Lost Works: The Real Buck Rogers

I thought it proper to post a review of a work, as of post time, ninety-four years old. 

ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan is a title only devout aficionados of early science fiction might recognize, whereas everyone, even a muggle, has heard of Buck Rogers. Indeed, in days gone by, the phrase “The Buck Rogers Stuff” was the by-word for science fiction.

It is strange that so memorable a character comes from a short novel so unmemorable.

While the work for its time contains the essential properties of solidly speculative Science Fiction, and some astonishingly fine futurism, it is astonishingly bland and ill-composed. In all due justice, it suffers indeed from the drawbacks for which many a literary critic dismissed the whole genre of SF as juvenile trash, and these are not drawbacks to be excused by the different tastes of different audience in different decades.

Or, I should say, some of those drawbacks. There is one aspect of this little novella which any fan of the genre would do well to study, if you want to understand the soul of science fiction. This yarn has it.


ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. was first printed in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. That same issue carried the first part of E.E. Doc Smith’s much more famous (and deservedly so) SKYLARK OF SPACE, as well as a short story by H.G. Wells.

The fame of this famous hero does not come from his seminal book. His fame comes from comic strips and radio plays and film serial cliffhanger shorts starring Buster Crabbe, not to mention a television show from 1979-1981 staring Gil Gerard. All of which were presented under the much more catchy title of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY.

When one considers that these include the first science fiction comic strip, the first science fiction radio play, and one of the best known cliffhangers, the phrase “That Buck Rogers Stuff” is not inaccurate, at least when talking of popular science fiction, that is, film, radio, television, comics, and everything outside of print.

Not until Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker made their appearance on the small screen or the large would any Science Fiction figure outside of the printed page loom as large as Buck Rogers. But this fame comes entirely by the comic strip, radio play, and movie treatment of the character, whose adventures are of a different type, almost a different genre.

As often happens to readers who return to the past to read early additions of SUPERMAN comic strips, the modern reader is due to be startled with how many elements of the commonly known lore of the character were simply not present at first.

In the television show, for example, Buck Rogers, now (for some reason) renamed William, is a NASA pilot whom a freak mishap blows into an orbit that freezes his life support systems – a trifle of technobabble goobledegook unclear even by comic book standards (how does an orbit freeze a life support system? And why would this cause cryogenic suspension?).

In the cliffhanger serials, Buck is a dirigible airship pilot struggling against a blizzard-lightningstorm in the Artic and against a mutinous, cowardly crew when the airship crashes. The scientist who organized the expedition give radio instructions to Buck’s sidekick Buddy Wade to crack open a pressurized canister of ‘Nirvano gas’.

This is carefully explained to the viewing audience (with the aid of an awkward Holmes-to-Watson style lecture while the emergency is put on hold, and with the visual aid of a sleeping dog) to be a gas that induces suspended animation. Buck and Buddy intend to induce suspended animation until such time as a rescue expedition can be mounted, but an avalanche buries them for five hundred years. Rocketmen from the Twenty Fifth Century find and rescue them, and bring them immediately to the laboratory of Dr Huer, the word’s greatest scientist, who is also the leader of the Hidden City, the final democracy in a planet run entirely by criminal gangs, whose leader is Killer Kane, and the pair immediately joins the military and are both planning and carrying out their most risky and secret operations on whose success all hope depends.

In this version, Dr. Huer explains bitterly that the world run by gangsters is the fault of the Twentieth Century people, who did not crack down on lawlessness when they had the chance.

(This was filmed in 1939, the year when Murder, Inc. was at its height; and when the leader of the Mayfield Road Mob in Cleveland, purchased the Continental Press racing wire service; and when the gangwar between the Philadelphia crime family and the rival Lanzetti Brothers reached a climax, and when Al Capone was granted early release from Alcatraz.)

The idea of a world run by gangsters is not from the original: indeed, the good guys in the original are gangsters, or called so.

