Future imperfect: reviewing the original Buck Rogers stories

Of recent years, there have been complaints that science fiction is moving away from its roots, that it is less about heroic space opera and more about squishy liberal notions. This controversy has even upset the Hugo Awards. So I decided to go back in time and look at one of those heroic stories that established science fiction. I’m talking about Buck Rogers, introduced as Anthony Rogers in two stories by Philip Francis Nowlan (1888 – 1940): Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han, originally published in 1928-29 in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories.

I’d seen this cover a zillion times, but until I read “Air Lords,” I didn’t know what it was about.

My thoughts in brief? We don’t want to go back there, but the stories have some merit. Read at your peril.

I’ll begin by summarizing the plot of the two stories. Tony Rogers is accidentally cast into suspended animation in 1927, only to awaken in 2419. He finds America had been conquered by Mongolians, who destroyed American civilization, set up their own cities, and live independently of the countryside around them. The Americans have gradually recovered their civilization, and are just about ready to confront the Han, the Mongolians who rule in their cities scattered across America. The two stories describe how Tony becomes a leader among the Americans, and how the Han are eventually defeated.

Cool, eh? Nowlan did not try to stretch the credibility of his story too far, so Tony is just one of the leaders of the Americans. But he engages in many heroic and important adventures, and wins a wife from the 25th century Americans. The story features a lot of discussion of futuristic technology which, while nonsense, was no doubt reasonably credible in 1928. And, note this well, you guys who can’t imagine anything other than hard science and warfare, Nowlan spends a fair amount of time on the social changes among the Americans and Han. In short, Nowlan is a better writer than some regressive fans of today are readers. True, he does bog down at times, particularly in Air Lords, which has longer passages of exposition than Armageddon. But otherwise it’s a straightforward adventure story with a lot of science fiction trimmings.

Yes, there is a Wilma in the original stories, she does play a military role, and she does kick ass. But she’s also married to Tony and sometimes acts like a 1920s housewife.

But . . . ah, but there is this little problem of racism. No, make that a BIG problem. How big? It’s the Yellow Peril versus White America in Armageddon. It’s so blatant that there are no Black people at all in the first story. Someone must have told Nowlan to dial it back a bit between the two stories, because in Air Lords he makes the Mongolians/Han partially alien, and even has a backhanded compliment to the “simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa.” But let’s face it, there’s a reason science fiction/fantasy took a while to get a racially diverse audience in this country, and stories such as these are partially to blame. Flash Gordon, who was created in the image of Buck Rogers not many years later, wasn’t much better; just think about why his most famous villain is called Ming the Merciless.

Should you read these two Buck Rogers stories? Armageddon 2419 A.D.  is a good archetypal science fiction adventure story. It’s also part of science fiction’s origins. On both counts it is worth a read. But the racism . . . well, it’s pervasive. If you can’t grin and bear it, skip this one.

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About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
This entry was posted in Reading fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Future imperfect: reviewing the original Buck Rogers stories

  1. crimsonprose says:

    As a former fan of the TV series Buck Rogers in the C25th, it’s interesting to discover his literary roots. The racism doesn’t surprise me. Nowlan was a product of his age, as are we all. And at the time it was normal to paint the so-called Yellow Peril as the villain. Later, many a villain was painted Red. I suppose now the villains are green . . . dark green, and light green, and fluorescent green!

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