" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ralph 124C41+ Hugo Gernsback and his contribution to SF

   Crest Book editon, 1958, cover by Richard Powers

As someone interested in science fiction history as well as contemporary works it seems strange that I have not previously tackled Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+. It was Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder; The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction that really gave me the kick in the pants I needed. 

From the back cover “This is a sustained argument about the idea of science fiction by a renowned critic. Overturning many received opinions, it is both controversial and stimulating. Much of the controversy arises from Westfahl's resurrection of Hugo Gernsback - for decades a largely derided figure - as the true creator of science fiction. Following an initial demolition of earlier critics, Westfahl argues for Gernsback's importance. His argument is fully documented, showing a much greater familiarity with early American science fiction, particularly magazine fiction, than previous academic critics or historians. After his initial chapters on Gernsback, he examines the way in which the Gernsback tradition was adopted and modified by later magazine editors and early critics. This involves a re-evaluation of the importance of John W. Campbell to the history of science fiction as well as a very interesting critique of Robert Heinlein's Beyond the Horizon, one the seminal texts of American science fiction. In conclusion, Westfahl uses the theories of Gernsback and Campbell to develop a descriptive definition of science fiction and he explores the ramifications of that definition.”

As Westfahl devotes an entire chapter to Ralph 124C41+ and references it in other sections I needed to read this book. I am finding Westfahl’s book an interesting read and I will provide my take on his argument after we visit Ralph.

 Ralph 124C 41+ was a twelve part serial appearing in Gernsbeck’s Modern Electronics in April 1911. The story starts on Sept 1, 2660 with Ralph 124C 41+ using his telephot, (a telephone with a screen) to communicate with one of his friends. His call is cut off and he find that he is reconnected to a beautiful young lady who turns out to be Alice 212B 423 marooned in a villa in Switzerland. A work action, i.e., sabotage by the four weather-engineers in her region has created an area of “high depression’ which has resulted in a five day blizzard and cut off power to the villa. Alice had just managed to reinstall the power mast when she contacted Ralph. She immediately recognizes Ralph as one of only ten men in the world allowed to add a + sign to their name/designation. It seems he is possibly the world’s greatest living scientist, the only other member of the ten we meet in the story is a surgeon, and so Alice reasonably asks for his autograph. Ralph quickly hooks up his telautograph and sends it over. But wait what’s that noise, an avalanche is bearing down on poor Alice. 

What follows is a pleasantly technical exchange, Alice is obviously no shrinking violet.

“Speak quick?” he barked. “is your Power Mast still up.”
“Yes, but what good-?”
“Never mind. Your wave length?”
“Can you direct it yourself?’
“Could you attach a six-foot piece of your blown-down Communico mast to the base of the Power aerial?’
“Certainly-it’s of alomagmasium and it is very light.” (14)

And once Alice has hooked everything up Ralph is able to direct the ultra-power from his ultra-generator from New York to Switzerland. (Ralph is a sport he sounds a siren to warn his neighbours to insulate themselves before he flips the switch, he’s not a mad scientist). Ralph is then able to shoot an immense flame from Alice’s mast and melt the snow. This also allows Gernsbeck to interject some handy information about the current state of physics as he understands it. “Inasmuch as light waves cannot pass through space without the medium of ether, it necessarily follows that the entire area upon which the aerial acted was dark.” (17) I love ether. 

Alice’s father who has been frantically trying to reach her appears and Ralph discreetly breaks the connection. Ralph then returns to his experiments but chafes under the constraints imposed on him by his position and finds he cannot forget Alice. Ralph is not a free agent for as the planet governor, ruler of 15 billion people, states Ralph is “ a great inventor,” …., a tremendous factor in the world’s advancement. You are invaluable to humanity, and —you are irreplaceable. You belong to the world —not to yourself.”  (21)

Ralph’s status however does appear to carry certain perks. Dangerous experiments are carried out by criminals under sentence of death to protect Ralph, if they die no harm is done if they live they go to prison for life. He has an round tower 650 feet tall with a staff and a long suffering man servant Peter to fetch and carry. And Ralph has the adulation of the world for the increases he has made to agricultural yield of American farms. and inventions like the Menograph which records your thoughts or the Hypnobioscope which can project newspapers, course materials or books to your sleeping mind. Yet Ralph is unfulfilled, until Alice and her father James 212B 422, an engineer designing the new Subatlantic Tube, stop by on a visit to New York. Ralph insists that they stay with him, he has plenty of room after all. And now he is able to tour Alice (and us) around New York, the most advanced city of 2660. Ralph is obviously smitten, after all Ralph 124C 41+ is often described as “ A Romance of the Year 2660”. Indeed the only fly in the ointment is the fact that James has admitted to Ralph that Alice has two unwanted suitors, one a nasty young man named Fernand 60O 10, and a Martian Liysanorh’ CK 1618 who is infatuated with Alice despite laws forbidding Earth Martian marriages. My thoughts.

August 1935 cover by Frank R. Paul? he is listed as the art director

Ralph 124C 41+ is encumbered by the rather wooden dialog and characterization that typifies the writing of the pulp era in general not just science fiction. Certainly anyone who has read E.E. Smith, Ray Cummings or the early stories of Jack Williamson (all of who continued to be reprinted long after the “pulp era’ ended) will notice the same stylistic problems. One of the things which readers and reviewers seem to dislike the most occurs throughout the novel but gets worse as Ralph tours Alice around New York, for it is here that Gernsback relentlessly tells rather than shows. For every stop on the tour, and it is spread over days, involves explanations about, weather control, it is alway 72 Fahrenheit and rains only between 2 and 3 in the morning, the Tele-motor-coasters, i.e. the roller-skates people use to get around when not using flying taxis, the delivery of packages, solar power, street lighting, economics and currency etc. I did find the novel started to drag around page 100 but then the tour ended and the plot picked up, and I was fine. I enjoyed the novel. 

