Science Fiction’s Hundred Year Spree
Gary Westfahl celebrates a major anniversary in the history of science fiction.
As many have observed, it will always be impossible to establish one text, or one tradition, as the true beginning of science fiction, since so many people have advanced so many different candidates for that honor. Some commentators expansively look back at ancient travelers’ tales or Lucian’s satirical True History (circa 160) to locate the genre’s origins. The first scholarly study of science fiction, J. O. Bailey’s Pilgrims through Time and Space: Trends and Patterns in Scientific and Utopian Fiction (1947), begins with Thomas More’s Utopia (1615). Other texts from the Renaissance, such as Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1626) and Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634), have also been supported as ancestors of the form. Most literary critics have embraced the argument of Brian W. Aldiss that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) was the first science fiction novel, while Jules Verne and H. G. Wells are still celebrated by some as the true progenitors of science fiction. And then, there is the horse that I have backed in this race: Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 [Purchase], which at this precise moment is celebrating its one hundredth anniversary — since the first installment of its initial serialized version appeared in the April, 1911 issue of Modern Electrics. In comparison to the other candidates, though, the novel certainly seems like a Johnny-come-lately, since a multitude of earlier works are now universally regarded as science fiction.
Today, if you are anticipating a vigorous argument in favor of my position, you will be disappointed — or relieved — since I have long ago lost any passionate desire to proselytize on Gernsback’s behalf. Yet it remains interesting to consider the special features of Ralph that have indelibly influenced the genre and establish the novel as a credible contender to be science fiction’s real starting point, along with the other, more obvious possibilities.
Specifically, there was one thing that made Ralph different from all earlier works of science fiction: it was published in a science magazine, Gernsback’s Modern Electrics. Thus, to justify its presence in a magazine otherwise filled with articles about current and coming developments in the new fields of electronics, radio, and aviation, the novel implicitly had to advance a new sort of claim: yes, this is a work of fiction, but it is also, in some fashion, a work of science. To support this singular assertion, Gernsback crafted a framing narrative about a brilliant scientist of the twenty-seventh century, Ralph 124C 41+, who constantly entertains his girlfriend, Alice 212B 423, with lengthy scientific lectures and descriptions of his latest inventions, slowing down the story while providing his science-minded readers with more than enough material to satisfy their interests. In contrast, while Somnium does at times read like a treatise, the other works mentioned had been published and accepted purely as works of fiction, and they rarely made any special efforts to foreground scientific data and predictions beyond what their stories required.
To be sure, science fiction enthusiasts might wish for a better novel as a major precursor of their form than the justly berated Ralph. However, while it is undoubtedly badly written and clumsily constructed, the novel does, in its own inept fashion, embody the many possibilities in science fiction, more artfully realized in later stories. Its plot includes aliens, space travel, projected time travel employing a sort of suspended animation, and a future society distinguished by both scientific and social advances. At times, it moves at the leisurely pace of a traveler’s tale or utopia, as Alice receives a guided tour of the innumerable wonders of 2660. We learn of a “Subatlantic Tube” (58) for transportation beneath the Atlantic Ocean, a “Scienticaf‚” serving liquefied “scientific foods” (73, 75), “Helio-Dynamophores” (82) that generate solar energy, “Accelerated Plant Growing Farms” (97), floating “vacation cities” in the sky (132), and many other innovations. But at other times it is a fast-paced melodramatic adventure, as Ralph rushes to rescue Alice from the clutches of not one but two sinister abductors. Their weapons include an invisibility cloak and a spaceship used to abduct Alice (requiring Ralph to invent a form of radar to locate her). In addition, there are elements of romance, as Ralph is smitten with the beautiful Alice and her long, luxurious hair. There are moments of satire, as Gernsback is willing to poke fun at his highly intelligent but socially maladroit hero. At the novel’s conclusion there is a touch of horror as Ralph discovers Alice has been murdered and must devise a way to bring her back from the dead.
In sum, while I would never recommend the innumerable readings that enabled me to explore its fascinating incongruities and clarify its complex publishing history (as recounted in my The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction  and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction ), the novel remains, as Aldiss says, a “unique document” (203) that every science fiction reader should experience at least once. But it is its tacit status as a form of scientific writing, and the special air of authority it thus inherits, that makes Ralph one plausible candidate as the first work of science fiction.
