In 1908, Hugo Gernsback, an enterprising emigrant to the United States began publishing a magazine called Modern Electrics, at first to serve the amateur radio market with advertisements and simple how-to articles.
Three years later, Gernsback began to publish a serialized story that he had written in the pages of the magazine. Several incarnations and restarts after that, in 1926 he started a magazine completely devoted to the new kind of fiction that appealed to the readers of his technical magazines. He called the new fiction, unfortunately, Scientifiction.
Before the magazine’s bankruptcy in 1929 he would start a kind of revolution in popular fiction, though no part of it was by itself new or unique. There had been short stories before and there were plenty of magazines devoted to the various genres. So, what made this one special? You’ll have to wait a bit to see the bigger picture.
By 1929 the genre had be re-dubbed Science Fiction and there were many variant incarnations of SF magazines to choose from. Writers were paid, when they were paid, by the word and short stories were king. The growth of popular, that is to say non-literary Science Fiction was on in America. Across the pond the British and the French still held on to the more literary paths laid down by Wells and others, but here in America any poor schlub with a handful of change could pick up a copy of Amazing stories and read with wonderful abandon the countless imaginations they contained.
One measure of success for the Gernsback model could be seen in the rise, a generation later, of the ‘Golden Age’ writers like Heinlein and Bradbury, both of whom credited schlocky SF magazines for their early interest in writing and in science. These two greats are as far from each other stylistically as they are politically and yet both found a common ground in those cheap newsprint pages.
The split from academia and literature still exists in America today, though now several generations of better written works have begun to heal the rift created by authors paid by the word. Still, the path to todays SF runs squarely through Gernsback’s kingdom.
There’s plenty of criticism to lay at Hugo’s feet as well. Brian Aldiss describes it: “a third type of science fiction, most conveniently labeled Gernsbackian. Neither culture nor dreams warm it; it exists as propaganda for the wares of the inventor.” And also dismisses it as gadget-minded. The other two types of science fiction he describes are the adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the social critiques of H. G. Wells. For Aldiss, the former are clearly inferior to the last, merely putting voice to a common thread to last for several generations more of the Literature crowd looking down on the excited readers in the Science Fiction/Fantasy aisles of the local bookstore.
It is also true that the ‘gadgeteer’ label made its way to decreasing the quality of the writing. A common plot might be imagining a clever way to make a machine do some task and deriving a plot from just that one change in the world, or as Gernsback did in his serialized novel Ralph 124C 41+ pile change upon change up with the narrative explanations delineated by “as you know.” Additionally the low profit margins ensured that editing was basic and the editors themselves were more interested in cleverness than in artistic merit. Other contributers to this drop in quality was the pay structure which often rewarded verbosity and that the authors were primarily scientists and engineers first and authors second.
Gernsback, too, was notoriously stingy with money. Several authors had to resort to lawsuits to get paid for their work. He didn’t invent the pulp magazine, he merely published a bunch of them in various fields. He was a terrible writer of fiction, yet he is remembered for one great thing that will forever fix his place in Science Fiction: he created fandom.
More on that topic next time.