Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback
During the course of any number of my book musings here at FanLit, I have made reference to editor Hugo Gernsback, in whose magazine Amazing Stories – the very first magazine devoted to the type of writing that would one day be called “science fiction,” and which rolled out its first issue in April 1926 – so many wonderful tales and serialized novels first appeared. Gernsback, in truth, was a pretty remarkable figure. He’d been born in Luxembourg City in 1884, and by the time of his passing in 1967, at age 83, had edited or published at least 50 other magazines, written three novels and a dozen or so short stories (plus countless essays), taken out 80 or so patents, and coined the term “science fiction.” The Hugo Awards today, of course, are named in his honor. However, it recently struck this reader that although I have experienced any number of works that originally appeared in Amazing, I had as yet never checked out anything written by Gernsback himself. And so, I decided to finally read what is probably Gernsback’s most famous novel, Ralph 124C 41+, despite the book’s lousy modern-day reputation, and despite the fact that I’ve never been a big fan of the writings of early sci-fi’s other major editor, John W. Campbell, who ushered in the genre’s so-called Golden Age beginning in the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction.
Ralph 124C 41+ initially appeared as a 12-part serial in the pages of Gernsback’s very first magazine, Modern Electrics. This magazine, the first dedicated to electronic matters and geared toward radio buffs (excuse me … I should more accurately say “wireless buffs,” the word “radio” not even being in general use at the time), ran from 1908 – 1914, sold for 10 cents, and was at first more of a catalog of electronic parts than anything else. Gernsback’s first novel ran in the April 1911 to March 1912 issues, the front covers for each of which featured an illustration taken from that month’s installment. The novel would be reissued in 1925 as a hardcover book, somewhat updated and revised, and in 1929, the novel would appear complete in the 50-cent Amazing Stories Quarterly. Ralph… has seen any number of editions since then, befitting its classic status today. The one that I was fortunate enough to acquire is the Bison Books release from 2000, which features not only a very fine introduction by Grand Master Jack Williamson, but the novel’s two introductions written by Gernsback for the 1925 and 1950 editions, and the book’s vintage artwork by the great Frank R. Paul. This Bison release would thus seem to be the definitive one to get … unless, of course, you’d rather dig deep and spend some major bucks on something a lot more collectable. So is Ralph… any good, you’re probably wondering at this point; is it a worthy novel to read today, 111 years (as of this writing) since it first appeared? Well, yes and no, I suppose, although at times it almost doesn’t even feel like a novel at all!
Ralph… is set in the year 2660, or 750 years after Gernsback first conceived of it. It tells the tale of the titular Ralph 124C 41+, one of the 10 greatest scientists on Earth, that fact designated by the plus sign after his name. A NYC-based inventor of any number of astounding (or, in deference to Gernsback, let’s rather say “amazing”!) scientific gizmos, Ralph, when we first encounter him, is involved in one of his greatest experiments: bringing back to life a dog that had been exsanguinated and preserved for three years! His work is interrupted, however, when, during a call to a male colleague on his Telephot (the first of dozens of futuristic marvels name-checked in the book; think of a two-way AV gizmo), he is somehow switched over to a beautiful young woman somewhere in Switzerland, with whom he is immediately smitten. As the two strangers chat, a sudden avalanche threatens the young woman’s chalet, causing Ralph to leap into action, and employ his Ultra-Generator to send a heat ray to the lady’s Communico and Power masts, melting the tons of snow in its tracks. (And yes, all the book’s major gizmos are capitalized like this, and no, I wasn’t 100% clear on the science involved here.)
