Nearly a hundred years on from Gernsback’s first version of this quirky novel in 1911, it re-emerges between the lavish covers of this Bison Books commemorative edition, a facsimile – or at least the interior of the book is – of the 1925 book publication complete with the original full-page illustrations by Frank R Paul.
Hugo is often referred to as ‘the grandfather of SF’, or at least the grandfather of American SF, being the founder of Amazing Stories, and is credited, among other things, with the invention of the phrase ‘science fiction’, reduced from the rather cumbersome ‘scientifiction’. Allegedly, he is also the first person to use the word ‘television’ and, in his own way within this novel, predicts many of the things which – albeit existing in very different form – we take for granted today.
In the year 2660, Ralph 124C 41+ is, as denoted by the plus sign suffix to his name, one of the top ten scientists in the world, and as such is forbidden to engage in anything potentially injurious.
During a ‘telephot’ call (a telephot being a kind of videophone) he gets a misdirected call from an Alice of Switzerland and – having saved her from an avalanche by a remarkable procedure involving the erection of antennae and a concentration of rays – the two fall in love.
Unfortunately Alice has other admirers; the swarthy and brutal Fernand and Llysanorh’, a depressed Martian.
Most of the novel is taken up with Alice and her father visiting Ralph at his New York home and laboratory from whence Ralph takes them on a tour, demonstrating to them the wonders of the modern world (which obviously in 2660 does not include Switzerland).
As Jack Williamson points out in his introduction to this volume, the narrative is, in the main, a travelogue, being a device by which Gernsback can show the development of science in this strange Utopia.
In common with some contemporary authors, Gernsback takes no account of the possibility of social change in 600 years. We are therefore presented with a future of Edwardian manners and attitudes which is exacerbated by Paul’s artwork, particularly in the case of the frontispiece ‘The Face in the Telephot’ which shows Ralph gazing into a screen on which appears the face of Alice, sporting a fetching Nineteen Twenties hairstyle and a Gardenia behind one ear.
The telephot itself looks rather like some installation from an early submarine. Oddly this strange displacement of visual and cultural memes gives the book a ‘steampunk’ flavour and one cannot help but be bowled along by Gernsback’s obvious verve and enthusiasm for a world in which man is set free by technology. It is churlish to point out that Ralph’s ‘Man’, Peter, has not yet been set free, presumably because Ralph has not yet invented a mechanical valet.
Alice too, when she is kidnapped by the evil Fernand, is provided with a personal maid.
Gernsback however, is concerned only with scientific – rather than social – advancement, although even here, for dramatic expediency, he is willing to sacrifice extrapolated scientific development for what is essentially sheer fantasy.
Nevertheless, read in context, this is a marvellous and exuberant adventure, packaged beautifully and respectfully by the people from Bison Books.