Ralph 124C 41+ by Gernsback, Hugo, 1925

Ralph 124C 41+ by Gernsback, Hugo - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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According to most the modern era of science fiction began in 1926 when Hugo Gernsback, an inventor, magazine publisher and Luxembourg immigrant published the first issue of Amazing Stories, the very first of the pulp magazines that was dedicated to SF. Today we remember Gernsback at the annual Worldcon with the presentation of the Hugo Awards, the most important and prestigious awards that are currently and probably have ever been given to genre practitioners. Where John W. Campbell of Astounding and later Analog magazines (and those who followed in his footsteps) fleshed out the genre roughly as we know it today, Gernsback gave us with Amazing the bones of it. Gernsback may have had a good idea about marketing, but when it came to magazine SF he was not too innovative. Pulp-era style had already been developed, and was being published in other kinds of pulp magazines along with sports, air combat, spy, detective and other pulp fodder. What he did was to reject all those other pulp motifs from the pages of Amazing, and in doing so he confirmed the popularity of SF and proved that it was viable as a self-contained genre. But he understood how the genre worked in the early days, and largely out of economic concerns (but also for autocratic ones) he resisted any attempts to change the idiom that was used to tell story. Because of that many people feel that Gernsback bears much of the fault for ghettoizing SF. Prior to Amazing Stories SF-style novels were regarded as something greater than fetish stories for the not-quite-normal among us. The pulps did exist, and the quality of much of the "literature" that went into them was questionable at best, but authors like Wells, Twain, Poe, Verne Merritt, Burroughs and others were well regarded and respected. That adulation did not survive for authors that came later. I can't say that this opinion is wrong, because I share it. But, that is not why we are here today. Today we are here to discuss Gernsback's novel, Ralph 124C 41+. We will take on Amazing Stories later.

Ralph 124C 41+ certainly is a pulp era product. Its a super science story that dedicates almost three-quarters of itself to tedious, and sometimes inane descriptions of the science of the future. It presents these advancements as the path to utopia. It finds its hero in a man of invention, and its agent provocateur failed men of science. Its also a trite and unconvincing love story. But Gernsback did do one thing that set Ralph 1241C 41+ apart from most other SF of the day: He remained relatively true to the body of scientific knowledge of the day, and he gave realistic-sounding and convincing descriptions where he deviated. He also stayed away, for the most part, from technobabble - the attempt to overwhelm the reader by throwing scientific-sounding language at them and thus minimize efforts to poke holes in fantastic applications of technology. And by doing that, he basically provided the bare bones of the framework by which SF would in the future come to criticize itself. By holding himself to this standard, as loose, anti-intellectual and aliterary as it was, he set out the terms by which SF would differentiate itself from mainstream, fantasy and romantic literature. Make no mistake; this is a romantic piece that hearkens back in part to the scientific romances that were the dominant form of SF. But this piece was also clearly SF, and while it was by no means magnificent, it was unique and special, and it represents Gernsback's first toddling steps towards genre definition.

Though in its current form it was published as a novel in 1925, one year before Amazing Stories premiered, it was originally written in 1910 and published in 1911 serially in another of Gernsback's publications, a radio journal called Modern Electrics. This is the story of a world-renown scientist of the twenty-seventh century. This scientist, called Ralph 124C 41+, is one of the most famous and valued men of his day, as indicated by the "+" moniker in his name. Ralph is considered a national treasure by the government, which covets his gift for innovation and his unsurpassed intellect. Ralph was given anything he wanted, and was provided for completely by the State. In return Ralph spent all of his time tinkering and inventing, and had come up with some impressive gadgets. Included on the list were methods of suspended animation, a system for transfer of data that sounded remarkably like FTP, large scale weather control, voice activated switches, personal flying machines called aeorflyers, solar power, nuclear medicine applications, geothermal power, space flight, lasers, technologies to increase farm yields, wireless point-to-point and large scale power transmission, anti-gravity, invisibility, alternate fuels, public transportation,solar energy collection and much more. I think that the reason that this book was so big though was because Gernsback took the time to tell in minute detail the principles upon which many of his innovations functioned, and what the social utility of each invention was. This is a scientific utopia story about how that utopia is realized and sustained. Gernsback did that job acceptably. At least it had no more holes than any of the other contrived and silly utopia stories of the day. What it had going for it were that for the most part, the scientific innovation dovetailed with actual social needs. As innovative as it was though, in one or two places Gernsback just went too far. Consider this, from Gernsback's description of a "scientific restaurant." As Ralph and his lady-love Alice entered the restaurant they stepped through a chamber called an "appetizer," which by the use of a chemical gas stimulated the diner's appetites. As invasive and distasteful an idea as a gas that manipulates a person's wants, read below what happens next as Ralph and Alice were seated:

