Tinkering with Media and Fiction
Wonder Stories, October 1931
by Daniela Côrtes Maduro
The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction,
by Hugo Gernsback. Edited by Grant Wythoff,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 348 pp.
According to George Slusser, science fiction is “the sole literary form that examines the ways in which science penetrates, alters, and transforms the themes, forms, and worldview of fiction” (Slusser, 2005: 28). This cross-pollination of fiction and science (or technology) is a salient topic found in Hugo Gernsback’s writings. In The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction (2016), edited by Grant Wythoff, it is not surprising to find instructions on how to assemble a diverse number of appliances followed by guidelines for writing scientifiction (a term coined by Gernsback). What is more, due to the impressive amount of materials gathered by Wythoff, this book allows the reader to understand how Howard V. Brown and Frank R. Paul’s illustrations sparkled readers’ imaginations, and thus, collaborated for the speculative tone of the texts edited or written by Gernsback. This Luxembourgish-American tinkerer regarded science fiction not merely as a literary form, but also, according to Wythoff, a specific way to interact with and reflect on media. As it becomes clear after reading The Perversity of Things, fiction was considered a lab where the impact of inventions (or opportunities afforded by media) could be accessed.
Gernsback believed that a science fiction story “must be reasonable and logical and must be based upon known scientific principles” (Gernsback, 2016b: 337). Living in a wondrous age of accentuated technological progress, Gernsback benefited from exceptionally favourable conditions to develop his scientific, editorial and literary work. This inventor, who lent his name to one of the most prestigious awards in the field of science fiction, began his research at a time particularly ripe for a community of self-taught tinkerers to emerge. Scientific periodicals aimed at a non-academic public had started proliferating and radio and television were at the dawn of their development. Before being regulated, wireless technology offered an unlimited horizon of possibilities, and therefore, an inexhaustible source of raw materials to build fictional worlds. It also served to gather a group of experimenters whose interaction was based on the use of technology for the common good. Furthermore, Gernsback’s scientific descriptions, associated with an unquenchable technological optimism, made it seem possible to find any appliance available in stores (or tinkerers’ home) on the very next day. Science and fiction were unavoidably intermingled and both formed a unique ensemble dedicated to future achievements and the improvement of human life.
The Perversity of Things is comprised of over seventy titles written by Hugo Gernsback. First published between 1905 and 1932, these texts preceded the creation of Amazing Stories, and hence, belong to an era when science fiction stories were so burdened with technical details as to be titled, according to Wythoff, “gadget stories”(5). This beautifully designed 384-page book offers a chronological and thematic table of contents to help the reader traverse the text. An electronic edition of The Perversity of Things was released in 2017 and can be accessed at Manifold publications page. Even though pagination is absent from this version, the electronic edition allows readers to search through the book and rapidly toggle between the texts and the extensive footnotes added by Wythoff. The book is divided into eight parts, each of them focusing on a facet of Gernsback’s work. Besides making the complete book available, thus promoting open knowledge, the online version also provides the complete magazine issues in which these materials were originally published. Both editions cover thirty years of Hugo Gernsback’s work and offer a vast array of information in the shape of side notes for the print edition, and hyperlinked footnotes for the electronic edition. These invaluable resources often suggest further readings and, not unlike Gernsback’s tinkerers, readers are furnished with tools to gather knowledge on their own.
Wythoff’s edition shares the story behind the foundation of Electro Importing Company, “the first mail-order radio retailers,” and offers an account of Modern Electrics catalogue evolution into a monthly magazine. The Perversity of Things also suggests that the launch of Amazing Stories may not have been the only contribution made by Hugo Gernsback to science fiction. Even though many have praised Gernsback’s editorial work—Sam Moskowitz, for instance, considered him the “father of science fiction” (Roberts, 75)—others believed that the so-called Gernsback’s Era exerted a pernicious influence on the field of science fiction. According to Adam Roberts, Gernsback is believed to be “responsible for the deplorable juvenilisation of a genre that ought to have grown into a profound, philosophical and above all adult mode of art” (177). Brian Aldiss, for instance, considered the stories published in Amazing Stories andWonder Stories, “unutterably poor” (19). According to an article published in LIFE magazine when Gernsback was 78 years old, a “stiff-necked insistence on scientific validity (…) known among dissenters in the trade as the ‘Gernsback delusion’” (O’Neil, 1963: 66) was attributed to Gernsback. As Fred Lerner later wrote, “the idea that science fiction stories could serve as a force for science education, and a means of interesting people in science, did not catch on” because “[l]ike many of Gernsback’s ideas, the notion that science fiction could be used as a teaching aid was substantially ahead of his time” (Lerner, 1985: 38). Though this matter is not absent from Wythoff’s thorough introduction, an alternate perspective is rather emphasized by this edition of Gernsback work. In The Perversity of Things, Gernsback is portrayed as the main figure around which gravitates a community of tinkerers (or experimenters) focused on interchanging ideas, creating knowledge together and learning by doing.