The very next day, the young woman, Alice 212B 423, and her engineer father, James 212B 423, appear at Ralph’s 650-foot-tall, crystal and steelonium tower in NYC, to give their thanks in person. The bachelor scientist is delighted, and for the next 150 pages of the novel, does pretty much nothing but show the two around, impressing them – and the reader – with the manifold marvels of 27th century NYC and the surrounding areas. All the while, Ralph and Alice become more and more enamored with each other (hmm, Ralph and Alice … you don’t suppose the lead characters in the TV classic The Honeymooners could’ve been named after these two of all people, do you? Nah!), but there is trouble brewing ahead. In the book’s only real nod to a semblance of plot, two other men, we learn, are currently insanely jealous of Ralph’s appeal to the beautiful Alice. Those men are the European (?) Fernand and the 7-foot-tall Martian Llysanorh’, both of whom want Alice for himself, even though Martians are forbidden to marry Earthlings. Fernand goes so far as to abduct Alice, a kidnapping that Ralph easily foils. But later, the two cads grow even more desperate. Fernand spirits Alice away again and heads toward colonized Venus, forcing Ralph to pursue in his one-man space cruiser. But when the lovesick Llysanorh’ manages to abduct the Swiss miss from Fernand’s clutches, Ralph is compelled to alter course and pursue the Martian toward the Asteroid Belt itself. But an even greater trial, it seems, is soon to overcome the troubled lovers…
Now, I mentioned up top that Ralph 124C 41+ does not enjoy a very good reputation today, and that might have been something of an understatement. A quick glance at a certain Wiki site will reveal some modern-day appraisals, with authors Lester del Rey and Brian W. Aldiss calling the book “simply dreadful” and a “tawdry illiterate tale,” respectively. And then there’s science writer Martin Gardner, who goes so far as to call it “surely the worst SF novel ever written.” So is Ralph… the worst science fiction novel ever written? Don’t ask me; I haven’t read them all! I can say that the book seems more the product of a talented amateur than a professional wordsmith, however. Gernsback himself, in his intro to the 1950 edition, admits how pressured he was to finish each month’s installment of the serial, and that “the literary quality suffered painfully under such continuous tours de force every month … but somehow the scientific and technical content came through unscathed most of the time…” And there you have it, just as I suspected! Reading Ralph…, one gets the impression that Gernsback had ideas for a few dozen nifty inventions and somehow just wanted to shoehorn them into a story. The gadgetry, geared to wow the Modern Electrics customers, is thus paramount; the plot, secondary; the characterizations, tertiary; the literary style and technique, not important whatsoever. When Robert A. Heinlein first rose to prominence in Astounding in the early ‘40s, he was praised for his ability to treat his story’s scientific wonders matter-of-factly and nonchalantly, mentioning them in an offhand, seamless manner so as not to intrude on his story’s plot. Gernsback, in Ralph 124C 41+, takes the exact opposite approach. Time after time, his story grinds to a halt while scientific wonders are detailed for us; the book, especially in its first two-thirds, is essentially one lengthy info dump, with the more interesting “subplot” of Alice’s kidnappings scattered about to break things up. It is only when Alice is shanghaied into space that things really start to get exciting.
Having said this, I will admit that Gernsback does present us with any number of futuristic predictions and outlandish scientific speculations during the course of his book. Some of his predictions, such as the use of solar power, conveyor belts at the postal facilities, forced farming, the Telephot, and the Hypnobioscope (a machine utilizing tapes that allows one to learn while he or she sleeps), have already come to pass. In other areas, time has already proven him wrong: Light waves are not dependent on an all-pervasive ether for their existence, and humankind did not replace cash with the universally used check. (Apparently, Gernsback could not envision something akin to the ubiquitous credit card.) And then again, some of the things that he predicts as being boons to mankind sound flat-out awful to me, such as Scienticafes, where customers sit at tables and suck their liquefied meats and vegetables through a flexible tube (this does away with indigestion and dyspepsia, Ralph explains), and the Meteoro-Towers, which keep the weather at a dry and sunny 72 degrees every day of the year, except for the two hours of rain from 2 – 4 A.M. (I’d go out of my mind!) But I do like the idea of Gernsback’s Bacillatorium, a sort of decontamination chamber for the home, and the floating Vacation Cities, in which stressed-out individuals can unwind 20,000 feet above the planet’s surface. Personally, however, I find it hard to envision the Tele-Motor-Coasters (essentially, electrically powered roller skates) ever being used by the entire population to zip around.
Ralph 124C 41+ is most assuredly a very odd book, probably best recommended for those readers with an abiding interest in the history of science fiction. I do not regret reading it – and indeed, simply written as it is, the book can be experienced quite quickly – but have a feeling that many other readers will grow restless fairly often, and find themselves wishing that the author would just get on with it! As I said, Gernsback continuously gets bogged down with his technical descriptions, some of which are interesting (bringing the dead back to life, those Vacation Cities), others dull (the conveyor belts, the making of artificial milk). To be fair, the book does sport some well-done scenes, such as Alice’s initial abduction by Fernand, wearing a Martian invisibility cloak to make himself untrackable; the pursuits to Venus and Mars; and Ralph disguising his one-man ship as a comet! (Do you want to know how to build your own comet? Gernsback will tell you here!) The author also gives his readers some pleasing throwaway bits of interesting data, mentioning at one point that Earth’s population in 2660 is a whopping 90 billion; 200 million in NYC alone! (The mind boggles.) As a native New Yorker myself, I was most amused by the author’s mention of a “Broadway and 389th St.,” and when Ralph tells Alice:
“…We New Yorkers are strange birds. We only like our city when we are far away from it, or when we can take some stranger about to show him or her the marvels of the town. As a matter of fact the real, dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker hates the town and only stays in it because it has cast a spell over him which he cannot escape…”
A certain degree of truth there, at least for me.
