This time (instead of getting my school work done, ’cause I’m still freakin’ sick and can’t go to the library to research) I ended up reading my choice for Challenge #7, “Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.” I borrowed this book from my father, having been intrigued by some of what my mother said while she was reading it.
Rather than being a single novel, this is two novellas, first published in 1928 and 1929. The editor’s introduction (from 1928) is interesting in a few key respects…
HERE, once more, is a real scientifiction story plus. It is a story which will make the heart of many readers leap with joy.
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 prophecy 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.
The Editor, Amazing Stories
Apparently, “science fiction” as a term hadn’t been coined yet in 1928. I’ll get back to my other reasons for quoting the whole introduction later in the review, but first let me address what you may (or may not) be able to read in the lower corner of the cover image: that these novellas are the original origin of Buck Rogers. (Which certainly makes the editor’s prophecy of the story’s future value ring true, though most likely not in the way the editor intended; he probably didn’t mean financial value for the author.) This is true, but if you’re familiar with the 1939 serial or the 1979-1981 movie/TV show, you’ll find very little that’s familiar here. About all that’s the same (other than the 20th century man ending up in the 25th century premise) is the following:
- The name “Rogers”
- The name “Wilma Deering”
- A post-apocalyptic America in which people live almost like animals on the surface (this is less so in the serial)
- A few technological gadgets in the serial (like the anti-gravity belt) that didn’t make it into the ’70s and ’80s version.
Pretty much everything else (including the name “Buck”) came into the franchise with the comic strips, beginning in 1929, though (according to the Wikipedia article) most of the plot elements familiar to us came in through the Sunday comic strips that began in 1930, including the characters of Killer Kane, Ardala, and Dr. Huer, and the presence of alien races.
So what is this story about, if it’s not about the beleaguered people of Earth fighting back against the space gangster/Draconian warlord Kane? Well, you may regret asking.
Let me back up a moment and address the format of the novellas. Both are first person accounts from Anthony Rogers (nickname “Tony”), which he is writing in his old age, looking back on his first years in the 25th century, and the American fight for freedom that he became involved in. He claims to be writing his account for the edification of people 500 years further into the future. (Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense.) As such, interpersonal relationships are minimal, and the book can go for a very long period of time with no dialog whatsoever. Rogers also freely inserts his own editorial comments regarding the difference in practices between Americans of the 20th century and the 25th century, and the practices of their enemies.
Their enemies, of course, are where the problem lies. Let me quote a few passages from the earliest portion of the text to let the original author explain who their enemies are.
There are still many in the world who are not familiar with my unique experience. Five centuries from now there may be many more, especially if civilization is fated to endure any worse convulsions than those which have occurred between 1975 A.D. and the present time.
Okay, let me stop you right there, Tony. Contrary to popular belief, my birth was not the harbinger of the apocalypse!!!
Ahem. Sorry. Got distracted. Returning to the quoting…though skipping from the Forward to Chapter II, after Wilma has filled him in on the 492 years he missed.
It seemed that another war had followed the First World War, in which nearly all the European nations had banded together to break the financial and industrial power of America. They succeeded in their purpose, though they were beaten, for the war was a terrific one, and left America, like themselves, gasping, bleeding and disorganized, with only the hollow shell of a victory.
This opportunity had been seized by the Russian Soviets, who had made a coalition with the Chinese, to sweep over all Europe and reduce it to a state of chaos.
America, industrially geared to world production and trade, collapsed economically, and there ensued a long period of stagnation and desperate attempts at economic reconstruction. But it was impossible to stave off war with the Mongolians, who by now had subjugated the Russians, and were aiming at a world empire.
In about 2109, it seems, the conflict was finally precipitated. The Mongolians, with overwhelming fleets of great airships, and a science that far outstripped that of crippled America, swept in over the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, and down from Canada, annihilating American aircraft, armies and cities with their terrific disintegrator rays. [Omitting ‘scientific’ explanation of disintegrator rays.]
They settled down to the establishment of what became known as the Han dynasty in America, as a sort of province in their World Empire.
