Hugo Gernsback Ralph 124C41+ (1911)
As editor and publisher of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback - whose name is to this day honoured in the Hugo awards - was either the father of modern science-fiction, or the worst thing that ever happened to the genre. With this latter stance championed by Brian Aldiss, it's difficult to resist the temptation of taking the opposite position just for the sake of it, but much as it pains me to admit, he does have a point:
Gernsback's segregation of what he liked to call scientifiction into magazines designed to contain nothing else, ghetto-fashion, guaranteed the setting up of various narrow orthodoxies inimical to any thriving literature. A cultural chauvinism prevailed, with unfortunate consequences of which the field has yet to rid itself. Gernsback, as editor, showed himself to be without literary understanding. The dangerous precedents he set were to be followed by many later editors in the field.
Gernsback's brand of science-fiction typically starred the inventor as hero, a scientific superman saving the day and getting the girl usually by agency of something involving a special kind of radio wave or newly discovered energy source. It is at worst, simple-minded Victorian utilitarianism, as Aldiss states, and arguably a fairly direct ancestor to the hard science-fiction of Asimov, Clarke, Baxter and the like. On the other hand, the success of Gernsback's magazines did a great deal to popularise at least their own version of the genre, bringing in a great many new writers and ultimately expanding the field to something broader than just the stuff of which Brian Aldiss approves.
Ralph 124C41+ is one of only two novels written by Gernsback, and certainly evidence of his being without literary understanding in so much as it is essentially a series of droning predictions, descriptions of weather control technology and other marvels of the year 2660 strung upon a thoroughly flimsy narrative. Our Ralph, the world's most celebrated inventor, falls in love with a woman encountered during a wrong number. Their first date is a tour of futuristic power plants, industrial farms, floating cities, and so on, with the lucky, lucky girl presumably enraptured by Ralph's lengthy descriptions of how these things work.
'The evolution of letter-writing has been a slow and painful one. Our remote ancestors, many thousand years ago, carved their letters in stone slabs. Later on, the more civilised Egyptians wrote their letters upon papyrus. Still later, upon the invention of paper and ink, communications and letters could be written much better and faster in that improved manner. Later still, the typewriter came into use.'
What a silver-tongued fox he is, to be sure.
Gernsback's intentions are clearly educational, predictive, and populist rather than literary, and although here he apparently foresaw both The Flintstones and the Discovery Channel, it's quite surprising how spectacularly he failed to predict much of anything else. Whilst admittedly there's one device here which sounds like radar, and another which suggests a photoelectric cell, Gernsback falls on his arse time and again, not least because he doesn't even seem to have been paying much attention to early twentieth century science, let alone its possible future. In one rather gruesome passage a dog is revived from death by means of blood transfusion from a goat - all of which suggests that Gernsback, like Ridley Scott, probably thought The Island of Doctor Moreau was a novel about medical advancement. Haematology may have been rudimentary in 1900 by comparison with today, but it was definitely better than whatever Ralph was working with in this novel. Even more implausible - and I would have thought distinctly lacking in romance - is the restaurant at which our two lovebirds have their feeding tubes inserted.
While eating they reclined in the comfortably upholstered leather armchair. They did not have to use knife and fork, as was the custom in former centuries. Eating had become a pleasure.
'Do you know,' said Ralph, 'it took people a long time to accept the scientific restaurants. At first they did not succeed. Humanity had been masticating for thousands of years and it was hard to overcome the inherited habit. However, people soon found out that scientific foods prepared in a palatable manner in liquid form were not only far more digestible and better for the stomach, but they also did away almost entirely with indigestion, dyspepsia, and other ills, and people began to get stronger and more vigorous.'
...and of course we get a lot of energy from all those turbines at the Diarrhoea Energy Plant. I found it difficult to read this passage without being reminded of that Simpsons episode in which Mr. Burns explains how ever since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun...
Once Gernsback has run out of things to explain, he tags on a bit of story involving the improbable kidnap of the soon to be Mrs. 124C41+, and although there's no scene in which a grinning top-hatted villain ties her to a railway line to a soundtrack of frantic piano music, it sort of feels like there is.
In summary, the story is utter crap, and the writing is fucking terrible; and yet I can't help but admire and enjoy this book somehow, even beyond being well-disposed to anything shunned by Brian Aldiss. For all of it's many, many, many, many, many, faults, Ralph 124C41+ is written with such obvious enthusiasm and delight in its own droning testimony that it generally avoids becoming boring, and the sheer novelty of science as written in Gernsback's world of screwy pre-Einsteinian physics is surprisingly engaging. It may be terrible as science-fiction, but it's nevertheless a fascinating glimpse of something or other, and mere low-brow heritage is not in itself sufficient reason to dismiss this peculiar historical artefact, the relic of an age in which man dared to dream of meals unsullied by the misery and inconvenience of cutlery and mastication.
This is available from Black Cat Press for which you should find a link somewhere on the right-hand side of this page.