Armageddon 2419 A.D.: Passing the buck

Armageddon 2419 A.D. (Buck Rogers) Paperback – 1963 by Philip Francis Nowlan (Author)Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis NowlanArmageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan

I would imagine, at this point, that you have previously heard of the fictional character named Buck Rogers. And indeed, dating from his initial comic strip appearance in January 1929, and proceeding on to radio shows (starting in 1932, Buck Rogers was radio’s very first sci-fi hero), a 12-part film serial (starring the former Olympic swimming medalist Buster Crabbe), several TV adaptations, video games, and comics, the character has been fairly ubiquitous for almost 90 years now. To be sure, Buck’s comic strip was so very popular in the early ‘30s that it spawned, in January 1934, a rival sci-fi strip starring Flash Gordon, a character that Crabbe would also portray in three fondly remembered film serials.

But unlike Flash, Buck had, as his actual provenance, a literary background. That predecessor, you see, was one Anthony Rogers, who initially appeared in Philadelphia-born Philip Francis Nowlan’s August 1928 novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. This short piece was originally published in the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, the very first science fiction magazine, when Nowlan was already 40. On the strength of this novella, the author was convinced to begin work on that comic strip, and to come out with a novella-length sequel. That sequel, The Airlords of Han, initially appeared in the March ’29 issue of Amazing Stories, and the two have usually been published in a single volume ever since, to make for one perfectly matched collection.Armageddon -- 2419 A.D. Hardcover – September 1, 2011 by Philip Francis Nowlan (Author)

Both novellas are narrated by Anthony Rogers himself, now an old man. In the first novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D., Buck — I mean, Anthony — tells us how he, a WW1 vet, in the year 1927, had been investigating a cave system near Scranton, PA, as part of his duties working for the American Radioactive Gas Corporation. After being trapped in a cave-in, Rogers had succumbed to the underground gases … but had not died. Rather, he had been put into a state of suspended metabolism and had awoken 492 years later … in the year 2419! (And I suppose that this setup is not more or less plausible than the one I just encountered in another book, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The Black Flame, in which an electrocuted convict is similarly suspended and wakes up almost 1,000 years later!)

Rogers had awoken to an America that was completely changed. The country had been conquered, in the year 2109, by the hordes of the Mongolian Hans, a degenerate race now complacently ruling from their 15 megacities scattered across the former U.S. The surviving Americans now live as forest-dwelling rebels, waiting for the day when they will finally be able to regain their centuries-lost freedom. In this first novella, Rogers joins a group of these forest dwellers, the Wyomings (in what was formerly Wyoming County, PA); figures out a way to destroy the Han airships (which float thousands of feet above the ground, supported on their repulsor beams while emitting lethal disintegrator rays); goes on a daring mission into the Han Intelligence HQ in Nu-Yok, along with his new wife, Wilma, and four others, to obtain information regarding traitors in their midst; and finally, enters into battle with those renegade turncoats, the Sinsings of upstate NY. But as the first novella ends, the Han empire is still very much in control of North America and most of the globe…

In the even more exciting second novella, The Airlords of Han, Rogers is captured after his one-man “swooper” craft is wrecked in battle, and he is brought to one of those 15 Han cities, Lo-Tan, somewhere in the Rockies. There, he meets the “Heaven-Born” Han ruler San-Lan, undergoes two months of mental torture, and slowly earns his captors’ grudging admiration. But with the assistance of his fellow Wyomings, Rogers does ultimately effect an escape, as the book culminates with an all-out battle royale between the forces of Lo-Tan and several thousand desperate Americans…

OK, let’s deal with the good news first. Nowlan’s two novellas were unqualified successes back when, and it is easy to see why. The author, for one thing, fills his stories with the super-science gizmos that were so very popular with the readers in sci-fi’s early days. Thus, the 25th century Americans have devised two new synthetic elements, ultron and inertron, the latter of which makes possible the antigravity belts that Rogers and his cohorts wear. And then there are those airships, and the disintegrator rays, and the flip phones that very much resemble the cell phones that we all carried 20 years ago, and the remote-controlled, exploding “air balls” that Rogers’ allies use to decimate the Han stronghold. Nowlan also accurately predicts army helmets with built-in earbuds for long-distance communication, while televisions seem fairly ubiquitous in Lo-Tan. The author also proves adept at forcefully depicting complex battle engagements, meticulously describing the conflicts between Han airships and ground units, with their disintegrator rays and numerical advantage, and the American forces, with their tiny swooper ships, antigrav-assisted foot soldiers, and ax-handled rocket guns. It is all exciting, vividly described and colorful spectacle, and the author serves it up well, his imaginative conceit dished out, for the most part (with one major exception, which I’ll get into momentarily), at a fairly breathless pace.

On the downside, those readers who value, in their sci-fi, such niceties as characterization and beautifully crafted prose will surely be disappointed by Nowlan’s work here. Characterizations in Armageddon 2419 A.D. are virtually nil, while the prose is strictly utilitarian. Basically, this is Rogers explaining his role during an historic time period, and nothing more, almost as if he were a soldier reporting to his CO. Nowlan’s/Rogers’ chronicle is also guilty of the occasional ungrammatical phrase (such as “…the practical application of ultronics are well understood…”). And then there is the matter of political correctness. The two novellas here are just as much guilty of buying into the so-called “yellow menace” of the era as any of Sax Rohmer’s FU MANCHU novels; thus, the Han conquerors are blithely referred to as the “yellow incubus” and “yellow blight” any number of times. Nowlan, to be fair, does redeem himself a bit by revealing, near the book’s end, that the Hans just might have extraterrestrial blood mixed in with their own (!); when he mentions the Japanese and Chinese with some approbation; and when he reveals that, in the late 25th century, the blacks of Africa were “one of the leading races of the world, although in the Twentieth Century we regarded them as inferior…” Disappointingly, Rogers and his allies are shown using both poison gas and germ warfare in their fight against the Hans; very surprising, actually, as these stories were written after the 1925 signing of the Geneva Protocol, outlawing the use of such during wartime. Their employment, even against such dastardly villains as the Hans, will likely compel most readers to cry “Foul!”

