Saturday, 13 August 2016

Hugo Gernsback (History of Science Fiction)

So far in this history of science fiction I have concentrated on authors and their books, but we mustn’t forget the publishers who put these works in front of the reading public. The popularity of science fiction increased enormously with the publication of the first science fiction magazine. This brought short stories and affordability to a larger market. But it was not all plain sailing – especially for the authors who wrote for him.


Hugo Gernsback (August 16 1884 – August 19 1967), was a Luxembourgish-American inventor, writer, editor, and magazine publisher, best known for publications including the first science fiction magazine. His contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with the novelists H G Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called ‘The Father of Science Fiction’. In his honour, annual awards presented at the World Science Fiction Convention are named the ‘Hugos’.

Gernsback emigrated to the United States in 1904 and later became a naturalized citizen.
Before helping to create science fiction, Gernsback was an entrepreneur in the electronics industry, importing radio parts from Europe to the United States and helping to popularize amateur radio. In April 1908 he founded Modern Electrics, the world's first magazine about both electronics and radio, called ‘wireless’ at the time.

In 1913, he founded a similar magazine,The Electrical Experimenter, which became Science and Invention in 1920. It was in these magazines that he began including scientific fiction stories alongside science journalism — including his own novel Ralph 124C 41+ which he ran for 12 months from April 1911 in Modern Electrics. The title is a pun on the phrase "one to foresee for many"(‘one plus’).

Even though Ralph 124C 41+ is one of the most influential science fiction stories of all time, and filled with numerous science fiction ideas, few people still read the story. Author Brian Aldiss has called the story a "tawdry illiterate tale" and a "sorry concoction" while author and editor Lester del Rey called it "simply dreadful." While most other modern critics have little positive to say about the story's writing, Ralph 124C 41+ is still considered an "essential text for all studies of science fiction."

In 1925, Hugo founded radio station WRNY which broadcast from the 18th floor of The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and was involved in the first television broadcasts. He is also considered a pioneer in amateur radio.


Gernsback started the modern genre of science fiction in 1926 by founding the first magazine dedicated to it, Amazing Stories. The inaugural April issue comprised a one-page editorial and reissues of six stories, three less than ten years old and three by Poe, Verne, and Wells. He said he became interested in the concept after reading a translation of the work of Percival Lowell as a child. His idea of a perfect science fiction story was "75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science."

He also played a key role in starting science fiction fandom, by publishing the addresses of people who wrote letters to his magazines. So, the science fiction fans began to organize, and became aware of themselves as a movement, a social force; this was probably decisive for the subsequent history of the genre. He also created the term “science fiction”, though he preferred the term "scientifiction".

In 1929, he lost ownership of his first magazines after a bankruptcy lawsuit. There is some debate about whether this process was genuine, manipulated by publisher Bernarr Macfadden, or was a Gernsback scheme to begin another company. After losing control of Amazing Stories, Gernsback founded two new science fiction magazines, Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. A year later, due to Depression-era financial troubles, the two were merged into Wonder Stories, which Gernsback continued to publish until 1936, when it was sold to Thrilling Publications and renamed Thrilling Wonder Stories. Gernsback returned in 1952–53 with Science-Fiction Plus.

Gernsback was noted for sharp (and sometimes shady) business practices, and for paying his writers extremely low fees or not paying them at all. H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as "Hugo the Rat."
As Barry Malzberg has said:
Gernsback's venality and corruption, his sleaziness and his utter disregard for the financial rights of authors, have been so well documented and discussed in critical and fan literature. That the founder of genre science fiction who gave his name to the field's most prestigious award and who was the Guest of Honor at the 1952 Worldcon was pretty much a crook (and a contemptuous crook who stiffed his writers but paid himself $100K a year as President of Gernsback Publications) has been clearly established.
Jack Williamson, who had to hire an attorney associated with the American Fiction Guild to force Gernsback to pay him, summed up his importance for the genre:
At any rate, his main influence in the field was simply to start Amazing and Wonder Stories and get SF out to the public newsstands—and to name the genre he had earlier called "scientifiction."
He died at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City on August 19, 1967.

[adapted from Wikipedia]

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