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Ralph 124C 41+ Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ usually is praised only as a catalog of impressive predictions, including television, radar, artificial fabrics, vending machines, and night baseball; otherwise, critics say, the novel is marred by its inept prose, juvenile plot, and naïve scientific optimism. Gernsback was not a particularly skillful writer, and Ralph 124C 41+ has few virtues as literature, though Ralph’s expressions of anguish are briefly persuasive, Alice is more intelligent and resourceful than most heroines of her day, and the plight of Llysanorh’—in love with Alice but legally forbidden to marry an Earthwoman—is presented with remarkable sympathy.

Ralph 124C 41+ is interesting because Gernsback was one of the first to directly confront one problem in writing science fiction: creating a text that is both satisfying literature and a valid scientific document. Gernsback’s solutions to the problem, and the infelicities of his solutions, often are implicit in later science fiction but are usefully conspicuous in Ralph 124C 41+.

First, because Gernsback wanted detailed scientific explanations in his story, he borrowed two devices from earlier fiction: characters who explain matters in conversation—usually Ralph lecturing to Alice—and a narrator to explain matters when Alice is not present. A third device is more innovative: Gernsback the author directly addresses the reader in footnotes providing scientific information. Lectures from characters or narrators remain common in science fiction, and some writers add afterwords to novels to explain the science behind their stories.

Second, Gernsback needed a narrative form that would be an ideal framework for discussions of present-day and predicted science, but his conflicting priorities yielded a mixture of genres. Ralph 124C 41+ often seems to be a utopia, but Gernsback also wanted an exciting story for younger readers. To add drama to Ralph’s adventures and achievements, Gernsback describes many problems in the future, including labor unrest, crime, imminent famine, and nervous breakdowns, that compromise his picture of a society perfected by science. Ralph 124C 41+ features an adventure story similar to those of dime novels—a brave hero rescuing his fiancée from villains—but Ralph is ill suited to that role, being a respected scientist. His character becomes hopelessly inconsistent, acting first like a mature...

(The entire section is 555 words.)