Hugo Gernsback

Hugo Gernsback

My ever-baffling computer pulled this out of some long-ago storage area, which was odd because it is obviously from a time long before I owned a computer. I have no idea who I wrote it for or where it was published, but when I read it over I thought it might be interesting enough to put in a 2009 blog. Tell me if you’d like to see more of this kind of thing, assuming I can find any.

Amazing No. 1

Amazing No. 1

In the Beginning there was Hugo Gernsback, and he begat Amazing Stories.

In the fullness of time, about three years’ worth of it, a Depression smote the land, and Amazing was riven from him in a stock shuffle; whereupon he begat Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories, looked upon them and found them incomplete, and joined them one unto the other to be one flesh, named Wonder Stories. And Hugo looked upon the sales figures of Wonder Stories and pondered mightily that they were so starved-ass rotten. Whereupon a Voice spake unto him, saying, “Hugo, nail those suckers down,” so that he begat the Science Fiction League, and thus was Fandom born.

If there had not been a Science Fiction League, it would have been necessary to invent one. The time was ripe. In the early ’30s, to be a science-fiction reader was a proud and lonely thing. There weren’t many of us, and we hadn’t found each other to talk to. A few activists had done their best to get something going, digging addresses out of the letter columns of the science-fiction magazines and starting tiny correspondence clubs, but the largest of them had maybe a dozen members, and for the rest of us we had the permanent consciousness of being alone in a hostile world. The hordes of the unblessed weren’t merely disinterested in science fiction, they ridiculed it.

From Gernsback’s point of view, what he had to sell was a commodity that a few people wanted very much indeed but most people wouldn’t accept if it were given away free. He couldn’t do a lot about recruiting new readers, but he was aware that there were a great many in-and-outers, people who would buy an issue of Wonder Stories now and then, and thus were obviously prime prospects, but had not formed the every-month addiction that he sought. Well, sir. The arithmetic of that situation was pretty easy to figure. If the seventy percent of his readers who averaged three issues a year could be persuaded to buy every issue, he would triple his sales. These were the visions of sugarplums that danced in Hugo Gernsback’s mind.

He had a special need to think of something, because by the early ’30s even the magazine industry was grinding down under the Depression. Even the science-fiction magazines. Three of them existed, but they were reducing their size, cutting their prices, dropping back from monthly to every-other-month publication; in 1933 Astounding went out of business entirely, and then for a brief little while there were only two. (A few months later Street & Smith bought the magazine from the wreckage of the Clayton group of pulps and started it up again.) What Hugo hoped for from the Science Fiction League was a plain buck-hustle, a way of keeping readers loyal.

What we fans hoped for from it was Paradise. As soon as the notice appeared, I rushed to join, but my membership number was 490, even so. I didn’t mind. I was thrilled to think that there were 489 others like me, when I had in my whole life seen only one or two. The announcement promised that chapters would be chartered in all major cities; club news would be published in every issue of the magazine, members would be encouraged to become each other’s pen pals — what fun!

Hugo promised that some of the members would be foreign — imagine discussing Spacehounds of IPC or The Man Who Awoke with someone who lived in England or Australia! Imagine joining a chapter, sitting in a room filled with people who knew what you meant when you used terms like “time machines” or “ray guns,” and didn’t laugh! Imagine just knowing people who did not think science fiction was junk.

But, you know, in all honesty, a lot of it was.

Although I have devoted my life to science fiction, I don’t like all of it. What I do like I often like very much, but that is only a minor fraction of what is written and published. Ted Sturgeon defined the situation exactly, in what has come to be called Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is crud.”

John Campbell used to say that he was the world’s greatest expert on bad science fiction because he had read more of it than anyone else alive. He based his claim on having read Astounding’s slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts, eighty or ninety of them every week, for thirty-four straight years, and surely no one else could challenge that record while he lived. But now John has gone to that great editorial resting place in the sky, and I think I may have inherited his mantle.

I don’t really know how much I have read, but the best estimate I can make is that, allowing for everything — books, magazines, unpublished manuscripts, everything — I must have read something in excess of 5 × 108 words of science fiction in my life. That’s half a billion words, or almost twice as many as are contained in all the books published in the United States in any one year.

Even so, even after all of that, every now and then something grabs me around the groin, compels my full attention, and does not let me go. Not until I have finished the story, at least, and if it is really good, not even then. (What is best about the best science fiction is not merely the pleasure it gives while you are reading it, but the long serial thoughts it stirs in the mind of the reader for days and months afterward.) Because I have read so much, that doesn’t happen very often any more, but it still does happen. There are still new thoughts to be comprehended and new insights to be explored.

But in the early 1930s — for me as one fledgling, but for almost all science-fiction readers simply because the field itself was so new — almost all the ideas were new! Revelation followed revelation. Fresh perception piled on revolutionary insight.

It is quite possible, I realize, that some of the ideation in Air Wonder or Astounding Stories of Super-Science was not quite as fresh and innovative as it seemed at the time. There was (and still is) much borrowing, which the more naive among the readers (myself certainly included) were simply not equipped to recognize.

