Hugo Gernsback and the Invention of the Science Fiction Megatext

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

Hugo Gernsback is simultaneously one of the most revered and despised figures in the history of science fiction. He has been called "the father of science fiction" and the Hugos, the genre's most prestigious awards, are named after him. He was the guest of honor at the 1952 Worldcon. Gernsback’s achievements include founding the first SF magazine, Amazing Stories, naming the genre “scientifiction” (missing the eventual term by a syllable), starting the first reader letter columns, and organizing the first fan organization, the Science Fiction League, which encouraged the spread of fandom and eventually led to fanzines and webzines like Republibot.

Gernsback wanted scientifiction to be a forward thinking genre that educated the public in the tremendous future promised by science and technology. For Gernsback, SF contained a message that taught us that science and technology could create a glorious future and allow problem-solving humans to ameliorate the ills of existence. In the first issue of Amazing Stories, Gernsback defined scientifiction as “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Gernsback wanted writers to pad their stories with extensive scientific fact to educate as well entertain their readers. Gernsback believed SF would become the most important genre of modern literature because it was best able to predict and understand scientific and technological change. He even argued for decades that SF writers should be able to patent the gadgets they describe in their stories. Gernsback’s optimistic theories about SF and his faith in science and reason remain a common approach to SF even today, even if many of his ideas, particularly the patent notion, would be considered naïve or quaint.

Yet many histories of the genre portray him as the villain in SF history, the man who dragged the genre into the ghetto and turned it into a subliterate pulp enterprise, published within the pages of crumbling magazines with embarrassing covers of tentacled aliens carrying off beautiful screaming women in torn dresses. When SF became a pulp genre, literary critics refused to take it seriously, and even some fans found it embarrassing to read the pulps with the gaudy covers in public. If only Hugo had not published Amazing Stories, a critical account might read, SF would have just been part of the literary mainstream; after all, Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville wrote fantastic fiction without losing their literary credentials. Furthermore, Gernsback was a thief just interested in money; he either ripped off his writers or refused to pay them on time. For a good example of these critical accounts one can read the attacks on Gernsback by the prominent critics Brian Stableford and John Clute.Part of the reason for these critical accounts seems to be a desire to rewrite history and forget the distasteful pulp roots of SF. The British Stableford and the Canadian Clute both dislike the strongly American accounts of SF that trace the genre through the pulps; Stableford in particular likes to point to the British Scientific Romances of Olaf Stapleton, H.G. Wells, and John Gloag as sources for early SF (see Stableford’s Scientific Romance in Britain, 1890-1950).

Alas, these critical historical accounts, partly motivated by nationalism, neglect to consider the enormous benefits the genre has received from the largely American invention of specialized magazines, writers, readers, and conventions. Every generation of writer, American and otherwise, has learned from the previous generation until the genre spawned an immensely complicated specialized vocabulary as well as writing techniques about the future and technology. The genre’s vocabulary has become so sophisticated and extensive that the Oxford Press published Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, a supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary that defined and provided the history of words coined within SF. Many writers who grew up reading SF and thinking of it as a separate form of writing would never have published, or at least would have published something vastly different if there were not separate magazines and a section of the bookstore dedicated to the genre. Without a separate science fictional genre there would still be magic realists like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar; there would even be dystopias and utopias as well as an occasional mainstream novel like The Time Traveler's Wife, but there wouldn’t be a genre dedicated to a sustained discourse about the future with its own vocabulary and tropes worked out by thousands of writers and readers over the course of decades. Heinlein would not have produced his future history; Asimov would not have “fixed-up” the Foundation Trilogy from magazine short stories; and Gene Wolfe would not have produced The Book of the New Sun, a work of genius inspired by the Dying Earth subgenre, which was originally published in pulp magazines by Clark Ashton Smith and in an obscure small press short story collection by Jack Vance.

The pulp magazine ghetto allowed SF to develop a massive, collaborative megatext that created new ways of reading and writing, a shared body of knowledge utilized by sf writers: a thesaurus of tropes, conventions, plots, concepts, cliches, and images. The richness and diversity of these shared ideas provides writers with a vast repository of concepts. David Hartwell, the leading contemporary book editor of SF, pointed out in the anthology 20th Century Science Fiction that "the SF megatext is an allegory of faith in science." Sounding much like Gernsback, Hartwell points out that SF is a "literature of empowerment" that teaches its readers than any problem can be solved through the application of reason and science.

