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Hugo Gernsback and the Origins of American Sci-Fi

Hugo Gernsback and the Origins of American Sci-Fi

Many have said that science fiction goes back as far as the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel that posited that if medical science could resurrect the dead it would bring about a litany of philosophical struggles. While Frankenstein may technically be the very first science fiction novel, the actual popularity of science fiction—and indeed the term itself—is a much more recent, and wholly American, phenomenon. The origin of the term and, by extension, the now-taken-for-granted notion of “fandom,” should be traced back to Hugo Gernsback in 1926.

One of the great heroes of genre culture, Gernsback is sometimes called The Father of Science Fiction. He was a Luxembourg-born publisher who moved to America in the early 1900s, and who immediately began seeking a vocation in media distribution. He founded a radio station in New York, and was always greatly interested in the inner workings of radios and other technical widgets. Gernsback always had a passion for the sciences and technology, and even started up a magazine called Modern Electrics all about these topics. It may be the country’s first tech mag, founded in the days when radios were still called “the wireless.”

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Gernsback’s interest in tech also influenced his on-again-off-again fiction writing (he wrote a sci-fi novel called Ralph 124C 41+ in 1911), and led him to seek out a subset of pulp fiction novels that were still in wide circulation in the early 1900s, specifically those with a technical or scientific bent. Gernsback was already reading the works of famed astronomers–Percival Lowell was a favorite of his–but also enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. Pulp novels were (and still are) seen as something of an off-to-the-side cottage subset of the literary world, meant to appeal to a broad audience. As such they weren’t necessarily all that sensitive or intellectual (The Steam Man of the Prairies is important, but not exactly high lit), and not necessarily considered alongside other literature of the time like, say, Kipling’s Kim or Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Gernsback, however, saw a great deal of potential in such pulp novels, and figured that a lot of money could be made by blending the fictional frontier adventure of pulp and the complex scientific thinking of his tech mags. He even figured that the right mixture—75% fiction and 25% science—would be the ideal blend for broad pop appeal. In 1926, Gernsback founded the magazine Amazing Stories, the nations first devoted sci-fi rag, and, essentially, the proper origin of science fiction. Gernsback even attempted to come up with a portmanteau to describe his new genre: scientifiction (as in “scientific-fiction”). That word didn’t catch on, but a shortened version of it, as presented in the second issue of Amazing Stories—“sci-fi”—stuck.

Initially, Gernsback filled Amazing Stories with previously published material (like the stories of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne), but eventually also started collecting original stories for mass exposure. Gernsback was one of the first publishers to present the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Incidentally, he didn’t always treat his authors all that well, frequently withholding pay altogether. Lovecraft, according to one biography, went on record in calling Gernsback “Hugo the Rat.” Gernsback’s legacy, indeed, has been roundly tainted by his shady business practices, and those who remember him, remember him with something approaching contempt.

Most significantly to modern nerd culture, however, was Gernsback’s choice to include a letters column in Amazing Stories. While other magazines often printed the occasional letters to the editor, Gernsback chose to print the names and addresses of all of the fans who wrote in. He knew, it seems, that there were other people out there in the world eager to share their passion for science-based fiction writing, and wanted to encourage his readers to write to one another in addition to writing into the magazine. In effect, Gernsback created the very first fan network. All of a sudden, sci-fi fans not only had a term to describe their passion, but they were granted access to an enclosed cadre of like-minded enthusiasts with whom they could theorize and postulate.

In short, fandom—as we have come to know it—was born.

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Imagine what that means for the nerds of today. Were it not for the template of fandom laid down by Hugo Gernsback, the model for all internet messaging boards would not exist. The idea that like-minded fanatics could gather together in any celebratory capacity might have taken much longer to develop. If you enjoy talking about Marvel movies, you are directly engaging in the culture founded on that fateful day in 1926.

Gernsback’s legacy is celebrated to this day by The Hugo Awards, which were founded in 1953, and continue to this day.

Featured Image: Life Magazine

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