Space Opera Archeology: Philip Francis Nowlan and Buck Rogers

“Then there flashes into my memory the picture of Wilma as, screaming in an utter abandon of merciless fury, she threw herself recklessly, exultantly into the thick of that wild, relentless slaughter; and my mind can find nothing savage nor repellent about her.”

—Anthony Rogers,  “The Airlords of Han”

amazing_stories_192903In the previous posts in this series I covered Edmond Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol stories and E. E. Doc Smith’s The Skylark of Space, two seminal works of space opera that, coincidentally, were both published in August 1928. Now it’s time to look at another work that commenced publication that month, Philip Francis Nowlan’s two-part saga that started with “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” and concluded the following year with “The Airlords of Han”, both in Amazing Stories.

Now, it’s a bit of a stretch to call either story a space opera. While they have a lot of deadly rays and flying machines, they take place entirely on the planet Earth, and space travel turns up only at the very end of “The Airlords of Han” in a rather oddball plot revelation. That said, Nowlan’s yarn did play a part in the development of space opera as a genre. “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” was the basis of a syndicated newspaper strip that started in January 1929. Here, the main character Anthony Rogers was given the nickname Buck, and his adventures ran under the title of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The comic version of the character went on all manner of interplanetary adventures (story titles include “Tiger Men of Mars” and “Depth Men of Jupiter”) and established space opera as a viable genre for comics.

The Buck Rogers strip was followed by imitators, including Flash Gordon – which later became better-known than its inspiration. Since then, poor Buck has been reduced to something of a coattail-rider: after the Flash Gordon cliffhanger serials starring Buster Crabbe came a Buck Rogers cliffhanger serial starring Buster Crabbe; after Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica came a Buck Rogers TV show. Still, Buck – or Anthony, or whatever you want to call him – was there before the pretenders to his throne.

So, let’s take a look at where it all began in “Armageddon 2419 A.D”…

RogersArmageddonThe story kicks off with Anthony Rogers exploring a cave in 1927 and running into a pocket of radioactive gas. He loses consciousness, and wakes up in 2419, the gas having kept him in a state of suspended animation for nearly five hundred years; only because of a chance moving of the earth, allowing in some fresh air, did he recover.

He finds himself in a drastically altered geopolitical situation. The First World War was followed by a conflict “in which nearly all the European nations had banded together to break the financial and industrial power of America”; both sides were badly damaged, allowing a coalition between Soviet Russia and China to sweep over Europe. The Hans/Mongolians (the story uses the two terms interchangeably) of China then subjugated Russia, before bringing down the wounded America using disintegrator rays (aka dis rays). From here, the Hans successfully built a World Empire.

America’s cities have been brought to ruin, and the surviving population of the country driven into the forests. North America is now overseen by the Han Airlords, who patrol the skies in their flying machines, while fifteen Han cities – representing a “magnificently luxurious and degraded scheme of civilization” – now stand on the ruins of the old. However, some of the Americans retain their scientific knowledge, and long for a “Day of Hope” when their nation will – in the words of Rogers – “burst from the green chrysalis of the forests, soar into the upper air lanes and destroy the yellow incubus”.

Rogers befriends an American girl named Wilma Deering, and saves her from members of the Bad Bloods – a rogue American gang dedicated to senseless violence, rather than rebellion against the oppressive Hans. Wilma’s gang accepts Rogers into its ranks, and shows him around its (literally) underground technology, such as “the plants where ultronic vibrations were isolated form the ether and through slow processes built up into sub-electronic, electronic and atomic forms into the two great synthetic elements, ultron and inertron”.

The Americans of the future have a few handy gadgets to help them in battle, including handgun-sized rocket launchers and anti-gravity belts that allow enormous leaps, but they have lost the martial knowledge necessary for an effective counterattack upon the Hans. This is where Rogers comes in: a veteran of the First World War, he is America’s last bastion of military know-how. Confronted by Han airships, he hits upon the straightforward notion of dislodging their ray guns with well-placed rockets, thereby causing the ships to destroy themselves as their dis rays go off-target.

Hot on the tail of this success, the rebels decide on their next mission: to infiltrate a Han library in what was once New York and make off with vital information about their enemy. They perform this mission by knocking out some Han opponents with sleeping gas, killing a few more in a round of swashbuckling, and getting back with the necessary documents. The newly-found information reveals the existence of a gang of American traitors who aided the Hans in exchange for weaponry.

Rogers is accompanied on his mission by Wilma, whom he has since married. He initially intended to leave her behind, before learning that she is “made of far sterner stuff than the women of the 20th Century” and finds his suggestion offensive:

I couldn’t believe my ears last night when you spoke of going without me, until I realized that you are still five hundred years behind the times in lots of ways. Don’t you know, dear heart, that you offered me the greatest insult a husband could give a wife? You didn’t, of course.

