Reich’s theory is elegant in its simplicity. If we can trace a single continuous line of sexual dysfunction over the course of nearly a century, then we have a main critical thread that permeates the literature. There’s something satisfying about laying the trajectory of an entire publishing genre at the feet of a single man. Reich’s photo of a buck-toothed nerd sandwiched between two pairs of boobs makes a nice touch.
This theory also spits in the eye of reason.
Do we really believe a single editor’s grab for upmarket panache has influenced youths’ sexual development for nearly ninety years? Has no other editor really had sufficient influence on the genre as to leave a mark on its mores? That arrogates a lot of power to one man, who is conveniently not around to rebut the argument. And it assumes its audience is beholden to a moral structure that was already wheezy when Gernsback channeled it.
Reich’s thesis requires its audience to approach the literature as a complete sexual tabula rasa. It requires science fiction readers to remain immune to the influence of parents, teachers, peers, religious leaders, and other role models. It requires readers to stick their fingers in their ears and close their eyes when faced with today’s sex-obsessed popular culture. And it requires them to never read any literature other than science fiction.
It starts to seem somewhat unlikely.
At one time, such readers probably would have read mystery fiction. Its use of complex mental puzzles would have satisfied the longing for intellectual stimulation, and broadly sexless protagonists like Auguste Dupin, Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes would have let the thinking audience feel comfy in their own skin. Cozy mysteries, with their overwhelmingly cerebral appeal, would have been just what such nerds needed.
But the intrusion of swinging masculinity, by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, let in much of the primal physicality that brainy readers wanted to avoid. It’s impossible to read mystery today without encountering sex in such detail as to cross even jaded Lotharios’ eyes. The genre is now laced with heaving bosoms, sucker punches, and other flourishes that Agatha Christie would have lamented as unevolved.
Meanwhile, science and technology came to dominate the public discourse, giving rise to slickly published science fiction. Who can blame nerds for leaving the mystery fold and migrating to a genre that spoke to their desires? Reich’s “Raygun Gothic” provided a home for a certain audience for half a century. But since the 1980s, this genre too has attracted an increasing sexual forthrightness, and many nerds now favor fantasy or nonfiction.
Gernsback was unabashed in advocating his pedagogical purposes with his “scientifiction.” He wanted to use the tropes of boys’ adventure fiction to teach youth the ways and reasoning of growing science. This inculcated the attitude that SF is for children—and that reading SF is symptomatic of arrested childhood. This belief proves remarkably durable, outside the genre audience, despite copious evidence of serious adult readership.
In short, Reich’s thesis only makes sense to outsiders, and only if they don’t think too hard about it. Hugo Gernsback made a limp bid for post-Victorian respect. James Reich uses that hoary grab to infantilize science fiction audiences decades after the fact. I ask you: which of the two really holds legitimate, intellectually ambitious readers back?