THE GERNSBACK DAYS
by Mike Ashley & Robert A.W. Lowndes
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The science fiction genre has a long tradition of examining its history. Dating back to Jack Speer’s brief, but important Up to Now, science fiction fans have been documenting their own history as well as that of the field. In The Gernsback Days, Mike Ashley provides a work which looks at the birth of the field, the birth of fandom, and is a biography of Hugo Gernsback all at the same time. However, rather than display the schizophrenic nature a book that tries to do so much might be expected to show, Ashley has written an engaging and informative book.
The book opens up with a relatively short description of Hugo Gernsback’s life and family in Europe and his arrival in the United States. In this section, Ashley clearly defines Gernsback as someone who pictures himself as a visionary and a teacher, and much of his life as seen throughout the book supports this view, occasionally more effectively than at other times.
The book really takes off when Ashley begins to discuss Gernsback’s involvement with magazines. These include not just his genre magazines like Amazing and, later, Science Wonder Stories, but also his earlier non-fiction magazines. Gernsback titles such as Modern Electrics or Radio News were primarily non-fiction magazines, but carried the precursors to science fiction as early as 1911.
Although Gernsback’s name is usually mentioned alone, as if he single-handedly created the genre (well, with the help of authors), Ashley makes it clear that there was science fiction before Gernsback came on the scene, frequently published in places like Argosy, Weird Tales and All-Story. Furthermore, Gernsback had a stable of assistants on his various magazines, including men like T. Conor Sloan and David Lesser, whose names are all but forgotten.
Despite early forays, science fiction really took off with the founding of Amazing, and while fans talk about the various stages of fandom, Ashley makes it clear that once Gernsback had Amazing underway, even before the rival magazines arose, science fiction began to undergo a tremendously swift evolution. As other magazines arose, Ashley turns his attention to them, both on their own and how they affected Gernsback’s editorial policy. Because of this, the reader is provided with information into the creation of Astounding, and, after Gernsback loses control of Amazing, Science Wonder Stories.
Only covering the period up to 1936, when Gernsback lost control of Wonder Stories, Ashley’s book is highly readable and begs for a continuation into the period following Gernsback’s greatest influence, focusing instead on the various magazines and their subsequent editors and publishers.
Following Ashley’s examination of Gernsback and the history of the magazines, this volume publishes Robert A.W. Lowndes’s synopses of the stories which appeared in those magazines during the period. Lowndes’s comments give a better taste to the reader of the contents of the issues described by Ashley, but also point out one of the book’s shortcomings, notably the lack of fiction. The two authors carefully describe so many of the stories, and so few of them have been reprinted or made readily available. Although Ashley reprinted several early stories in his four-volume The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, it is currently out of print.
Ahsley and Lowndes shed detailed light on an important, and somewhat amorphous, period in which science fiction began to be codified and the phenomenon of fandom was created. They relate the stories of its origins (in more ways than one) in an interesting way meant to grab readers and leave them wanting to know more of the field’s history, as well as reading some of those early tales by so many long-forgotten names.
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