Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, December 18, 2015


Ralph 124C41+:  A Romance of the Year 2660 by Hugo Gernsback (1925)

What can one say about Hugo Gernsback that has not already been said, either in vitriol or in admiration?

Gernsback, born in Luxemburg in 1884, transplanted to the United States in 1904, was a pioneer in popularizing both electronics and science fiction -- which he originally called "scientifiction."  Inventor, publisher, dreadful writer, meretricious businessman, crook and scoundrel, Gernsback was the man whose name is used for the most coveted awards in science fiction.  Gernsback is also the one whom H. P. Lovecraft unaffectionately dubbed "Hugo the Rat."

Gernsback had a thirst for science and a strong interest in radio electronics.  He made his first real money importing radio parts from Europe and selling them in America.  To help popularize amateur radio, he began publishing Modern Electronics in 1908, essentially a combination of a radio and electronics catalogue and a magazine.  He founded the Wireless Association of America, a group for amateur radio enthusiasts.  He owned a radio station, WRNY New York.  In 1913 he founded Electrical Experimenter, which later became Science and Invention.  He used these magazines to publish early scientifiction stories, some of his own. In 1926 he published Amazing Stories, the first professional science fiction magazine.  Through this magazine, he encouraged the founding of science fiction fandom.

Throughout his lifetime, Gernsback edited or published 56 magazines, beginning with Modern Electronics and ending with Sexology.  High flying business practices, bankrupcies (some perhaps engineered by Gernsback), a willingness to skim money from the top while avoiding bill collectors,and a pile of lawsuits marked Gernsback's career.  Despite the negative, one thing stands out: Gernsback was deeply interested in science, in science education, and the positive role that science held for mankind's future.

He was supposed to have remarked that, for him, the perfect science fiction story would be three-quarters fiction and one-quarter science.  He missed that ratio in his most famous work of science fiction; Ralph 124C 41+ comes down with equal parts plot and scientific explanation.  First published as a twelve-part serial beginning with the April 1911 issue of Modern Electronics and published in book form in 1925, Ralph 124C 41+ was described by Brian Aldiss as a "tadry illiterate tale" and by Lester del Rey as "simply dreadful."  The Enclopedias of Science Fiction statess that the book is "usually noted only for its inept writing and lengthy catalogue of scientific [p]redictions."

Gee, can't we give the guy a little respect?

Well. perhaps.

I know the book is only read today for its curiosity value and because of its place in the history of the field, but there is something more to it than that.

Ralph 124C 41+ is basically a love story with (as the late James Baen might say) with rivets.  Ralph is one of the world's greatest scientists.  The plus symbol at the end of his name is an honor given to only ten people -- the greatest of the great.  Through a mixup in communications he finds himself talking (in New York) to Alice 212B 423 (in Ventalp, Switzerland).  Alice is a beautiful, personable girl and Ralph finds himself at ease talking with her.  Because of Ralph's awesome responsibilities, he has never before given much thought to the opposite sex; it's clear that Ralph may be seeing the error of his ways, though.  Suddenly, there is a loud rumble in the background.  An avalanche!  somehow it's detemined that there is only fifteen minutes will crush Alice's house along with her poor innocent body.

What to do?  Well, if it were anyone but Ralph 124C 41+, one would just wait to hear the sickening crunch.  But Ralph is made of sterner stuff.  Thinking quickly, he tells Alice to hie herself to the roof and attach "the Communico mastpiece to the very base of the power mast, and point the former to the avalanche.  Then move the directoscope exactly West-by-South, and point the antenna of the power mast East-by North."  Ralph then rushes to his lab puts some stuff together, fiddles with some knobs, and sends an ultrafrequency wave into the ether, and somehow (after several pages of scientific exposition theater) manages to melt the avalanche just before it would have pulverized Alice, house and all.  Easy peasy.  All in a day's fifteen minutes' work for a genius like Ralph.

The next day, Alice and her father show up at Ralph's door to thank him.  They had taken the inaugural voyage of the new subAtlantic tunnel from Brest to New York.  (Alice's father was an engineer who work on the superspeed tunnel and was able to get them on that highly-prized first trip.)
  Ralph spends the next few days escorting Alice around New York, showing her the amazing scientific sights and explaining them to her in detail.  Her father accompanies her as a chaperone but conveniently disappears so the couple can talk, stare in each other's eyes, canoodle, or whatever.

Ralph and Alice are in love and the whole country celebrates.  The great Ralph 124C 41+ has a girlfriend.  Whoop whoop.  Actually, there are two who are not celebrating -- two people who harbor lusting thoughts for Alice.  One is Fernand, an unscupulous inventor with a mean streak, the other is Llysanorh' (yes, the apostrophe belongs there), who is an influential Martian.  Llysanorh' knows his love is in vein because of strict laws against interbreeding.

In between the many heavy scientific and didactic explanations of the wonders (a number of which were invented by Ralph) of the 27th century and Gernsback's predictions for the future (some of which -- if you squint real hard in a dim light -- have come sort of true), Alice is kidnapped and the chase is one through space toward Venus, then through space toward Mars, as Ralph masterfully creates a comet and finally must conquer death itself to win back his true love.

Despite all the creakiness and terrible prose, this is actually a fairly readable novel.

Of most interst, however, are the scientific details and extrapolations.  Gernsback did use as much current informtion as possible in detailing his marvels and some of the information is passe or has been superceded.  Everything is presented in a positive light.  Gernsback never considered any of the negative aspects of his scientific, social, or political wonders -- things that might jump out of the page and slap a modern reader across the face.

In the twenty-first century, we have learned there's no such thing as a free lunch and that both positivve and negative effects should be well though out ahead of time.  And when I say "we have learned." sadly, I don't include politicians.


  1. I read this book decades ago and strangely can't remember much of it. But, it's a book of historical importance.

  2. Ralph and Alice? Kramden was definitely non-plussed.

  3. Enjoyed your irreverent review. Sounds as if Gernsback had a sense of humor, too--whether he knew it or not.