Gernsback, Hugo

Tagged: Author | Editor

Working and perhaps eventually legal name of Luxembourg-born US inventor, writer, editor and publisher Hugo Gernsbacher (1884-1967), who emigrated to America in 1904 to market his various minor inventions. A successful catalogue of radio parts led to a focus on publishing magazines, mostly dealing with practical science or sf, though his most popular magazine may have been the mildly scandalous Sexology. Gernsback made important contributions to the growth and development of modern sf as a writer, editor, and critic. He used the anagrammatic pseudonyms Greno Gashbock, Kars Gugenchob and Gus N Habergock for one short story apiece (> Science-Fiction Plus).

Gernsback's first and best-known novel is Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; exp as fixup 1925; rev 1950). The story of a brilliant inventor who battles two Villains on Earth and in space to win his true love Alice, Ralph is usually noted only for its inept writing and lengthy catalogue of scientific Predictions, yet the novel merits attention because of the ways Gernsback uneasily blended several generic models – melodrama, the travel tale, Utopia, even touches of Gothic and Satire – in an effort to achieve a workable vehicle for a story emphasizing scientific facts and predictions. In this way, the novel foreshadows and makes explicit many of the generic tensions that permeate later sf. A second novel, the episodic The Scientific Adventures of Baron Münchausen (May 1915-February 1917 Electrical Experimenter, irregularly, as "Baron Münchhausen's New Scientific Adventures"; reprinted in Amazing, February-July 1928; cut 2006), which never appeared in book form in his lifetime, takes its title character from World War One in Europe to the Moon and Mars; less interestingly and less satisfyingly, it moves from pure Satire to pure travelogue to pure Utopia. A third novel, the posthumously published Ultimate World (1971), combines Gernsback's long fascination with gadgetry with a mildly involving story of mysterious aliens who visit Earth and genetically transform human children into super-beings. Gernsback's short stories – which sometimes take non-narrative forms like mock news reports or Future Histories – are generally unimportant, although "The Killing Flash" (November 1929 Wonder Stories) may qualify as the first work of Recursive SF: a final letter reveals that the preceding manuscript was only a story submitted to an sf magazine.

As an editor, Gernsback regularly published sf stories, mostly by other writers, in his science magazines of the 1910s and 1920s. After publishing a special "Scientific Fiction" issue of Science and Invention in 1923, he then launched Amazing Stories in 1926, the first magazine unambiguously and exclusively devoted to sf, and the magazine that permanently made sf a publishing category. After the success of Amazing Stories Annual (1927), featuring Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Master Mind of Mars (book form 1928), he started a companion magazine, Amazing Stories Quarterly, in 1928. A year later, Gernsback lost control of these magazines when his company was forced into bankruptcy – an event usually attributed to the machinations of Bernarr Macfadden (although it has been privately theorized that Gernsback deliberately provoked his own bankruptcy as a way to avoid paying debts). Quickly establishing a new company, Gernsback started more sf magazines – Science Wonder Stories, Air Wonder Stories (soon combined as Wonder Stories), Science Wonder Quarterly (later Wonder Stories Quarterly), and Scientific Detective Monthly (later Amazing Detective Tales) – though he now let others do most of the editorial work. Only Wonder Stories survived a long time, and in 1936, poor distribution and declining sales forced him to sell this magazine (then renamed Thrilling Wonder Stories). Gernsback regularly alienated writers with low payments, late payments, or no payments at all (Donald A Wollheim famously filed suit to get the $25 Gernsback owed him for a story), but he was the first editor to publish a number of significant writers, including E E "Doc" Smith, Jack Williamson, and Stanley G Weinbaum. Gernsback's later sf ventures were short-lived: Superworld Comics (1940), the first sf Comic, and Science-Fiction Plus (1953), a magazine primarily edited by Sam Moskowitz.

Gernsback deserves more recognition as a pioneering and influential sf critic (> Definitions of SF). After first using the terms "scientific fiction" and Scientifiction, Gernsback (knowing nothing of William Wilson) coined "science fiction" in 1929 (though the term appeared once in a 1927 letter response), which has survived as the genre's identifying term despite various challenges (Speculative Fiction, Science Fantasy, etc.). In his numerous editorials and other incidental writings, Gernsback was the first person to discuss sf extensively, and readers and writers responded to his ideas. His 1926 definition of the genre – "a charming romance interwoven with scientific fact and prophetic vision" – identified three basic features of sf: narrative, scientific information, and Prediction. Sf had three natural audiences – general readers, young people, and scientists – and sf stories could achieve three goals: to entertain readers, to provide a scientific education, and to offer stimulating ideas to scientists and inventors. Gernsback also presented the first basic picture of the History of SF: the eighteenth century and earlier as times of little significant activity, Edgar Allan Poe as the first sf writer, Jules Verne and H G Wells as the other major figures, and the twentieth century as its period of true emergence as a genre. The stories and editorials in Gernsback's magazines inspired many published letters from readers, leading to contacts between interested parties that established the community of sf Fandom – and to promote the genre, Gernsback also launched the first major fan organization, the Science Fiction League, in 1934. The Hugo Awards were named in his honor, and Gernsback himself received a special Hugo in 1960 as "The Father of Magazine Science Fiction".

The citation of Gernsback as father is accurate. It was he who persuaded the world that a form of literature called sf in fact existed. His concern for scientific rigor and clarity, for better or worse, established the distinctive nature of Genre SF; without him, its literature and criticism would have taken a significantly different form. He lies at the heart of this Encyclopedia. Some maintain that Gernsback's impact on sf was harmful because it led to a sterilized and didactic insistence that the road to the future was best apprehended through a focus on science and technology in isolation; a sense of this seems to have inspired Brian Aldiss's oft-quoted description of Gernsback as "the worst disaster ever to hit the science fiction field", but other critics such as Mike Ashley have striven to improve his reputation. It is also worth noting that virtually all later voices for sf reform – from John W Campbell Jr and H L Gold to the New Wave's Harlan Ellison and Cyberpunk's Bruce Sterling – have explicitly or implicitly presented their ideas as a repudiation of Gernsback. These continuing arguments against Gernsback persuasively demonstrate his continuing influence on modern sf. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame on its inauguration in 1996. [GW]

see also: Astounding Science-Fiction; Automation; Benelux; Cities; Crime and Punishment; Dystopias; Fabulation; Fantastic Voyages; Golden Age of SF; Heroes; Illustration; Machines; Media Landscape; Near Future; Nuclear Energy; Optimism and Pessimism; Origin of Man; Politics; Power Sources; Proto SF; Psychology; Pulp; Rockets; Scientists; Space Flight; Space Opera; Transportation; Universal Translator; Vidphone; Weapons.

Hugo Gernsback

born Luxembourg: 16 August 1884

died New York: 19 August 1967

works

nonfiction

  • Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time (Marana, Arizona: BookSurge Publishing, 2007) edited by Larry Steckler [nonfiction: pod: memoir: purportedly Gernsback's autobiography, formerly thought to have been ghostwritten by Sam Moskowitz, but in fact almost entirely by Robert A W Lowndes: hb/photo from Estate of Hugo Gernsback]

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