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March 2006
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How to Write "Scientific" Fiction, by Hugo Gernsback (1930)

"SCIENTIFIC detection of crime offers writers the greatest opportunity and most fertile field since the detective first appeared in fiction," Hugo Gernsback wrote in The Writer's 1930 Year Book & Market Guide. The year before, he'd lost control of Amazing Stories, wherein he'd effectively created the genre he called "scientifiction." Now he was teaching aspirant hacks to write for his newest project, Scientific Detection Magazine.

Did he have advice to offer! "Although good characterization helps a story," Gernsback wrote, "better none than poor ones." He demanded the science be accurate, and described a story where a criminal becomes invisible by painting himself with nonreflective paint. Its weakness? The author forgot about shadows. "Don't look through your old manuscripts and tack scientific endings to them," he counseled. "Don't drag in television. It is worked to death and there are so many other better appliances you can use."

This hectoring mixture of shrewdness and bosh is very similar to the manner in which Gernsback urged genre sf into being. And, indeed, the argument can be made that he anticipated today's forensic detection craze epitomized by the TV show CSI and the fiction of Patricia Cornwell. In any event, Gernsback clearly thought he had another winner. "With the advancement of science, the criminal-in-fact is turning scientific as well as the criminal-in-fiction. Therefore we prophesy that Scientific Detective fiction will supersede all other types," he trumpeted.

Alas, this time Gernsback turned out to be a false prophet. Scientific Detection Magazine lasted only ten issues.

—Michael Swanwick

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