The implied claim of special value inherent in the circumstances of Ralph‘s publication was later advanced explicitly, on behalf of all science fiction, in the editorials of Gernsback’s science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, which began publishing in 1926. He maintained that works of “scientifiction” — the term he first used before settling, three years later, on “science fiction” — all contain, in addition to a narrative, the two unique features that are conspicuously evident in Ralph: large dollops of accurate scientific information, and detailed descriptions of proposed new inventions. As he said in his first editorial, “A New Sort of Magazine,” “By `scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story — a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (3).
With these elements of “scientific fact” and “prophetic vision” embedded in the fiction of an adventurous “romance,” science fiction could accomplish two important tasks that no other form of literature could perform. First, stories could provide readers with a scientific education: they “have the knack of imparting knowledge, and even inspiration, without once making us aware that we are being taught” (“A New Sort of Magazine” 3). Second, stories could offer scientists practical ideas for new discoveries: as he said in a later editorial, “The Lure of Scientifiction,” “such stories prove an incentive in starting some one to work on a device or invention suggested by some author of scientifiction” (195).
From the beginning, the validity of these arguments was questionable, since many of the stories that Gernsback published in Amazing Stories fulfilled his requirements minimally, if at all. Yet Gernsback had struck a chord, for the letters that soon appeared in his magazines, and the letters that appeared in the science fiction magazines edited by others that sprang up in the 1930s, spoke enthusiastically about the special power of science fiction that derived in large part from its extraordinary devotion to science. United by a fervent belief in such ideas, dedicated readers soon forged a genuine science fiction community — forming clubs, publishing fanzines, and organizing conventions to promulgate and share their views — and they soon persuaded the world that a separate category of literature named science fiction actually existed.
Furthermore, to appeal to that audience, all science fiction magazines throughout the 1930s and 1940s dutifully promised readers that their stories were filled with correct science and plausible predictions, and all writers learned that, to publish in those magazines, they would at least need to pay lip service to those expectations. Gernsback’s special technique — the awkward ‘infodump’ explaining the real and imagined science that (usually) characters already know — became an enduring convention of the genre. (One writer notoriously copied passages from a chemistry textbook.) And when some youthful readers of those magazines began to publish their own stories in the 1950s and thereafter, a number of them thoroughly embraced the ideals expressed, if not always practiced, in the magazines. They produced stories that, more so than earlier works, were solidly based on painstakingly accurate scientific data and careful extrapolations from that data — so much so that, by 1957, a new term was coined to describe their efforts, “hard science fiction.”
Finally, the widespread perception that science fiction had some educational value strengthened the genre during the crucial period in the 1950s when it successfully attracted an audience of young readers, for parents (like mine) were happy to have their children read science fiction while they were less enthusiastic about, say, westerns or detective stories.
But there was also fierce resistance to the notion that science fiction should be regarded as science textbooks and journal articles disguised as fiction. In the 1930s, the first book about science fiction, Clyde F. Beck’s privately published Hammer and Tongs (1937), demanded that writers pay attention to literary values more than scientific values, calling for “allegorical satire and imaginative projection of present social trends” and noting that a writer “must write of real people after all if he is to interest real people” (5). Such themes were taken up in the 1950s by prominent reviewers like Damon Knight and James Blish. By the 1960s, leaders of the “New Wave” movement vehemently rejected any connections between science fiction and science, insisting instead that works of “speculative fiction” should solely aspire to literary depth and sophistication. In the stories they wrote and championed, and in innumerable other science fiction stories, the effects of Gernsback’s calls for scientific facts and stimulating scientific ideas seem almost invisible, which would appear to invalidate any suggestion that Gernsback’s Ralph represents one force that shaped science fiction.
Yet one vestigial remnant of Gernsback’s quaint priorities remained ubiquitous in the genre: even if science fiction did not have to include scientific facts, everyone agreed that it should least avoid presenting scientific errors. As Knight observes in In Search of Wonder (1956), “When [Alfred] Bester suggests that people don’t turn to science fiction for information, of course he’s right; but people don’t turn to s.f. for misinformation either” (6). Thus, while lambasting writers for various lapses in narrative logic, characterization, and prose style, Knight and Blish also criticized writers for egregious mistakes in basic science. None other than Harlan Ellison, editor of the groundbreaking New Wave anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), eviscerated a television movie, The Love War (1970), for the scientific nonsense at the heart of its story (The Other Glass Teat 38-43). And even today, this is still accepted as a defining characteristic of science fiction: a true work of science fiction respects the facts of science. If a story flagrantly violates the facts of science, it is not genuine science fiction.
