Science Fiction Studies

#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992

Gary Westfahl

"The Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe Type of Story'': Hugo Gernsback's History of Science Fiction

While the importance of Hugo Gernsback in SF may be debated, critics of all schools can accept him as the first person to create and announce something resembling a history of SF. Some critics before Gernsback discussed earlier works now seen as SF, but they did not treat SF as a separate category and did not distinguish its texts from other forms of non-mimetic fiction: for example, Julian Hawthorne's 1891 discussion of "romantic writers" grouped together works by Plato, Sir Philip Sidney, Jonathan Swift, Percy Greg, Ignatius Donnelly, Edward Bellamy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling (9-10). On the other hand, some previous critics seemed aware of SF as a separate category, but they spoke mainly in the future tense—calling for a genre of scientific fiction and referring to few if any earlier works: Félix Bodin in 1834 claimed that there existed no ex-ample of "the epic of the future" (Alkon 8) and William Wilson in 1851 noted only one text, R.H. Horne's The Poor Artist, that exemplified "Science-Fiction" (Moskowitz 312). So it was left to Gernsback both to identify SF as a distinct form of literature and to cite a number of its past and present works, establishing in the process three major periods in its history.1

To be sure, the format and style of Gernsback's presentation did not resemble that of conventional literary history: instead of writing a monograph, he made scattered comments on important texts in editorials, blurbs, and responses to letters in Amazing Stories and other magazines, and implicitly classified other works as SF by reprinting them in those magazines. It is true, of course, that he did not approach the subject of SF history with the attitude of a scholar: he was also interested in publishing a magazine and making money. Some works by prominent authors may have been reprinted because they were inexpensive or because Gernsback thought they would be popular with readers; and these and other prominent authors may have been featured or mentioned because he thought their names would add prestige to his undertaking.2 Still, questionable motives do not necessarily produce inferior results, and they certainly provide no reason to leave Gernsback's achievements unexamined.

In presenting the works he chose to include in the history of SF, Gernsback claimed to rely on a formula that modern critics would regard as naive and rigid: the work must be a narrative; it must incorporate passages of scientific explanation; and it must describe an imaginary but scientifically logical new invention or breakthrough. Blurbs to stories reprinted in Amazing impose these odd priorities even when they do not seem to reflect the actual circumstances and purposes of the story's creation. For example, presenting Verne's A Trip to the Center of the Earth, he wrote:

Not only was Jules Verne a master of the imaginative type of fiction, but he was a scientist of high caliber.... Instead of boring a hole into the bowels of the Earth, Jules Verne was probably the first to think of taking the reader to unexplored depths through the orifice of an extinct volcano. He argues, correctly, that a dead crater would prove...perhaps the best route for such exploration. (Amz 1:101, May 1926)3

And he described H.G. Wells's "The Crystal Egg" in this manner:

Mr. Wells' imagination is not running loose—he knows his science—and while the story at first glance may seem entirely too fantastic, no one knows but that it may, 5,000 years from now be quite tame and of everyday occurrence. If a civilization on another world were sometime to communicate with us, there might be thousands of methods, to us undreamt of, by which this could be achieved. The crystal egg method Mr. Wells uses in this story may be one of them. We who are accustomed to radio and who can bring voices out of the thin air with a pocket radio receptor, will not think that the crystal egg is impossible of fulfillment at some future date. (Amz 1:129, May 1926)

In these statements, Gernsback implies that Verne wrote A Trip to the Center of the Earth in order to suggest such an underground exploration, that Wells wrote "The Crystal Egg" in order to stimulate interest in a possible new means of communication, and that both wrote to provide readers with accurate scientific information.4

In establishing the broad parameters of his SF history, Gernsback first described the time from the Middle Ages to 1800 as a kind of anticipatory era of "Proto SF" (to use the usual modern term):

Scientifiction is not a new thing on this planet. While Edgar Allan Poe probably was the first to conceive the idea of a scientific story, there are suspicions that there were other scientifiction authors before him. Perhaps they were not such outstanding figures in literature, and perhaps they did not write what we understand today as scientifiction at all. Leonardo da Vinci ... while he was not really an author of scientifiction, nevertheless had enough prophetic vision to create a number of machines in his own mind that were only to materialize centuries later....
There may have been other scientific prophets, if not scientifiction writers, before his time, but the past centuries are so beclouded, and there are so few manuscripts of such literature in existence today, that we cannot really be sure who was the real inventor of scientifiction.
In the eleventh century there also lived a Franciscan monk, the amazing as well as famous Roger Bacon (1214-1294). He ... foresaw many of our present-day wonders. But as an author of scientifiction, he had to be extremely careful, because in those days it was not "healthy" to predict new and startling inventions. (Amz 1:195, June 1926)

Interestingly, Gernsback did not dismiss this period on the grounds that there existed insufficient awareness of "science,'' either as a concept or in its particulars; instead, he argued, while there were sporadic individuals in those times who possessed sufficient scientific knowledge and imagination to write SF, they lacked a satisfactory—and safe—literary outlet for their visions.5