For the rest of it, Ralph… is penned in a decidedly strange manner, with reams of oddball punctuation. So many sentences are either missing a necessary comma or have a few too many. For example: “Peter returning to Ralph’s bedroom placed the reel containing the film in a rack”; “Distant constellations which ordinarily cannot be seen, except, with a telescope, were plainly visible to him, in outer space.” Gernsback is also guilty here of some head-scratching statements, such as when he writes that “New York time is five hours ahead of French time” (isn’t it the other way around?), and when he lauds the artificial fabrics being made in a 27th century spinnery that are “cooler in summer and warmer in winter” (uh, I thought it was 72 degrees and sunny every single day of the year!). And if you can understand his lecture on Ralph’s gyroscopically powered spaceship, you’re better than me! Still, for all its many problems, and dated and creaky as it undeniably is, Ralph 124C 41+ yet manages to exert a certain quaint charm. It is surely not a book for everyone, or even every sci-fi fan, but is yet kinda fun, darn it!
Now, as to those other two Gernsback novels that I alluded to, one of them is called Baron Munchausen’s Scientific Adventures (which initially appeared as a 13-part serial, from 1915 – ’16, in Gernsback’s magazine The Electrical Experimenter), and the other is a posthumous affair, 1971’s Ultimate World. Based on my experience with the book in question, I’m in no great hurry to investigate these other two, but would not be totally averse to the idea, either…
Sandy, this book sounds like a sterling example of why I think most stories called “science fiction” should really be called “technology fantasy”. They’re “sciencey”, which has the same relation to science as being “truthy” has to truth. And fanciful technology that is implied to have a scientific basis (somehow) just substitutes for magical artifacts in an otherwise thinly disguised high or low fantasy plot with a futuristic (or alternate timeline) setting.
That this novel comes from so near the origin point of the “science fiction” marketing category, maybe even helping to instigate it, goes a ways toward explaining why so little of what’s marketed as science fiction today concerns actual scientific discovery being done in a realistic, disciplined way, or even rational speculation on possible solutions to mysteries science is still trying to solve. Even so-called hard science fiction is more about emphasizing the sciencey while subtracting out other obvious aspects of exotic adventure fiction.
Hard to deny what you say here, Paul. And yet, I don’t think the readers of “Modern Electrics” magazine back in 1911 would have much appreciated Gernsback’s visions being referred to as “fantasies,” no matter how outlandish they might seem today. Those customers, like the author, were all hard-core tech enthusiasts and convinced that a wonderful future lay in store, thanks to these wonders of superscience….
Yes, I think at that time especially the young tinkerers and aspiring scientists would have reacted against the term “fantasy” as being something childish (associated with fairy tales or Oz, etc.), and these were likely people very much looking to find their place in the adult world. There were even people with that attitude up through the 1960s, but I think the association with children’s stories (or creaking Gothic tales with haunted castles) has mostly evaporated since then, and we can see it as a much broader genre that encompasses fiction for adults as well as children. And most (almost all) of what’s marketed as science fiction fits within the broader genre of fantasy.
The fact that supposed products of technology (like time machines or spaceships that can travel through wormholes) are providing the fantastic element (rather than, say, dragons or magic carpets) is more a matter of the tropes that the basic story is costumed with. Especially when most of those products of technology are known to be ridiculous from the standpoint of 21st century scientific knowledge, no matter how semi-reasonable they may have sounded in 1911 or 1959. That we’re still writing the same sort of stories with the same ridiculous tropes despite the advancement of our scientific knowledge is a big clue that science really had little to do with this subgenre from the start.
It seems that Hugo Gernsback really DID believe in his predictions in this book. In the intro to the 1925 edition, he tells us “The author appreciates that many of the predictions and statements appear to verge on the fantastic. So was Jules Verne’s submarine ‘Nautilus’… Lest you think that the author has gone too far into the realms of pure imagination, place yourself in the position of your great-great-grandfather being told about locomotives, steamships, X-rays, telegraphs, telephones, phonographs, electric lights, radio broadcasting, and the hundred other commonplaces of our lives today. Would he not have condemned such predictions as the height of folly and absurdity?” Still, I can’t quite see all of NYC’s residents zipping about on electric-powered roller skates….
It seems that Hugo Gernsback really DID believe in his predictions in this book. In the intro to the 1925 edition, he tells us “The author appreciates that many of the predictions and statements appear to verge on the fantastic. So was Jules Verne’s submarine ‘Nautilus’… Lest you think that the author has gone too far into the realms of pure imagination, place yourself in the position of your great-great-grandfather being told about locomotives, steamships, X-rays, telegraphs, telephones, phonographs, electric lights, radio broadcasting, and the hundred other commonplaces of our lives today. Would he not have condemned such predictions as the height of folly and absurdity?” Call him a scientific dreamer, perhaps….