Science Fiction Studies

#105 = Volume 35, Part 2 = July 2008

John Huntington

“A snappy short story having some scientific fact as its theme”

Mike Ashley. Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970-1980. The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine. Vol. III. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2007. Distributed U Chicago P. xix + 507 pp. $75 hc; $27.50 pbk.

Gary Westfahl. Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 5. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. viii + 273 pp. $35 pbk.

The authors of the two books I am reviewing here are friendly to and passionately interested in the popular dimension of sf, but it is hard to imagine two studies more different. One is a history in the tradition of gathering the facts and getting them straight. The other, dreaming of a grand, synthetic interpretation of twentieth-century sf, never finds its perspective or scale.            

Ashley’s Gateways to Forever is a monument to an idea of scholarship dear to the heart of the sf community. Ashley has read everything, known almost everybody, been in contact with the field for more than thirty years, and taken notes the whole time. He comes to his task without fancy critical theories, and he speaks in a chatty way, larding his narrative with one-line summaries of stories and clusters of names of authors and editors. He is a man of common sense, documenting the field’s own genial sense of its history. The book’s perspective is that of the producers of sf, that is, the publishers, editors, and writers. The language is often that of marketing: e.g., “One of the challenges facing the magazines was whether they could rebrand their image to look more sophisticated, so as to attract the more mature reader, while at the same time not wholly alienating the younger reader” (389). Ashley goes on in this paragraph to consider what the physical properties of the magazines—digest size, slick paper—did to the market. He knows how much each magazine paid its authors, when it paid, how it edited submissions, and what it did with manuscripts unprinted when the particular journal abruptly ceased publication. It is an amazing book, both for the enormous amount of information it summarizes and for the quiet authority with which it does so.

Gateways to Forever is part of Ashley’s larger History of the Science-Fiction Magazine, which started with a volume on magazine sf from Gernsback’s beginnings through the second world war and was followed by a volume on the 1950s and 1960s.1 In this most recent volume Ashley again works through the period by categories of publication: a 100-page chapter on the major and minor sf magazines; then a 110-page chapter on the single-volume anthologies and the anthology series, such as Orbit (ed. Damon Knight, 1966-83) and Quark (ed. Samuel R. Delany and Marilyn Hacker, 1970-71); then a fifty-five-page chapter on the semi-pro and amateur magazines, the academic journals, the games, and the “weird” magazines that developed at the end of the decade. The seventy-five-page fourth chapter focuses on the last years of the decade and the importance of the appearance of the Asimov magazines and a little later of Omni, and the difficulties experienced by some of the classics, especially Amazing. If a certain amount of his tale is familiar to those of us who are old enough to have lived through some of it, it is full of data about the economics and the business of sf magazines that no one but a scholar of Ashley’s dedication could describe.                

This is not exactly thick description; journals are described by their size, cost, looks, and tables of contents. If such names as R.A. Lafferty or Robert Sheckley do not mean much to you, you will not learn what you need to know about them here. But if you have an acquaintance with the writers of the period you will find this a useful survey of who published what where, with perhaps a line describing the work—e.g. Naomi Mitchison was published by Harry Harrison in Nova; in the first volume he “reprinted ‘Mary and Joe,’ an episode from Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), one of the few reprints he used. Like ‘Miss Omega Raven’ in Volume 2, it was concerned with how one copes with mutation. ‘The Factory’ (#3) considered pollution. All her concerns were brought together in one ecological plea in ‘Out of the Water’ (#4)” (140). There is a lot in information here, but you have to know something already to grasp it.                

