The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering and Scientifiction
by Grant Wythoff, Editor
University of Minnesota Press (Electronic Mediation Series, n° 52), Minneapolis, MN, 2016
384 pp., illus. 146 b & w. Trade, $122.50; paper, $35.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0084-7; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0085-4.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
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 April the 1st 1926), did not start his career as an editor and a writer. When 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 grey 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, 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, the appearance of 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 of Hugo Gernsback, inventor, editor, media theoretician avant la lettre, businessman, political thinker, on the one hand, but also spokesman and short-cut 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 longtime 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 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 simply inspired by the example of is 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, fandom 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 a direct insight in 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 between editor and tinkering community, he also elucidates the social environment that animates the technological craze of these years: the desire for upward mobility and job security thanks to technology among new immigrants, the link between feminism and the participation to technological culture in the domestic sphere (women readers of Amazing stories expressed for instance their dislike of the romance aspects in the SF short stories, which they judged discriminating), the multiple connections between the ideas that burgeoned in the amateur sphere and the industrial patents that were the subject of fierce battles, and above all the universally shared belief in the benefits of progress (which translated in the Depression Era in a clear but cautiously formulated sympathy for "technocracy" in politics).
The quality of Wythoff's editorial work is outstanding, and it is well served by the clever typographical presentation of the book, pleasant to read, well indexed, and nicely illustrated. Thanks to this work, it should be possible to reframe the figure of Gernsback, whose role cannot be reduced to that of a somewhat old-fashioned forerunner of a literary genre that has moved eventually moved away from the "hard technology" side it had in the beginning, when one of the aims of the stories was not to create new story worlds but to fictionally demonstrate how certain things actually worked. There is a lot of McLuhan in Gernsback, and it is to media studies and media archeology that his life and work really belong.
But what about the "perversity of things", finally? It is the title of a 1916 article by Gernsback in The Electrical Experimenter (here pp. 165-167). In this text he addresses an old subject: "the recalcitrant behavior of things in general toward us humans", which he reads as an invitation to all tinkerers to remediate their "lack of knowledge" and through study, research, work, and trial and error to get a better "intimate knowledge" of the things in order to better subject them to make them do what we want them to do. His conclusion: "If people would only stop to think how infinitely little we know about everything about us, and how thoughtless we are in our relations to all inanimate things, we would not be so apt to complain about the fabled Perversity of Things".