No matter. Whether or not the satirists borrowed from Voltaire and the adventure writers cribbed from Verne and the humanists copied their perceptions of feeling from True Story — no matter how hallowed or tawdry the sources, no matter how often the story had been told, to us it was still the first time. This is what is now diagnosable as the Star Trek syndrome. As far as science fiction goes, Star Trek wasn’t much. In all the three years of it put together, there was nothing that had not been done before, and usually much better, in the pages of some science-fiction magazine or book. But the people who saw Star Trek numbered forty million. The overwhelming majority of them had never been exposed to anything like it before. They had never really thought about the possibility of life on other planets, or time travel, or what it would be like to cruise through space, or how other societies might resemble (or differ from) our own until they caught it on the boob tube, and to them it was Revelation.

To them. To us, decades earlier. Above all, to me.

When you have that sort of experience, your very glands shriek out to share it — cellar Christians whispering the Gospel by the flickering light of oil lamps — and so the Science Fiction League fell on ripe ground. We were, boy, ready!

Sadly, the Science Fiction League did not in the long run do much for Wonder Stories. The readers joined up, but they did not recruit new ones; and the ones who joined were unanimously the ones who had been reading every issue, anyway. The magazine limped along for a few more years, stalling its creditors and underpaying its writers when it paid them at all, and before the end of the decade was sold to the knacking shop of the Thrilling Group.

But whatever the SFL did for Gernsback, it did an awful lot for us practitioners of the solitary vice of science fiction. It got us out of the closet and into Fandom, leading directly to such group orgies as the Worldcons of today, with casts of thousands openly engaged in the celebration of sf.

 
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25 Comments

  1. Mike Weasner says:

    Keep ’em coming!

  2. Jeff Berkwits says:

    Fred – you were also part of another Science Fiction League, if I recall – the Science Fiction League of America, which was started in the early 1950s for the TV show Tales of Tomorrow. Do you have any memories of that League? I’ve done quite a bit of research on the show, and whenever I bring up that League I always get recollections from the one you refer to here in the blog. Yet I know you were part of both Leagues, so would love to hear your memories/thoughts on the 1950s version.

  3. Johan Anglemark says:

    Fred,

    By all means, more of this stuff. Like all sensible beings, I appreciate hearing about the history of my tribe.

    -j

  4. Jessica says:

    \"Tell me if you’d like to see more of this kind of thing, assuming I can find any.\"

    I for one love reading this sort of scifi/fandom history! :)

  5. Lee Gold says:

    Yes, please write more about the SF League and other elements of the Good Very Old Days.

    –Lee Gold, webstaffr for the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (http://www.lasfs.org) which began as the fourth chapter of the SF League and which has continued meeting since then.

  6. Ross Presser says:

    Um, your math seems off.

    “The arithmetic of that situation was pretty easy to figure. If the seventy percent of his readers who averaged three issues a year could be persuaded to buy every issue, he would triple his sales.”

    Assuming you meant that there were twelve issues per year … here’s my math:

    READS = entire readership
    FANS = 30% of readers reading 100% of issues = 0.3 * READS
    INOUT = 70% of readers reading 25% of issues = 0.7 * READS
    NOWSALES = FANS * 12 + INOUT * 3 = READS * 0.3 * 12 + READS * 0.7 * 3 = READS * (3.6 + 2.1) = READS * 5.7
    IFSALES = FANS*12 + INOUT*3 = READS * 0.3 * 12 + READS * 0.7 * 12 = READS * 12
    IFSALES / NOWSALES = 12/5.7 = 2.10

    So, a little over double, not triple.

  7. Ross Presser says:

    argh, typo in the next to last line of the math, but it doesn\’t affect the result because I got it correct in the next expression.

    IFSALES = FANS*12 + INOUT*<b>12</b> = READS * 0.3 * 12 + READS * 0.7 * 12 = READS * 12

  8. Ken Houghton says:

    If 70% of the readers are reading 25% of the issue, that equates to 0.175 reads, not 0.7, no?

    Ross Presser’s calc is correct, though. I want to print 400 issues a month. 120 of them are sold and read. In any given month, 210 issues don’t get sold, because 75% of the 70% aren’t buying. So I can only sell 190 issues now, but if all those casual ones bought every month, it would sell 400.

    400/190 = 2.105.

  9. wishnevsky says:

    Please, sir, may i have some more? I like the idea that all ideas were knew. And now it is a lot harder to come up with new ideas, and SF has become more mannered and stylish. I don’t doubt it’s all for the good, but i like the planet smashers, durn it.

  10. Stefan Jones says:

    Yes, keep it coming.

    The last vestiges of Gernsback’s empire had its office in the same building as my first employer. This was 22 years ago. They still published a few electronics magazines. I stopped by once; the receptionist knew the SF connection but it was just a historical curiosity to her. There were no tribute photos on the wall or anything like that.

