Hugo Gernsback: The Father of SF?

In April 1926, Hugo Gernsback used the term “scientifiction” to refer to the content of his new magazine. In his profile piece on Gernsback in the September 1960 issue of Amazing Science Fiction Stories, Sam Moskowitz concludes his encomium thus:

“‘His editorial in the first, April, 1926, AMAZING contained the statement, “Edgar Allan Poe may well be called the father of ‘science fiction’.” Everyone today knows that the real “Father of Science Fiction” is Hugo Gernsback and no one can ever take the title away from him.”

This is the famous editorial:

AmazingStories n1_Announcing Science Fiction

Nonetheless, while the status of Mary Shelley’s status has hardly faced a significant challenge from the science fiction community, Hugo Gernsback’s position has never been that secure. For instance, it is now generally accepted that Gernsback did not coin the term, “science fiction”. It was coined by William Wilson in A Little Earnest Book Upon A Great Old Subject (1851). In the tenth chapter on this book on poetry, after considering “the poetry of science” in the previous chapter, Wilson writes:

“Campbell says, that “Fiction in Poetry is not the reverse of truth, but her soft and enchanting resemblance.” Now this applies especially to Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given, interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true — thus circulating a knowledge of the Poetry of Science, clothed in a garb of the Poetry of life. The influences of Science inter-penetrate the whole Earth, breathing eloquently through the framework of Creation.” (London: Darton and Co., Holborn Hill, 1851. 138-140). (see also Sam Moskowitz’s notes on Wilson: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/10/notes10.htm)

Wilson himself was echoing other authors before him, particularly those of the Romantic period, who often considered the roles of poetry and science together. Wordsworth in his famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800) meditated that science was a fit subject matter for poetry:

“Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.”

Clearly then, a genre label alone cannot qualify Gernsback as the father of science fiction. This is especially relevant because the genre label alone does not limit the genre production, otherwise, Russian fantastika would be considered a different genre, exclusive to the Russian context. Different languages have different words for science and fiction, as well as ways of understanding what the terms science and fiction mean.

Gary Westfahl has considered the roles of Gernsback and John W. Campbell in creating the genre of science fiction in The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (Liverpool University Press, 1998) and like Moskowitz, credited Gernsback as the father of the genre. For Westfahl however, it is not as an author but as a critic that Gernsback helped birth the genre. In the introduction, he states that:

“Though there were anticipatory comments throughout the nineteenth century, and a crucial prelude to the idea of science fiction in the form of the ‘scientific romance’, the first true critic of science fiction was Hugo Gernsback, who offered a complete theory of the genre’s nature, purposes, and origins. By doing so, he made science fiction a recognized literary form and launched a tradition of science fiction commentaries that would be carried on by various writers, editors, and fans who, despite a lack of literary training, were attempting to analyse and describe the works they were familiar with. ”

Westfahl’s argument is very convincing, and it is undoubtedly true that it was not William Wilson’s accidental coinage, or the British tradition of ‘scientific romance’ (that includes the works of H. G. Wells) that Brian Stableford and others have written about, but Gernsback’s use of the term that actually stuck as the genre label we use in English today. Note, it is the genre label, not genre. Gernsback might very well be the father of “science fiction”, the term itself, and the father of the critical analysis of the genre in the Anglophone world.

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