REVIEW – “Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story”
[Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story by Luc Henzig, Paul Lesch, and Ralph Letsch (2010) Mersch, Luxembourg : Centre national de littérature]
For those not lucky enough to live in close proximity to Luxembourg, or fortunate enough to have the means of reaching Luxembourg, you might have missed out on the Centre national de littérature’s exhibition on the life and works of Hugo Gernsback, celebrating the 125th anniversary of his birth in that country. This book is a gallery guide to the massive collection of Gernsback relics amassed from around the world to put forth a chronology of an amazing life. Hugo Gernsback: An Amazing Story is a two-dimensional recreation of artefacts to enlighten those interested in the life of the man who give the science fiction genre its moniker, with detailed commentary about the phases of his life and impact on science fiction.
Half of the book is in English, etl’autre moitié du livre, en français, s’adresse aux Luxembourgeois. Readers picking it up should not expect that every page is going to fill them with insights into Greenback’s life: only half of them will. And half of those pages are not filled with narration or analysis, but reproductions of photographs, letters, manuscripts, magazine covers, articles, etc. Fortunately, these are presented in high resolution colour, and not just the occasional glossy page with a hastily snapped photo of the exhibit. Great care has been taken in the layout and presentation of the evidence of Gernsback’s life and accomplishments, complicated by the necessity of bilingual explanatory notations. Readers might at first be confused, though, by the circled numbers inserted throughout paragraphs. Only by flipping ahead in the text will they realise these are references to the numbered artefacts, or the source of the information in the absences of a visual reproduction.
It should be noted that this is not an academic text, proposing no new theory or perspective on Gernsback beyond shedding ‘a constructive light on the merits of a man hitherto little known’ (p. 9), or at least, ‘little known’ in Luxembourg, Gernsback having moved to the US at the age of twenty. His early family life in Luxembourg is given in great detail, including several photos and letters from his descendents never before publicly exhibited. At the same time, even the exhibitors acknowledge a certain lack of documentation, such as a degree certificate to verify if a young Gernsback (never a diligent student) actually graduated from the Technikum in Bingen, Germany, which he attended in 1901 and 1902. One of the downsides to the reproduced letters and certificates from early in his life is that many of them are in French, without translation in the notes, leaving Anglophone speakers at a loss as to what exactly is being presented.
The American portion of Gernsback’s life in broken into two distinct parts: his contributions to promoting science and technology, and his literary endeavours in the nascence of science fiction. While the authors/exhibitors have been thorough in their chronological narrative, the redundancy of the introduction to each section of ‘Technology and Science Enthusiast’ becomes almost painful, five times beginning with the words ‘When Hugo Gernsback was born in 1884,’ (pp. 51-56) as if the reader is in danger of forgetting this pertinent information. This section also feature nearly 70 exhibits, with the unfortunate result that the guide reproduces less than half of them, giving readers only a source for the information, but not the evidence itself, which is at times frustrating. The subsequent section, ‘Father of Modern Science Fiction’, is dedicated to Gernsback’s publishing endeavours, starting with science and technology journals, and then moving into science fiction magazines. Here we find reproductions of letters, stories and poems by Gernsback, including the unpublished ‘Spring Poem’ from 1907:
First of all it’s raining cats,
And the cold makes die the rats.
Zephyr winds and balmy breeze
Are so frosty that we sneeze. (119)
One is left to wonder how Gernsback would feel to have such work posthumously made available to the public.
The last pages are given over to Gernsback’s legacy, including the development of the Hugo Awards for science fiction and the growth of ‘fandom’, employing the broadest definition of that word to encompass the whole of the genre. Gernsback’s efforts to create the first science fiction ‘fandom’ by incorporating the Science Fiction League in 1934 helped to revive the fading readership of Wonder Stories by making it the league’s official publication. Gernsback’s efforts in early sf had clear monetary rewards. Other fanzines rose to prominence, though, and are explored in this section, expanding the exhibit’s perspective beyond Gernsback to look at these ‘zines and letters regarding their contributors, including artefacts from H.P. Lovecraft.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in this book (or gallery catalogue as it should more properly be called) is its apparent lack of availability. Gernsback scholars or enthusiasts eager to take advantage of the rare materials presented here will find themselves looking under proverbial rocks to find a copy. But if they can, they may find a new critical insight into Gernsback that has hitherto gone unexplored.