And there you have it. Not only is the original story politically impolite by ascribing the desire to world domination to an existing nation-state, it is also a product of its time, and therefore filled with racially offensive descriptions of these Han Airlords. Oddly, a few details regarding the (long past) Armageddon had changed from the opening of Armageddon – 2419 A.D. to the opening of The Airlords of Han:
[I] awakened to find that the America I knew had been crushed under the cruel tyranny of the Airlords of Han, fierce Mongolians, who, as scientists now contend, had in their blood a taint not of this earth, and who with science and resources far in advance of those of a United States, economically prostrate at the end of a long series of wars with a Bolshevik Europe, in the year 2270 A.D. , had swept down from the skies in their great airships that rode “repeller rays” as a ball rides the stream of a fountain, and with their terrible “disintegrator rays” had destroyed more than four-fifths of the American race, and driven the other fifth to cover the vast forests which grew up over the remains of the once mighty civilization of the United States.
In addition to changing the date of the destruction of America by more than a hundred years, he also backpedalled a bit by claiming that the villains who had conquered the world were part alien. (There’s a longer description of that in the final chapter, talking about a “small planet” or “large meteor” which crashed into Mongolia, and is believed to be the source of their alien contamination.) I have a feeling — especially since it’s only mentioned twice, at the very beginning and the very end — that was added as an after-thought to try and counteract some of the particularly heinous racism of the second novella. (In the first, Rogers has almost no contact with the conquerors, and therefore could only react to them in a very general manner.) Of course, if that was the case, maybe he should have just re-written to be less racist! (Sorry. I know I shouldn’t be judging an early 20th century work by 21st century standards. Or rather, I shouldn’t be ignoring the standards of its own time and only looking at it with today’s standards.) You may note the words “the American race” in this latest quote, and if you’re not familiar with pre-WWII social history, you may be wondering what that means. Well, back when these novellas were written, “race” tended to be applied to mean “national heritage.” Though maybe it’s more common pre-WWI than in the inter-war years, now that I think about it. Many of the “racial” characteristics people of the 1900s and 1910s believed applied to the various nations have remained as nationalist stereotypes, so it’s not that we’ve actually moved away from this way of thinking so much as that we’ve re-branded it. One thing to be noted about the way in which he refers to the two “races” at war in these novels is that Rogers continually uses colors to represent them: “white” for America and “yellow” for the Han. Which brings up an important question: what happened to all the African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans? (Okay, given the set-up, I think we can guess what happened to the Asian-Americans…) The complete dismissal of such a large portion of America’s population (admittedly, not as large a portion in 1928 as now) is just as racist as the way the “Mongolians” are described.
(Amusing aside: the 1939 serial actually gave the greater Buck Rogers franchise a chance to partially reverse its earlier racism. To fight Kane’s gangsters, the freedom fighters sent Buck to Saturn to get the help of the Saturnians, and the Prince of Saturn was played by an Asian-American actor. And unlike most of the other roles that would have been available to Asian-Americans at that time, he was not required to speak in any kind of pidgin English, nor to have any kind of accent. On top of that, he was far more useful to the heroic cause than the majority of the people on Earth.)
So, setting aside the distressing racial issues, let’s talk about the story itself. Basically, it’s a war story. (Guess I could transfer it to #14 and pick something else for #7 if I wanted!) The surviving Americans have separated off into “gangs” (anthropologically speaking, “tribes” would probably be a better word), and Rogers becomes adopted into Wilma’s gang, the Wyomings. (After Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania.) And he wants to help them in their fight for freedom, especially by bringing in his knowledge of 20th century warfare. In the intervening centuries, many conventional methods of warfare were forgotten, things like trench warfare and barrages. As a veteran of the First World War, you’d think Rogers would be glad to see them gone, but instead he revives the barrage. (Okay, actually, that does make sense. Thankfully, he leaves trench warfare in the past where it belongs.) The majority of the both novellas is simply following Rogers’ influence on/role in the fight against the Han. The first novella ends quite abruptly, in the shadow of a victory that was more slaughter than victory, and…well, I’d be spoiling the plot if I explained anything more about that particular battle, but it didn’t feel like any kind of ending, that’s for sure. The final battle in the second novella is even more brutal in terms of slaughtering enemies who have no real way of fighting back. I don’t know if Nowlan’s intention was to repel the reader, but that’s certainly the impact it had on me.
