When I heard that Sequart was celebrating science fiction this week, I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to write about. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by iconic characters from pop culture of the past. Often we come to know these characters long before we’re ever formally introduced. Do you really remember the first time you encountered Superman? Or Sherlock Holmes? Or Tarzan? I certainly don’t. Those types of characters are so thoroughly absorbed into the culture that they become part of our frame of reference before we ever read about them in a story or watch them in a movie.
That’s certainly true for Buck Rogers. He is one of the oldest heroes of science fiction—a character so indelibly associated with the genre that his name has become a pejorative—that silly Buck Rogers stuff—for his many far-fetched gadgets of the future. So pervasive is his influence that not only has he been parodied by Daffy Duck, but when E.T. wanted to phone home, it was a Buck Rogers newspaper strip that gave him his inspiration.
So it always bothered me that whenever I wanted to explore the world of Buck Rogers, there never seemed to be much worth looking at. The late-‘70s TV show is campy, and save for an old Buster Crabbe serial, there are no movies and no cartoons. Surprisingly, there haven’t been all that many comic books either, and until recently, the newspaper strips hadn’t been reprinted with any kind of regularity. Besides, compared to the lushly illustrated Flash Gordon strip by Alex Raymond, the early Buck Rogers strips are almost unreadable.
So how did Buck Rogers ever become Buck Rogers? To try to figure that out, I decided to go back to the original source—Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419. It’s a 1928 novella published by the legendary Hugo Gernsback in the original science fiction magazine—Amazing Stories. The magazine, which helped popularize the genre of science fiction, was only two years old when Nowlan submitted his tale of Anthony Rogers, a 20th Century man who pulls a 500-year Rip Van Winkle and awakens in the 25th Century.
The story proved popular, so the next year Nowlan wrote a sequel, The Airlords of Han. What followed was a mass media explosion. Buck Rogers became one of the first entertainment franchises with a newspaper strip, Big Little Books, toys, a Sunday strip, a radio show, and a movie serial.
The original novella is not what you might expect. Technically it’s not a Buck Rogers story—it’s an Anthony Rogers story. The name “Buck,” does not appear, nor does Dr. Huer, Killer Kane, or Princess Ardala. There are no jet packs—at least not the type we now associate with Buck Rogers—nor are there any aliens or intergalactic flights. And, even though nobody asked, there’s also no Twiki.
So what’s in the novella? Well, exposition, for one thing. Offhand, I can’t think of a story I’ve ever read with more exposition besides Moby-Dick or Lord of the Rings, and both those books have several hundred additional pages to play with. Nowlan spends much more time explaining things than he does developing characters, creating dialogue, or moving the plot forward.
But all this explanation is part of the story’s overall identity. Unlike his two most notable peers, John Carter, who came before, and Flash Gordon, who came after, the original Buck Rogers doesn’t try to blend science fiction and fantasy into some sort of a hybrid genre. Nowlan’s approach is all science fiction. In fact, despite the action scenes, Nowlan treats the story more like so-called “hard science” fiction than space opera.
Consider, for example, this explanation for the substance known as inertron: “it is a synthetic element, built up, through a complicated heterodyning of ultronic pulsations, from ‘infra-balanced’ sub-ionic forms. It is completely inert to both electric and magnetic forces in all the orders above the ultronic; that is to say, the sub-electronic, the electronic, the atomic and the molecular.” Um … yeah. Now I’ll be honest—I don’t have the science literacy necessary to determine how much of that would hold up in court, but it certainly sounds more like Arthur C. Clarke than it does Stan Lee. Legitimate science or not, Nowlan clearly wants his readers to believe what he’s describing is plausible.
Unfortunately, his skills at exposition and science come at the expense of characterization and human drama. It’s hard to imagine any writer telling a story about a person who has slept for half a millennium without addressing the emotional effects—even the ‘70s TV show touched on that every now and then—but Nowlan manages to ignore it. Perhaps Anthony Rogers is just far more well-adjusted than most people.
And the sexual tension between Anthony and Wilma Deering is … tepid, at best. Here is the moment from their relationship when the sparks really began to fly: “Neither of us had a cloak, but we were both thoroughly tired and happy, so we curled up together for warmth. I remember Wilma making some sleepy remark about our mating, as she cuddled up, as though the matter were all settled, and my surprise at my own instant acceptance of the idea, for I had not consciously thought of her that way before. But we both fell asleep at once.” Take that, 50 Shades of Gray.
Honestly, the entire depiction of Wilma is troubling in many ways. While most contemporary versions feature Wilma rescuing Buck, in this version Anthony’s first action after awakening is to rescue Wilma who is being attacked by a rival gang. But nothing could match the realism and nuance Nowlan brings to the scene when Anthony first devises a technique for bringing down an enemy ship. Wilma, barely able to contain herself, shouts, “Oh Tony, you hit it! You hit it! Do it again; bring it down!” Then, in case anyone was confused by Wilma’s sudden schoolgirl dialogue, Nowlan makes her even more ridiculous after Anthony fires his rocket: “Wilma stuffed her little fist into her mouth to keep from shrieking.” Maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble imagining Erin Gray “stuffing her little fist in her mouth to keep from shrieking” while Gil Gerard fires a rocket at an enemy ship.
But let’s be honest. No one reads an 86-year-old novella from a pulp magazine in order to find progressive depictions of women. What’s even more troubling than the depiction of Wilma who, yes, even faints in one scene, is the inherent racism of the story.
The plot centers on a future where the other forces of the world have conspired to destroy the United States. Eventually, the forces of Mongolia—now known as the Han Dynasty—wind up conquering the Earth. If this were a more random projection of the future—one in which, say … Australia takes over the world—it wouldn’t draw much attention. Or, if it were based on some form of projected logic—a country that controls a resource needed for future technology takes over the world—then it would still be acceptable. But at the time of publication, there was an already established tradition of xenophobic paranoia that warned against the so-called “yellow peril.” Characters ranging from Fu Manchu to Ming the Merciless all embodied this racist fear of forces from Asia conquering the world.
Given its global focus, Armageddon 2419 fits squarely within this tradition. The only redeeming factor for much of the novella is that Nowlan never seems very interested in the Hans. They are largely a faceless enemy, given no more personality than, well, any of the other indistinct characters in the story. Nowlan is more interested in ships than people.
But that all changes, unfortunately, in the closing lines of the story. Wilma, for whom Nowlan seems to reserve his worst writing, says to Buck: “I tremble though, Tony dear, when I think of the horrors that are ahead of us. The Hans are clever. […] They are a cowardly race in one sense, but clever as the very Devils in Hell, and inheritors of a calm, ruthless, vicious persistency.” And if that weren’t enough, Nowlan finishes the book with Anthony’s final thoughts: “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.”
And that’s one sure way to leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth. Had the book been filled with such extreme racism, I would’ve never finished it. The fact that Nowlan ends the story this way feels forced and artificial. It even seems out of character. Not out of character for Nowlan as a person—about whom I know absolutely nothing—but out of his character as a writer. This is someone who seems to want more than anything to write the kinds of science-based visions of the future that Arthur C. Clarke would eventually master. He writes like a military science geek who only wants to describe logical military applications of advanced technology. Thus, the over-the-top racism of the closing sentences feels tacked on, almost as if he were pandering to a segment of the audience.
Next week, I’ll take a look at two recent comic book revivals of Buck Rogers—one from Dynamite Comics and the other from Howard Chaykin.
 The famous jetpack is actually more of an anti-gravity belt that enables the characters to jump with ease.