During the battle, Rogers gushes over his wife’s prowess: “Wilma, with a poise and speed which I found time to admire even in this crisis, again leaped. This time she dove head first as I had done and, with a beautifully executed thrust, ran the last Han through the throat.” She has less stamina than her male comrades, however, and faints immediately after this exertion.

Our hero seems eager to make up for his earlier gaffe and subsequently underlines the dual-gender nature of the rebel forces: throughout “The Airlords of Han” he makes a point out of referring to the guerrillas as “men and girls”.

Nowlan’s female characters make for an interesting contrast with the other stories I’ve covered in this series. The Skylark of Space had two women among the main cast, but used them mainly as damsels in distress and passive romantic objects for the male leads. Edmond Hamilton’s “The Star-Stealers” has a prominent female character, who was treated as equal to her male colleagues, but suffered from the same flatness as the other protagonists in the series. With Wilma, however, Nowlan has created a character who serves as both a love interest and a capable fighter in her own right… well, until she starts fainting.

“Armageddon 2419 A.D” is first and foremost a straight-ahead adventure yarn, a kind of science fiction retelling of the Robin Hood legend. The forest-dwelling American rebels dress in green, like the Merry Men, while Rogers directly compares the Han rulers to the Normans of medieval England.

At the same time, though, Nowlan shows a willingness to play with the possibilities of his futuristic setting in terms of culture. He introduces language drift, establishing that “exchange” now means “stranger”, “business” now refers specifically to combat, “gang” is pronounced “gan”, and “Alan” is now a woman’s name, having evolved from Helen. Under the dominion of the Han overlords, American cities now have pseudo-Chinese names like Nu-yok, Bah-flo, Clee-lan and Sika-ga. The story also touches upon economics, with the futuristic America run as “a compromise between individual liberty and a military socialism”.

And then we have the matter of race.

“Armageddon 2419 A.D.” reflects the “yellow peril” xenophobia of its time. The entire narrative is built around a conflict between the interchangeable Hans/Mongolians and Americans — specifically, white Americans, since it is generally implied that the oppressed population of the United States is white. The heroes even call their division focusing on American traitors “White Intelligence”, as opposed to the “Yellow Intelligence” division that concentrates on the Hans. It is never clarified exactly what happened to the non-white population of America by the time the story takes place.

AirlordsHan“They are a cowardly race in one sense,” says Wilma at the very end, “but clever as the very Devils in Hell, and inheritors of a calm, ruthless, vicious persistency.” Her husband reassures her that “the Finger of Doom points squarely at them today, and unless you and I are killed in the struggle, we shall live to see America blast the Yellow Blight from the face of the Earth.”

The second story, “The Airlords of Han”, begins with the Americans having turned the tables on the Hans, and fighting back with brutality: “Hans who reached the ground alive were never taken prisoner. Not even the splendid discipline of the Americans could curb the wild hate developed through centuries of dastardly oppression, and the Hans were mercilessly slaughtered, when they did not save us the trouble by committing suicide.”

“The Airlords of Han” has a heavy emphasis on the hardware and tactics used in battle, and could be seen as an early example of military SF. Rocket guns, dis rays, night vision “ultroscopes” all turn up in the opening chapters, This paragraph is typical:

“Those ships can’t climb out of deep holes, Boss,” he was saying excitedly. “Lay a big barrage against them—no, not on them—in front of them—always in front of them. Pull it back as they come on. But churn h—l out of the ground in front of them! Get the rocketmen to make a penetrative time rocket. Shoot it into the ground in front of them, deep enough to be below their canopy ray, see, and detonate under them as they go over it!”

The first third or so of the story is given over to the minute details either of the armed conflict, or the technology used therein, with the simple swashbuckling of “Armageddon 2419 A. D.” nowhere to be seen.

Then, Rogers is captured by the Hans, and held prisoner. They torture him, attempt to ply him with drugs and seductive women, try to break his morale using forged photographs of Wilma being tortured, and even use hypnosis – which he resists, having twentieth-century knowledge of its limitations, which has apparently since been lost to the public of the twenty-fifth century.

For the first time, Rogers gets up close and personal with his Han opponents. In a surprising twist, Nowlan moves away from racial stereotypes and instead emphasises the differences between his antagonists and modern-day East Asians:

They looked little like the Mongolians of the Twentieth Century, except for their slant eyes and round heads. The characteristic of the high cheek bones appeared to have been bred out of them, as were those of the relatively short legs and the muddy yellow skin. To call them yellow was more figurative than literal. Their skins were whiter than those of our own weather-tanned forest men. Nevertheless, their pigmentation was peculiar, and what there was of it looked more like a pale orange tint than the ruddiness of the Caucasian. They were well formed, but rather undersized and soft-looking, small-muscled and smooth-skinned, like young girls. Their features were finely chiseled, eyes beady, and nose slightly aquiline.