The second era of SF, which might be termed its developmental period, began in the 19th century with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. In Gernsback's first editorial for Amazing Stories, he offered this capsule history:

Edgar Allan Poe may well be called the father of "scientifiction." It was he who really originated the romance, cleverly weaving into and around the story, a scientific thread. Jules Verne, with his amazing romances, also cleverly interwoven with a scientific thread, came next. A little later came H.G. Wells, whose scientifiction stories, like those of his forerunners, have become famous and immortal. (Amz 1:3, April 1926)

The works of Poe, Verne, and Wells were in Gernsback's eyes the most important progenitors of SF; indeed, the statement that qualifies as Gernsback's very first definition of SF is simply a list of their names: "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision'' (ibid.). And these three names are continually the focus of Gernsback's surveys of older SF; introducing Air Wonder Stories, for example, he said, "Years ago, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his immortal 'Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal [sic],' as well as 'The Balloon Hoax.' Later, the illustrious Jules Verne gave the world his 'Five Weeks in a Balloon.' Still later, H.G. Wells startled us with his incomparable 'The War in the Air.' All of these famous stories, it should be noted, fall in the class of scientific fiction....'' (AWS 1:5, July 1929).6 However these were not the only writers of the 19th and early 20th century that Gernsback accepted as important contributors to SF history.

One such writer was Luis Senarens, 19th-century author of "invention stories." Though Gernsback did not include Senarens in lists of major authors and never reprinted any of his dime novels, he twice published pictorial articles about him, entitled "The American Jules Verne'' (S&I, Oct 1920) and "An American Jules Verne'' (Amz, June 1928), suggesting that he could be compared to Verne, at least as an imaginer of wonderful machines (the focus of the articles). "The Moon Hoax'' (1835) by Richard Adams Locke appeared in the September 1926 Amazing Stories and "The Diamond Lens'' (1858) by Fitz James O'Brien in the December 1926 issue. H. Rider Haggard was mentioned by an editor who said, in response to a reader's request, "We have Rider Haggard in mind'' for a possible reprint (Amz 2:515, Aug 1927), though none ever appeared. Edward Bellamy was listed by Gernsback along with Poe, Verne, and Wells as writers who "have proved themselves real prophets'' (Amz 1:3, Apr 1926). Garrett P. Serviss was named by an editor along with Verne and Wells as "three of our favorite authors'' (Amz 2:413, July 1927), was called one of "the better known scientifiction writers'' by Gernsback (Amz 2:625, Oct 1927), and was represented by three works reprinted in Amazing Stories. A revised edition of M.P. Shiel's 1901 novel The Purple Cloud was reviewed in the December 1930 Wonder Stories (2:761). And Arthur Conan Doyle was named in an editor's letter-response citing as earlier SF "the Wells, Verne, and Conan Doyle classics" (WS 3:132, June 1931).

In associating writers whose careers began in the 19th century with SF, Gernsback, unlike later historians, did not attribute their work to larger events in that era; they were rather persons ahead of their time, "prophets" who anticipated both the value of scientific progress and the value of literature about scientific progress. All on his own, Poe "conceive[d] the idea of a scientific story." Thus, according to Gernsback, 19th-century SF was simply the product of isolated individual geniuses.

To modern critics, Gernsback's account of SF history before 1900 will also seem inadequate because of major omissions; and lacking a background in literature, Gernsback and his associates may have been unaware of possible precursors of SF like Kepler's Somnium, Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone, or Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race.7 In some cases, however, comments by Gernsback and his editors in Amazing Stories show that they were aware of or informed about certain major works but chose not to include them in the history of the genre. Swift's Gulliver's Travels, for example, is mentioned in two responses to hostile letters (Amz 2:99, Apr 1927; 2:310, June 1927), but even though the circumstances were ideal to identify Swift's work as SF, the editor failed to do so. A later response noted that "A writer such as Charles Lamb or Nathaniel Hawthorne, could consider the most ordinary scene and make it literature. But neither could have dipped into science for their subjects, because it would be unfamiliar ground for them" (Amz 3:370, July 1928), thus decreeing that those men never wrote SF. If the only motive Gernsback and his editors had had for discussing SF history was to find famous names to drop which could add prestige to the genre, they would have seized upon such examples instead of neglecting to do so.

