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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Perversity of Things: review #7 of X: The Invention of Invention and the Advent of Science Fiction

Continuing with my reviews (#7 of X) of The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, edited by Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) - which will be less frequent now, given the end of the winter break, but focusing here on pages 46-51 of Wythoff's remarkable 59-page Introduction to the 359-page volume.

Wythoff in these pages focuses on Gernback's contribution to the very way in which we conceive of invention - where what we today call new media come from, and what is the best environment, or the social structure most conducive, for these seedling inventions to develop into useful technologies.

I'd make two points here.  One is that it can't be coincidental that Alfred North Whitehead, in his Science and the Modern World, observes that the most important invention of the late 19th century and the aptly-named Age of Invention was "the invention of invention" itself - or the very notion that human beings could create technologies that didn't already exist to do useful things - like talk to people who were miles away from us, move in automated vehicles, etc.  Whitehead published that book in 1925, right around the time that Gernsback was holding forth with similar ideas, which in effect proves the point: invention was in the air, not just in flying vehicles, but as a concept in everyone's minds.

Gernsback goes further, as we've seen earlier, and identifies the ideal inventor as a tinkerer not a corporate employee.   And he also goes further in considering the best circumstances for the invention to get into the mainstream - or, in terms of the Toy, Mirror, and Art schema I mentioned in my previous review, what is needed to jumpstart the new gimmick into widespread, practical use.

Wythoff then segues into another aspect of Gernsback's work, which is especially close to my heart (though actually most are), and is of course what most people associate with Gernsback: science fiction.   Wythoff's brief, and I agree, is not at all that this association is incorrect, but it is incomplete - because Gernback is far more than a pioneering publisher of short science fiction.   He's also a philosopher of technology, of considerable importance.

But Gernback's contribution to the birth and growth of that genre (short-form science fiction) was indeed enormous - and, unsurprisingly, idiosyncratic.  Wythoff observes that, in Gernsback's Amazing Stories and other science fiction publications, the process of invention was more prominent than the characters who did and reacted to the invention.   This spotlight on science over character stayed with science fiction for at least half a century, and still characterizes the leading science fiction magazine, Analog, which published 15 of my stories and 2 essays between 1995-2013 ("The Chronology Protection Case," "Loose Ends," and "The Orchard" are the best-known - see this list for details).

Indeed, Analog far more than Amazing Stories carried and still carries the mantel that Gernsback built for the science fiction magazine, and magazines in general, including an active, critiquing, tinkering readership.  But I'll leave that story for subsequent reviews of The Perversity of Things.

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 ... #8 of X: Definitions and Fake News

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