Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Perversity of Things: review #1 of X: Gernsback as Philosopher of Technology

I just started reading The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).  I've read the first 8 pages of Wythoff's 59-page masterful Introduction to the 359-page volume, and there's so much to say about this, because there's so much on every page, that I thought I'd post a series of reviews here, rather than try to cram everything that needs to be said about this volume into one long unwieldy review.  After all, I just posted three reviews of The Man in the High Castle second season on Amazon, even though I binge-watched it over two evenings.

I'm looking forward to spending ten times longer if not more on The Perversity of Things, which seeks to put Gernsback, most known as the father of pulp magazine science fiction due to his publication of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted only to science fiction, beginning in 1926. I've always had a special interest in Amazing Stories, given that it was the first "pro" magazine to publish one of my science fiction stories - "Albert's Cradle" in 1993 (thanks again, Kim Mohan, who was editor) - but The Perversity of Things is much more than a meticulously researched compendium about Gernsback's philosophy of science fiction, though it is that, too.

But as the first eight pages of Wythoff's Introduction explain and detail - each page is a small feast for the intellect - this book is about Gernsback as a philosopher of technology, and his unrecognized position as such. Wythoff tells us that the title of this book comes from what Gernsback thought and said about "things" - "the perversity of things" -which can confound, confuse, and irritate us when we (the public) have no experience with them.  We, and alas, much of media criticism and what passes as scholarship, are therefore prone to see what's wrong not right with new technology and media, and blame them for every evil in our society (look at the beating Twitter has taken for Trump's election - as if Twitter somehow forced people to vote for him). Wythoff contends that Gernsback's life project was to do just the opposite - enable the public to learn what was right about new technology, and use it for the betterment of our species.

Wythoff supports his arguments not only with powerful logic, but comprehensive research expressed in copious footnotes and illustrations from the time (at this point, the beginning of the 20th century and its publications).  On the footnotes, it's been years since I've read such well-written mini-essays, and it's a pleasure and enlightening to see them again.  (The last time I did anything like this in my own work was in my Mind at Large: Knowing in the Technological Age, 1988, which explored technology as an embodiment of human ideas and imagination.)

It's fair and sad to say that Gernsback ultimately lost his battle.  The Man in the High Castle, superb and astonishing as it is, represents the kind of science fiction that won, in 1962 when the novel was first published, and now.  As Wythoff points out, it's amazing that we had much optimism about science and technology after the ravages of the First World War, but we did.  And that somehow lasted even past the Second World War, but not the 1960s, when, as I mentioned in my review of Star Trek Beyond just last night, the Star Trek series on television represented the last major science fictional paean to how we could improve our species and the cosmos beyond our planet with our science and technology.

There have been some exceptions to this tide - such as some of the stories in Hartwell and Cramer's Hard SF Renaissance (2004) - but the fact that Wythoff put this book together and got it published by a major academic press, the fact that the Star Trek franchise is still flourishing, speak more ringingly to the survival of Gernsback's vision despite the pummeling it has received.  The Perversity of Things will be a handbook for the resurgence of that vision - it's the best new scholarly book I've read in decades - and I'll be back here with another installment of my reviews soon in the New Year.

See also The Perversity of Things: review #2 of X: Learning by Doing ... #3 of X: The Evolution of Media ... #4 of X: Gernsback and the First Amendment ... #5 of X: Amateurs vs. Corporations ... #6 of X: Thought Experiments and Toys ... #7 of X: The Invention of Invention, and the Advent of Science Fiction ... #8 of X: Definitions and Fake News

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