In both of these later versions, Buck is also portrayed as something of a fun loving swashbuckler. Buster Crabbe’s natural charisma as a screen personality could hardly have allowed him to play the role any other way, and likewise for Gil Gerard.

The radio play and comic strip kept the original origin story, adding the element that Buck Rogers was a member of the Army Air Corps in the Great War (World War One to you young whippersnappers). Dr. Huer, Killer Kane, Ardala, and all talk of interplanetary travel come from the comics and radio plays.

In the original story, he is not an astronaut, nor a pilot, but, more prosaically, a mining engineer. (He is also a veteran of the Great War, a fact not noted until Chapter Three.) He is not placed in suspended animation due to an orbit-frozen life support system nor a gas designed for this purpose, but due to a quite natural albeit radioactive gas Rogers entered a mine to investigate. He is trapped in a cave-in which kills the unnamed two men with him.

The opening, the mine cave-in that traps him, of his sensations on being overcome by the radioactive gas, of his astonishment in waking what he believes to be only a few hours later, but to find the world above the mine shaft now a vast and untraveled forest, in which he must seek food and shelter, is all related in brief, bland, emotionless terms roughly the same length as my summary here.

Which is as it should be for a pulp story, I suppose. Science fiction was new, and authors were wary of thrusting their readers into the strangeness and wonder without some sort of framing sequence to explain how a man of our own time and planet comes to the otherworldly encounter.

For this reason, A PRINCESS OF MARS (published only ten years earlier) begins as a Western story about prospectors menaced by savage Apaches, and THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (published only 29 years earlier) starts in Kansas.

Likewise here: the radioactive gas is merely the machinery to place a contemporary viewpoint character on the stage. The author, and the audience, has no more concern for it than for the scaffolding once a tower is erected. It can be changed without any loss to Nirvano Gas or frozen life support systems.

We immediately pass over into the action.

While wandering the pathless forest in search of food, Rogers sees a figure in the distance, adorned in a green tight-fitting uniform with a green leather cap covering the ears, and a wide belt affixed at waist and shoulders. The slender green figure is weightless, leaping from branch to branch with dreamlike agility, fifty yards and more with each step.

Of course it is a damsel in distress, and of course she trips over an exposed root, falls, hits her head, and is knocked unconscious without any further symptoms of concussion. And of course he takes up her pistol, finds it is a recoilless handweapon firing a bullet-sized explosive rocket with the force of a stick of dynamite.

And of course she is pursued by evildoers, also wearing antigravity belts and also in green to blend into the forest like  Merry Men, so Anthony Rogers carefully and fearlessly fires wherever an enemy exposes his position, setting trees ablaze, and then waiting with cold patience until they move again. Since the handweapon has no muzzle flare, the foe cannot locate him, and he drives them off.

This fight is one of two good scenes in the book. The intelligent deduction of how recoilless rocket-pistols and antigravity belts would change the tactics of a gun-fight is as carefully thought out, and as realistic, given the hypothetical weaponry, as anything speculated by Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke.

But the weightlessness, and ferocity of the weapons, and the situation where any unstealthy motion brings an immediate bullet silently winging your way, with all the destructive power of a mortar shell, give the scene a dreamlike logic that is addicting to young science fiction readers.

The woman, who is the oldest female character in science fiction a modern reader is likely to know by name, is Wilma Deering.

In short order, he meets with the other Americans, and learns of their astonishing techno-nomadic Spartan way of life, joins their military and partakes in a daring raid.

With the same improbable rapidity with which John Carter rises to be a respected war-leader among the Martians, and then emperor of the planet, Rogers joins the Twenty Fifth Centurians and becomes their commander-in-chief in a scene that is breathtakingly undramatic and unmemorable.

Then follows a dry and didactic description of a final fight against a gang of evil collaborators, a final remark about military tactics of the day, and that is the end of the novella. (Which is, to be fair, merely part one of two. I will review AIRLORDS OF THE HAN in this space in days to come.)