Gernsback's third era of SF, the modern period, is immodestly marked by the emergence of Hugo Gernsback. At one time, Gernsback regarded the crucial date as 1908, when he started publishing Modern Electrics, a magazine that included an SF story in each issue: "I started the movement of SF in America in 1908 through my first magazine, 'MODERN ELECTRICS.' At that time it was an experiment. Science fiction authors were scarce. There were not a dozen worth mentioning in the entire world" (SWS 1:5, June 1929). Over twenty years later, he chose to be a bit more precise in setting a date for the beginning of "modern science fiction":

Usually authors not quite familiar with the writer's [Gernsback's] early work set the date of the start of modern science fiction in the year 1926, which date coincides with the first science fiction magazine, "Amazing Stories"....
We would like to correct this view for historical purposes. Modern science fiction, like so many other endeavors, had an orderly evolution.... The date which the writer would like to fix is the year 1911, not 1926. 1911 was the year in which the writer's novel, RALPH 124C 41+, ran serially in "Modern Electrics," which at that time had a circulation of around 100,000 copies. The novel caused so much comment and brought so much mail from readers that, at the end of the serial in 1912, it was found necessary to continue science fiction in some manner....8

Still, Gernsback sometimes employed the commonly accepted starting date for "the Gernsback era,'' the appearance of Amazing Stories in 1926: "Not until 1926, when I launched my first Science Fiction magazine, was any concerted movement possible.... The movement since 1926, has grown by leaps and bounds until today there are literally hundreds of thousands of adherents to Science Fiction scattered through the entire civilized world" (WS 5:1061, May 1934). Whether one chooses the date 1908, 1911, or 1926, Gernsback clearly believed that the beginning of modern SF should be attributed in part to his own actions, statements, and publications; however, he did not claim that all developments and changes in modern SF stemmed from his influence.

On what grounds did Gernsback declare that the early 20th century was the third and most important period in SF history? First, it was at this time— not the 19th century as others later maintained—that science and its products truly became part of everyday life. As he argued in 1929,

Science—Mechanics—the Technical Arts—they surround us on every hand, nay, enter deeply into our very lives. The telephone, radio, talking motion pictures, television, X-rays, Radium, super-aircraft and dozens of others claim our constant attention, We live and breathe day by day in a Science saturated atmosphere.
The wonders of modern science no longer amaze—we accept each new discovery as a matter of course.... No wonder, then, that anybody who has any imagination at all clamors for fiction of the Jules Verne and H.G. Wells type.... (SWS 1:5, June 1929)

In the 1920s, then, one need not be a prophet to recognize the importance of science and write informed fiction on the subject.

With this expanding awareness of science, the 20th century next brought, Gernsback asserted, an increase in the amount of SF being written. Though it was not his intent, he provided tacit evidence for this claim by reprinting a number of contemporary works in Amazing Stories.9 A few came from his own scientific magazines, like George Allan England's "The Thing from— Outside" (April 1926) and Jacque Morgan's Mr Fosdick stories (June, July, August 1926). Some were from other popular magazines: in 1926, Austin Hall's "The Man Who Saved the Earth," Ellis Parker Butler's "An Experiment in Gyro Hats," and Murray Leinster's "The Mad Planet''; in 1927, Leinster's "The Red Dust,'' Captain H.G. Bishop's "On the Martian Way,'' Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot, A. Merritt's "The People of the Pit'' and The Moon Pool, T.S. Stribling's "The Green Splotches,'' and Harry Stephen Keeler's "John Jones's Dollar.'' Gernsback also named Victor Rousseau's The Messiah of the Cylinder as a possible reprint (Amz 1:99, May 1926). One 1927 story came from a more respectable source, the Yale Review: Julian Huxley's "The Tissue-Culture King.'' And in the 1930s, Gernsback was energetic in recognizing and reprinting the SF of contemporary European writers, in this way implicitly recognizing a tradition of sorts involving such writings in other countries.10

In gathering together these disparate American, British, and European writers, Gernsback acknowledged another new feature of the third era in SF history: the emergence of people who might be considered, in an old-fashioned sense, SF scholars. Gernsback described himself as an expert in the field: having "made scientifiction a hobby since I was 8 years old,'' he "probably [knew] as much about it as anyone.'' (Amz 1:1085, March 1927). With great fanfare, he announced in July 1926 the addition to the editorial staff of Wilbur C. Whitehead, "a scientifiction fan of the first rank,'' and C.A. Brandt, "the greatest living expert on scientifiction.... There is not a work of this kind that has appeared in the last fifty years with which Mr. Brandt is not fully conversant'' (Amz 1:390). Thus, not only were there more SF stories being written, but there were more people who knew about these stories as SF. With all of this knowledge available, then, Gernsback claimed the ability to obtain and make use of a broader knowledge of previous SF than any earlier commentator, and he asserted at one point that he had "a list of 600 to 700 scientifiction stories'' (Amz 1:195, June 1926).11