Okay, so I’ve discussed (all too briefly) the issue of racism in this book, but how does it fare on gender issues? Well, that’s harder to pin down, to be honest. Let’s look at the character of Wilma in the three formats I actually know. (I’ve seen the serial and the movie, and a few episodes of the TV show. Haven’t read the comics, so I can’t address those without a lot more research than I have time for.)
In both the serial and the movie/TV version, Wilma is a military officer. In the serial she doesn’t get to do as much, but there was one really awesome moment when she was a prisoner and she actually did what prisoners almost never do in her situation, and rescued herself. (The guard was taunting her with his gun near the bars of the window into her cell, so she grabbed it. It was awesome.) Her relationship with Buck is the typical understated and understood love interest of a serial aimed at 5-7 year old boys who didn’t actually want to see a romance anyway. In the movie/TV version, she’s a skilled pilot and warrior, and immediately settles into a fighting/flirting relationship with the rather smarmy 1970s version of Buck. In both cases, she’s competent, mature, educated, and dignified.
One of the other things lost in the five centuries Rogers missed was standard military organization, so the original Wilma had no possibility of being a military officer, as those didn’t exist in her reality. But she is a warrior — in fact, when Rogers first meets her, she’s in combat against a number of men who ambushed her while she was on patrol — and over the course of the two novellas, she kills a number of the enemy, sometimes in a particularly brutal manner. Like the time she and Rogers had infiltrated a minor enemy facility and had to keep things quiet, so they had to kill the enemies who discovered them with their swords instead of their rocket guns (they fire explosive pellets); Wilma killed more men with her sword than Rogers did…but then she fainted for no reason whatsoever. (Product of its time, or just stupidity? I don’t even know…but probably the former. The whole myth of women fainting at the sight of blood still hasn’t been entirely eradicated even now. But the idea of a warrior doing so? Makes no bloody sense.) Her personality is also radically different from the personality of the later versions of her. She’s younger than her later versions — about 20 — and in some ways has an “innocent savage” type of personality, clueless about so many cultural niceties that we take for granted, and more accustomed to warfare than society. Honestly, she reminded me a lot of Leela from Doctor Who, only less so. (Still, I found myself hearing most of her dialog in the first novella in Louise Jameson’s voice. Despite that Wilma’s an American.) She’s capable of — and seems to enjoy — brutal acts of violence against her enemies, and yet she also has an almost child-like naivete in some matters. As to Wilma’s relationship with Rogers, it was decidedly different than either of the live action versions I’ve encountered: for a few weeks, she spent all her off-duty time with him, helping him to learn about the era in which he found himself, and learning about his original time…and then they got married. The entire relationship is abbreviated and never disclosed to us, and yet because of the format that doesn’t feel terribly problematic. (In fact, if he wanted to illuminate readers 500 years in his future about the exact nature of their love life, I think it would come off as very creepy.)
And what about women other than Wilma? Well…in the serial, there weren’t any. (None to speak of, anyway. I think there might have been one in Kane’s city who ended up being part-hostage, part-collaborator, but maybe that was in one of the Flash Gordon serials. My dad really loves old serials, so I’ve seen at least three different Buster Crabbe serials, and they’re kind of blending together in my head.) In the movie/TV, there were probably other women in the military of the good guys (though none stand out in my memory), but the really significant one is, of course, Princess Ardala, who is actually the real villain of the movie, rather than Kane, so that’s…um…it’s hard to call it an “improvement” as such, but it certainly shows more willingness to put women in positions of power. (Too bad she was also half-naked!)
As to in this book, there are two sides to that coin. Among the Americans, women do all the same jobs as men. At least before getting married. It’s implied that afterwards they don’t, or at least don’t do physically dangerous jobs like patrols. On the other hand, the only reason she was on that infiltration mission was because it was a terrible insult to a wife for her husband to go off on a dangerous mission without her, so…kind of mixed signals there, but it’s still better than America in 1928, so I have to cut it some slack for that.