In the final chapter, just before the extensive appendices summarizing the data on magazines, editors, and authors, Ashley attempts a broad diagnosis of what happened to the sf field during the 1970s. Perhaps the most startling information in this chapter is the evidence on the decline of younger readers of magazines. Locus reported a drop in magazine readers under twenty-one from “36 per cent in 1971 to 4 per cent in 1981,” while over the same period the average age of its readers rose from 24 to 31 (384). Algol’s readership between the ages of 15 and 21 dropped from 12.3 % to 1% between 1975 and 1982. Books, however, became more popular through this period, although Ashley asserts that “the growth in sf-book publishing was primarily in formulaic adventure books and retro-pulp” (385) and “drew upon the popular style of fiction developed by the leading writers of the fifties and sixties” (386). He sees the genre as losing its focus due to the new directions opened up by writers such as Le Guin and Delany, the two he mentions in the paragraph from which I have been quoting. Certainly, there is some truth to this claim. What one misses is attention to other aspects of the culture—technological developments, such as television, obviously, but also the change of scale of corporate invention and distribution, political differences, shifts in cultural attitudes—and a more detailed interpretation of the texts themselves. Ashley’s detailed scan of the magazine situation is a crucial basis for further work, but it will take scholars with other kinds of skills to do that work.                

Gary Westfahl’s Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction aspires not to summary but to interpretive depth. This book is the next installment, even at times a repetition, of an argument Westfahl has been urging for almost two decades now: that Gernsback, as editor, author, and critic, was the true “father of science fiction”—appropriately, it was Gernsback who baptized the genre with the name by which it is now known. In this portrait Gernsback appears as a stolid, serious technician with a literary-scientific-educational mission. Many of us could probably find it in ourselves to agree with some parts of this argument in a very loose way. But Westfahl is not content with such weak affirmation; he wants us not only to accept Gernsback’s historical importance but to admit that at every level this crusading Gernsback with his gospel of sf as an educational and prognostic genre established the deep structure, the DNA as it were, that defines the genre right through the end of the twentieth century.                

This is not a persuasive book. Though Westfahl certainly knows this material in detail, he has not been able to formulate an argument that matters. He sets artificial goals and enforces them pedantically. The book opens with a belligerent rebuke to other critics for their failures to appreciate Gernsback’s accomplishments and importance. Westfahl uses critical terms such as utopia, melodrama, and satire in such naive ways that either the argument is a tautology (utopia is perfect; the world of Ralph 124C 41+ is not perfect; therefore Ralph is not a utopia) or so obvious as hardly to need defense (is it possible to conceive of a time when sf did not use melodramatic plot devices?). When he argues, he forces the matter. The chapter proving Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is indebted to Ralph (first published 1911) is filled with casuistic tricks, such as the claim that since both works describe future technologies they are similar in a significant way, or that Ralph in his intellectual ivory tower and Case in his drugged despair can be linked as figures of inaction. And even in arguments where Westfahl is surely right in some sense, there is no scale or proportion. The centerpiece of the book is a fifty-page chapter entitled “Evolution of Modern Science Fiction” devoted to an excruciatingly detailed analysis of the authorial and editorial changes in the text of Ralph over half a century. The details may be accurate, but the conclusions are trivial and by the end of the chapter even dismissive of the whole project. We learn that Gernsback sought by revision “generally to make the novel more entertaining and to polish its prose style” (114). After fifteen more pages of close analysis we can conclude that “Gernsback demonstrated that he could at times recognize bad writing and faulty story logic, and that he could occasionally do something to ameliorate such flaws” (129). When in 1950 a reasonably good edition appears, Westfahl denigrates the accomplishment: “Gernsback’s prose received the respect it did not deserve” (139). And finally Westfahl declares the editors’ project pointless: they were “confronting the fundamental weakness of Ralph: the fact that its author was consistently unable to write a fluid English sentence” (145). Westfahl has come to sound like the critics he denounced in his opening chapter.                