While Gernsback did not attribute these developments—the growing prominence of modern science, the increase in the amount of SF published, and the wider and deeper awareness of SF—to his own efforts, he did argue that he and his magazines were contributing to the growth of SF by effectively teaching a new generation of writers how to write SF. In itself, publishing a variety of SF stories and surrounding them with his commentary could have this effect; in addition, Gernsback and his editors claimed to be making particular efforts to train individual writers. One letter response stated, "we think AMAZING STORIES is doing its part in developing new authors'' (Amz 3:272, June 1928). In 1930, Gernsback announced, "For the guidance of new authors, we have prepared a pamphlet entitled 'Suggestions for Authors''' (AWS 1:677, Feb 1930). And a letter response described other efforts to educate writers: "Science Fiction is in its infancy, and...the publishers of this, and our sister magazines, spend hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars in advertising for Science Fiction writers, advising them, often teaching them the finer points and sometimes the fundamentals of their craft'' (SWS 1:1143, May 1930).12

With the new prominence of science, more SF being written, a better awareness of the genre, and ongoing efforts to educate writers, the third age of SF, in Gernsback's view, was destined to be its greatest. In 1926, Gernsback said, "We believe the era of scientifiction is just commencing'' (Amz 1:483, Sept 1926). In the September 1928 Amazing Stories, the announcement of the results of a "$300.00 Scientifiction Prize Contest'' described SF as "a new and distinct movement in literature that is gaining more impetus as the months roll by. There was a time when a Scientifiction book or novel was a scarcity. Now, with AMAZING STORIES Monthly and AMAZING STORIES QUARTERLY eagerly championing the cause, Scientifiction has excited the attention of hundreds of thousands of people who never knew what the term meant before'' (3:519). And he noted in the same year that "until very recently, there were not enough scientifiction stories to go around.... But times are rapidly changing.... More and more authors of the better kind are taking to scientifiction as the proverbial duck takes to water.... Already, in our editorial opinion, our modern authors have far eclipsed both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells'' (ASQ 1:147, Spring 1928).

The general structure of Gernsback's history of SF is thus clear: first, a long period of relative inactivity, when potential authors of SF were hampered by the lack of a supportive environment and appropriate medium; second, the 19th century, when a few prescient writers emerged who dealt imaginatively with science in their works; and third, the 20th century, when the increased impact of science and a growing awareness of SF—the latter in part inspired by himself—greatly enlarged the field and would eventually lead to even greater achievements.13

In letters to Amazing Stories, one sees some readers responding enthusiastically to Gernsback's vision of SF history and even adopting its parameters. To be sure, as is regularly noted, many complained about the older stories reprinted—but others appreciated them.14 One letter writer addressed the editor as someone with real curiosity about SF history:

It may interest you to know that I have met with an allusion to the "Moon Hoax'' which may interest you; it is from the North American Review, No. 89, October, 1835 (the writer is discussing Carlyle's Sartor Resartus): "In short, our private opinion is, as we have remarked, that the whole story (i.e., Sartor Resartus) . . . has about as much foundation in truth as the late entertaining account of Sir John Herschel's discoveries in the moon.'' (Amz 2:1180, March 1927)

And after Gernsback de-emphasized older reprints in the 1930s, readers continued to request them—so much so that Gernsback felt obliged to write an editorial response, "On Reprints,'' where he claimed the older reprints were either outdated or unavailable (WSQ 4:99, Winter 1933).

Not only did readers accept as genuine, and share, Gernsback's interest in SF history, but some also accepted and restated his version of its history. Consider these comments from a reader of Science Wonder Stories:

Science fiction is a new endeavor. Until the advent of Mr. Gernsback, it was strongly individualized, resting in such luminaries as Wells, Verne, Poe, etc. But Mr. Gernsback knew that imagination was inherent in everyone; that suitable expression could be molded by just a little coaxing or incentive. So from all America he culled the outposts of science fiction writers.... we ought to keep in mind that science fiction is yet a scrubby infant. Tolerate its indiscretions as you would a child's. (1:1142-43, May 1930)

A young Jack Williamson contributed a reader editorial, "The Amazing Work of Wells and Verne,'' where he argued that "while this form of literature was invented by an American, Edgar Allan Poe, and while America is the land of scientifiction today, Wells and Verne were its first two masters'' (ASQ 2:140, Winter 1929). James T. Brady, Jr., wrote another editorial in an earlier issue, "History of Scientific Fiction,'' which accepted Gernsback's periods while adding names to the canon:

Until the time of Poe...there was no scientific literature of an influential character written, with the exception of a few stories by Bergerac (Voyages to the Sun and Moon) and Swift (Gulliver's Travels). The evolution of the type really begins with stories such as "Scheherazade's Thousand and Second Tale'' [sic], "Mesmeric Revelation,'' and "The Balloon Hoax.''