It’s the condition of the women among the enemy that…I kind of lack the words to describe. Han women were entirely absent in Armageddon – 2419 A.D., but we’re given all too much information (and moralizing commentary) on them in The Airlords of Han. Rogers describes them as virtual slaves with no rights, not permitted to work in any capacity, and given a minimal dispensation of money each month that is insufficient even to properly support themselves. The only way to gain the money to survive was for them to get married. It is noteworthy that every time he discusses marriage among the Han, he puts it in quotation marks, not viewing it as proper marriage because it could be ended at any time by either party. (Guess he didn’t believe in divorce!) Because their lives depended on getting married, the women mastered the arts of flirtation and seduction. This, of course, disgusted Rogers to no end. I really hated him during the sequence when he was explaining all this; he was judging those women by his own narrow, ethnocentric standards, despite having acknowledged that what they were doing was their only avenue for proper survival. It’s hard to tell whether the misogynist side of all this is part of the racism I was discussing earlier, or if it was an attempt to ensure that the readers would come to thoroughly hate the Han, so they would be less horrified by their slaughter. Perhaps a bit of both.
So, bottom line, the book sends rather mixed messages about women and gender roles. Though I’ll give it credit for making the “good” side have relative gender parity.
Now that I’ve gone over a few social issues that are deeply tied to its status as a relic of the past, let me address a different aspect of the book that still ties to its status as a relic of the past, namely what the Amazing Stories editor referred to as “a number of interesting prophecies, of which no doubt, many will come true.” While we certainly don’t have disintegrator rays, repeller rays, or belts that can reduce us to near-weightlessness (which were used much more creatively in the book than in the serial, btw), there are a lot of things we do have that this book presaged to a certain extent. Such as
- cell phones
- Bluetooth headsets
- nuclear energy, both weaponized and as a power source (though he calls it “atomic”)
- Skype (Wall-sized edition)
- online shopping
- military drones
And if I’d been taking careful notes, there are probably more. Admittedly, the cell phones and Skype-style communication is something we take for granted in science fiction (imagine Star Trek without communicators or the ability to talk to the commanders of other vessels over the main screen on the bridge), but it had to start somewhere…though I admit to not having any idea if this is where it started, or if it was in even earlier science fiction as well. Honestly, it was the online shopping one that really impressed me. Though it had a better delivery system than we’ve got, as they had all these vacuum tubes running through their high tech city, so your merchandise arrived within half an hour. (Beats the heck out of paying $90 a year to Amazon to get free 2 day shipping!) But the online shopping (not that they called it “online” of course) even had direct debit payments and everything. And this pre-dated credit cards, to the best of my knowledge.
He also spent a long time describing how their various technological devices worked. I’m sorry to say that my knowledge of physics is not detailed enough to know if there’s any possibility of any of those explanations being possible (though I suspect that in most cases the answer is that no, there is not) but they were for the most part more plausibly naturalistic than the technobabble one has come to associate with more recent science fiction. (Which isn’t to say that ludicrous technobabble can’t be fun in its own right.) One of them particularly struck me as plausible (if not necessarily possible): in The Airlords of Han, Rogers goes into more detail about how the disintegrator rays work (as opposed to the bit I omitted from the quote above from Armageddon – 2149 A.D.), explaining that they act on the electron level, forcibly detaching every electron they touch from the nucleus of its associated atom, thereby destroying everything it comes into contact with, including air molecules. That, of course, led to some battle techniques whereby the air vacuum caused by a disintegrator near miss become an integral part of the attack. I like seeing that much thought put into world building.
Okay, so, bottom line time. What do I think of this book?
I…I’m not really sure.
The racism is horrific, and the wholesale slaughter of the enemy goes beyond horrific, especially considering no quarter was granted to non-combatants. But as a look into what the past thought the future would be, it’s intriguing.
I’ll never want to read it again, but I’m not sorry I read it.
(On a totally trivial note, they apparently used commas very differently in the 1920s. Very distracting. Kept putting them in the middle of a clause for no readily apparent reason. Maybe some typesetter at the magazine got paid by the comma and inserted them in places they didn’t belong?)
Anyway, since a lot of this was a fiction book about technology, I think I’ll move on to the non-fiction book about technology next.