Paperback Punk

Armageddon 2419 A.D.

by Philip Francis Nowlan

The blame can squarely be placed upon George Lucas. Unable to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon film, instead in 1977 he produced Star Wars which made a huge, lasting impact upon Western Civilization. Not least of this impact was a slew of science fiction films and television shows being greenlit to satisfy the public’s newfound thirst for Star Wars-like adventure. Battlestar Galactica appeared on the small screen, Flash Gordon made it to the big screen without Lucas, and Gil Gerard and Erin Gray brought William “Buck” Rogers and Wilma Deering to life on Buck Rogers in the XXVth Century, Sunday Nights at 8 PM Eastern, 9 PM Central. Buck had starred in a popular comic strip for decades, as well as serials in the 30s, and the runaway success of the Buck Rogers strip led to Alex Raymond creating the Flash Gordon strip, which became so popular that in the 1970s, George Lucas wanted to make a film based on it. Time really is a flat circle.

Oddly enough, though, Buck Rogers’ first appearance was not in a film serial or a comic strip. The character originated in a pair of novellas written by Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon 2419 A.D.  and The Warlords of Han. It was based on the success of those novellas, published in Amazing Stories in 1928, that the John Dille Company contracted Nowlan to create the comic strip, although Rogers got his nickname specifically for the comic.

In the books, our hero is Anthony Rogers, WWI veteran, and he narrates the story in his own words. In 1927, while surveying for “radioactive gases” in the Wyoming County of Pennsylvania, Rogers is stuck in a cave-in. The strange gasses preserve him in a state of perfect hibernation for five centuries, until some uplift of the local strata opens up an airway and revives him. He crawls out of the cave into the world of 2419 A.D., a post-apocalyptic landscape where North America is covered in forests and the former United States has been conquered by the race (sic) of Mongols known as the Han.

Very quickly the story thrusts the reader into the threat of the Yellow Peril, that strange fear of the last century that Western Civilization seemed to have about the Asian continent, and in particular the Chinese. Glad that’s over, and the USA has moved on from such nonsense. Anyway, the Han are technologically advanced, getting about via huge air ships and making use of devastating disintegrator rays. We learn that they live in massive arcologies, where they possess streaming television services, Amazon, and other modern amenities which must have been utterly fascinating to readers in 1928. It’s still kind of fascinating to see such things predicted nearly a hundred years ago, although the impact for certain is lessened. Despite all this advancement, the Han are nonetheless decadent, depraved, weak, soft, etc. in sharp contrast to the savage Americans who populate the forests of North America.

Americans live in groups called Gangs, more or less tribes, and they wear all green clothes to hide in the forests and live mostly underground. However, they have technology of their own. Besides easy access to cell phone technology (again, remarkable in its prescience, but less amazing when such things are commonplace four hundred years before they’re supposed to exist), as well as a magical alloy called inertron which is invisible, virtually weightless, and completely immune to the Han’s disintegrator rays. Fancy that. Using special belts made of inertron, the Americans can leap from treetop to treetop like some kind of, I don’t know, John Carter or something. The Americans also have pistols that fire explosive rockets, but it takes Rogers to figure out how to use them effectively. First he teaches his new friends how to take down an airship, then he instructs them on the WWI tactics of heavy artillery bombardment, clearly lost to humanity in the intervening five hundred years.

From there, the story is rather predictable in its inevitability. Rogers quickly becomes Boss of the Wyoming Gang that rescued him, he marries the first future person he ever met, Wilma Deering, and he leads the Americans in their efforts to throw off the rule of the evil Hans. In the second half of the story he gets captured and spends a great deal of time in a Han city in the Rockies, whereupon we learn about all their technological advancements and benefits, as well as all the terrible things about their society. Women have it rough among the Hans, again in sharp contrast to the Americans. While referred to as “girl” or “girls” throughout, Wilma and her fellow women in the gangs hold command positions and fully participate in all the battles. They are presented as fully equal members of American society, and its Rogers the primitive 20th century person who tries to exclude Wilma from taking part in a particular battle, to resultant mockery from other men and women alike.

The racism, inherent in the Yellow Peril idea, is also surprisingly nuanced by the novel’s end. When the Han are defeated – well, genocided to the last man, woman and child, so not that nuanced – and the heroes of America tour the world, we learn that the Han are perhaps extraterrestrial in nature and it was humanity’s duty to exterminate them. In addition, all the regular Chinese and Japanese people are great and we love them, and also Africans are, and I quote, “the simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa, today one of the leading races of the world – although in the Twentieth Century we regarded them as inferior.” That’s a surprising view, if also backhanded compliment, from 1928. Like I can’t pat Nowlan on the back for it, but at the same time I’m not horrified and forced to condemn him.

This is very much a hard sci-fi novel, with little interest in characterization and many long passages and even entire chapters given over to technical details and summaries of future details. The framing device is that Rogers, near the end of his life, is writing a brief memoir of the war, so a lot of the more interesting things, like how he adapted to life in the future, how exactly he and Wilma courted, and so on, are glossed over in favor of explaining how the communicators work and all the amazing things inertron can do. I found my eyes glazing over several times, and despite the slimness of the volume, it took me a solid week to get through it. As an exercise in pop-sci-fi archaeology I think it was worth a read. Armageddon 2419 A.D. is certainly a stepping stone on the way to where we are now, with Star Wars and Star Trek saturating every kind of media.