There’s a question that comes up often: who started science fiction? In the past couple of months, we’ve talked about a few authors who are certainly foundational. Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are all important figures in the early days of the genre, who have also informed the future of the genre. However, the man most responsible for how we see the modern science fiction genre is author and editor Hugo Gernsback.

Born in 1884 in Luxembourg, as Hugo Gernsbacher, he demonstrated a keen interest in science and electronics early on. By the age of 20, he arrived in the United States, where he set up shop with a mail-order company called the Electro Importing Co. in New York City. Spurred by the success of selling electronics, Gernsback launched his career in publishing with the magazine Modern Electrics in 1908, which included short stories featuring science elements.

Read more about adapting Philip K. Dick's stories into film.

In 1911, Gernsback began serializing his novel, Ralph 124C 41+ in Modern Electrics. Eventually, he would turn Modern Electrics over to fiction under the new title Science and Invention, and began to work on selling science fiction to the general public.  A couple of years later, in 1915, he began serializing a second novel called The Scientific Adventures of Baron Münchausen.

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In 1926, he launched a new magazine dedicated to what he was beginning to call Scientifiction stories (he would simplify it to science fiction not too long after that), called Amazing Stories, bringing together a new outlet for a growing genre and the name that it would eventually be known by. The first issue came packed with an impressive and familiar roster of names, including Wells, Verne and Poe.

amazingstories Amazing Stories ran for 37 issues and would spawn several sister publications prior to 1929, when his creditors, acting together, forced him into bankruptcy. Additionally, Gernsback was also notoriously difficult when it came to working with his authors. The payment for stories in his magazines, when they came at all, were low, even by the day’s standards, prompting lawsuits from some of his authors.

Gernsback’s legacy with Amazing Stories is a troubled one. Brian Aldiss, in his book Trillion Year Spree, points out that Amazing Stories was far from the first science fiction magazine published and describes his outlook as “simple-minded Victorian utilitarianism. Gernsback’s philosophy…the worst Gernsbackian SF neither thinks nor dreams.”

Critic Alex Eisenstein further notes in an essay in Science Fiction Studies that Gernsback’s sci fi tends to “derive more from Verne than Wells, as a rather direct result of Gernsback's propagandistic intentions,” and that there is thus a split between the literary science fiction and the “popularized” science fiction. The end result has weighed heavily on the genre, defining it culturally for just shy of a century, allowing characterization of a shallow, campy genre from which it’s only slowly crawling from.

Despite his legal and financial setbacks, Gernsback launched another SF magazine called Science Wonder Stories in the 1929. It would soon merge with Air Wonder Stories to become simply Wonder Stories. Over the next 30 years, he would continue to edit magazines. In 1958, he returned to writing to put together his third and final novel, Ultimate World, which wouldn’t find its way to print until 1971. Gernsback would never live to see it published. He died Aug. 19, 1967, in New York.

Due to Gernsback’s magazines’ popularity, other magazines from rival publishers hit the newsstands, creating a boom in cheap stories for a ravenous audience. An entire generation of authors was likewise inspired as well: Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, as well as comic book creators such as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster became fans of the stories and genre, going on to create their own notable stories.

What Gernsback lacked in quality, he provided in the other side of the equation: commercial success and popularity in the United States. Through sheer force of will, he transformed the genre from a nebulous body of work into an industry. He provided a link between the genre’s first creators and the next major large wave in the middle of the 20th century, or the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Love it or loath it, Gernsback’s legacy isn’t going anywhere, and the continued argument over his role in the founding helps to demonstrate his impact. This month, starting Aug. 30 in Chicago, the World Science Fiction convention at Chicon 7, or “Worldcon,” will issue the annual awards named for the man, The Hugo Awards, which recognize the best stories, authors, art and artists of the year. You can see a complete list of the stories for the 2012 nominees here, and a list of the past winners here.  

Here are a couple of quick facts about the Hugo Award:

  • The first Hugo Award handed out was for Alfred Bester’s novel, The Demolished Man, in 1953.
  • There was no Hugo Award presentation for 1954. The original award was intended as a one-off, with the hope that there would be other awards issued by other Con committees.
  • Anne McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo Award in 1968. Her winning story, “Weyr Search,” was published in October 1967 in Analog Magazine.
  • 21 novels have won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula award.
  • The Hugo Award was originally named The Science Fiction Achievement Award, but was informally known as “The Hugo.”
  • Author Connie Willis has the most wins with 11.

The 2012 Hugo Awards will take place at Worldcon on Sept. 2. Kirkus contributor, John DeNardo’s SF Signal is nominated for “Best Fanzine” and “Best Fancast,” along with another contributor Patrick Hester. Best of luck, fellas!

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found at online his blog and at Twitter at @andrewliptak.