This was an unusual, non-denominational, philosophical speech that I gave for the Ashburn Toastmasters Holiday Party and Open House on December 12, 2012 in Ashburn, Virginia. It’s part inspirational holiday message, part philosophy, and part chemistry experiment. You’ll also discover a new appreciation for beer. Check it out!
In my Forgotten Gems blog entries, I try to highlight novels older than 20 years that are still worth reading, but which might otherwise be all but forgotten by most SF aficionados. This time around, I chose Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan. Those with a grounding in SF history may recognize this novel as the original basis for Buck Rogers, an SF character who has been featured in novels, newspaper strips, serials, films, television shows and role-playing games. The character also spawned imitations, notably Flash Gordon.
In all honesty, Armageddon 2419 A.D. is a decidedly mixed bag. There’s much in it that is admirable, a fair amount that is seriously dated, and some parts that may be moderately offensive to modern sensibilities (particularly if you’re a woman).
Where Can I Get It?
The novel originated as two novellas, including “Armageddon 2419 A.D,” published in 1928, and “Airlords of the Han,” published in 1929. They were both published in the magazine, Amazing Stories. Both novellas are now in the public domain and available for free from Project Gutenberg:
Most e-readers can accommodate the formats (such as PDF, Kindle and Epub) that are available from Project Gutenberg. There are also links to Amazon on the right, where you can purchase the story in paperback form (generally with both stories combined to form a single novel) or as a Kindle download from various vendors.
What’s It About?
I first encountered Armageddon 2419 A.D. in the seventies. My father had a copy of the 1972 Ace release of the novel, which was actually composed of two separate novellas. I was first attracted to it by the dynamic cover which, to me, is one of the best covers that the book ever received in all its years of publication. That cover is the top one shown on the right side of this page.
The main character of the novel is Anthony Rogers, a veteran of the Great War (World War I, in other words). Note that the nickname of “Buck” never made an appearance until the newspaper strip came along. While investigating an abandoned coal mine, he is trapped by a cave-in. Subsequently, some sort of radioactive gas leaked into the cave and preserved him in suspended animation for almost 500 years.
He awakens to a future in which America, and the world, have been conquered by the Air Lords of the Han. The Han are Mongols who may have fallen under some unspecified, soulless influence. They rule the world with their airships and disintegrator rays.
Americans have been reduced to gangs, rather like tribes, living in the woods. They’ve spent years working in secrecy to develop technologies that they can use to defeat the Han. They also have notable knowledge gaps, having lost a great deal of knowledge during the last 500 years, including historical information and data on large-scale military tactics.
Anthony Rogers is introduced to these gangs by a classic damsel in distress, Wilma Deering, whom he rescues from some Han pursuers. Once he’s accepted by the gangs, his knowledge and experience as a soldier prove invaluable to the cause of freedom.
A Balanced View
Let’s talk pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s a surprisingly militaristic novel, with much thought given to realistic tactics given the various imaginary technologies in play. It’s also unflinchingly realistic about the risks of, and casualties incurred in, military actions. Likewise, the “fish out of water” premise is intriguing. Everybody likes a story about that one special character who can “make a difference.”
On the negative side, we have a bunch of issues.
The most glaring one is that Wilma Deering isn’t allowed to be competent in any way. Every time you turn around, she’s being knocked out so the hero can rescue her. Her main role is to introduce Rogers to her gang, and then to become his sidekick and/or damsel-in-distress. This is reflective of the time period, perhaps, but still not overly thrilling to female readers.
There are no real aliens in this story, so the Han are really just a thinly veiled reference to the Chinese, who were thought of as the Yellow Peril back in the 1920’s. The second novella makes some references to how the Han were “infected” by some soulless, alien influence, but nothing more concrete than that is ever presented to explain the background or futuristic technology of the Han.
In the political realm, Anthony Rogers is too readily accepted as a leader. Also, to my taste, the author provides way too much exposition about how the various technologies work. Finally, the “radioactive gas” that causes suspended animation stretches the bounds of believability.
So, why is it a Forgotten Gem?
Well, the story has certainly got flaws, but it still represents, to some degree, where SF started. Even as late as the 1960’s and early 1970’s, there were very few female “leading ladies” in SF stories. Nevertheless, next to Harry Potter, Conan and, perhaps, The Lord of the Rings, Buck Rogers is one of the most successful and most recognized SF creations of all time.
Despite the novel’s obvious flaws and despite the 85 years that have passed since the initial novella was published, there’s a story in there that still resonates. We should recognize that story’s power and historical influence, while acknowledging its flaws. As we produce SF and Fantasy today, we should strive to overcome the issues that make so much older SF virtually unreadable to modern women, while remembering the power that slumbers still in some of those forgotten gems.
One of my favorite comics is the online comic XKCD. Here’s one of my favorite examples from the strip.
You have to admire a strip that advertises itself with:
“Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).”