On the face of it, this stipulation would appear inconsequential. What difference does it make, really, if the starship of Star Trek (1966-1969) quickly travels from star to star by means of “warp drive,” while the runaway Moon of Space: 1999 (1975-1977) makes similar journeys without any use of such buzzwords? Shouldn’t it be possible to craft an intelligent, thought-provoking story about the future that just happens to misrepresent a few scientific laws? If writers get their story, characters, theme, and prose style right, why should it matter if they get the science wrong? Perhaps there are no logical answers to these questions, but for working writers, it doesn’t matter: you’ll never publish a story in a science fiction magazine if your characters travel from Earth to Alpha Centauri in three days without going through hyperspace, or if you have children inheriting an acquired trait from their parents. No matter how good the story is, scientific boners like that simply won’t be tolerated.
There is only one way to explain this requirement to a neophyte writer, and that is: the lasting impact of Hugo Gernsback’s writings and ideas. He established a basic respect for science as a key distinguishing trait of science fiction. Previous writers sometimes adhered to scientific facts, and sometimes ignored scientific facts, and rarely thought of this as a significant issue in creating their stories. True, one might argue that Jules Verne anticipated Gernsback’s approach, but even Verne sometimes ignored scientific realities; thus, “introducing Off on a Comet in the first issue of Amazing Stories, Gernsback had to admit that his methods for getting his travelers into space ‘”belong in the realm of fairyland”‘ (5). In contrast, in while writing Ralph for his science magazine, Gernsback absolutely, positively had to be scientifically accurate, and by means of his later proselytizing he passed an identical, if more moderate, concern for science on to all succeeding generations of writers. And it is primarily on those on those grounds that I once presented Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 as the first true work of science fiction. Feel free to disagree, but accept at least that the novel had an impact on science fiction that vastly exceeded its merits as a work of fiction.
Of course, it remains possible to regard the devotion to science that science fiction inherited from Gernsback as a senseless tradition that has stubbornly endured for no good reason, but I would prefer to see it as something more significant than that. I believe that consistently respecting the laws of science fiction tends to improve all aspects of a story, including its literary merits. I do not think it is a coincidence that Star Trek, which usually avoided egregious scientific errors, was a pretty good series, while Space: 1999, which conspicuously didn’t care about scientific errors, was an aesthetic disaster. I do not think it is a coincidence that virtually all of the science fiction writers that people have long respected, ranging from Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein to Ursula K. Le Guin and William Gibson, keep their stories within the bounds of scientific plausibility, while almost all writers who flagrantly dabble in impossible science are stigmatized and ridiculed.
It is impossible to deny that Gernsback had a powerful effect on science fiction; but I would go beyond that to say that Gernsback had a beneficial effect on science fiction, and notwithstanding the merits of his distinguished predecessors, and the wretchedness of his own literary talents. The genre today is better as a whole because of his influence. Even Brian W. Aldiss — who famously derided Gernsback as “one of the worst disasters to ever hit the science fiction field” (Trillion Year Spree 202) — owes him a strong debt of gratitude; and there is no better time to celebrate his contributions than the one hundredth anniversary of his greatest achievement.
Aldiss, Brian W., with David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1986. An earlier version, as by Aldiss alone (and also containing the cited quotations), was published as Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction. New York: Schocken Books, 1973. Page references are to the 1986 edition.
Beck, Clyde F. Hammer and Tongs. Lakeport, California: Futile Press, 1937.
Ellison, Harlan. The Other Glass Teat: Further Essays of Opinion on Television. New York: Pyramid Books, 1975.
Gernsback, Hugo. Introduction to Off on a Comet, or Hector Servadac. Amazing Stories, 1 (April, 1926), 4-5. [unsigned, by but probably written by Gernsback]
—. “The Lure of Scientifiction.” Amazing Stories, 1 (June, 1926), 195.
—. “A New Sort of Magazine.” Amazing Stories, 1 (April, 1926), 3.
—. Ralph_124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. Boston: Stratford Company, 1925. Revised Second Edition. New York: Frederick Fell, 1950. An earlier version was serialized in Modern Electrics in 1911 and 1912. Page references are to the 1950 edition.
Knight, Damon. In Search of Wonder. 1956. Revised and Enlarged. Chicago: Advent: Press, 1967.
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