Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.
In the year 2660, when the world’s population has reached 90 billion people, Ralph 124C 41+ is
one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name. (9)
In the opening chapter, a serendipitous malfunction with his Telephot system and some quick thinking enable him to save Alice 212B 423 from an avalanche thousands of miles away. When Alice and her father travel to New York to thank him, Ralph and Alice fall in love. During an extended guided tour of the magnificent future city Alice is kidnapped, rescued and then kidnapped again by Fernand 60O 10. Before Ralph can rescue her, she is again abducted, this time by the Martian Llysanorh’ CK 1618. When Llysanorh’ realises Ralph is about to capture him, he kills Alice. In a desperate gamble, Ralph performs an experimental procedure on her to preserve her body until he can return to Earth and revive her. A week after the emergency operation, Ralph visits his recovering sweetheart:
‘Dearest,’ she said, ‘I have just found out what your name really means.’
Ralph twined a little tendril of her hair around one of his fingers.
‘Yes?’ he asked with a quizzical smile.
‘Well, you see,’ and the lovely color deepened to rose, ‘your name is going to be my name now, so I keep saying it over to myself–’
ONE TO FORESEE FOR ONE.
( 1 2 4 C 4 1 ) (293)
As the above plot description suggests, Gernsback’s fix-up novel is deficient as fiction and frequently unspeakably banal. It is nonetheless a major text in the development of the modern American pulp-and-paperback tradition of sf – although arguably more for what it signifies than for what it achieves. As an editor, Gernsback famously advocated a variety of
‘scientifiction’ … the Jules Verne, HG Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision. (Amazing Stories, 1 (April 1926): 3)
Ralph 124C 41+, written over a decade before the launch of Amazing Stories, is perhaps best understood as an earlier effort by Gernsback to describe that formula. The naïvely-depicted romance between Ralph and Alice, and the various rescues and abductions, alarums and excursions, are the very stuff of Romance, if conceptualised and presented in a cack-handed, juvenile manner. Interspersed among the narrative elements are plenty of scientific facts, pseudo-scientific information, and scientific-sounding patter – including diagrams and footnotes about experiments. And the future New York offered by Gernsback constitutes prophetic vision.
One of the most obvious failings of Gernsback’s prophetic vision is his inability to extend imagined social developments beyond the realm of the technological, to allow for changes in human institutions and ideologies. Thus we get a condemnation of industrial action understood merely in terms of workers’ alleged greed and irresponsibility:
our governor had some trouble with the four weather-engineers of our district, some months ago, and they struck for better living. They claimed the authorities did not furnish them with sufficient luxuries, and when their demands were refused, they simultaneously turned on the high-depression at the four Meteoro-Towers and then fled, leaving their towers with the high-tension currents escaping at a tremendous rate. (18)
The adulation Ralph receives, and that which is lavished upon the ‘light-picture of the Planet Governor’ (118), indicates that for all the supposed improvements that technological advancement has brought to humanity, society remains deeply hierarchical. Also, the central action of the novel is concerned with Alice being exchanged between men and avoiding miscegenation, culminating in her swapping her father’s name (212B – ‘to want to be’?) for Ralph’s.
This inability to imagine human relationships lies behind not only Gernsback’s utilisation of a debased Romance narrative, but also behind the characters’ suppressed sexuality. This is most obvious in the opening chapter, in which Ralph finds Alice alone, about to be engulfed by an avalanche. Throughout this chapter and its aftermath, we find the kind of fascist body imagery analysed by Klaus Theweleit. Ralph has
a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians. His physical superiority, however, was as nothing to his gigantic mind. (9)
His phallic body is matched by his phallic house,
a round tower, six hundred and fifty feet high, and thirty in diameter, built entirely of crystal glass-bricks and steelonium, … one of the sights of New York. (33)
His body is subordinated to the will of the state, and he demonstrates no interest in the crowd of well-wishers, either individually or collectively. Fluid and tempestuous nature often operates as a metaphor for female sexuality. It is significant then that Ralph uses all his rational-technological powers to spurt energy from his aerial to melt the tide of snow and ice threatening to overwhelm Alice. This sexual displacement is made obvious (and ridiculous) by Alice’s father simultaneously racing home to ensure nothing untoward befalls her, and by Ralph’s tactful withdrawal when he burst in.
In this context, it is important to take account of the primary characteristic shared by the many inventions, techniques and marvels Ralph shows Alice: flawless steelonium streets, liquidised food, perfect climate control, floodlit sportsfields, the bacillatorium, giant double-glazed geothermically-heated greenhouses, artificial milk produced direct from the grass without having to pass through a cow, a city floating in the sky, an antigravity circus. In all of these, it is possible to see Gernsback’s vision of science as a means of abstracting people from nature, and interposing technology between them so as to keep them separated. This finds an obvious resonance with the lengths to which Gernsback goes to distance his hero from physical intimacy with Alice, even killing her off so as not to leave her alone with Ralph in a spaceship together for fifty days – she is only permitted to recover when it is possible to banish intimacy beyond the end of the novel.
The other eight entries I wrote were:
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
London, The Iron Heel
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X
See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).