No Sex Please, We’re Nerds: The Gernsback Continuum and the Neutering of Science Fiction
The sexual repression of science fiction began in what is now Tribeca, New York. More precisely: the wormhole, the vortex of this Bermuda Triangle of missing sex was located at 53 Park Place, New York, NY, the editorial address of Hugo Gernsback and Dr. Thomas O’Conor Sloane. It was from this address that Gernsback launched the first issue of his seminal magazine Amazing Stories dated April 1926. Hugo Gernsback, who was a radio and telecommunications pioneer, and after whom the Hugo Award for science fiction was named, was born in Luxembourg in 1884 to German-Jewish parents. He immigrated to the United States in 1905. Gernsback coined the term ‘science fiction’ in 1929, but in the inaugural issue of Amazing Stories, he was still working with the inelegant term scientifiction that he had conceived of as the title for an aborted magazine project in 1924.
Amazing Stories: The Magazine of Scientifiction is commonly regarded as the first specialist SF pulp magazine. However, by definition, Amazing Stories was not a pulp: it was printed on heavier book paper with trimmed edges, as opposed to the ragged wood pulp stock from which the nomenclature of pulp is derived. It was produced in a larger ‘bedsheet’ format rather than the more compact dimensions of the pulps. Priced at 25 cents, Amazing Stories was also more expensive than the most of the weekly pulps; Gernsback’s magazine, somewhere between pulp and slick, printed monthly. Crucially, in his first editorial, headed A New Sort of Magazine Gernsback was at pains to distance Amazing Stories from his pulp competitors, not merely through superior production values, but also through moral values: “There is the usual fiction magazine, the love story and the sex-appeal type of magazine…but a magazine of ‘Scientifiction’ is a pioneer in its field in America.” It may or may not be true that the editorial office at 53 Park Street was flooded with letters in praise of Gernsback’s segregation of sex and SF. Whatever the case, Gernsback rejoined the war against sex in the next issue, stating:
“And it was with a feeling of gratification that we noted the almost unanimous condemnation of the so-called ‘sex-appeal’ type of story that seems so much in vogue in this country now. Most of our correspondents seemed to heave a great sigh of relief in at last finding a literature that appeals to the imagination, rather than carrying a sensational appeal to the emotions. It is that which justifies our new venture – our expenditure of time and money.” (Amazing Stories, Vol. 1, No. 2; May 1926)
When Gernsback parted company with Amazing Stories in February 1929, forced into bankruptcy through overambitious investments in radio and television technologies, Thomas O’Conor Sloane, then in his late-seventies, was installed as editor. Two months later, Gernsback reintroduced the genre of ‘scientifiction’ as science fiction in the first issue of another specialist SF magazine. Science Wonder Stories was launched in June 1929. Again, in his first editorial, Gernsback had no hesitation in condemning what he referred to as “the ascendancy of ‘sexy’ literature, of the self confession type as well as the avalanche of modern detective stories.” So, although there was much ‘gratification’ and many ‘great sighs of relief’ between Gernsback’s bedsheet pages, there was to be no sex. This is crucial to the development or arrested development of not only science fiction as a genre or prescribed and proscribed style, but also in the formulation of its audience, at least as the stereotype was, and to the arguably diminished extent that it remains. The inculcated image of the science fiction aficionado as sexually repressed, as the virginal nerd, the hermitic masturbator was determined and manipulated by Gernsback and imprinted on our culture from 53 Park Place, New York, NY.
This simultaneously positivist and calcified period in the history of SF, referred to as The Golden Age, sustained the disavowal of sex for decades. Although both Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories would ultimately succumb to their imitator and rival Astounding Stories of Super-Science launched in December 1929, later known as Astounding Stories, and notably under the editorship of John W. Campbell from September 1937, Gernsback’s anti-sex repression of the genre had a formative and lasting influence. The Golden Age, giving rise to what William Gibson, in his ironic 1981 short story The Gernsback Continuum, called ‘raygun Gothic,’ invites parody and the introduction of camp aesthetics and, amidst all of the phallic architecture, dorsal fins, rockets, motherships, and fetishized orientalism, the introjection of sex: in the orgasmic revisions of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) and Mike Hodges’ opulent risqué Flash Gordon (1980) for example. In literature, the Golden Age was succeeded in the 1960s by the contentiously titled New Wave of SF, and this was where the rubber really hit the skin (or not).
Avant-garde literary tendencies in the New Wave led to avant-garde sex (along with feminism and queer theory) penetrating the genre. J.G. Ballard described the redundancy of The Golden Age and the crisis for its avoidance of sexuality in Speculation, 1969:
“The trouble with the Heinlein-Asimov type of Science Fiction is that it’s completely synthetic. Freud also said that synthetic activities are a sign of immaturity, and I think that’s where classical Science Fiction falls down.”
