Friday, January 17, 2014

Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan

Buck Rogers vs. the Chinese
This novella is the first adventure of the famous character Buck Rogers. Shortly after its initial publication in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories, author Philip Francis Nowlan was commissioned to write the syndicated comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D., which gave rise to radio shows, movie serials, and the 1979 TV series that I grew up with. While many have enjoyed Rogers’ futuristic adventures in their various media incarnations, few likely realize that this entertainment empire was spawned by a xenophobic tale of “yellow peril.” In Nowlan’s vision of the 25th century, the world has been taken over by the Chinese, who throughout the book are designated as “Hans” (as in the Han ethnic group of East Asia) or “Mongolians” (as in the Mongoloid race). Thankfully, Nowlan doesn’t indulge in racial stereotypes. In fact, we don’t get to see much of the Hans at all. They are simply portrayed as generically evil, but Nowlan does play on his reader’s fears of Asian invasion.

In this first installment of his adventures, our hero has yet to earn his familiar nickname and is simply referred to by his given name of Anthony or “Tony” Rogers. While on an exploratory expedition for a gas corporation, Rogers is trapped in a cavern filled with radioactive gas and falls into a state of suspended animation for five centuries. He awakens to a time when the Hans rule the world and Americans are a persecuted race, reduced to warring bands that live in the woods. These forest dwellers are not technologically challenged, however, and in fact possess weapons and inventions that rival those of their enemies. But mankind has lost much of its killer instinct over the preceding 500 years and has forgotten how to fight. This veteran of the Great War proves to be just what these people need to shake them from their complacency. He shows them a thing or too about kickin’ butt, quickly rises among their ranks, and leads them in the fight against their oppressors. The story is basically a military adventure, told with rocket guns and anti-gravity belts. As a freedom fighter story, it resembles a futuristic take on the ’80s movie Red Dawn, with tactics gleaned from the First World War.

What racism there exists in this book can be excused as a product of its time, but when coupled with the fact that the story is mostly a bore, the result is that this influential work of pulp fiction holds little charm for readers of the 21st century. There are a few good action sequences, but most of the suspense is obliterated by the fact that Rogers and his comrades must be the luckiest revolutionaries in world history. They suffer very little adversity, and everything just seems to go their way in a predictably triumphant manner. The prose is certainly not as clumsy as what one often finds in vintage pulp fiction, but the plot has a lot of dry spots. The worst passage is halfway through the book, where there’s a long and boring newscast that repeats in minute detail exactly what you just read a few pages earlier. Novels about the future should either impart the reader with a sense of wonder or a thought-provoking dystopian dread. The feeling one gets from Armageddon 2419 A.D., on the other hand, is merely mean-spiritedness. Nowlan so unapologetically delights in the slaughter and destruction of the Americans’ enemies and their collaborators, it makes one wonder if he’s harboring some residual animosity against the Germans and cathartically taking it out on these fictional Asians. One can understand how such a book may have been popular following World War I, but most sci-fi fans of today can do without it.

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