According to some people, for example, Gary Westfahl, Ralph 124C41+ (henceforth Ralph) is one of the most significant science fiction books of all time. Given its context – the year it was written, what had come before – I can understand why it’s thought of in that way. Is it one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time? Far from it!
Gernsback originally wrote and published Ralph as a 12-part serial adventure in Modern Electronics magazine beginning in April 1911. It was first published as a complete text in 1925. My copy is a reprint of the 1958 2nd edition as published by Wildside Press. I didn’t read any of the introductory elements, and this was my first reading of the story.
With the exception of Shelley’s Frankenstein and much of Wells’ output to this point (A Modern Utopia excepted), most full science fiction novels had been attempts at nailing down utopian visions. At the start of Ralph the over-riding impression that this is to be a futurist adventure. It almost has a pulpish-ness to it. Ralph saves the life of beautiful woman, even though she is in another continent. She flies to New York to find him and they fall in love. However, Alice, for it is she, has unwanted attentions from 2 suitors (an Earthling and a Martian), and she is kidnapped and taken into space. Ralph must save her!
Let’s rewind a bit. Ralph 124C 41+ is one of the ten most brilliant ‘men’ on the planet. Hence the + designation. We are in a technological future where he invents almost everything (so it seems) that drives human civilisation. Those who invent or create other elements of society are mostly only referred to by their numerical name. It is 2660. Humans have inhabited the inner planets and encountered Martians too. One day, while working in his lab, Ralph rescues Alice by remotely directing energy from the top of his building in New York. He manages to melt an avalanche in Switzerland. Alice and her father fly to New York to thank him in person. He then spends much of the middle section of the novel showing her the sights and marvels of the modern world, explaining in detail how each thing works and how it benefits society. Of course, many of the inventions are his, including a new one, which features a dog. He also uses the phrase “as you know” quite a bit. So, despite Alice being a smart woman who knows stuff, and despite living for 20-odd years in this world that Gernsback has created, she needs everything explaining to her. Ah, so this is a thinly veiled utopian rant after all. She is the theatre for the reader. Shame. Even the final section, when Ralph chases his enemies across the solar system, Gernsback is more concerned with describing his ideas for the future rather than telling a story.
A concession: Ralph has some minor character development – from focused scientist to heartbroken, vengeance-seeking lover – but everyone else in the book is a one-dimensional foil for Gernsback’s imagination. But to be fair, what an imagination, considering the early 20th century. To be sure, technology and scientific development were snowballing during this period, but the list of Gernsback’s/Ralph’s inventions and modifications is impressive in anybody’s book. Which is the key to Ralph’s perceived significance.
Some of the ideas are disappointing. Especially the reliance on the ‘fact’ of ether which is used to explain much of the world Ralph lives in during the early chapters. Quite early after Ralph starts showing Alice and her father around, the prose takes on a tedious tone. At one point, it seems that even her Dad is explaining electromagnetic travel to Ralph, who is one of the 10 greatest minds on the planet, remember. When Ralph explained to Alice how restaurants of the future worked, my faith in Ralph as a story disappeared.
Unsurprisingly for its time, Gernsback shows his misogyny throughout. Ralph smiles patronisingly at Alice’s “feminine” remark. Alice shows little agency. She is shown around, captured and rescued. It is hard to accept such characterisation, especially in a significant text. Women, as demonstrated by Alice’s suitors and even Ralph, are still little more than possessions. Another trait made it to Ralph (and Gernsback’s) utopian future: violence. Ralph resorts to threats of punching Alice’s other suitors. Not much of a utopia if all this great technology hasn’t evolved the human mind-set or ideas of equality and social justice. At least discrimination against Martians isn’t there. They and their technologies are looked up to; or at least Alice’s suitor’s mind is.
Gernsback spends a lot of time describing in great detail how some of his ideas work, and this is the novel’s only saving grace (although the writing itself is competently enjoyable). Even electronic packing machines have a page and a half of description. I enjoyed the idea of the “gravitational circus”. Nice for a society to make science an entertainment. But chapters such as “The End of Money” which is pretty much all Ralph explaining to Alice, drive the final nail in the coffin of Ralph as an adventure novel and nothing more than another dull utopia. Shelley would be spinning in her grave, realising that no-one except Wells seems to have grasped the idea of telling an actual story is the point of a novel, a work of fiction to be enjoyed, in 100 years of the evolution of science fiction. And this despite a flourishing literary world. There are brief diversions into story, interrupting the tract more than anything. Distractions rather than interests. The use of Ralph’s own invention against him (the Magnelium ship) is about as good as the plot gets. Which is more than a disservice to the idea of a story.
Ralph becomes the first human to create a “heavenly body” towards the conclusion of the story and then uses what can only be described as Gernsback’s version of Chechov’s gun to save the day – see the earlier mention of the dog (although I suppose any one of the unnecessarily described inventions could have been used). Is this all about Gernsback’s ego? I know nothing else about him, other than the shambles awards named after him. So credit him with his ideas. Don’t talk of predications and failures of scientific description (unless that was his original intention, to predict the future) – that’s not what science fiction is about. Don’t talk about utopias that treat women as objects and possessions with no agency. Don’t call Ralph a great work of science fiction when it is a failed utopian rant. Science fiction, yes. Significant, to a point. Any good, not really.
Image credit: “ModernElectrics1912-02″ by Published by Modern Publishing Company, New York, NY. Hugo Gernsback Publisher. – Magazine Art Website http://www.magazineart.org/main.php/v/technical/modernelectrics/?g2_page=3. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ModernElectrics1912-02.jpg#/media/File:ModernElectrics1912-02.jpg
-  The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl, Liverpool University Press, 1999, page 135.