Monday, August 16, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Armageddon 2419 A.D.

Some will no doubt quibble over my inclusion of Philip Nowlan's 1928 novella, first published in the August issue of Amazing Stories, in this series as a pulp fantasy. To that, I can only say that I use "fantasy" in the broadest possible sense, so that any story that includes characters, locations, or situations that are fanciful or imaginative would qualify. Moreover, I suspect that, 82 years later, this first appearance of the character who'd later be immortalized as Buck Rogers -- he's called Anthony Rogers in this novella -- looks to be more fantasy than science fiction to contemporary eyes and with some justification. After all, Captain Rogers is a Great War veteran "whose normal span of life has been spread over a period of 573 years," the bulk of which he
spent in a state of suspended animation free from the ravages of catabolic processes, and without any apparent effect on [his] physical of mental faculties.
While a superb dramatic device for transporting a then-modern man into the 25th century, one can hardly call the idea of radioactive gas-induced hibernation "science."

Told in the first person, "Armageddon 2419 A.D." relates the story of Rogers's adventures after he awakens nearly 500 years in the future.
I awoke to find the America I knew a total wreck -- to find Americans a hunted race in their own land, hiding in the dense forests that covered the shattered and leveled ruins of their once magnificent cities, desperately preserving, and struggling to develop in their secret retreats, the remnants of their culture and science -- and their independence.
America, and indeed the whole world, has fallen under the domination of the Han Airlords, "Mongolians" from China whose technological superiority over the rest of humanity had made them the undisputed masters of the Earth -- or almost so. For not long after Rogers awakens, he encounters a group of "wild" Americans, including the beautiful young air pilot Wilma Deering, who lived
in anticipation of that "Day of Hope" to which ... [they] had been looking forward for generations, when they would be strong enough to burst from the green chrysalis of the forests, soar into the upper air lanes and destroy the Hans.
Using his experience as a soldier in the Great War, Rogers turns a gang of wild Americans into a potent fighting force and strikes a blow against both the Hans operating out of Nu-Yok City and a traitorous American gang that has sided with the invaders, thereby laying the groundwork for both the novella's sequel (published the following year) and the comic strip (also begun in 1929), the latter of which established one of the most enduring and influential fictional characters of the 20th century, spawning many imitators, including the equally famous Flash Gordon.

Like a lot of pulp fantasies, "Armageddon 2419 A.D." will likely be judged by some to be a relic unsuitable for contemporary readers, both in terms of its science and its cultural attitudes. Wilma Deering, though a capable pilot in her own right, nevertheless comes across as primarily a pretty ornament for Rogers to win. Likewise, the Han, though technological superior to the Americans and advanced in many other ways, are clearly "Yellow peril" enemies lacking the nuances found in other Asian villains like Dr. Fu Manchu.

Yet, there's no denying there's something powerfully primal in this story, something compelling even eight decades after its original publication. Anthony Rogers is an excellent stand-in for the reader, a man out of time who must learn about the strange world of the future even as we do in reading his account of his adventures. He is like many other pulp fantasy heroes in this respect and Nowlan's writing is quite deft in places. The future he describes may not be plausible, but it's certainly interesting and it serves as a great backdrop for a swashbuckling tale of derring-do. If you're at all curious about the origins of many of the tropes and elements of 20th century science fiction, you could do worse than reading "Armageddon 2419 A.D."


  1. Woah! Weird synchronicity. My friend Sean (player from Planet Algol / Wilderlands DM) just picked this up, and I was perusing it on Friday. I borrowed his Heiro's Journey paperback, but I'll have to read this next. I had no idea it was so po-ap. Evidently, Buck is a classic "Stranger" class character ; )

  2. A great post - thanks for the summary.

    These early Sci-Fi stories can offer up some fantastic back-stories or gaming scenarios.


  3. Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of science fiction. I know it sounds like a blurb, but it's true!

  4. Not to provoke racial or nationalist paranoia, but China has just eclipsed Japan to become the 2nd largest economy in the world, and is due to over take the US by 2030 (estimate). We must rethink the assumption that capitalism and democracy are inherently bound now that China has ascended to power through authoritarian capitalism.

  5. Hm, sounds great! And I have to say, as futures go it sounds a lot more plausible than, say, Star Trek*. Of course IRL the Han Chinese traditionally aren't much for global conquest, but the Mongols certainly were; maybe future-Mongols came to dominate future-China, like the Manchurians did.

    Now I must order a copy...

    *A Chinese policeman studying in London once told me, paraphrasing only slightly: "Your (Western) civilisation was great. Pity it's dying. But we are the future."

  6. In the book version, published back in the seventies (to coincide with the spandexy new Buck Rogers TV series) it is implied heavily that the Han invaders were interbred with alien horrors from beyond, through some dark alchemy, which set them on their path to conquest. Given the nature of the story up until then, I always wondered if this had been an addendum, since it's found in the last few pages of the book...

  7. Tom,

    What you probably read was a compilation book that combined "Armageddon 2419 A.D." with its sequel, "Airlords of Han," which does in fact suggest that the Han were hybridized with inhuman, alien beings.

  8. I've ordered a copy from amazon! Looks like what I ordered was a '70s trade paperback, no cover pic unfortunately - I like the old art style much better than the new "classy" covers they put on reissued pulp sf, including the recent reissue of this book. Plus it's much cheaper!

  9. Late to the party (as usual,) here's a link to order the unaltered text...

    (I have this in hardcover, and it's glorious!)