We also learn that the Hans’ decadence was brought on in large part by their easy access to television and communications media:

These public view and visitation projectoscopes explain that utter depth of laziness into which the Hans had been dragged by their civilization. There was no incentive for anyone to leave his apartment unless he was in the military or air service, or a member of one of the repair services which from time to time had to scoot through the corridors and shafts of the city, somewhat like the ancient fire departments, to make some emergency repair to the machinery of the city or its electrical devices.

Why should he leave his house? Food, wonderful synthetic concoctions of any desired flavor and consistency (and for additional fee conforming to the individual’s dietary prescription) came to him through a shaft, from which his tray slid automatically on to a convenient shelf or table.

At will he could tune in a theatrical performance of talking pictures. He could visit and talk with his friends. He breathed the freshest of filtered air right in his own apartment, at any temperature he desired, fragrant with the scent of flowers, the aromatic smell of the pine forests or the salt tang of the sea, as he might prefer. He could “visit” his friends at will, and though his apartment actually might be buried many thousand feet from the outside wall of the city, it was none the less an “outside” one, by virtue of its viewplate walls.

Rogers also encounters the Han ruler, San-Lan, and finds that none of the other Hans treat this man with respect, openly mocking him behind his back. Our hero tells us that this ridicule is common between the Hans, as “no Han rendered any respect to another, nor expected it in return… Their discipline was rigid and cold-bloodedly heartless”. San-Lan himself, it turns out, is incapable of loving even his own nine-year-old daughter, and uses her as a mere pawn in his attempts to manipulate Rogers.

While Rogers is in captivity, Wilma takes control of his gang and rallies the Americans to attack the Han cities. Rogers escapes in the confusion and rejoins the battle, telling us of how his band “mowed down contingent after contingent of the hated yellow men” until the Hans are wiped out.

I’ve written before about early space opera’s fondness for apocalyptic us-or-them scenarios, where the heroes exterminate another race in a justifiable genocide. turned up in Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol stories, it turned up in The Skylark of Space, and it’ll turn up again later in this series.  We should not be surprised that Nowlan, having established that the Hans wiped out four-fifths of the American population, has them being exterminated in turn. But “The Airlords of Han” follows its climactic genocide with a surprising twist. First, Rogers reminisces about his travels around the Han-free world:

In the years that followed, Wilma and I travelled nearly every nation on the earth which had succeeded in throwing off the Han domination, spurred on by our success in America, and I never knew her to show to the men or women of any race anything but the utmost of sympathetic courtesy and consideration, whether they were the noble brown-skinned Caucasians of India, the sturdy Balkanites of Southern Europe, or 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. This charity and gentleness of hers did not fail even in our contacts with the non-Han Mongolians of Japan and the coast provinces of China.

So, Nowlan explicitly attacks racism towards black people (albeit while using obviously condescending terms: “simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa”) and draws a distinction between the villainous Hans of his story and other East Asians. Next, the story drops this bombshell:

Latterly, our historians and anthropologists find much support for the theory that the Hans sprang from a genus of human-like creatures that may have arrived on this earth with a small planet (or large meteor) which is known to have crashed in interior Asia late in the Twentieth Century, causing certain permanent changes in the earth’s orbit and climate.

Geological convulsions blocked this section off from the rest of the world for many years. And it is a historical fact that Chinese scientists, driving their explorations into it at a somewhat later period, met the first wave of the on-coming Hans.

The theory is that these creatures (and certain queer skeletons have been found in the “Asiatic Bowl”) with a mental superdevelopment, but a vacuum in place of that intangible something we call a soul, mated forcibly with the Tibetans, thereby strengthening their physical structure to almost the human normal, adapting themselves to earthly speech and habits, and in some strange manner intensifying even further their mental powers.

Well, there we go: the evil Hans were actually aliens all along! And they landed on Earth during the late twentieth century, so presumably they’re unrelated to the Han ethnic group already present in China. Is it possible that Nowlan had, on some level, come to regret the racism that he had introduced into his story? It’s all very odd.

For the next post in this series, I’ll be digging up a long-forgotten story from the early days of space opera…

One thought on “Space Opera Archeology: Philip Francis Nowlan and Buck Rogers”

  1. With novels this old, it’s always a pleasant surprise if the blatant racism is a bit more nuanced than usual.

    Anyway, I actually read Armageddon 2419 A.D. and Airlords of the Han in an omnibus edition (found in Rotterdam’s wonderful multi-level Donner bookstore, housed in a building I suspect was designed by time lords) as a teenager. I don’t remember very much about them, but I found them more readable than E.E. Smith. But then, I was in my mid twenties by the time I finally got hold of E.E. Smith’s work and therefore a lot more critical than I would have been at 16.

    Like

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