Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Perversity of Things: review #8 of X: Definitions and Fake News

Continuing with my reviews (#8 of X) of The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) - at a more leisurely place now, reporting here on two gems in pages 52-55 of Wythoff's 59-page Introduction to the 359-page volume.

Wythoff describes Gernsback's keen concern with the definition of science fiction - or scientifiction, as Gernsback usually had it - which in turn led to a thoughtful, even profound, analysis of how much science and truth needs to be in the science fiction.   There are several bells that this discussion rung for me.

First, I'm reminded about both Karl Popper's and Marshall McLuhan's dislike for definitions.  Popper held that they were a distraction, and McLuhan was fond of quoting French poet Stéphane Mallarmé that “To define is to kill. To suggest is to create.”  I generally agree with that, but Gernsback's quest to define science fiction was valuable.

As Wythoff points out, it led Gernsback to probe the evolution of technology, with the realization that the science in science fiction was a progressing target.   A century later, anyone familiar with science fiction knows that it predicted and even provided a template for everything from space travel to gene-splicing (H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau).   In Gernsback's day, this was not as obvious, and he deserves credit for holding science fiction to the test of not only plausibility but physical possibility - which remains an important point of demarcation between science fiction and fantasy.(See this for my very brief definition of the two.)

Gernsback's focus on scientific possibility and truth led to what today is an astonishing example. Wythoff, writing before our current crisis regarding fake news, tells us about Gernsback's 1926 "The Moon Hoax," in an early issue of his Amazing Stories, which reprinted a series of articles in The New York Sun from 1835 which reported an intelligent civilization of the Moon.   Gernsback was confident, in 1926, that such a "hoax" would quickly be exposed by radio.   He of course missed not only Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" (thanks to my wife Tina for this example), but the way that our social media today not only unmask fake news but disseminate it.

I thought this example was so telling, that I just added it to my Fake News in Real Context.  That's what I mean about The Perversity of Things being a treasure trove to anyone who's interested in the evolution and impact of media.  And I'll be back here, sooner or later, with more.

See alsoThe Perversity of Things: review #1 of X: Gernsback as Philosopher of Technology ... #2 of X: Learning by Doing ... #3 of X: The Evolution of Media ... #4 of X: Gernsback and the 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






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