Allow me to say what is good about the novella, what is bad, and what is remarkable. The remarkable aspect explains the enduring popularity of the hero.

The good is that this is a solid science fiction speculation executed with a discipline not seen until decades later, when John W. Campbell Jr took over Astounding.

What makes science fiction solid? It is that the author thinks through the social aspects and secondary consequences brought about by the changes in technology. They are to be logical extrapolations, but must catch the reader by surprise, so that he says in his mind “Ah! But of course! It would have to work that way!”

If the writer posits something impossible, such as an gravity-opaque alloy or a way to turn the cells in a human body invisible, unlike the fantasy writer, the science fiction writer’s task is to then mention that a column of air reaching above the gravity-opaque alloy would likewise be weightless, escape into space, and the surrounding atmosphere would rush into the sudden vacuum and create an explosive windstorm.

Likewise, Bilbo Baggins can be fully dressed, except for his shoes, while wearing a magic ring of invisibility, whereas Griffin the Invisible Man runs around the streets of Iping Village stark naked.

In this case, the Nowlan posits two major inventions: the Han of Mongolia, centuries ago, invented repulsive gravity rays allowing them to hoist aloft airships great as battleships, and invented likewise a disintegration ray, the beloved staple of all later science fiction, which melts all things made of molecules and atoms down into electronic vibrations.

America, weakened by wars with Bolshevik Europe, succumbs to the scientifically superior conquerors from Mongolia, and all her cities are laid low, and new Han cities built on their ruins. (The writer amuses himself by having the names of such places worn away by time to nubs. Just as “Norfolk” once meant “Northern Folk” so here “New York” is worn down to “Nu-Yok.”)

Time passes, and the Han grow decadent and lazy with their wealth. Automation replaces all their need for domestic servants, so that instead of capturing the Americans for slavery, they merely hunt them for sport.

But, again, the development of scientific methods of growing synthetic food frees the Han of the need to maintain acres of cropland, and so the whole landscape form the Midwest to the Eastern Coast reverts to primal forest.

No rail lines, roads or fixed settlements, and, more to the point, no structures visible from the air can exist in this future of giant airships and irresistible ray-weapons.

The American survivors form themselves into Spartan military tribes called “gangs”, each under a leader called a “boss”, who attends to “business” – a word that now refers only to raiding and fighting, never to commerce, of which the nomadic techno-Spartans have none.

They live under the communal military discipline of Spartans for the same reason the Spartans did: because continual warfare is their life.

They are nomadic because each time the Han discover their camouflaged encampments or deeply buried factories, since there is no possible defense against the disintegration ray, they must flee. Carrying or accumulating personal wealth is doubtful under such circumstances. Each man and woman serves a fortnight of military service, usually lookout duty, and then a fortnight as a factory hand. Privileges and minor trinkets of personal property are earned by merit.

However, unlike nomads, their communication gear (disks called ultraphones worn in the earflaps of the leather helmets mentioned as part of their uniform) allows them to maintain cohesion within any given gang territory, and even nationwide cooperation, if need be, with other gangs.

So the author here posits that a logical but startling outcome of an irresistible airborne weapon is a form of civilization was cannot posit today: a rural life of nomadic camps maintaining a high level of technology via dispersed and hidden factories and a flexible wide-ranging communication system. For a tale written by gaslight in the 1920s or, indeed, written in any decade, this is rather imaginative.

The soundness of sound science fiction is in the details. Of course the gangs wear green. Of course their camps are camouflaged against air attack.

Even small details are cleverly thought out, such as the fact that the artificial antigravity material made of solidified subatomic vibrations would be immune to all heat and light (since the matter is not made of atoms, there are no electron shells to absorb or give off photons) but have an absolute zero temperature (no atoms means no Brownian motion) but then again, it is not cold to the touch (since it can absorb no heat from the fingers).