The megatext is ever evolving, and searching for new ideas; at one time spaceships, robots, and AIs were new concepts, now they can be incorporated in a tale that includes nanotechnology, cyberspace, the singularity, and posthumanism. SF has become a complex and multifaceted genre that conceptualizes common tropes and ideas. The existence of this megatext might seem to contradict the constant demand of editors for new ideas, but one of the best ways for a writer to make a splash is the invent a new concept that's adopted by the megatext, for example, when Gibson created "cyberspace" or when Vernor Vinge coined the term "singularity."

And coming up with a new spin on an old trope is the least that's expected of a writer. Within that megatext the minor writers are often as important as the major writers because they contribute to the development of the genre's ideas. The importance of minor and even third rate writers is hard to grasp for non-SF readers such as academics because they are used to the idea of a canon of great. In SF a third rate writers with little grasp of characterization and writing style can write an important story that contributes to the megatext because it gives a clever portrayal of a trope or concept such as time travel paradoxes. The SF megatext is a collaboration between writers and readers who often meet and talk to one another on an equal basis at conventions or communicate through letter columns or fanzines.

When I went to my first convention, I was startled when Ramsey Campbell and I had a long conversation, and I went to lunch with Donald Kingsbury, a major author who wrote for Campbell's Astounding. One reason new readers don't always understand SF is that they’re unfamiliar with the megatext, and the fact that a writer might be referring to how a previous story portrayed robots, or that FTL space ships are a shared convention even though they violate Einsteinan physics. The more SF you read the better you tend to respond to it because you know how the story fits within the genre’s larger text.

H.G. Wells wrote his scientific romances in the 1890s before a genre existed. He generally set his stories in the present or transported a contemporary observer into the future. He relied on these devices because his readers would have found it jarring incomprehensible if he simply set a story in the future without contemporary references to orient his readers. Today a story can be set in the future, and a veteran SF readers will rapidly adjust his/her reading assumptions to accommodate that setting, knowing that the story’s world will not be explained all at once, but rather revealed over the course of the narrative. In fact, explaining the world in one big lump of information is considered bad technique, and is termed an "info dump."

It’s virtually impossible to publish SF unless one has read the genre extensively, thus familiarizing oneself with the vast matrix of ideas and concept used in the past. A writer unfamiliar with the megatext might write a time travel story using ideas s/he thinks is innovative, but was handled better by Heinlein in the 40s, or write about FTL travel without knowing the clever ways previous writers managed to get around the limitations of Einsteinian physics.

One could argue that if Gernsback had not started the first SF magazine someone else would have done it. That specialized magazines, conventions, and letter pages that turned SF into a collaborative megatext between readers, fans, and writers was something someone else would have done, and that's possibly true. But Gernsback was the actual innovator; and there’s no guarantee someone else would have done it. At the least SF would have been a vastly different genre without Gernsback, who deserves two cheers.

Why then does Gernsback only get two cheers? Well, the charge that Hugo was a mountebank, a schemer, and a thief was largely true. Writers quipped that his magazines paid "upon lawsuit." H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith termed him "Hugo the Rat." He paid himself handsomely, but mistreated and ripped off his writers. There's also a lot of truth to the argument that making SF a pulp enterprise lowered literary standards, as you can see by comparing the scientific romances of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapleton to the writings of the pulp writers in the 20s and 30s. The ghetto of the pulp magazines did result in work that was sometimes repetitive, insular, and distanced from advanced literary techniques, such as modernism.

But SF fans and writers owe Gernsback a debt of gratitude: formulating a genre, producing a fan base, and creating a nurturing medium for it in the pulp magazines generated a style of reading and writing that became as brilliant and innovative as Gernsback prophetically hoped for, as generations of writers built on previous innovations, resulting in better quality writers, and just as importantly, more sophisticated readers. SF as we understand it would not exist without the conventions, letter pages, fanzines, magazines, a dedicated bookstore section, and Hugo.

Copyright 2010, Robert Bee