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The Gernsback Days: A Study of the Evolution of Modern Science Fiction From 1911 to 1936
Mike Ashley and Robert A.W. Lowndes
Wildside Press, 499 pages

The Gernsback Days
Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley (Michael Raymond Donald Ashley) was born in 1948. He is the author and editor of over sixty books that have sold over a million copies worldwide. He lives in Chatham, Kent.

ISFDB Bibliography

Robert A.W. Lowndes
Robert A.W. Lowndes was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1916. He attended Stamford Community College and later moved to New York City where he worked as an editor for the Gernsback Publishing Co., retiring in 1992. He died in 1998.

ISFDB Bibliography
Robert Lowndes Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

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Although there is nothing on the cover to indicate it, The Gernsback Days, by Mike Ashley and Robert A.W. Lowndes, is in reality two complementary non-fiction works about Hugo Gernsback's role in the formation of science fiction. In the first work, Ashley provides a combination biography of Gernsback and history of the evolution in the field. The second part is Lowndes's reader's guide to the field in which he provides synopses of the stories published during the time period.

While Ashley's double-focused text would seem to indicate that he wasn't focused, this would not be entirely true. The reader gets a good feel for Gernsback on both personal and professional levels and also understands how (and, more importantly, why) science fiction evolved the way it did. While most histories of science fiction mention Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and then jump to the creation of Amazing Stories, Ashley carefully traces the roots of Gernsbackian science fiction through Gernsback's earlier magazines as well as those stories which appeared in places like Argosy and All Story.

Many of the individuals who are discussed in The Gernsback Days seem to have been forgotten by science fiction fans, a group which tends to take pride in its history. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for instance, does not include an entry for David Lasser, although Ashley makes it clear that Lasser had an important role in Gernsback's early science fiction publishing ventures. Although G. Peyton Wertenbaker and Neil R. Jones were reasonably important in the early days, their names wouldn't even register as a blip to most genre readers today.

Ashley's attempts at a history of the field mean that he not only examines Gernsback's magazines, but also magazines such as Astounding and Weird Tales, which were not linked to Gernsback, and Amazing after Gernsback left it and founded Science Wonder Stories. However, the decision to end the study with 1936 is directly tied to the date when Gernsback, who had already lost control of Amazing, lost control of Wonder Stories. Furthermore, while those other magazines are discussed, it is in a reasonably cursory manner, which may lead the interested reader to works like Alva Rogers's Requiem for Astounding.

Following Ashley's view of the field up through 1936, the book publishes Robert A.W. Lowndes synopses of the contents of the magazines that were published during that time frame. While many of these stories were discussed by Ashley, Lowndes's descriptions and commentary are more complete and offer a different bias than Ashely does.

If the volume is lacking anything, it is only through the omission of a companion volume reprinting some of the stories discussed within Ashley's and Lowndes's texts. Ashley published such volumes in the mid-70s with his four-volume History of the Science Fiction Magazine, but those volumes are long out of print and of limited availability. With luck, Wildside or some other publisher will be able to reprint them in the near future.

The Gernsback Days is an excellent, informative examination of the early days of science fiction. However, it is only the beginning and leaves the reader hoping for more, whether by Ashley or others. Indeed, much has been written about the period after 1936, but it is often out of print or difficult to find. The Gernsback Days, however, provides a place to learn about one of the seminal figures in the field in a manner which is more equitable than comments written by authors who had an axe to grind with Gernsback.

Copyright © 2004 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a four-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings (DAW Books, January, February and March, 2003). In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


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