  11. Marc says:

    This entry is reading more and more like the pages of Gateway by the minute! :)

    IRRAY
    GOTO
    EXTERNALS

  12. Robert Nowall says:

    Y’know, I think I’ve seen it before, too, but I can’t remember where.

    Since I moved those cardboard boxes in my so-called “library,” it takes a lot of digging to get through to most of my SF books…time is a little short today, and what I could get to I couldn’t find it in…I’ve got a couple of other ideas of where to look but I’ll have to get back to you on that.

  13. DA Cairns says:

    Interesting piece. I wonder how science fiction stacks up against other genres today. There are billions, (slight exaggeration) of websites/e-zines/magazines etc and presumably multiple billions of readers and writers of science fiction, including me. The SFL had 490 members but I wonder how many sci-fi fans there are today, and what percentages they represent. Just curious. Does anyone have any stats?

    Isn’t Sturgeon’s Law entirely subjective? If so, would any of you like to read my book, Devolution, and see whether it’s in the 90 or the 10?

    check it out at http://dacairns.blogspot.com

  14. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    Fred, your support staff must be having fun putting in the links to old fannish lore. Hello, support staff!

    LIFE magazine sent a photographer to shoot Hugo Gernsback. Here’s a photo (previously unpublished, I believe) of Mr. G wearing a mockup of one of his inventions, “Teleyeglasses” –he was a master of the awkward neologism.

    http://images.google.com/hosted/life/l?imgurl=0fd8a575602b83dc

    Note that the room is decorated by a death mask of Nicola Tesla.

  15. loquacious says:

    More of this kind of thing, Mr. Pohl. Thank you.

    And I agree, the future isn’t what it used to be. I’m a huge SF fan, and like many I have been since I was a kid. Though I’m old enough to remember seeing the original Star Wars in the theaters, but not quite old enough to remember the original Star Trek as it was first broadcast – it was always about the books and written stories for me. The written word is always the most cutting edge stuff, what with the low barrier to production and entry compared to movies or serial TV shows.

    Having cut my teeth on the likes of Brunner, Le Guin, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Banks, Bear, PKD, Sturgeon (personal favorite) – and of course Asimov and Clarke and yourself – going back and reading some of the stories from Amazing Stories and other older SF – or, heaven forbid I slaughter a sacred cow – Mr. Smith’s Lensman stories – can be rather painful.

    There, I said it. 90% of everything is crud, indeed. I’m thankful for a more mature SF market, I am.

  16. Larry Steckler says:

    For more information on Hugo Gernsback check out a new biography available on Amazon.

    The document was found by me when we closed down Gernsback Publications in 2003. It was an old ms that I edited and produced as a book.

    Follow the link and you can go to the book and thanks to Amazon’s “look inside” feature, you can even get an idea of what it covers.

    Hope you find it interesting.

    For more information feel free to contact me, Larry Steckler, at PoptronixInc@aol.com

  17. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    Also interested in seeing more. Your book on the Futurians was one of the first of the memoirs of people in SF fandom that I read, back around when it came out, and still ranks among the best (and I was given Bob Silverberg’s new book in that area just yesterday). The title of your blog references that, so it seems entirely proper to flesh out or extend that story for us.

  18. David Bratman says:

    I can tell you where you published this. With only a few slight differences, it’s the opening section of chapter two of “The Way the Future Was.”

    It was great reading in the book, and it still is.

  19. Russ Watkins says:

    I love this stuff – like many others here I grew up on the writings of all of the classic SF greats. I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it at one time (stories about the past, without nary a starship in sight?) but as an adult the real context becomes ever more fascinating.

  20. Robert Lichtman says:

    I thought “Let There Be Fandom” has familiar echoes — and leave it to David Bratman to do the searching and the finding.

    But yes, I would like more if you find more — and let me not exit without a word of appreciation for “The Quadrumvirate,” too.

    –Robert Lichtman
    Secretary-Treasurer FAPA (1986-still)

  21. Cal Anctus says:

    David Bratman is correct. By an amazing coincidence, I read the published chapter in “The Way the Future Was” just today, for the first time, then came to visit this blog.

    Definitely, if there’s more, it would be great to see!

  22. Richard Robinson says:

    Yes, Fred, more, please. Please! It seems I never tire of this sort of thing.

  23. Teri says:

    Love this! Those of us who didn’t live through it are still fascinated by the early years of the genre!

  24. Joan Fong (Han May) says:

    Fred,

    Remember being in Singapore (1985) and there was this girl, Han May, who wrote “Star Sapphire” — Singapore’s first Sci-fi novel? That’s me.

    So glad to find you still prolific 20 years after that meeting. I stopped after that one novel, and put your comment in the blurb if you don’t mind. Even now, 20 years later, I still get fan mail and requests for the book, which is not bad.

    You will have forgotten me by now, I’m sure, but I still consider it a great privilege to have had lunch with you and your wife. I find this sci-fi fandom topic very familiar and similar to my early years reading sci-fi.

    Joan Hon