For fifteen years after Poe there was a little fiction of this kind written. In 1862, however, Jules Verne turned his pen toward the scientific story and published "Five Weeks in a Balloon.''... In 1895 appeared Wells' "Time Machine.'' It was Wells who carried on the tradition in England and by giving impetus to the scientific-fiction idea and purifying its technic [sic] paved the way for the numerous writers of the present day.
Until this time little had been done since Poe's death in America. There had been one little known writer, Lu Senarens, whose stories (written about 1890) have proved marvelously prophetic.... After Wells, however, many American writers entered the field. At the head of a long list are such names as A. Merritt, Garrett P. Serviss and A. Hyatt Verrill. (ASQ 1:571, Fall 1928)

And did Gernsback's version of SF history directly influence later scholars? There is one intriguing connection: in 1934, Gernsback began the Science Fiction League, with its activities reported in each issue of Wonder Stories. In "The Science Fiction League'' column of the May 1935 issue, P. Schuyler Miller (later known as an SF reviewer and collector) is quoted as saying, "there is one piece of work which should certainly be undertaken....a complete and accurate science-fiction bibliography'' (6:1519). The column editor agreed, asking for responses and specifying, "We particularly want items published a long time ago—ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years or longer'' (6:1520). Two months later, the column reported that "J.O. Bailey of Chapel Hill, N.C. has been collecting rare science-fiction for many years and asks us to wait until his bibliography, which he is putting a great deal of work into, is completed, before we go ahead and publish one of our own.... We are sure, from the interesting letter he sent us, that his knowledge of all published science-fiction is practically unlimited and the LEAGUE would probably lose a lot without his aid'' (7:214). It is not clear whether Bailey, who later published the first academic study of SF, Pilgrims through Time and Space (1947), actually shared his work with the League or made use of the bibliographies sent to Wonder Stories by members of the League; but clearly he was at least a regular reader of Gernsback's magazine; and the research inspired by the League may have contributed to or stimulated others' studies of the subject.15

In any event, comparing Gernsback's SF history with later efforts, one notes certain parallels between them. Gernsback's identifications of writers of SF have endured: all the writers Gernsback embraced still appear in SF histories (albeit some of them only as peripheral figures), and his broad outline (a period of relative inactivity before 1800, a period of significant development in the 19th century, and a modern period beginning in the 20th century) is generally followed.16

Of course, later histories differ from Gernsback's, first in their thoroughness and criteria for selection, which are more sophisticated than Gernsback's demands for scientific content and scientific prophecies.17 Later historians usually choose slightly different points in time to mark transitions between eras—Mary Shelley, not Poe, as the beginning of SF, and Wells or John W. Campbell as the founder of the modern period—and they typically offer different explanations for those changes—focussing less on individuals to identify larger cultural and literary developments to explain the growth of SF.18 One final difference—worth examining at length—is that Gernsback assigned himself a prominent role in SF history, while later historians often minimize his importance.

To explain this tendency, one must consider Gernsback's consistently poor relationships with his authors. His experience with H.G. Wells exemplifies his problems in this area. His letters to Wells suggest that he badly wanted Wells to offer a response to, or gesture of support for, his efforts to promote and publish "scientifiction.'' His letter of 4 May 1926 said, "AMAZING STORIES is a new magazine, facing an uphill fight for recognition by the reading public, and there can be no question about your interest in a magazine of this kind, which is the first to come out with scientifiction. It really deserves your best cooperation to help put this publication on its feet.... we have arranged for you to receive a complimentary copy of this magazine each month.'' Later, he again sought substantive comment from Wells: "The readers of AMAZING STORIES are all very much interested in your writings, as you probably have noted from the discussions appearing in the columns of our magazine.... we should like to publish a letter from you on any subject you may choose—preferably scientifiction. This would lend a personal touch for our readers. Perhaps a few words as to your impression of this magazine might not be amiss.... May not we hear from you?'' (5 May 1927). Apparently, Wells never responded to these appeals and never said anything about "scientifiction.'' Since he was then busy cementing his reputation as a serious writer and world statesman, the last thing Wells would have been interested in, no doubt, was a new image as a writer of "scientifiction.'' But Gernsback also spoiled what slim chance he had to get Wells's support by gradually slipping into bad habits—not getting prior permission to reprint stories, making late payments, and not making full payments;19 and Wells ended the relationship in a letter dated 29 January 1929: "Mr. Wells would prefer that you do not publish any more of his stories.''

Similar habits poisoned dealings with other writers. After selling Gernsback The Master Mind of Mars for $1250, Edgar Rice Burroughs was appalled to receive payments in the form of "trade acceptances'' rather than cash; and though he eventually accepted this arrangement, he avoided more business with Gernsback by demanding $800 when Gernsback asked to reprint Beyond Thirty (Porges 756). According to L. Sprague de Camp, H.P. Lovecraft, having submitted "The Colour Out of Space'' to Amazing Stories, learned in June 1927 that it had been accepted: "Getting paid for it, however, presented a problem. After Lovecraft wrote many dunning letters, the magazine sent him a check for $25 the following May. This was fifth of a cent a word—a ridiculous price. Thereafter, Lovecraft referred to Gernsback as 'Hugo the rat''' (282). Jack Williamson notes that Gernsback "bought perhaps a quarter-million words of my fiction, and he paid for it rather reluctantly. After he paid for the first few stories at half a cent a word (sometimes less), he stopped paying me altogether. Finally, I got an attorney associated with the American Fiction Guild to force Gernsback to send me payment. I gather other writers had similar experiences with him'' (238).