It is amusing that this material, inertron, was copied over into DC comics as an homage to Buck Rogers, as the one invulnerable material even Superman cannot budge.

Other details, such as the description of the smoke-signal rocket-pistol code used by the Americans to signal the detection and motion of enemy airships, but without revealing the location of the signaler, is equally clever.

And, as such cleverness should do, the author here gives a reason why Anthony Rogers, veteran of the Great War, could bring victory to the long-oppressed nomadic Americans.

The creeping barrage was first used during the Great War. A creeping barrage place a curtain of artillery fire just ahead of advancing infantry, a barrage which would constantly creep forward (hence the name) directly ahead of advancing troops. The method requires good spotting, excellent coordination between units, and a fair amount of mathematics to calculate trajectories.

Rogers sees what the natives cannot: The rocket pistols of the Americans could indeed be uses for mortar fire instead of merely rifle fire. Hence a creeping barrage could be used against a weapon that only fired in a searchlight-straight beam by hiding the position of the battery, and by arcing the shots, which are the two things a beam weapon cannot do.

Awkwardly, the dialog where Wilma and Rogers exchange these thoughts is right after the final battle where all was risked and won, and right before the curtain falls, just in the spot where the last smooch would be placed in a book penned by competent craftsmanship.

So there are bad aspects to this tale, which, unfortunately, render the mess almost unreadable. Again, its status as a pulp tale is no excuse. Neither SKYLARK nor THE MOON POOL nor any other pulp confection this reviewer has had the pleasure to read contain such incredible mistakes of pacing and such torrentially awkward placement and execution of info-dumps.

For example, in a book where the main character passes over his mental anguish of having lost his entire world and outlived all his loved ones in a paragraph of eighty-one words, and wooed and wed in sentence of less than eight words, the writer decides to tell us the exact same battle scene (just described blow by blow from the hero’s point of view) by quoting word for word an intercepted blow by blow report from the enemy’s point of view. But the difference between friendly and enemy viewpoint is never brought up again, so it is merely a waste of one thousand, two hundred words.

Another bad aspect is description, by which I mean there is none. There is neither scenery nor faces nor any physical objects in this story, except for the rough outline of what vessels and weapons look like.

Another bad aspect is style, by which I mean there is none. Nowlan puts his sentence together with the snappy punch and soaring poetry equal to that of a school textbook written by a committee, or a quarterly report on turnip production. There are no amusing solecisms or errors. It is just bland.

The worst aspect by far is the characterization, by which I mean, there is none whatsoever. Neither Anthony Rogers nor the other utterly forgettable named characters have any more personality than wax manikins.

No word of dialog has any traits to it. The reader cannot tell if old or young, male or female, calm or angry, is speaking the words given.

This cannot be excused by saying that pulp stories lacked skilled writing, for they clearly did not. Read THE MOON POOL by Abraham Merritt. You can tell the difference between the grim Soviet and the carefree Irishman and the thoughtful Scientist in their speech.

Wilma Deering allegedly has a personality, that is, in two different sentences appearing to two different places, a personality characteristic is allegedly ascribed to her: first, some of her fellows are wryly amused that she dotes on Rogers, as befits a girl toward the man who saved her life; and, second, she is brave, as befits a futuristic techno-Spartan soldier-girl.

I say allegedly because all facts about her personality and tastes are stated, not shown.

In regards to her first alleged personality characteristic, her doting on Rogers, it is mentioned in passing that the couple are married by Chapter Six, after one reference to a comment by her, not actually reported in dialog, where the girl proposes, and the guy realizes he has no objection.

So there is no mushy stuff to offend the tastes of boyish fans of TREASURE ISLAND, which was written, at the request of Robert Louis Stephenson’s sons, to have no romantic sub-plot and no girl characters. One wax manikin weds another, and the reader is free to assume some sort of emotion accompanied the act, even if nothing in the text supports the assumption.

