- The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction ed. by Grant Wythoff
edited by Grant Wythoff. University of Minnesota Press (Electronic Mediation Series, no 52), Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A., 2016. 384pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-1-5179-0084-7; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0085-4.
Best known as the founding father of science fiction as an established literary genre, Hugo Gernsback, a Jewish emigrant from Luxembourg and editor of the first SF magazine, Amazing Stories (launched on 1 April 1926), did not start his career as an editor and a writer. After arriving in New York at the beginning of the century, he first founded an electrical supply shop while trying to make his way as an inventor and progressively started to publish newsletters and small magazines—some short-lived, some very successful—whose actual function proved to be multifold: promoting electrical parts sold by Gernsback’s companies; offering a platform to a community of tinkerers and amateurs; and trying to make sense of an emerging technological culture in which notions such as electrical device, medium, research and utopic thinking were not yet “functionally differentiated,” as sociology of Modernism would put it.
It is the gray zone between two key moments in 20th-century technological and cultural history that is at the heart of Grant Wythoff ’s study. On the one hand there was the disappearance of dime novel pulp culture in the late 19th century and the explosion of technological inventions and innovations, just before the transformation of this incredible amount of social energy into well-structured and bureaucratized research centers and industrially organized R&D plants. On the other hand, there was the appearance of the new artistic genres and scientific disciplines such as science fiction and media studies in the 1920s. Wythoff ’s book contains an exceptionally well-edited body of “transitional” work by Hugo Gerns-back, inventor, editor, media theoretician avant la lettre, businessman and political thinker on the one hand, but also spokesman and shortcut of a whole community of otherwise unorganized technology fans and tinkerers whose importance for the creation of modern media and technology culture has never been taken seriously. Gernsback himself has long been seen as a sympathetic but somewhat clumsy and often boring dreamer, while the role of amateurs and fans was made properly invisible by the increasing institutionalization of technological research as an industry-driven activity. Wythoff ’s selection of articles and stories published by Gernsback in one of his many magazines—in which the distinction between editor, author and reader was not always easy to make—convincingly demonstrates that there are good reasons to challenge this negative judgment and to make room for a new reading that highlights the [End Page 549] key importance of the role of the amateur in cultural and technological change. In that sense, the Gernsback universum—by which I mean both the writings by this famous editor or those simply inspired by the example of his magazines and the large but amorphous community of all those who participated in the social life of the technological and cultural inventions of his time—can easily be compared with phenomena such as the open source movement in software development, alternative forms of working such as peer-to-peer economy, fan fiction or many other forms of collective intelligence.
Wythoff recovers this lost history in two ways. First of all, by gathering a large sample of Gernsback’s writings from the decades before Amazing Stories (which ends the chronological survey one finds here in this book), he offers direct insight into what anticipated as well as prepared the emergence of science fiction (to use the modern term). What these articles on all aspects of modern technology (but this is a contemporary term as well) make very clear is the complete merger of aspects and issues that are now clearly separated: techniques and media, faction and fiction, content and materiality, form and function, private and public, meaning and use, etc. Second, by contextualizing as well as close-reading this truly amazing body of work and stressing the intricate relationships...