Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time edited by Larry Steckler. Marana, Arizona: Poptronix Inc., 2007. 693 pp.
Not, of course, that I ever met the man, who died in 1967 at a time when I was a teenager barely aware of his existence. But in the course of preliminary research for my dissertation on science fiction, I concluded that he was, in fact, the most important figure in the genre's history as the man who first created and promulgated "the idea of science fiction.' During the past twenty, I've read virtually all of his commentaries on science fiction, and virtually all of his science fiction stories, and I've discussed these in over a dozen articles and two books, The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (1998) and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction (2007), the latter intended to serve as my final word on the subject. I've also become a go-to guy for reference entries on Gernsback, having covered his novel Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 for Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature and written Gernsback entries for two forthcoming reference works, the online edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction.
Needless to say, I was both excited and disturbed to hear about the publication of a newly discovered Hugo Gernsback autobiography—excited, because such a book might provide a wealth of new information about various mysteries and uncertainties involving his career, and disturbed, because a new source of relevant data might invalidate or render obsolete much of what I had previously published.
Having received a review copy of Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time from its editor, Larry Steckler, and having twice read through the book very carefully, I can now report that I am neither excited nor disturbed, since this book provides little if any new information about Gernsback, thus offers no reason to revisit anything I have ever said about the man, and is in fact obviously not the work of Hugo Gernsback.
This conclusion has already been reached and announced by another noted Gernsback scholar, Mike Ashley, in a review published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, and Steckler has assured him that he will stop promoting the book as Gernsback's autobiography in the future. However, while I tremendously admire Ashley's scholarship, figuring out that this book had not been written by Gernsback did not require great detective work. This is, after all, a book written entirely in the third person (which was never Gernsback's habit); a book which include anachronistic references to two developments after Gernsback's death, Star Wars and VCRs, as well as a passage declaring that it was being written in the year 1988 (and the reference to Star Wars, despite Steckler's initial protestations, cannot be explained away as an improperly formatted editorial insertion, since there is no logical way to remove the reference from the surrounding text); a book that largely consists of clumsily introduced excerpts from Gernsback's innumerable publications, which is hardly the way a man would approach the task of writing an autobiography; and a book which at one point praises Gernsback as a thoughtful critic of the "ain't science wonderful" school and later criticizes him as a naïve member of the "isn't science wonderful" school. To anyone even mildly familiar with Gernsback's writings, in other words, this book's inauthenticity is transparent.
The only emotion aroused by the book, then, is disappointment—first, because Hugo Gernsback's name was appearing in print only as an element in a tawdry scandal, but more so because the book so clearly illustrates why, despite his many accomplishments, he remains a man who is not as well known as he should be.
The message relentlessly promoted by the various authors of Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time is that Gernsback merits attention because he was "America's (if not the world's) greatest prognosticator" (p. 367). Again and again and again, the book fawningly describes one of Gernsback's amazingly accurate predictions, suggesting that he possessed an absolutely unique ability to peer into humanity's future and correctly anticipate all of our coming scientific achievements. And it is hardly surprising that an assemblage of third-person writings about Gernsback would constantly echo this theme of Gernsback the Astounding Prophet, since this is the way, beginning with interviews published in the 1940s, that Gernsback encouraged people to celebrate him.
Well. As someone who knows a little bit about Gernsback, I must respectfully disagree both with this view of Gernsback and with its significance. All in all, I don't think he was an especially insightful prophet, and whether he was or not is utterly irrelevant to any effort to establish his genuine importance.
To reasonably consider the subject of Gernsback's prediction, one must first place them in context. Beginning in 1908, and during the next six decades, Gernsback continually published at least one, and usually several, popular science fiction magazines, as well as occasional science fiction magazines. Virtually every issue of these magazines featured a Gernsback editorial, article, or story which contained one or several predictions. If one does the math, it's easy to see that he must have presented over 10,000 predictions, perhaps much more. It was simply inevitable, then, that a number of those predictions would prove to be correct; the law of averages can make any energetic prognosticator look like a visionary.
Second, any argument about Gernsback's accuracy as a prophet requires one to ignore certain predictions and misinterpret other predictions. Everyone notes that Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+ predicted the invention of radar and night baseball; no one notes that the novel also predicts that, in the future, people will happily visit "scientific restaurants" in order to suck liquefied, predigested food from a number of tubes. I first realized that Gernsback was not infallible in making predictions while researching my dissertation, when I read a 1929 article of his in Air Wonder Stories entitled "The Airplane of the Future." Therein, carefully described and illustrated, was a large aircraft sporting enormous propellers on each of its wings; a decade before their emergence, Gernsback was incapable of imagining the development of jet aircraft.
As for misinterpretations of Gernsback's predictions, consider the fact that Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time repeatedly argues that his "Menograph," described in Ralph 124C 41+, represented Gernsback's accurate prediction of the electroencephalograph. No, it wasn't. The Menograph was a device which detected the words a person was thinking and recorded them on paper using a special code, the "Menolphabet," which would then enable another person to read the words that the person had thought. This device did not do the work of an electroencephalograph, which is to record electrical activity in the brain, and an electroencephalograph does not do the work of a Menograph, which is to record the words that a person is thinking. The two devices are entirely different.
More broadly, even if one were to concede the point that Gernsback often made accurate predictions, the rejoinder would then be: so what? If a man in the past predicted something that has now occurred, that hardly makes him important to anyone today. If the man in fact made a number of correct predictions up to this day, and also predicted developments which have not yet occurred, one might argue that his track record suggests his unfulfilled predictions deserve special attention; but this isn't really logical. If a man correctly predicts the outcome of five dice rolls, that doesn't mean that his sixth prediction will necessarily be correct. The fact of the matter is this: Gernsback came of age in an era when electricity and radio were the exciting new developments, and the vast majority of his predictions were related to these fields; he did not begin making significant predictions about atomic energy until after 1945, when it had already been achieved; his predictions about space travel usually involved the posited development of "anti-gravity," borrowing the logic of H. G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901), and hence have little relevance to current and future initiatives in space travel; and there was virtually nothing in Gernsback's crystal ball relevant to computer science, the Internet, quantum mechanics, string theory, genetic engineering, or most of the fields of science that are now at the cutting edge of current research. The odds that his antiquated predictions will be of any value in charting our own future, in other words, are extremely slight.
What really makes Hugo Gernsback important is that, back in the 1920s, he singularly discerned the existence of a category of literature he would eventually call science fiction, explained its nature and purposes at great length, and forever influenced the genre that exists today because he managed through constant proselytizing to persuade the world that it existed. And forgive this single sentence of self-promotion, but if you want to absorb this story about Hugo Gernsback, you should read one of my books, not Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time.
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