One can reasonably ask why Gernsback, when reasonably active in describing and reprinting worthwhile older examples of SF, was so negligent about the other necessary aspect of his effort to establish the genre: developing and supporting talented new writers. Gernsback defended his penny-pinching as a matter of financial need, though one can question his sincerity.20 Perhaps Gernsback secretly enjoyed taking advantage of writers; perhaps, with no experience in producing a fiction magazine, he did not realize that such a project demanded treating writers with fairness and civility.21

Regardless of his motives, Gernsback's policies undermined his own position in SF history: in the 1930s his failure to pay promptly and fairly drove major writers to Astounding Stories and the Sloane Amazing Stories, which contributed to the demise of Wonder Stories; his failure to endure in the field seemed to define him as a peripheral figure; and since historians often rely on the testimony of writers, Gernsback gave them no reason to remember him fondly, adding to the impression that he was an unimportant and rather unpleasant person.

To understand Gernsback's significance, then, one must turn away from writers and consider the responses of readers and other evidence of his impact on the field. Indeed, while scholars may properly examine Gernsback's suspect motives and questionable business practices, nothing alters the fact that he wrote what he wrote and printed what he printed, and that people responded to and were influenced by what he wrote and what he printed. The pertinent question is not whether Gernsback was a saint; it is whether he warrants a prominent place in the history of SF. And that is the question that demands further critical attention.


1. I discuss the general importance of Gernsback as an SF critic, in contrast to earlier critics, in "On The True History of Science Fiction'' (Foundation 47:5-27, Winter 1989-90) and "An Idea of Significant Import'' (Foundation 48:26-50, Spring 1990).

2. This charge dates back to an early letter to Amazing Stories that tells Gernsback, "You seek prestige through the names of such old Masters as Jules Verne...'' (Amz 1:981, Jan 1927).

3. Most of the quotations in this article are from editorials and articles signed by Hugo Gernsback. The quotations from unsigned blurbs to stories in Amazing are ascribed to Gernsback on the basis of Sam Moskowitz's claim that "Gernsback himself...wrote the editorials and the majority of the blurbs for the stories'' (Explorers of the Infinite [Cleveland, 1963], 227). Other critics, including Paul Carter, George Slusser, and Alexei Panshin, have routinely credited Gernsback with writing certain blurbs. Since there is no similar consensus on who wrote the responses to readers' letters, I assign them to an anonymous "editor'' and suspect that T. O'Conor Sloane, Associate Editor of Amazing Stories, wrote most of them.

4. Other instances may be cited where Gernsback apparently distorted stories in order to classify them as SF, like his specious defense of A. Merritt's The Moon Pool as SF in "Amazing Creations'' (Amz 2:109, May 1927); and Paul Carter comments that his blurb to Wells's "The Man Who Could Work Miracles'' "managed tenuously to define the tale as science fiction...surely this was straining at a gnat'' (The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction [NY, 1977], 7).

5. This tentative embrace of writers before 1800 as at least potential authors of SF, however, seems to conflict with an earlier editorial: "Two hundred years ago, stories of this kind were not possible'' because science was not then a part of everyday life (Amz 1:3, Apr 1926).

6. While Gernsback routinely celebrated the triumvirate of Poe, Verne, and Wells in the 1920s and '30s—even after he stopped reprinting their works—his comments in the 1950s and '60s, as in his "Guest Editorial,'' mention only Verne and Wells (Amz 35:5-7,93, Apr 1961), and a later remark seems to deny that Poe wrote SF:

Let me clarify the term Science-Fiction. When I speak of it, I mean the truly, scientific, prophetic Science-Fiction with the full accent on SCIENCE. I emphatically do not mean the fairy tale brand, the weird or fantastic type of what mistakenly masquerades under the name of Science-Fiction today. I find no fault with fairy tales, weird and fantastic stories. Some of them are excellent for their entertainment value, as amply proved by Edgar Allan Poe and other masters, but when they are advertised as Science-Fiction, then I must firmly protest. ("The Impact of Science-Fiction on World Progess,'' SF+ 1:2, March 1953).

7. Years later, Gernsback apologized for one major omission in his history. In 1961, P. Schuyler Miller commented in his Analog book-review column that "I have always wondered why, in [the reprints in Gernsback's magazines], we were not given at least one of the stories of the acknowledged Russian pioneer in the theory and practice of rocket flight, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky'' (67:162, May 1961). Gernsback replied that neither he nor Brandt had been aware of Tsiolkovsky's fiction:

At one time [Brandt] brought to my attention the name of Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky. I had never heard of him before 1926, and the book Brandt was talking about had nothing to do with Tsiolkovsky's science fiction, but rather with his theoretical space flight and rockets.

