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May Books 1) Ralph 124C 41+

1) Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the year 2660, by Hugo Gernsback

Brian Aldiss blames Gernsback for taking sf away from the literary tradition established by Mary Shelley, and reading this, the Luxembourg-born author's only well-known work of fiction, I can see why Aldiss accuses Gernsback of "a deadening literalism"; and yet I can also understand why the Worldcon hands out Hugos rather than Shelleys.

This fairly short novel was written in 1911, and concerns Ralph 124C 41+, the greatest inventor of his age, who one day meets the beautiful Alice as a result of a crossed videophone conversation, and saves her from an avalanche in distant Switzerland by remote control. He takes her on a tour of 27th century New York and rescues her from abduction and certain death in space at the hands of his rivals for her affections.

Of course the narrative (such as it is) is interrupted frequently by breathless descriptions of the technical advances of the year 2660. Some of these (e.g. radar and solar panels) are now familiar to us in 2007, while in some cases one wonders why he didn't take the idea a step further (you can watch live broadcasts from Europe, and phone calls use video as a matter of course, but no mention of video recording of any kind - and this was written several years after the dawn of cinema).

No robots (still nine years before Čapek invented them in R.U.R.), and perhaps more unexpectedly no rockets - space flight happens via antigravity. (Robert Goddard only began his rocket experiments that same year, 1911; Tsiolkovsky had been writing on the subject for decades, but I don't know how well know his work was in the English-speaking world.)

Yet Gernsback's most spectacular miss is in his failure to understand how technology would revolutionise society. Ralph's sleep is enlivened by a recording of Homer's Odyssey; his manservant puts it on for him. Ralph's dictation machine means that his secretary can devote her time to other things, not that he can dispense with her services. As noted above, we hear a lot about live entertainment, but not much about other forms of literature. The technicalities of how the newspaper of 2660 is produced and read are described in detail; its contents are not.

(And Gernsbach's asteroids have atmospheres.)

Still, I can find a lot more forgiveness for him than Brian Aldiss did: for me, Gernsbach's enthusiasm makes up for his desperately clunky prose. And I love the line, "Martians in New York were not sufficiently rare to excite any particular comment."

(NB: got this as an ebook from Renaissance ebooks.)

Edited to add: At least he tried harder to have an actual plot than Edward Bellamy.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 5th, 2007 10:01 am (UTC)
Which version are you using? The original was also more feminist than the one reprinted in the 1920s.
May. 5th, 2007 10:27 am (UTC)
Good quetion. I have a sense that the version may be from the 1920s - there are footnotes inserted in the text that seem to date from that period. But rather frustratingly my version doesn't say so explicitly.
May. 5th, 2007 10:02 am (UTC)
I get annoyed when someone tries to blame one author for ruining things for a whole genre. If people preferred Shelley to Gernsback then they'd both read and write in that style and Gernsback would be long forgot. You can't blame writers for the taste of their readers.
May. 5th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
"Ralph's dictation machine means that his secretary can devote her time to other things, not that he can dispense with her services."

Wait, that's hardly inaccurate. In fact, few executives dictate letters to their secretaries any more, but they still have secretaries and other kinds of assistants, and those secretaries are rarely considered to be on the management track. More generally, we used to hear from breathless futurists that greater office automation would lead to greater leisure for office workers, and of course that was utter nonsense. Gernsback was wrong about lots of stuff, but so far, the idea that workplace hierarchies would persist doesn't seem to have been too off the mark.

That line about New York is indeed excellent, a foreshadowing of an entire (quite good) SF film by John Sayles...
May. 13th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC)
Hugo Gernsback
Here is a link to a new book – (un-attributed autobiography) of Hugo Gernsback. Long lost manuscript edited by Larry Steckler, was found in the company files when they stopped publishing in January 2003.

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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