The final chapter of the book may cause one to want to rethink Westfahl’s argument. Up to now, through all the anger and relentless detail, one could hold on to a trust that at least Westfahl’s reading of Gernsback was accurate. But in the series, “Baron Munchausen’s New Scientific Adventures” (1915-17), we see intimations of a Gernsback who upsets Westfahl’s earnest and hardworking educator. Westfahl knows that Baron Munchausen is traditionally a teller of tall tales, and he recognizes the warning embedded in Gernsback’s narrator’s name, “I.M. Alier,” yet he keeps a straight face and declares, “Even though Gernsback chose as his protagonist a famous satirical figure and creates his own satirical figure as his narrator, he found himself unable to write a satire and instead was obliged to incongruously employ these characters as conveyors of scientific facts and plausible ideas for future inventions” (224). When Alier makes excuses for not producing evidence for his fantastic claims (e.g., because Munchausen’s radio signal is getting too distant), Westfahl charges the reporters who accuse him of being a fraud with “being foolish in refusing to believe him because of these unfortunate problems” (221). Westfahl accounts for inconsistencies between the tales not as pointed signs of fiction but as signs of Gernsback’s inattention to details (223).                

Westfahl is so committed to his picture of Gernsback as a sober scientific educator that he has no room for any other interpretation. Early in the Munchausen series as published in The Electrical Experimenter in 1915, Gernsback issued a call for “A snappy short story having some scientific fact as its theme” and stipulated that “only scientific literature is acceptable, although not necessarily dealing with electrical subjects. ‘Baron Munchausen’ is a good example” (qtd. 231). Westfahl can read this as a statement that the Munchausen stories are intended to teach, as Westfahl puts it, “scientific facts and plausible ideas for future inventions.” But why in the world would Gernsback have used Munchausen as the model if he had such a serious purpose? What he wants is a “snappy short story.” The “scientific theme” he is talking about allows for a broad and loose definition of science fiction. Certainly, the comic play with scientific ideas and with the idea of “fact” itself that he performs in the Munchausen stories suggests a much livelier enjoyment of fancy than Westfahl’s interpretation allows.

When he set about inventing pulp sf, Gernsback was, like Munchausen, a fake. I do not intend by that judgment to deny his importance. We need to complicate our understanding of how that importance is achieved, however. Westfahl is right to expose Ralph as an amateur production, but the important thing to be aware of is that this is less a real novel than a hopeful dream of what sf might be. Gernsback may sense his own awkwardness and be aware of the childishness of the plot. What is remarkable, given Gernsback’s abilities, is the bold daring of the attempt. I think Westfahl was correct in his suspicion voiced deep in the footnotes of Mechanics of Wonder (90, n. 9) that Gernsback may not have read much Wells before he began reprinting his work. As editor of Amazing he was pretending to an authority that he did not have. The bizarre and seemingly naive little introductions he wrote for the Wells stories he reprinted, often claiming scientific validity for the most far-fetched ideas, make a kind of joking sense when read with the Munchausen persona in mind. The novel, the magazine, the whole idea of the sf community he tried to organize are elements of a colossal gamble by a man who is making himself up as he goes along. At what point, once you have begun to bluff, do you become cautious and “responsible”? Or what does “responsible” mean in such a situation? Westfahl does not realize how much Gernsback has in common with the great sf tradition that includes Wells’s taxidermist who creates birds that never existed, Kornbluth’s “Honest John” Barlow who peddles terminal vacations on Venus, and Heinlein’s D.D. Harriman who has no ethical problem conning children into investing in space flight. I do not mean Gernsback was not serious about science or education, but he was certainly not above also pulling our leg.

                1. Ashley also co-authored with Robert A.W. Lowndes The Gernsback Days (2004), a book on sf from 1911 to 1936.

Ashley, Mike. The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950. The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine. Vol I. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2001.
─────. Transformations: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970. The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine.Vol. II. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2005.
─────, and Robert A. Lowndes. The Gernsback Days: A Study of the Evolution of Modern Science Fiction from 1911 to 1936. Holicong, PA: Wildside, 2004.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
Heinlein, Robert A. “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” 1949. The Past Through Tomorrow. New York: Berkley, 1975. 121-212.
Kornbluth, Cyril. “The Marching Morons.” 1951. The Best of C.M. Kornbluth. Ed. Frederick Pohl. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976. 133-63.
Westfahl, Gary. The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998.
Wells, H.G. “The Triumphs of a Taxidermist.” 1894. The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells. London: Ernest Benn, 1927. 220-24.

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