As far as I can remember, there wasn't then in existence an English translation of Tsiolkovsky's early work, and while I am fluent in French and German, I cannot read Russian. It would seem that neither Brandt nor I knew of the story "Beyond the Planet Earth.'' If I had heard about it, it is certain that we would have run it sooner or later in Amazing Stories or Amazing Stories Annual. (Letter to Miller, Analog 69:168, March 1962)

8. The Evolution of Modern Science Fiction (NY, 1952). This pamphlet, found in the library of the University of California at Santa Barbara, was apparently privately printed by Gernsback as a guide to his SF publications before 1926, probably in connection with his appearance at the 1952 World Science Fiction Convention.

9. While Gernsback was usually frank in admitting that older stories and "classic'' novels were reprints, he rarely acknowledged in blurbs that recent stories were not originals; still, some readers recognized them as reprints. Thus, even though the short stories in the first issue of Amazing Stories were not explicitly described as reprints, Gernsback felt obliged to add this note in the next issue: "Some of our readers seem to have obtained the erroneous idea that AMAZING STORIES publishes only reprints, that is, stories that have appeared in print before. This is not the case...'' (Amz 1:135, May 1926). While Gernsback's coyness regarding reprints did not fool all his readers, it can be a problem for scholars trying to sort out which stories were originals and which were not; Michael Ashley, for example, calls G. Peyton Wertenbaker's "The Coming of the Ice'' (June 1926) the first original story to appear in the magazine (The History of the SF Magazine, Vol. 1 (Chicago, 1976), 52); but Wertenbaker's "The Man from the Atom (Sequel)'' (May 1926) actually merits that distinction.
10. Gernsback's reprinting of contemporary European SF is discussed by Gernsback himself in an editorial (WSQ, 4:5, Fall 1932) and has been discussed by Robert Lowndes (Foundation #35:68-69, Spring 1986) and others.

11. In reporting what Gernsback claimed were the features of the modern era of SF, I am not necessarily obliged to investigate the accuracy of those claims; still, some discussion of how knowledgeable Gernsback and Brandt actually were may be appropriate. Editorials and introductions suggest that Gernsback was familiar with Verne's works, and the reprints in the first four issues of Amazing indicate that he knew something about the relevant literature of the previous 30 years. The addition of C.A. Brandt to his staff with the fifth issue provided another source of knowledge. However, there are signs that his awareness of SF history (and/or that of his staff) was not all that extensive. A letter in the May 1927 issue referred to "Wells's 'The Lost World,''' and the error was not corrected in the response (Amz 2:205). Gaps in the knowledge of Wells's work were admitted in a letter to Wells's secretary (18 July 1927) requesting a full list of Wells's "stories of a scientific nature.'' A second letter (4 April 1928) asked the price of several novels, including The Research Magnificent, which Gernsback evidently imagined to be SF.

I thank Gene Rinkel and the staff of the Rare Book Room of the University of Illinois for providing me with copies of these and the other letters from the Wells-Gernsback correspondence that are discussed below.

12. Again, one can question to what extent Gernsback and his editors were actually making an effort to educate writers. On the one hand, David H. Keller's Foreword to "The Human Termites'' describes how Gernsback gave him the idea for the story (SWS 1:295, Sept 1929); Sam Moskowitz and Michael Ashley have discussed letters in which Gernsback seemed to be helping and encouraging writers (see Eric Leif Davin, "Gernsback, His Editors, and Women Writers,'' SFS 17:418-20, #52, Nov 1990); and Frederik Pohl discusses the unusually detailed rejections slips from Wonder Stories, which could be considered educational devices (The Way the Future Was [1978; NY: Ballantine, 1979], 42-43). On the other hand, Gernsback generally did little to build personal relationships with writers and, as noted below, repeatedly alienated them with persistent low payments and belated payments.

13. In later comments, Gernsback described a fourth era in SF history, its period of decline, which began in the 1950s and is marked by two developments: a growing tendency to avoid science and an unfortunate tendency to be too literary. In a 1963 address to the MIT Science Fiction Society, he argued that "the genre of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells has now been prostituted to such an extent that it is often quite impossible to find any reference to science in what is popularly called science fiction today'' (cited in Alexei Panshin, SF in Dimension [Chicago, 1974], 21). And his editorial for the December 1952 Science-Fiction Plus proclaimed that

Modern science-fiction today tends to gravitate more and more into the realm of the esoteric and sophisticated literature, to the exclusion of all other types.... Good S-F authors are few, extremely few. Most of them have become esoteric— "high brow.'' They and their confrères disdain the "popular'' story—they call it "corny,'' "dated,'' "passé.''... At present, science-fiction literature is in its decline —deservedly so. The masses are revolting against the snob dictum "Let 'em eat cake!'' They're ravenous for vitalizing plain bread! (SF+ 1:2, March 1953)

14. "I was delighted to see ['The Moon Hoax'], having seen many references to it in past time,'' one reader said (Amz 2:414, July 1927); another praised Verne, Haggard, Leinster, Serviss, Burroughs, and England (Amz 2:103, April 1927); a third listed Wells, Verne, Poe, Serviss, O'Brien, Verrill, and Gernsback as favorite writers (ASQ 1:431, Summer 1928); and a fourth said that "The Moon Hoax'' "was undeniably clever, well written and a fine story all around.... I do not exhaust the supply of Wells', Verne's, and Serviss' stories. They're masterpieces'' (Amz 2:413, July 1927).

