(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 33.)
Like most people of a certain age, when I think of Buck Rogers, the first image that comes to mind is this:
If was a little older, it might have been this:
But I was six in 1979, so the robot had more immediate appeal to me than Erin Gray. Like Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century was a Glen A. Larson production inspired by the success of Star Wars. Also like Battlestar, it began life as a relatively expensive feature-length film then recycled visuals and ideas from that feature throughout its run. Whatever. It had a robot. I was into it. The concept was pretty simple. An astronaut experiences some trouble in the year 1987. Narrowly avoiding a nuclear war, he awakes in the 25th century. Adventures follow. Prior to that, Buck had enjoyed life as the hero of a movie serial, a 1950s TV show, a radio show, and, probably most famously, a comic strip, where the sight of Buck and his jetpack became an icon of early science fiction. He had the jetpack even before he was Buck. Roger's adventures began as "Anthony Rogers" in a pair of novellas by Philip Francis Nowlan first published in Amazing Stories magazine.
Armageddeon 2419 A.D. debuted in the August 1928 issue pictured above. Its sequel, The Airlords Of Han followed in 1929. This paperback, published by Ace in the '60s, collects both as a single novel and gives Rogers a much grimmer origin than his other incarnations. An employee of American Radioactive Gas Company, Rogers loses consciousness in a Pennsylvania mine shaft and, thanks presumably, to the life-preserving powers of radiation, awakens in the 25th century. And what an awful century it is. Americans now live in the wilderness, defeated and ignored by the all-conquering Mongols and their death-dealing airships. It's a vision of the apocalypse that could almost have come from no other decade. Zeppelins had yet to prove dubiously reliable and fears of a "yellow peril" ran high. That an Asian power could conquer the world using this terrifying/wonderful new technology must have seemed a pretty plausible fantasy. It's also, I shouldn't need to say, a fantasy as racist as it was prevalent. (A sidenote: I didn't mean for this column to turn into an exploration of the many shades of racism past but it's been tough to avoid. And next week's entry won't make it any easier.) Megalomaniacal Asians, or Asian-ish, villains were commonplace since the debut of Fu Manchu in 1912 and would remain common through at least the time Marvel's Iron Man started fighting The Mandarin. Rogers' opponents are an Asian stereotype taken to its extreme. They're brilliant, amoral, physically slight, and made weak by decadent habits. Late in the book they're even revealed to be not entirely human. The Hans, most likely
sprang from 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.
This comes so late, however, that it almost seems like an apology to explain away the long descriptions that make the bad guys seem at once sub-human and superhuman. It's kind of like calling someone an awful name and trying to smooth it over with a "just kidding." Buck and the Americans, on the other hand, are as human as Nowlan's flat prose can render them. Organized into gangs, the Americans survive in the margins largely because the Hans can safely rule the continent from cities like Nu-Yok, Clee-lan, and Sikaga without too much worry. Though they've managed to carve out some semblance of civilization and industry underground and in the shadow of trees, the Americans have more or less reached a stalemate with their oppressors. The American bosses rule the gangs and keep peace despite the efforts of nogoodnik fringe dwellers, but they can only go so far before the airships start spraying death from above. As a man from another century, Rogers has the gift of lateral thinking, finding a way to shoot down an airship and start a revolution. The rest of the story plays out pretty predictably from this development, with lots of detailed/dull battle scenes and a final act in which Rogers gets to see Han society from the inside as its prisoner. Nowlan also spends a lot time explaining how the technology works, presumably seeking to appeal to the Amazing Stories readers who also subscribed to Popular Science. At one point he even invites readers not interested in the nuts and bolts to skip a chapter. I didn't. But I didn't get much out of it either. Nowlan's a man of his time when it comes to race but he's a bit ahead of it when it comes to gender. Rogers falls for Wilma Deering, a 25th century woman down to her insistence at fighting alongside men. Necessity would seem to have brought equity to the sexes where traditional progress couldn't. He's ahead of his time in other ways as well, however unwittingly. Is it reading too much into the story to sense some anxiety the way this tale of an America taken over by a foreign power parallels how Europeans took it over from Native Americans? Maybe. But it's tougher to get around some other real-world echoes here. Awakening to find himself in an occupied state, Rogers and his men fight against the Hans using guerilla warfare and staging acts of terrorism, undermining the Hans' military might and monolithic authority by exploiting its unexpected vulnerabilities. There's something of our 21st century in Nowlan's vision of the 25th.
Next: Dr. No by Ian Fleming
Then: The Green Odyssey by Philip José Farmer
(I ganked this cover form the Internet. Mine might be different.)