Archive for March, 2015

Ralph 124C 41+ Puts the Science in Science Fiction

1 March 2015
Cover of Ralph 124C 41+

Cover of Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback, illustration by Frank R. Paul

I just finished reading Hugo Gernsback’s early science fiction novel Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660.

As of a couple months ago I hadn’t heard of this book, though it was initially serialized beginning in 1911.

I found out about it by reading the comic book Crossed Plus One Hundred (CPOH) by Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade. The first issue of Crossed Plus One Hundred is titled “124C41+”. On the first read through, I didn’t even notice the title, located at the bottom of a splash page with a narrator introducing a steam-punk skeleton-piled future world. Ralph 124C 41+ is mentioned a few times in the issue. I later began annotating CPOH, and in the process Googled “124C41+” and that lead me to understanding what the reference was, and, later, heading to the L.A. Public Library to check it out and read it.

Let me say here, that I am going to do a spotty review of Ralph 124C 41+, mostly as it relates to CPOH and Alan Moore. If you’re looking for a good thorough review of Ralph 124C 41+ maybe read SF Site, The Economist, or Twenty First Century Books, or see its instructive page on Wikipedia.

The author Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) is the eponymous Hugo behind science fiction’s Hugo awards. According to Wikipedia, he was an inventor, a radio and electronics enthusiast. He went on to publish the first science fiction magazine. Reading Ralph 124C 41+, it’s clear that Gernsback is more taken with science than he is with fiction. Gernsback more thoroughly imagines and describes technological advances than he does plot or character. It’s not bad, definitely worth reading, but it’s not great literature.

In fact it seems to me that this is one of the works that gives the science fiction genre its name. It could have been called future fiction, speculative fiction, super fiction, etc. In CPOH, Moore calls it Wishful Fiction. Not all science fictions is about science, the way Ralph is. Sci-fi authors I’ve read, including Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, seem more interested in what sci-fi says about humanity than what it says about science.

There were earlier pieces written in what would become the sci-fi genre (Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) but it is Gernsback’s science-infatuation that ends up giving us the name of the genre. Gernsback, as an editor/publisher, came up with the name “scientifiction” which later became science fiction.

The title character Ralph is “one of the greatest living scientists” hence of ten great men (yah, no girls allowed in 1911’s 2660) allowed to put a “+” after their names. Ralph “the scientist, man of action” is the star, who can seemingly invent anything at the drop of a hat, and “[b]eing a true scientist, Ralph wanted to make his own dangerous experiments.”  (more…)