Hugo Gernsback didn't just pioneer the term "science fiction" — he insisted on a visionary philosophy, in which SF became the literature of predicting technological change. Ars Technica has a fascinating profile of the father of the genre.

You may not have realized how much of a quintessential nerd Gernsback really was — he became so excited upon reading a book about Mars at age nine, he fell into a fever and started babbling about canals. As a teenager, he patented a battery for electrical devices, and invented the first home radio set. He got into publishing to promote his mechanical innovations, but in the process he found his true calling.

He also wrote a novel, Ralph 124C 41+, about a super genius — one of the few people in the year 2660 who's allowed to put a plus-sign after his alphanumerical last name. He wore television glasses, and his wacky ideas included the notion that a "subatlantic tube" would connect New York with France, traveling 3,470 miles under the Earth's crust.


As the Ars Technica article notes:

It was in Amazing Stories that Gernsback first tried to nail down the science fiction idea. "Scientifiction" he initially called it-"charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision." The magazine's masthead went further: "Extravagant Fiction Today-Cold Fact Tomorrow." Gernsback even boasted that he had researchers fact check the technical validity of the stories he published. So many readers wrote into Amazing Stories that he reserved a large "discussions" section of his magazine for comments-the first of the many thousands of forums that empower the science fiction community to this day.

But the notion that sci-fi's purpose was to predict the technological future eventually drew passionate opposition from some of the genre's greatest pens. Six years after Gernsback's death in 1967, Brian Aldiss went after the entrepreneur's emphasis on scientism with a vengeance. "Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts," remains one of Aldiss' most famous quotes. As for Gernsback's philosophy, it had "the effect of introducing a deadening literalism into the fiction," he charged in his history of the genre, Billion Year Spree. "As long as the stories were built like diagrams, and made clear like diagrams, and stripped of atmosphere and sensibility, then it did not seem to matter how silly the 'science' or the psychology was."

This seems a little unfair to the author of Ralph 124C 41+, but taking Gernsback more seriously as a philosopher also has its risks. There's something a bit scary about Ralph's future, with its world government, scientist-as-god overtones. It's unclear why in Gernsback's vision Martians and humans are forbidden to marry, but the notion fits in with one of the less attractive aspects of the Progressive Era: its faith in segregation and "scientific" racism. As late as 1963, one of Gernsback's last publications, Forecast, argued that "chemi-geneticists" could alter the enzymes of African-Americans, allowing them to have white children.

The whole profile, showing the strange visions and marvelous life of Gernsback, warts and all, is well worth checking out. [Ars Technica]