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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

Hugo Gernsback - another Father of Science Fiction

There are many fathers of science fiction. HG Wells, Jules Verne and believe it or not, Voltaire who wrote the proto-science fiction story Micromégas in 1752. But it's Hugo Gernsback we must thank for making science fiction the genre it is today.

Hugo Gernsback, born exactly 135 years ago today, was a Luxembourgish-American writer, editor, and magazine publisher. The most famous of these being the world's first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. If you've ever heard of the Hugo Awards, this is the Hugo the World Science Fiction Convention are honouring.

It's not the first time Gernsback has appeared on this blog. In my post In my post Science Fiction Predicts the Future (which it does), we covered his novel Ralph 124C 41+ we see the first depiction of a video-telephone device. In a novel published in 1911. Talk about ahead of his time.

Amazing Stories

Hugo Gernsback, in the 1920s, was the first to realise the popularity of HG Wells and Jules Verne's works and understand the growing demand for fantastical stories.

At a time where there was cheap pulp printing and more writers than there were publications, Gernsback was the right man at the right time. Amazing Stories saw the debut of some of sci-fis most influential authors including John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Howard Fast, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Thomas M. Disch. In fact, Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl and Ray Bradbury all met through the Amazing Stories magazine, forming fan groups and attending national conventions.

Raygun Gothic

Raygun Gothic

This budding fanbase of all things sci-fi-related would buy any story they could get their hands on. People forget that sci-fi as a genre was born in the 1920s so if you wanted your sci-fi fix, you either re-read your Wells and Verne. Or, you bought the monthly Amazing Stories.

And Gernsback had an eye for style. Those big block lettering and brightly coloured illustrations have become synonymous with, what is now, a very retro-science fiction. In fact, this is the point in the short story The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson revolves around. This story coined the phrase 'Raygun Gothic'.

Hugo the Rat

To briefly address the obligatory 'Nobody's Perfect' disclaimer, Gernsback is infamous for being either an inept businessman or outright shady. He often 'forgot' to pay his writers. H.P Lovecraft after not being paid for his stories took to referring to Gernsback as "Hugo the Rat."

Pulp Fiction

I've spoken about the 'Golden Age of Science Fiction' before. Cheap fiction magazines like Amazing Stories were published en masse. This pulp fiction, along with the overabundance of writers - both great and losy, these publications became synonymous with low-quality fiction.

This inevitably led to less than stellar sci-fi stories being published to fill insatiable demand. This would forever give the sci-fi world a reputation for mass-produced flash over substance.

Brian W. Aldiss argued in Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, that Hugo Gernsback:

...was one of the worst disasters to hit the science fiction field... Gernsback himself was utterly without any literary understanding. He created dangerous precedents which many later editors in the field followed.

The stories published in Amazing Stories often had long, exposition dumps about the intricacies of futuristic technologies. And while you could forgive it of a genre still trying to find its literary style, these were often unforgivably inaccurate, or blatant pseudo-science.

Science Fiction Legend

Still, whether you see him as a visionary or not, Gernsback is one of the reasons the science fiction genre exists. In the words of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, he "persuaded the world that a form of literature called sf in fact existed." Gernsback made science fiction popular and acceptable. He moved it away from its European beginnings into the extravagant stylings of 1920s America.

Well, we have another famous writer's birthday coming up. Check back next week on the 20th August for H.P. Lovecraft. Or, if you need your Lovecraftian fix now, check out my post on Cthulhu here!

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