Gold, or Anthony Boucher as well as Gernsback on the development of the genre – I don’t think that any single figure can really be said to stand out as the creator of the idea. The first portion of the book is quite rightly concerned with Gernsback the editor, and I think there Westfahl is on the most solid ground for obvious reasons.

The second portion of the book, “Hugo Gernsback the Author,” begins with an extensive and detailed textual analysis of Ralph 124C 41+, Gernsback’s most famous story, which began as a serial in Gernsback’s magazine Modern Electrics in 1911 and went though several varying editions as a novel. Although Westfahl points out Gernsback’s attempts to improve the literary quality of the story, when all is said and done, Gernsback was not a very good writer. (I’ve read the thing, believe it or not – it’s definitely a time-capsule piece, and the literary quality is sadly deficient.)

This section is much more problematic in terms of supporting Wesfahl’s claim for Gernsback’s primacy, the problem being that Gernsback was not only not a good writer, but his output as a writer, aside from filler columns to make up needed space in his magazines, was almost nil. And so the attempt to link Gernsback to such phenomena as William Gibson and cyberpunk are necessarily met with more than a little skepticism, only reinforced by 180 degree turns in the characterization of Gernsback’s work. We are told quite early on, for example, that Ralph 124C 41+ is in its beginning cast in the mold of the classic utopia, only to be told later that Gernsback’s creation was really anti-utopian in the same vein as Gibson’s Neuromancer because the world it describes still has problems that not only are not addressed by “science” but in reality created by it. (This is not the time or place to get into a comparative analysis of the two novels, but I do want to point out that there are differences in tone and emphasis that seem to further weaken Westfahl’s argument.)

When all is said and done, Westfahl’s study strikes me as at least as much polemic as scholarly explication, in which arguments too often are marred by overreaching. Perhaps the most egregious example is crediting Gernsback with a line of popular phenomena that stretches from Philip Francis Nowland’s Armageddon 2194 A.D., the original Buck Rogers story, which Gernsback first published, through a line of Saturday matinee serials, television series, and films that includes Flash Gordon, Star Trek (all generations), and Star Wars. I can’t quite shake the notion that Nowland might have had something to do with this, since he wrote the thing (although Westfahl barely gives him credit for that), and secondly that any such phenomenon relies as much on popular taste, marketing, profit motive, and Zeitgeist as it does on the influence of one figure, who, no matter his stature in what has been called “an unpopular popular genre,” was still, to the vast majority of those who saw those films and television series, a name that usually elicits the response, “Who?”.

So, we are still waiting for a judicious and even-handed study that will provide a reasonable perspective on the role of Hugo Gernsback in the creation and development of modern science fiction and his proper place in the sf pantheon.

(McFarland & Company, 2007)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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