The Perversity of Things splendidly presents a panoramic perspective over the work of Hugo Gernsback and, at the same time, succeeds in drawing readers’ attention to a media theory in progress. Since Gernsback is commonly depicted as an amateur scientist, editor of Amazing Stories or science fiction author, his role as a media theorist has remained largely overshadowed by his other contributions. The pressure to publish, the enormous amount of themes addressed, and the effects of a rapid technological evolution, prevented Gernsback from anchoring his writings in a solid media theory. Nevertheless, this set of drawbacks also encouraged Gernsback to create and explore a variety of scenarios or reflect upon possible applications of devices that had not been invented yet. In this sense, The Perversity of Things might be specially revealing for electronic literature scholars and digital media theorists, since it depicts a theory in progress, struggling to keep pace with technological advancements, while taking into account future possibilities. Gernsback’s writings precede the work of a growing number of artists who tinker with code or hardware to create art. These digital tinkerers experiment with medium affordances and, like Gernsback (although often extrapolating and diverting from a tool’s or medium’s original purpose) they too aim to see beyond the conventional and familiar. They also speculate about possibilities while considering media constraints as chances to explore the unknown. In a similar way to Gernsback’s followers, they expose the layered materiality of their devices by tinkering with digits, wires, screens and metaphors.
The Perversity of Things successfully examines different aspects of Gernsback’s work and offers a neutral ground where his contribution—as an inventor, technocrat, entrepreneur, editor, writer, prophet and “the voice” of a growing community of tinkers—can be overtly examined. A connection between Gernsback’s hands-on approach to technology and Ted Nelson’s manifesto Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974)—where readers are invited to learn how to use computers (“You can and you must use computers NOW”)—emerges while reading The Perversity of Things. The group of tinkerers gathered around Gernsback’s publications finds its parallel in nowadays hacker communities or the open-source software movement. As a matter of fact, in light of our current knowledge, the urgency to make a responsible and conscious use of technology seems to be insistently emphasized in Gernsback’s texts.
To Gernsback, only by experimenting with media will it be possible to fully understand objects, and thus forestall their perversity. To make his argument clear, he offers the example of a screwdriver that slips and injures the carpenter’s left hand. As Gernsback explains, this unfortunate event was not caused by the inanimate screwdriver, but by the carpenter’s impatience and lack of planning. Therefore, according to Gernsback, “[i]t is not the things that are perverse, it is ourselves who make them seem perverse” (Gernsback, 2016a: 166). In his footnote to this claim, Wythoff prefers to focus his attention on materiality and the objective/subjective perception of things. However, there is yet another layer of argument here. Even when machines become self-aware in science fiction stories, and they do turn against human, this rebellious act cannot be attributed to devices (after all, humans do hold the power to choose and to determine the purpose of their tools). What Gernsback seems to point out is that, any deviation from original course is caused, not by supposedly perverse devices, but by irresponsible or nefarious use of science. By understanding devices and the implications of its employment, practitioners were in reality, albeit unaware of this at the time, taking responsibility for their creations, as well as learning how to participate in decision-making.
Overall, the reader is introduced to a collection of writings focused on media materiality and specificity, as well on the defiance of the boundary between fact and fiction. This book sheds light on seldom examined aspects (such as the importance of the “Babel of Voices” channelled by Gernsback’s magazines or the transition between amateurism and corporate research) and therefore, makes an invaluable contribution to better understand the work of Hugo Gernsback. His didactic tone was often considered unimaginative and prescriptive (Clute apud Roberts, 177). This book, however, invites readers to consider the hypothesis that, instead of stubbornly and clumsily pursuing an idea of science fiction—a field still in its infancy—Gernsback’s was in fact conveying a very different message. He believed that fiction was “a means for the effective dissemination of science” (Brake and Hook, 2008: 90) and urged his readers to understand how their devices work, thus laying the foundations of a media theory. While doing so, he prevented devices from becoming ready-made impenetrable black boxes and, under our current understanding of technology, encouraged people to participate in the generation and distribution of knowledge.
Piece originally published at Electronic Book Review |
Aldiss, Brian (1986). Trillion Year Spree. The History of Science Fiction. London: Gollancz.
Brake, Mark L. and Neil Hook (2008). Different Engines. How Science Drives Fiction and Fiction Drives Science. London and New York: Macmillan.
Gernsback, Hugo (2016a). “The Perversity of Things” , in The Perversity of Things. Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 337-341.
Gernsback, Hugo (2016b). “How to Write ‘Science’ Stories” , in The Perversity of Things. Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 165-167.
Lerner, Fred (1985). “Science Fiction versus Science Fact,” in New Scientist, No. 1454 (May), p. 37.
Nelson, Ted (1974). Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Self-published.
O’Neil, Paul (1963). “The Amazing Hugo Gernsback, Prophet of Science, Barnum of the Space Age,” in LIFE Magazine, Vol. 55, No. 4 (July), pp. 62-68.
Roberts, Adam (2006). History of Science Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Slusser, George (2005). “The Origins of Science Fiction,” in A Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Wythoff, Grant (2016). “Introduction,” in The Perversity of Things. Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.