Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C+1, Sept 25, 2006

This is the nineteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Hugo Gernsback looms large at the beginning of the SF genre’s formalization. These notes are about his scientifiction novel, Ralph 124C+1. I began our seminar discussion on Gernsback’s novel in the Genre Definitions Module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme at the University of Liverpool.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

25 September 2006

Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+

Malcolm J. Edwards writes in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that, “While deficient as fiction, [Ralph 124C 41+] clearly shows [Gernsback’s] overriding interest in SF as a vehicle of prediction, being a catalogue of the marvelous technology of the 27th century” (490).  It, much like George Lucas’ recent Star Wars prequels, is more about the technology, than the characters that inhabit his imagined future world.

I haven’t had the chance to read the original twelve-part serial of Ralph 124C 41+, but I would conjecture that Gernsback was already cognizant of his rules for scientifiction, and later, science fiction while he was revising Ralph 124C 41+ for its 1925 publication (one year prior to his founding Amazing Stories).  These rules are important to a reading of his work, as well as other early pulp SF.  Gernsback’s first rule is that the story should be educational.  SF should teach laypeople something about science and technology.  His description of the comet during the aerial carnival is right on the mark when he writes, “While the spectacle was in progress a white ‘comet’ with a long tail traveled across the paths of the planets, turned a sharp corner around the ‘sun,’ its tail always pointing away from that body, recrossed the orbits of the ‘planets’ again on the other side and lost itself in the darkness” (118).  Also, the author goes into copious details about the way in which his imagined inventions work.  Some of his explanation is on the mark (e.g., his extrapolation of what we know as radar), but there are other instances where he refers to outdated or simply incorrect explanations (e.g., his neglect of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in his discussion of the gyroscopic drive system of his spacecraft).  His second rule is that the story should have a specific narrative structure consisting of 75% romance, and 25% science.  You can see that he was playing around with this rule in the accidental love affair between Ralph and Alice.  However, in this novel, I would say that the percentages are switched.  His third and final rule is that the story should contain a “prophetic vision.”  Essentially, the story should imagine new scientific and technological futures extrapolated from current sciences and technologies.  This stems from Gernsback being one of the players in the development of critical technocracy (i.e., a literary movement typified by the belief in the inevitability of scientific progress and the need to apply scientific principles to “inefficient” aspects of human culture, as well as in terms of style, mobilizing the technocratic emphasis on efficiency and precision allowed SF editors to begin forging a specific SF style, which interestingly, parallels the emphasis on clarity and brevity found in high modernism).  One example of his prophetic vision would be his lecture in Chapter VII, “The End of Money.”  In this, he restructures monetary exchange on a pseudo-Marxist basis of labor.  Additionally, on the final page of the text, Alice points to Ralph’s role in Gernsback’s imagining of prophetic vision, when she says his name out loud, “one to foresee for one” (293).

There are also some interesting parallels between Ralph 124C 41+ and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  One clear example is the conflict between the scientist and nature.  Gernsback writes, “He felt that Nature herself was punishing him for his daring assault upon her dominions.  He had presumed to see the laws of Life and Death at variance, and this was the penalty, this living death, shut in with the living dead” (287).  In Frankenstein, M. Waldman tells Victor that, “these philosophers…penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places” (57).  Victor goes on to narrate, “Such were the professor’s words—rather let me say such the words of the fate—enounced to destroy me” (57).  Victor does pay the ultimate price in the loss of his friends and family as well as his own life, whereas, Ralph suffers a moment of dystopic anguish, while the fate of his beloved Alice is not yet determined.  Furthermore, both character’s distress, in part, comes about because they have developed processes that either prolong or restore life to dead animal tissue.  Victor uses this ability to become a male progenitor of life, while Ralph uses it to bring his girlfriend back from death, thus granting life, through science, to that which was lifeless.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.