HUGO GERNSBACK AND THE CENTURY OF SCIENCE FICTION
by Gary Westfahl
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the December 1997 issue of Interzone, Brian Stableford and John Clute published articles in which they questioned Hugo Gernsback's place in the history of science fiction. Although it may be wrong to state that Gary Westfahl's new study Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction was inspired by those attacks, the Clute and Stableford articles clearly influenced the writing of Westfahl's book to the extent that Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction is partly a response to those articles.
Westfahl's study is divided into two parts. The first is an examination of Gernsback as an editor, while the second, and longer part, looks at Gernsback as a writer. Unfortunately, in dividing Gernsback influence in such a manner, Westfahl does himself, and Gernsback, a disservice. Equally, perhaps more importantly, to the history of science fiction was the role of Gernsback as an organizer. It was Gernsback's attempts to build a cohesive society of science fiction fans that had as much a role of creating fandom as his editorial work did in creating science fiction.
Section one of Westfahl's study, Hugo Gernsback: The Editor, is far and away the more convincing portion of the book. Despite the title, Westfahl looks at much more than just Gernsback's role as editor, a role which Gernsback filled for a relatively briefly time. Instead, this section focuses on Gernsback as an editor, a publisher, and a businessman. While some of the critics Westfahl is responding to paint Gernsback as simply trying to figure out the best way to make money from his properties, Westfahl shows that Gernsback did care about the field of science fiction he was instrumental in creating.
This section of the study also touches on Gernsback's role as an organizer. Not merely content to define the genre, Gernsback sees a method to ensure customer loyalty by creating a sense of community among his readers. While his readership didn't remain loyal to Gernsback's own magazines, whatever titles he publishing at any given time, the community he created among fans has endured as long as the genre, itself.
The second, and longer, part of Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction is not nearly as convincing. Having established Gernsback's vision of science fiction, Westfahl attempts to demonstrate that Gernsback's own writings, most notably Ralph 124C 41+ is as influential as Gernsback's behind the scenes work. Unfortunately, Westfahl's close reading of the novel (as well as Gernsback's other stories) is not convincing. While the type of super science Gernsback describes in his novels carries through to the modern age in science fiction and authors reference Gernsback in regard to it, they may as easily be referencing the editorials Gernsback wrote or the stories he bought as a publisher as Gernsback's own writing.
Westfahl's study of Gernsback's influence in science fiction not only notes Gernsback's strengths, but mostly does not shy away from his weaknesses, particularly as an author, but also as a businessman. Practically ignoring Gernsback's life away from science fiction, Westfahl's focus is tight on Gernsback's motiviations for creating science fiction and its community and looking at the way his influence has survived, changed, and thrived over the decades since he began publishing fiction as a way of filling the extra pages of his electronics magazines.
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