15. Harry Warner, Jr—citing no sources—claims that Bailey did receive help from one fan, H.C. Koenig, and provided another fan, A. Langley Searles, with some help in return:

J.O. Bailey, a scholar with almost imperceptibly faint connections with general fandom.... announced as early as 1935, through the letter column of Wonder Stories, that he was compiling a bibliography of science fiction. Then working on his Ph.D. degree, he abandoned this project, after snaring 5,000 titles, as too big a task to handle. He sent his notes to Koenig, who had helped him gather information, and the data proved useful to Searles [who later presented his own extensive bibliography in issues of the Fantasy Commentator]. (All Our Yesterdays [Chicago, 1969], 68).

16. Bailey's first era of SF is "Before 1817'' and the final era is 1915 and after, corresponding to Gernsback's three periods (though Bailey divides the middle period into 1817-70, 1871-94, and 1895-1914). Aldiss dismisses SF before 1800 as "Lucian and All That'' in the subtitle of chapter 3 of Billion Year Spree (1973) and in Trillion Year Spree (NY: Atheneum, 1986) argues that "The origins and inspirations for science fiction lie...within the period of the Industrial Revolution [i.e., the early 19th century]'' (13-14), with a synthesis emerging in modern American pulp magazines (205).

17. Gernsback's reductionist standards, however, can sometimes be detected in later, more erudite studies; e.g., Bailey, having defined "scientific fiction'' as "a narrative of an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences and consequent adventures and experiences'' (10), includes More's Utopia, not for its larger features, but because "it describes a wonderful machine, the incubator'' (11).

18. Aldiss begins with Mary Shelley, with Poe in chapter 2 of Trillion Year Spree, and says that Campbell, not Gernsback, produced the synthesis mentioned above (note 14); and Darko Suvin, while acknowledging earlier works in the genre, calls 1800 the key "turning point'' in SF history (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction [New Haven, 1979], 89), with a modern synthesis emerging in the works of H.G. Wells (219-20).

19. Several letters to Gernsback from Wells (i.e., written by a secretary in compliance with Wells's instruction), the most extensive being the letter dated 20 March 1928, complained of such practices.

20. In the August 1927 issue Gernsback wrote that Amazing Stories was "not yet on a paying basis'' and "Only by having additional readers can the magazine hope to be put on a profitable basis'' (2:421), which he also maintained in a letter to H.G. Wells (5 May 1927), saying that "In another year the magazine should be on a paying basis.'' One skeptical response to these claims of financial hardship comes from James Gunn: "From a good businessman, the statement was hard to believe; the editorial costs were low—he used many reprints which must have cost him almost nothing, and he paid only one-half cent a word or less for new stories—and the price of the magazine was relatively high for the period'' (Alternate Worlds [Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1975], 125).

21. Gernsback's thinking may have been colored by his experience with Clement Fezandié, the author he published most frequently (over 40 stories between 1920 and 1926). Fezendié, according to Gernsback, "wrote for fun only and religiously sent back all checks in payment of his stories!'' ("Guest Editorial,'' Amz 35:141), April 1961). Knowing few professional fiction-writers, Gernsback may have felt that Fezandié was somehow representative—that all fiction-writers worked mainly for the joy of writing and the pleasure of seeing their stories in print; thus, he may have been surprised to find his writers getting so upset about small and tardy payments. Of course, this speculation in no way excuses Gernsback's behavior; any editor who finds himself regularly getting sued should have the sense to change his policies, but Gernsback never did.


Alkon, Paul. Origins of Futuristic Fictions. Athens, GA, 1987.
De Camp, L. Sprague. Lovecraft: A Biography. Garden City, 1975.
Gernsback, Hugo, ed. Air Wonder Stories (AWS), Amazing Stories (Amz), Amazing Stories Quarterly (ASQ), Science and Invention (S&I), Science Fiction Plus (SF+), Science Wonder Quarterly (SWQ), Science Wonder Stories (SWS), Wonder Stories (WS), Wonder Stories Quarterly (WSQ).
Hawthorne, Julian. Introduction to The Goddess of Avatabar. By William R. Bradshaw. NY, 1892. A facsimile reprint was published in 1975.
Moskowitz, Sam. "The Early Coinage of 'Science Fiction.''' SFS 3:312, #10, Nov 1976.
Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Provo, 1975.
Williamson, Jack. Interview. By Larry McCaffery. SFS 18:230-52, #54, July 1991.

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