Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Electric Duel

I recently came across "The Electric Duel" by Hugo Gernsback while trawling the internet. The science fiction community's relationship with the man who created it is a bit rocky, given Gernsback's agenda and unwillingness to pay writers on time. After reading this, I think there was more to it.

"The Electric Duel" starts as a secondhand recollection of two Italian university students settling a grudge. Rather than using pistols or small swords, they decide to use electrified poles to Airman Larry each other. The end of the duel turns out to be so shocking that the narrator then says he woke up and resolved not to eat before going to bed.

Short fiction is known for the twists and punchlines that upend a reader's understanding of the previous story. "The Electric Duel" is an example of what not to do. For the "it was all a dream" punchline robbed this nightmarish and novel conflict of its gravity and even its story. It's a cheat that, while it fits the formulas and tropes of the time, left me unsatisfied as it betrayed its initial premises.

If Gernsback selected stories like the one he wrote, it is no surprise that science fiction transitioned from a flavor of general fiction to a ghetto of genre underneath his watch. And it would not be the first--or the last--questionable decision by editors of Amazing.

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