They sat down at a table on which were mounted complicated silver boards with odd buttons and pushes and slides. There was such a board for each patron. From the top of the board a flexible tube hung down to which one fastened a silver mouthpiece, that one took out of a disinfecting solution, attached tot he board. The bill of fare was engraved on the board and there was a pointer which one moved up and down the various food items and stopped in front of the one selected. The silver mouthpiece was then placed in the mouth and one pressed upon a red button. The liquid food which one selected would then begin to flow into the mouth, its rate of speed controlled by the red button. IF spices, salt of pepper were wanted, there was a button for each one which merely had to be pressed till the food was as palatable as wanted. Another button controlled the temperature of the food.

Meats, vegetables and other eatables, were all liquefied and were prepared with the utmost skill to make them palatable. When changing from one food to another the flexible tube, including the mouthpiece, were rinsed out with hot water, but the water did not flow out of the mouthpiece. The opening of the latter closed automatically during the rinsing and opened as soon as the process as terminated.

While eating they reclined in the comfortably upholstered leather arm-chair. They did not have to use knife and fork, as was the custom in former centuries. Eating had become a pleasure.

"Do you know," said Ralph, "it took oeple a long time to accept the scientific restaurants."

"At first they did not succeed. Humanity had been masticating for thousands of years and it was hard to overcome the inherited habit.

"However, people soon found out that scientific foods prepared in a palatable manner in liquid form were not only far more digestible and better for the stomach, but they also did away almost entirely with indigestion, dyspepsia, and other ills, and people began to get stronger and more vigorous.

"The scientific restaurants furnished only foods which were nourishing and no dishes hard to digest could be had at all. Therein lay the success of the new idea.

"People at first did not favor the idea because the new way of eating did not seem as aesthetic as the old and seemed also at first devoid of the pleasures of the old way of eating. They regarded it with a suspicion similar to a twentieth century European observing a Chinaman using his chop-sticks. This aversion, however, soon wore off as people became used to the new mode of eating, and it is though that the close of the century will witness the closing of all old-fashioned restaurants.

"You will notice, however, that the liquid scientific foods are not absolutely liquid. Some of them, especially meats, have been prepared in such a manner that slight mastication is always necessary. This naturally does away with the monotony of swallowing liquids all the time and makes the food more desirable."

Is he kidding? That sounds disgusting. Like a regurgitated nightmare. And find me a person who enjoys having only healthy food given to them, and I will show you another utopia story. I'm calling a "no way" on this one. But that is always the problem with utopia stories, isn't it? There is a level of BS a reader has to be comfortable with, or the story absolutely will not work. Unfortunately Ralph 124C 41+ does not quite make it out of the BS category. As far as I am concerned Earnest Callenbach's Ecotopia was the only convincing Utopia story ever written. This one does not come close.

The balance of the story is a romance. Ralph fell in love with Alice, and decided to remove himself from his self-imposed exile. Before too long though Alice was kidnapped by a rival; a Martian who had ignored the miscengeny laws and wanted to mate with a human. For this reason this story is also a precursor, thought not the first, of the endless reams of Aliens-Stole-Our-Dates stories that would fill the pages of Amazing Stories in the decades to come. Despite the above, Gernsback did do a pretty good job with his other gadgets and technology. I think that he gave an amazingly prescient depiction of what space travel and life in space would be like; those parts were great. These days however, get this one only to see how it all started.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)


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