But if you have ever read the stiff and utterly unconvincing but well-meant romantic dialog in, for example, SKYLARK OF SPACE, or have read the stiff but utterly convincing Virginian Gentleman’s romantic dialog offered by John Carter of Mars to the incomparable Dejah Thoris, either will sound like Shakespearean sonnets compared to this. Evidently Anthony Rogers is writing a curt military report of future war, mentioning personal details only where unavoidable.

However, in regards to her second alleged personality characteristic, for a brave soldier-girl, she is perhaps the worst warrior woman under arms in all scientifictiondom.

Allow me to explain in excruciating detail:

There are four fight scenes in the novella. In the first, as mentioned above, she trips over a root despite being equipped with an antigravity belt, stumbles, and knocks herself senseless. Rogers does all the fighting and saves her.

In the second, Rogers thinks of a clever trick to carry his bullet-sized blockbuster into the lifting elements of the Han airship, which is a cleverness, unfortunately, that is utterly unbelievable to presume no one in the Twenty Fifth or any of the earlier centuries would have previously attempted.

This brings down a wreck which must be explored, and an enemy rescue flotilla arrives while Rogers and Wilma are still aboard the wreck. And for a second time, she leaps using the antigravity belt, hits her head, and knocks herself senseless. Rogers does all the fighting and saves her.

In the third, Rogers originates the idea of a raid on the impregnable enemy walled city, protected by a force-wall of disintegration rays, and commands the daring night raid.

He bids his wife farewell the night before, expecting her to raise tearful objections, but “she is made of sterner stuff than the women of the Twentieth Century.” Or so says the text.

She stows away in a packing crate, and he discovers that among the Americans of the Twenty-Fifth Century, it is the greatest insult a husband can give a wife to go into danger without him. She kills three enemy with swordplay, showing she is no shrinking violet, and then faints dead away, overcome by emotion, showing she is. Rogers picks her up and carries her to safety.

The final battle is a raid on a tribe of traitorous techno-nomads like themselves. The battle is described in a bloodless and detached fashion, and relies for its success on the tactic of the creeping barrage. The enemy is wiped out to the last man, and, I presume also to the last woman and child (albeit this is not explicitly mentioned).

This is the only battle during which Wilma presumably remains conscious throughout, but she performs no actions and speaks no words. Nor, should I mention, does Rogers, except to give commands. She is present, but the narrator never mentions her name.

A postmodern reader, being shallow, will either note the ways in which Wilma matches the postmodern ideal of feminine behavior (which is to say, to act exactly like a man in all ways) as befits the bold soldier; or will note the ways in which Wilma behaves much as damsels in boy’s adventure fiction are required to behave in order for the boy to have any adventure (which is to say, it involves concussions and fainting, so he boy can have opportunity to save the girl and carry her safety.)

Noting the first, the postmodern will scream approval, and noting the second, the postmodern will scream disapproval, and in either case, the postmodern will never stop screaming.

This is because the postmodern never reads a book for the thrill of enjoying either speculation or space opera, but only for the excuse to signal his vain pretensions of enlightenment to his fellows.

Neither reading suits here. Wilma is a warrior woman, but one incompetent enough for the primitive Twentieth Century man to have something to do.

This ambiguity is not character development. I would have liked it if it were: seeing a character forced by cruel circumstances into an Amazonian military existence, but being too feminine to play the man’s role, and hating herself for that weakness. That has some interesting potential.

No, it is just bad writing. The author wanted to portray a Spartan woman of Amazon stoicism, as indeed the world he invented would have required all woman to be, but then he could not carry through without making her unromantic ergo unsympathetic.

So the author just said she was the one, and had her act like the other.

A similar paradox arises during the first Han air raid. Each individual is required, by strict and centuries-old law, to scatter on their antigravity belts, darting and dodging beneath the tree-cover, no two together, since one sweep of the disintegration ray would slay both.