Even in 1976, Philip K. Dick could lament mordantly the puerile reasons why Doubleday would not publish his work as science fiction:
“Because it has four-letter words and their science fiction list does not allow four-letter words…And I did not know this: that the distinction between mainstream and science fiction was the number of four-letter words…Because they figure that most of the science fiction market is kids, and this is their theory, this is not my theory: they’re envisioning the audience with the thick glasses and the acne, and parting their hair in the middle, and the overcoat from the Salvation Army and the suitcase full of old magazines, and he has a felt pen and he wants you to sign every copy of Astounding that he’s got.” (Hour 25 with Mike Hodel)
For the science fiction literati, there is a distinction between ‘SF’ and the relatively pejorative ‘Sci-Fi,’ a term somewhat accidentally introduced by Forrest J. Ackerman in the mid-1950s. Approximately, these terms are deployed to distinguish the avant-garde (SF) from the popular (Sci-Fi), as well as the literary form from the cinematic mainstream. Sci-Fi is naive, which is why millions of frustrated post-Gernsback consumers could make a masturbatory icon out of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in a gold bikini in Return of the Jedi. The hangover of Gernsback’s censorial policies meant that there was something illicit and transgressive about her appearance, even in 1983. Beyond the relative pubescence of the audience, for Return of the Jedi was the most juvenile of the initial trilogy, the rather pathetic attachment of Sci-Fi fandom to the enslaved Princess Leia in her bikini, chained as she is to the vast scrotum that is Jabba the Hutt, provides ample evidence of The Gernsback Continuum beyond Gibson’s satire. The schism between SF and Sci-Fi in literature was projected and magnified in the popular culture of cinema.
Militant SF readers, attached to the New Wave, tend to regard the chastity and utopianism of the Gernsback editorial as anachronistic and reactionary, even if they admire the retro cool of raygun Gothic. They might point to George Lucas’ lamentably brief experimental period, and the bleak existentialism and sex of THX-1138 (lifting material from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s brilliant 1921 novel We) as a vital contribution to the field. Yet, while mainstream Sci-Fi audiences sustained Gernsback’s prudish vision via the sexless romances of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian Star Trek or Lucas’ operatic hybrid of Akira Kurosawa’s the Hidden Fortress (1958), Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung in Star Wars episodes IV through VI, polymorphous perversity, dystopian sex, and ‘four-letter words’ were old news for the SF avant-gardists of the late-sixties and 1970s.
L.Q. Jones’ 1974 film adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s 1969 story A Boy And His Dog had shown the mechanical extraction of pints of Don Johnson’s semen. Ballard had blown-up the disavowed sex of raygun Gothic in The Atrocity Exhibition (whose original publisher Doubleday not incidentally pulped the entire print run, perceiving obscenity, before it was eventually published by Jonathan Cape in 1970) and Crash (1973). Walter Tevis’ exceptional and subtle novel of alienation The Man Who Fell To Earth (1963) brought to the screen by Nicolas Roeg and starring David Bowie in 1976 (an SF film, not a Sci-Fi film), was a maelstrom of alcoholic sex and experimental disorientation demonstrating the avant-garde possibilities of the genre and its increasingly incestuous relationship with rock and nascent punk that would culminate in Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). The New Wave of SF was an explosion of fertility, in every sense. I would argue that the proscriptions of Gernsback’s conditioning still left many SF readers unprepared for the sexual revolution, hence the primacy of the overrated Ursula Le Guin over the terse feminism of the underrated and intellectually stronger Joanna Russ. Le Guin is less threatening, less avant-garde. In short, the SF contingent is seldom a good judge of feminism anywhere, let alone within its own sheltered cult.
Hugo Gernsback died in August of 1967. By this time literary science fiction had evolved into something largely antithetical to his editorial strictures. SF is by now a sexy mutt, un-neutered. It is capable of assimilating post-pubescent genres from the ‘pulp-era’ that Gernsback regarded as transient: SF can assimilate noir detective fiction for example, as with Gibson’s riffs on Hammett, but noir detective fiction struggles to borrow from SF without becoming SF; and so forth. Gernsback was both a radical pioneer and a reactionary purist, arguably the most influential of all SF editors (in terms of ethos and definition, although Campbell published greater work), even if his name is not on the lips of the mainstream audience he contrived. Yet, he also gave us the most regrettable of all reader stereotypes: the SF nerd trapped in suspended pubescence by a morbid fear of sex, diverted into an obnoxious litany of jargon which while it might be, in Gernsback’s words ‘Extravagant Fiction Today…Cold Fact Tomorrow’ creates little but an awkward estrangement from the present.
James Reich – Author of ‘I, Judas’ (Soft Skull Press, Oct. 2011) and ‘Bombshell’ (Soft Skull Press, April 2013). Work has also appeared at/in The Rumpus, Bold Type Magazine, Headzine, The End of Being.com, and others. Also: Musician w/ post-punk band Venus Bogardus; sometime bookstore owner in Bath, England; currently adjunct faculty at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.