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kotv.com Book Review: GERNSBACK TO THE FUTURE

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By Ross Greenawalt, kotv.com


Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 by Hugo Gernsback
Bison Books Commemorative Edition, 2000
Science Fiction, 293 pages, illustrated


Prophecies based on scientific knowledge!
Bringing the dead back to life!
Education while asleep!
Cities suspended in the air!

These are some of the phrases used to advertise Ralph 124C 41+ upon its first publication in 1925, and some of the plot points decorating this classic novel. Few outside sci-fi geekdom (a realm this reviewer admits to inhabiting) may recognize the name Hugo Gernsback, but his contributions to the field of science fiction – including naming it – were unmatched: an inventor, publisher, author, creator of Amazing Stories magazine – and the sci-fi community recognized these by establishing its annual Hugo Award for excellence.

Ralph 124C 41+ is an quaint, old-fashioned triptych revealing as much about the era in which it was written as it reveals about the one it describes. Ralph harkens to a time when the future was nothing but a beautiful dream, a less jaded time in the life of a nation that had yet to experience a World War II, a cold war, a Vietnam, or even a Great Depression. This is the future we techno geeks would have seen from there – a world of gadgets and enlightenment, of space travel and Martians, of videophones and antigravity. Gernsback accurately predicts latter-day inventions like hydroponics, solar power grids, radar, and tape recorders, not to mention a few we haven’t exactly perfected yet (including sci-fi staples like suspended animation, weather control, and flying cars).

Ralph was originally serialized in Gernsback’s Modern Electrics magazine starting in 1911, and the resulting cliffhanger-style fragmentation keeps the pace moving. Gernsback’s spare, utilitarian prose serves well to frame his vision of the 27th Century, and his detailed descriptions (accompanied by Frank R. Paul’s illustrations from the 1925 edition) bring this world to life. It’s a fast, easy read – no Ellisonian vocabulary quiz here – and a rewarding one. The characters and plot come off a bit one-dimensional, almost as an afterthought, but in such an environment-driven novel there’s little room or need to flesh them out. Gernsback's style may not have been on par with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but his imagination certainly was.

The science behind the fiction is always on display, some quite plausible, some quite ludicrous – but Gernsback never gets so lost in the details that the story feels like an essay. Instead, he crafts a simple, thoroughly enjoyable fantasy filled with wonder, excitement, and optimism, free from the bleak outlook that permeates so much of today’s sci-fi fare. That, in itself, is worth the price of admission.

When he's not reviewing books and music for kotv.com, editing his comedy newsletter or generally causing havoc on the streets, Ross Greenawalt is the senior producer - director at KOTV Channel 6 in Tulsa.

Photo of Hugo Gernsback. The science fiction "Hugo Awards" were named in his honor.
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