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Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660
Hugo Gernsback
Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 317 pages

Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660
Hugo Gernsback
Hugo Gernsback was born in 1884 in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, and was educated in European technical schools. He immigrated to America in 1904 and eventually became a naturalized US citizen. His magazine, Amazing Stories, began in 1926 as the first publication devoted to fiction of the future, followed shortly thereafter by Wonder Stories in 1929. His honours include having the Hugo named after him as well as a crater on the Moon. He died on August 19, 1967, in New York.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

Bison Frontiers of Imagination is a series from the Bison Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press that has been reprinting some of the pioneering works in the realm of speculative imaginative fiction (science fiction, before it was so called). The name of Hugo Gernsback is well known to most readers of science fiction, as it is he who is credited with giving the genre the name that finally stuck, and it is he who gave his own name to the Hugo Awards. Hugo Gernsback is remembered primarily for having founded several SF magazines, most notably Amazing Stories, which he started in 1926. However, his words have not fared so well as his name, as Ralph 124C 41+, his best known story, is rarely ever read today.

Ralph 124C 41+ was first serialized in Gernsback's magazine Modern Electrics in 1911. It was collected and presented as a novel for the first time in 1925; a second edition appeared in 1950. The present edition includes an introduction by Jack Williamson (whose first story was published by Gernsback in 1928), Gernsback's own prefaces to the first and second editions, and reproductions of the Frank R. Paul illustrations from the 1925 edition. Bison Frontiers of Imagination is producing a series of rather handsome editions of some rather under-read works, and this is no exception: it's a beautifully put-together package. But is it worth reading?

Well, as far as the plot goes, it's got about as many calories as a wilted celery stalk -- and is about as interesting. As for the prose, it's even more bland and uninspired than the plot; although, to be fair, it's also very clear and straightforward, which makes for easy reading. What renders the book at all interesting is the sheer volume of ideas and the author's infectious, optimistic enthusiasm about these ideas. Every page, almost, presents another invention, another vision of the future. I found it fascinating to see Gernsback's vision of the 27th century from his perspective of 90 years ago. It was fun to see how accurate some of his "predictions" about the future were, and how completely laughably off-base others were. (Sure, a lot has changed in 9 decades, but I can't see even another 66 decades vindicating some of Gernsback's more naïve ideas.)

The story is a simple pulp comic book recipe: boy meets girl; boy saves girl from some terrible fate or another; repeat as desired; end happily. There's really nothing more to tell about it, since the details of the plot are hardly relevant. The details of the ideas, however, are endlessly intriguing. You can feel the enthusiasm boiling up out of the pages; the world, Gernsback must have felt way back in 1911 and still (or again) in 1925, was brimming with possibilities and with hope. Science was expanding our horizons, creating new and exciting options, and wasn't likely to slow down. Remember: between 1911 and 1925, the world saw some truly amazing technological developments and scientific discoveries, including such marvels as the first airplanes, intercontinental telephone communications, Einstein's general theory of relativity, Max Planck's quantum theory, and stunning advances in rocketry, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, etc. 

It's also interesting to note that Gernsback's visionary zeal is tempered somewhat by a touch of realism. Even in 2660, in a world full of miraculous science, things aren't perfect. In the first few pages, Ralph's telephot (video phone) communication is interrupted and he's mistakenly patched through to an unknown caller. And we are given to understand that this is not an unusual occurrence. In fact, it is this error that sparks the whole story of the following action (lame as it may be). Perhaps Gernsback was suggesting that in spite of improvements and advances, the world will never be perfect, and that's ok because it keeps things interesting.

So back to the question: is it worth reading? Yes, I would say it is definitely worth a read if you are at all interested in the roots of science fiction in the 20th century, or if you are curious about how the future may have looked from an SF perspective in the early part of the 20th century. But once you've read it, you'll also understand why Hugo Gernsback is remembered for his contribution to the genre as a magazine editor rather than as a writer.

Copyright © 2001 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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