Hugo Gernsback And The Century Of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl (book review).

November 3, 2014 | By | Reply More

You would think that with a title like ‘Hugo Gernsback And The Century Of Science Fiction’ that Gary Westfahl’s book was solely on one of the instigators of SF in the 20th century. It is and it isn’t, as there is also an examination of the growth of SF and the influence he had as well.


Something I hadn’t known was back in the mid-1990s that author Brian Stablesford had done a practical character assassination of Gernsback only to be later countered by Mike Ashley showing how many errors the former made. But long before that, Damon Knight was arguing over SF should be criticised in the same manner as any other genre. Considering that I was brought up that way, I can’t see anything wrong with that other than not to shred an author’s reputation in the process like he would often do. Mind you, I think that could be considered an over-reaction on his part in wanting to put people in their place.

Knight’s assertion that SF should not include the term ‘science’ but ‘speculative’ is an argument that has been going on for a long time. Changing it now without public approval and not just insiders like us is never going to happen while the people at large accept the term ‘Sci-Fi’ for our genre. Something I hadn’t realised was that it was Judith Merril who fought for the acceptance of the term ‘SF’ and she did cap both letters like we use here at SFCrowsnest.

Gernsback was very much a divided person. As a publisher, in a similar fashion today, there is always a matter of making a profit to keep going and costs down and knowing when a lack of sales means to stop or, as in his case, often selling to another firm. Back in his day, Science Fiction magazines were developing as a nascent force and Gernsback continually going back to creating them does show a commitment that way. Certainly, if you use the ‘Frank R. Paul: The Dean Of Science Fiction Illustration’ by Jerry Weist (also reviewed this month) as a companion piece, it puts Gernsback role as a publisher in context. Certainly, many of the people buying would have chosen by the cover art and where would we have been without Frank Paul’s art that inspired so many early SF writers? The roles of both publisher and editors is picking the right material from what is on offer at any particular time because you can make or fold by poor decisions. When you have a new genre, as Gernsback had back then, you could so easily have dropped the ball and given up when things went wrong.

When it comes to Gernsback as a writer, I do have to confess to some reservations. People who can do everything are rare exceptions. As he’s chiefly known for the story ‘Ralph 124C41+’ and having read it, Gernsback belongs to the ‘Gosh! What a fantastic world we live in’ point of view than what we would term as SF today. Undoubtedly, he would have loved to have lived in our modern world as it is laden with the kind of gadgets he could only dream or write about.

I do think Westfahl begins to waffle a bit when he compares Gernsback’s writing to, I was going to say, modern day authors but perhaps the ones who followed as I doubt if any of them were really influenced greatly by his stories. Saying that, his analysis of the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Bruce Sterling would probably be better off in another book.

Considering that John Campbell expands Gernsback’s three defining principles of SF of fiction, science and prophesy to include possibilities, I hope a similar book is done of his contribution to SF.

Gary Westfahl’s analysis puts a lot of Hugo Gernsback contribution into Science Fiction into context in both history and from his time. In many respects, SF would have evolved anyway. Gernsback’s contribution in kickstarting SF in the USA should never be forgotten so this makes for an interesting SF history class.

GF Willmetts

October 2014

(pub: McFarland. 273 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £28.50 (UK), $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-3079-6)

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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