As I mentioned a little earlier, the author makes his novellas gallop by at a respectable pace, with the exception of one extended bit that grinds his story to an absolute standstill. This egregious section pops up in the otherwise thrilling second novella, in which Nowlan apparently felt the necessity of adding veracity to his story by explaining some of those technical marvels, in passages of exceedingly recondite mumbo jumbo. To wit, this section, in which we learn how the Hans use broadcast power to work their airship repeller rays:

…It went out at a frequency of about 1,000 kilocycles, had an amperage of approximately zero, but a voltage of two billion. Properly amplified by the use of inductostatic batteries (a development of the principle underlying the earth induction compass applied to the control of static) this current energized the “A” ionomagnetic coils on the airships, large and sturdy affairs, which operated the Attractoreflex Receivers, which in turn “pulled in” the second broadcast power known as the “pullee,” absorbing it from every direction, literally exhausting it from surrounding space. The “pullee” came in at about a half-billion volts, but in very heavy amperage, proportional to the capacity of the receiver, and on a long wave — at audio frequency in fact. About half of this power reception ultimately actuated the repeller ray generators. The other half was used to energize the “B” ionomagnetic coils, peculiarly wound affairs, whose magnetic fields constituted the only means of insulating and controlling the circuits of the three “powers.”

 

The repeller ray generators, operating on this current, and in conjunction with “twin synchronizers” in the power broadcast plant, developed two rhythmically variable ether-ground circuits of opposite polarity. In the “X” circuit, the negative was grounded along an ultraviolet beam from the ship’s repeller-ray generator. The positive connection was through the ether to the “X” synchronizer in the power plant, whose opposite pole was grounded. The “Y” circuit traveled the same course, but in the opposite direction.

 

The rhythmic variables of these two opposing circuits, as nearly as I can understand it, in heterodyning, created a powerful material “push” from the earth, up along the violet ray beam against the rep ray generator and against the two synchronizers at the power plant.

 

This push developed molecularly from the earth-mass-resultant to the generator; and at the same fractional distance from the rep ray generator to the power plant…

Got all that? Techno dummy that I am, I had to reread this section several times to try to ascertain if it is sheer gobbledygook or if it might actually contain a kernel of genuine science. And to be honest, I’m still not sure. And this extended quote here represents less than one page of a section that goes on for eight! As I say, it stopped the book, for this reader, at least, dead in its tracks. And I happen to know someone who felt the same exact way about the chapter in which the author describes life in Lo-Tan, with an emphasis on the Hans’ morals and customs. That section, for me, however, was pretty darn interesting, and at least understandable!

Anyway, that one eight-page chunk, dry-as-dust writing style, un-P.C. elements and un-kosher battle tactics aside, these two novellas, taken together in Armageddon 2419 A.D., still proved to be pretty good fun, and of course should be of interest to all readers who are desirous of exploring the historical roots of modern science fiction. It gets a marginal recommendation from yours truly. Don’t disintegrate me for saying so, but I suppose that I am here, uh, passing the Buck…

Published in 1928. “We have rarely printed a story in this magazine that for scientific interest, as well as suspense, could hold its own with this particular story. We prophesy that this story will become more valuable as the years go by. It certainly holds a number of interesting prophecies, of which no doubt, many will come true. For wealth of science, it will be hard to beat for some time to come. It is one of those rare stories that will bear reading and re-reading many times. This story has impressed us so favorably, that we hope the author may be induced to write a sequel to it soon.” — from an editorial note in Amazing Stories, August 1928

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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6 comments

  1. I love the “tribal” names: the Wyomings, and especially the “Sinsings,” from Sing Sing, which is from Ossining!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Yes…and lots of other cool gang names (I especially liked the ones of some tribes in New Jersey!) in this fun book….

  2. With all due respect to author and reviewer, this is one of the worst pieces of fiction I have ever read. Laughable in the context of literature, it’s like someone published a high schooler’s homework assignment on the future of science…

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Pretty primitive, yes, but at least I wasn’t bored…for the most part….

  3. Frank Johnson /

    First read this sometime in the mid 70’s and just read a recently published edition entitled the Adventures of Buck Rogers. While the text remains the same as the earlier edition I noticed that in this new edition whenever the narrator Rogers refers to himself he calls him self Buck and when Wilma or anyone else refers to him they called him Tony the name used in the original editions. What has always struck me as interesting is how late in “The Airlords of Han” Buck (Tony) talks of Wilma’s lack of a racist attitudes to other races (except for the Han). Buck speaks of the “spiritual Blacks of Africa, one of the leading races of the world – although in the Twentieth we regarded them as inferior.” When I first read this line in the 70’s I wondered if Nowlan’s text had been updated to fit the norms of the time. If not I wonder how progress the writer was on these issues.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Yes, I remember that line, and thought it was a pretty right-on sentiment. I sure do hope that it was a sentence from the original story….

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