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.”
The future technology in Ralph is intricately imagined, even explained in footnotes and appendices. It ranges from a device to teach people while they sleep (the hypnobioscope) to a vast tunnel system for automatic parcel delivery (the packet-post conveyor) to electrically-powered roller skates (tele-motor-coasters.) Here’s an example of part of the description of twenty-seventh century farming. The titular Ralph is speaking, and has just talked about greenhouse construction featuring 3,000-foot deep water circulation pipes that provide heat.
“Heat alone, however, is not sufficient. We should still get only a normal growth. We wanted five crops a year. I put my research forces to work studying fertilizers. While the old nitrogen fertilizers were excellent, they were not suitable for high pressure, high speed growing methods. We evolved chemicals which were both cheap and easy to apply. We found small quantities of Termidon, when mixed with water and sprayed over the field by overhead sprayers, which you will see running along the ceiling, would accelerate the growth of the crops enormously.
“This liquid Termidon is sprayed over the entire length and breadth of the field before planting time, so that the soil becomes well soaked. The Termidon immediately turns the soil into a rich, dark strata, the best soil for potatoes, wheat, or corn. No other fertilizer need be used, the Termidon, applied after every growth, giving the soil all the vitality necessary.”
They were now in the field, when suddenly Alice asked:
“What is the peculiar tingling in the soles of my feet, I feel as we walk along? You are using some electric vibrations, I suppose.”
“You guessed correctly,” Ralph replied. “With all our artifice the speed of the plant growth had not been accelerated sufficiently. I therefore insulated the inside hothouse from the ground. The inside hothouse rests upon glass blocks, and is electrified by high frequency currents. The entire area is sprayed day and night with a high frequency current, in the use of which we found was the real secret of driving plant growth ahead at enormous speed. The theory of course is nothing new, having been known for centuries. What is new, however, is the way it is done. It makes all the difference in the world if the current density is too high or too low, if it is direct or alternating current, and many other details. I found that the quickest way to accelerate plant growth by electricity was to send the current from the the growing plant toward the ceiling, and the current must be direct, pulsating, but not alternating.
Ralph asked for a discharge pole from one of the attendants. It was a metal pole about seven and a half feet high. In the middle it had a long glass handle which Ralph grasped. He then set the pole vertically so that its top was about six inches from the glass ceiling. A roar of fine sparks leaped from the steel frame of the ceiling to the top of the pole.
“See,” said Ralph, “there is the current we use in accelerating the growth of our plants.”
Not the greatest prose, but a scientifically-informed utopian society… very much extrapolated from the cutting-edge science available a hundred years ago.
One thing that’s fun to try to decode is the meaning behind the names. Ralph’s is explained, others are not.
- Ralph 124C 41+ = ‘one to foresee for one (more)’
- Alice 212B 423 = perhaps ‘to one to be for to thee’ [the love interest]
- James 212B 423 = ? [Alice’s father]
- [American] 64L 52 = ? [inventor of postage-stamp-sized news printing process]
- Ferdinand 60O 10 = ? [the rival] (a lot of zeroes can’t be a good guy)
- Paul 9B 1261 = [the rival’s co-conspirator]
- [Surgeon] 16K 5 + = [the world’s greatest surgeon]
Anyone else able to find any hidden significance in any of these?
One of the themes that Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade are exploring in CPOH is science fiction. The lead character, Future Taylor, is interested in what “wi-fi” (wishful fiction) can tell about the hope people had in earlier times. Each issue (so far) is titled after a classic science fiction novel. They’re not all clear yet, but additional issues include J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Return of the King (CPOH2), Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz (CPOH4), and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (CPOH5.) There’s a special series of CPOH covers that are based on sci-fi book covers.
So, why did Alan Moore choose Ralph 124C 41+ to feature prominently in Crossed Plus One Hundred issue 1? I have just a couple of thoughts:
> 100 years. Ralph 124C 41+ came out a nearly exactly a hundred years ago. CPOH takes place a hundred years from now. Well, it’s in 2108, 100 years from 2008, the year the first Crossed comic came out. So, Ralph is sort of Crossed minus one hundred.
> Contrasting Optimism vs. Pessimism. Ralph is so optimistic that it’s frankly a little boring. Scientists have solved all the problems; life is great! From the vantage point of 1911, at least to Gernsback, the promises of scientific advancement were so huge that there just didn’t appear to be any downsides. So, in some ways, Moore is showing how the speculative future changes over time. CPOH’s future is decidedly post-apocalyptic. The future just doesn’t look look so bright, nor one-thousandth as science-enhanced. The optimism of 1911 (looking to 2660) is replaced by the pessimism of 2015 (looking to 2108.)
Anyone else out there have any further theories?