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Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction
Gary Westfahl
McFarland & Company, 283 pages

Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction
Gary Westfahl
Gary Westfahl has written five books, edited three others and co-edited nine more. In addition, he served as a Consultant Editor of John Clute and John Grant's award-winning The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) and contributed entries to that volume and numerous other reference works. He earned the Science Fiction Research Association's 2003 Pilgrim Award for his lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy scholarship, and his Science Fiction Quotations was nominated for a 2005 Hugo Award.

Gary Westfahl Website
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A review by Steven H Silver

In Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction, Gary Westfahl presents the thesis that Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories, is a seminal figure in the genesis of science fiction. While, to many, this may seem like a declaration that the sky is blue or the grass is green, Westfahl points out that Gernsback's role in the formation of the genre has come under attack relatively recently.

In Gernsback's defense, Westfahl looks at two aspects of Gernsback's career. The first part of the book examines Gernsback the publisher/editor who founded Amazing Stories and other magazines. The second half of the study explores Gernsback's novel Ralph 124C 41+ as well as his lesser known stories.

As a publisher, Gernsback clearly stated his view of what constituted science fiction, and Westfahl makes a convincing case that Gernsback's view held sway through generations of editors. Even editors who did not subscribe to Gernsback's vision of the genre created their views of science fiction as a reaction to the groundwork that Gernsback laid out in his first editorials in Amazing Stories. Westfahl does make a convincing case for the importance of Gernsback's vision, although it is slightly weakened by the numerous alterations to the initial vision by Gernsback. Nevertheless, Westfahl shows that John Campbell, Horace Gold, and other, lesser known editors, all used Gernsback's definition of science fiction as a baseline from which to deviate.

The longer section of the study, looking at Gernsback's career as a writer, is less convincing. Westfahl takes an in depth look at Ralph 124C 41+, Gernsback's most notable book, and also looks at the way Gernsback followed his own definition (even as he was creating it). However, his examples of authors who based works on Gernsback's writing is relatively small, and despite Westfahl's assurances, it isn't clear whether those writers were basing their works on Gernsback's writing or his editorial fiat. Discussing changes between the various texts of Ralph 124C 41+ at length, Westfahl provides a look at Gernsback which is best appreciated by those who are already familiar with at least one of the textual versions of the story.

What deserves as much study as Gernsback's role as an editor, and probably more than his role as a writer, is Gernsback's role as an organizer. Not content to build his subscription and newsstand base the traditional way, Gernsback worked to organize clubs and societies which, along with the letter columns in Gernsback's and other magazines, helped form part of science fiction fandom. Westfahl does touch on these topics in his section on Gernsback the editor, noting that Gernsback tried to build a sense of community, but Westfahl leaves the topic with too little direct exploration, leaving an area of Gernsback's life and influence open for future studies.

Although Westfahl provides a defense of Gernsback's role in the formation of science fiction, it is not a laudation. Westfahl is more than willing to point out Gernsback's flaws as a businessman. As a writer, Westfahl does admit to Gernsback's lack of style, although he does attempt to belittle Gernsback's failings in that area. However, even from the excerpts Westfahl chooses to include, it is clear that Gernsback's stories were all about ideas with little auctorial skill.

Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction is not a biography of Gernsback, although it does contain some biographical information. Rather, it is a study of the man's influence on the field helped create. While Westfahl succeeds in making his case that Gernsback's influence was seminal, even among those who rejected all or part of his ideas, his defense of Gernsback's writing as part of that influence falls short.

Copyright © 2007 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a seven-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings. He is the publisher of ISFiC Press. 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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