I see many early science fiction works as historic artifacts as well as entertainment. Gernsback was an early pioneer in electronics, radio and television so I enjoyed seeing his fictionalized ideas of how future might look, after all he went on to found not just Amazing Stories, but many fiction and non-fiction magazines including The Electrical Experimenter, Modern Electrics, Science and Mechanics, Radio News, Air Wonder Stories etc. Many have covers by Frank R. Paul, which I think are some of the the most spectacular pulp covers ever produced. Certainly there are odd gaps in his depiction of the year 2660 considering Gernsback’s interests, there is a lot of technology but no robots. Information, books and newspapers are provided on an advanced microfiche like system not electronically. Rather than a 3D television Ralph has an entire 3D theatre in the basement. This is another flaw in the novel, we see how Ralph lives but Ralph is an exceptional individual, we do not see how the average citizen lives. However one invention of Ralph’s that I found fascinating was the aerial floating vacation city. "This," explained Ralph, "is one of our many vacation cities that I hope will soon dot every part of the world. People are living entirely too intensely nowadays and with the many functions that they have to perform, with all the labor-saving devices they have, their lives are speeded up to the breaking point” (86) So Ralph is creating vacation islands where people have nothing to do but rest and relax “ There is no noise, no excitement, not even a radiotelephone” (87). Wow, for a man who spent his entire life promoting technology especially electronics, radio and television this is possibly for me his greatest invention. That Gernsback could extrapolate, when the technologies he so lovingly imagined, were still so rudimentary and unrealized that a time would come when the pace of life technology would create would overwhelm us just amazes me.

Sept. 1929, cover by Frank R. Paul

Ralph 124C 41+ as it has often been pointed out has its warts. But I largely concur with Westfahl’s statement from Mechanics of Wonder; The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction

“ However, while conceding its aesthetic weaknesses, I maintain that Gernsback's novel is the one essential text for all studies of science fiction, a work which anticipates and contains the entire genre.” (93)

As part of my discussion of Gernsback’s work I also want to look briefly at Gernsback's  contribution to the genre.

April 1930, Cover by Frank R. Paul

**** Warning I am not unbiased ***

I often find that I am attracted to ideas and sources that reinforce beliefs I already hold (I suspect this is a failing I share with many others), so I purchased Westfahl’s book because a quick perusal of the cover blurb told me he would discuss issues of interest to me and possibly support conclusions I already hold. And he did. He reinforced the importance of Gernsback's publication of Amazing Stores for the creation of science fiction as a genre. He also noted that other science fiction figures recognized the importance of the publication of Amazing Stories. 

Two booksLester del Rey's The World of Science Fiction: 1926-1976 and David G. Hartwell's Age of Wonders-also proclaim that Gernsback’s Amazing Stories represents the true beginning of the genre: Hartwell says that Gernsback ‘invented modern science fiction in April, 1926’ and ‘ The history of the world of science fiction dates from the birth of conscious separateness, April 1926 (pp.23, 118) (30).

I think the idea of separateness is an important one. In 1919 Ray Cummings’ “The Girl in the Golden Atom, a romance of a world within a world” an important early science fiction story first appeared in All- Story Weekly while Murray Leinster, who would go on to be a very significant early SF writer published his first science fiction story “The Runaway Skyscraper” in Argosy and Railroad Man's Magazine. So both works jostled for attention among adventure stories about doughboys, cowboys, detectives, pirates, boxers, heroic wireless operators, etc. Amazing Stories and the science fiction specific pulps that followed allowed writers, readers and later reviewers to locate science fiction themed stories easily. Gernsback provided not just a name, and a definition but examples of what science fiction stories were right there in the first issue.

From “A New Sort of Magazine”, Hugo Gernsback, Amazing Stories The Magazine of Scientifiction, Vol. 1, No. 1 April 1926.

"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. For many years stories of this nature were published in the sister magazines of Amazing Stories—"Science & Invention" and
"Radio News."
But with the ever increasing demands on us for
this sort of story, and more of it, there was only one
thing to do-—publish a magazine in which the scientific
fiction type of story will hold forth exclusively."

While the name did not stick and his competitors (and Gernsbeck himself) often dropped prophetic vision for space cowboys or cops and robbers and while writers and critics of SF have argued since 1926 about what science fiction is and what works are science fiction he got the ball rolling. Also his choice of examples (often reprinted from other sources) was inspired. Verne supplied an optimistic scientific fact based extrapolative approach that brought us inventors, gadgets and big dumb objects. Wells supplied a more human centric approach to animal human hybrids, supermen and women. alien invasion, time travel and class warfare. Poe brought us the gothic element that would supply mad scientists, deadly clanking robots and monstrous aliens. 

Was Gernsback a nice man, no, he was renown for paying writers late or not at all. I do wonder if the career trajectory of H.P. Lovecraft would have been different if he had received prompt and enthusiastic payment for one of his greatest stories “The Color Out Space” (1927) and been encouraged to try markets other than Weird Tales. But as far as the history of the genre is concerned Gernsback was an incredibly important figure and Ralph 124C41+ a very important document in understanding his vision of science fiction and one I enjoyed. 

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