But Wilma, and another young woman in love mentioned briefly in the text immediately refuse to obey this rule when the first air raid in decades looms, preferring to escape hand-in-hand each with her respective swain as they flee the invincible air-machines of the enemy. The girls ignore the rules because of love.

The author never reconciles the paradox of positing a lifestyle of inhumanly Spartan rules which no real wife or husband would obey for an instant. The idea of husbands bringing wives into combat, and leaving children behind to be orphans, is unrealistic to the point of silliness.

There is much in this tale that is truly bad, truly ill-written. I enjoyed it nonetheless. Why?

Because in all the things he does wrong, there is that one thing he does really right.

So what is the reason for the immortal stature of Buck Rogers? What did he do right in this tale?

What he does right is myth.

I submit that there are two things of a simple and dramatic nature that this short novel drives home, and gives it the stature of myth. First, the grand simplicity of sleeping for half a thousand years and waking up in an America as strange as the surface of Mars has the same appeal to the imagination as a the Odyssey of Odysseus.

Second, the Americans have always admired the Red Indians, their simplicity and savagery of life, and, from earlier tales, English-speaking peoples have always admired Robin Hood, the outlaw of the great greenwood fighting a force of overwhelming odds and surviving only by wit and stealth. And even people horrified by the inhumanity of the Spartans have held a secret admiration for their discipline and laconic humor.

Here, the author has rolled all three into one, dressed them in garb as green as the elves, and made them as weightless as flying fairies, and each one packing in a handweapon the power of a battleship main gun.

In the distance arise the sterile machine-cities, protected by walls of invisible hellfire, surrounded by storms of vacuum, where the weak descendants of the conquerors sail aloft in airborne dreadnaughts as invincible as Talos from Greek myth, and with arms as deadly as the fantastic weapons of Hindu gods.

Here, Nowlan has touched the same taproot of awe which H.G. Wells manages in THE TIME MACHINE, the appalling magnitude of time severing us from worlds grown strange with relentless centuries.

There is a striking and mythic contrast here, for the war is between a race grown disciplined and energetic due to the cruel demands of meager survival, and the flaccid luxury and timidity of a race trapped into effeteness by its own scientific triumphs. As with all sound science fiction, both the allure of technology, and the loss each improvement entails, is portrayed.

The tale is one both that captures the tang of Jack the Giant Killer, and the Fall of Rome to the Huns. (With, ironically, the Americans in the role of the Huns, not the Han).

There is a touch of Conan the Barbarian in this story, where the savage is romanticized, and civilization eyed with suspicion.

There is only one brief glimpse of the narrator’s (and perhaps the author’s) political philosophy, and it is certainly characteristic of the time after the Great War, when, in Europe but also in America, contempt for liberal democracy was at its height, and romantic glorification of all things communal and military was at its height. He says:

 “…owing to the centuries of desperate suffering the people had endured at the hands of the Hans, there developed a spirit of self-sacrifice and consideration for the common good that made the scheme applicable and efficient in all forms of human co-operation.

“I have a little heresy about all this, however. My associates regard the thought with as much horror as many worthy people of the 20th Century felt in regard to any heretical suggestion that the original outline of government as laid down in the First Constitution did not apply as well to 20th Century conditions as to those of the early 19th.

“In later years I felt that there was a certain softening of moral fiber among the people, since the Hans had been finally destroyed with all their works; and Americans have developed a new luxury economy. I have seen signs of the reawakening of greed, of selfishness. The eternal cycle seems to be at work. I fear that slowly, though surely, private wealth is reappearing, codes of inflexibility are developing; they will be followed by corruption, degradation; and in the end some cataclysmic event will end this era and usher in a new one.”

This science fiction speculation seems not to be a science fiction speculation at all, but a comment about the sad nature of history, and about the corrosive influence of civilization, as old as Rousseau, or as old as some of the harsher Roman writers of the classical world.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the comment (and I, for one, disagree most heartily) one must admit that for a boy’s adventure story, it touches an unexpectedly deep nerve.