Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Nearly every science fiction fan knows the name Hugo Gernsback, even if only because the annual science fiction achievement awards, the Hugos, are named in his honor. The traditional view of Gernsback, as the "Father of Science Fiction" was promulgated by the late SF historian Sam Moskowitz. While it is true that Gernsback founded Amazing in 1926 and coined the term "science fiction" (as well as the earlier scientifiction), his actual long term editorial effect on the genre is open to question. Gernsback viewed science fiction as a means of inspiring future generations of scientists (which it eventually did do), but at the expense of plot and character. Gernsback's best known work of science fiction, Ralph 124C 41+, illustrates the drawbacks of Gernsback's view of science fiction perfectly.
The novel's tone is set in the opening pages. Each time Gernsback mentions a new device, he stops to explain what it does and the theory behind how it works. It is quite possible that Ralph 124C 41+ introduces more gadgets faster than any other science fiction novel written before or since. However, one of the things which sets Gernsback's books apart from the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne is that Verne would have incorporated a couple of Gernsback's ideas into the plot of his story and examined their effect on the society which the changes were introduced into. Gernsback seems to fling his ideas out just to see if any of his predictions will occur.
While Verne's characters frequently were stiff, Gernsback's characters have less dimension than the pages the novel is printed on. What characterization does occur is laughable, as is Gernsback's take on society. His world of the twenty-seventh century seems particularly naive, with a nebulous world government (which seems to have done away with actual surnames). Scientists are held in the awe reserved today for athletes or film stars, with the entire world knowing when Ralph 124C 41+ is going to perform important experiments as well as giving him a standing ovation (via Telephot) when he saves a young woman in Switzerland who nobody had ever heard of before (but who, of course, will become Ralph's romantic interest).
The best thing that can be said for Gernsback's writing style is that he was in desperate need of an editor and an English grammar. His prose is repetitive and basic. Although straightfoward, it is not easy to read because of the number of digressions which Gernsback throws in. Among other things, Gernsback's writing in Ralph 124C 41+ seems to adhere to all of the negative stereotypes which have been associated with science fiction since Gernsback coined the term.
Ralph 124C 41+ has frequently been called a classic. What it really is, however, is an oddity. The worst science fiction published in the 1990s is centuries beyond Gernsback as far as plot, writing style and characterization is concerned. While the novel is a goldmine for technological speculation, Gernsback could simply have written up a list of gadgets with a brief description of each and come away with something as readable with as much plot and character as he weaves into Ralph 124C 41+. While Gernsback may have been instrumental in some aspects of the establishment of science fiction (the first magazine devoted to it, the name, and supporting early fandom), the field has moved far beyond Gernsback's vision and talents in the 73 years since this book was originally published.
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