Colonizing a World with Dean Ellis

In my Forgotten Gems series of blog posts, I try to highlight older works that are still worth consideration by current-day readers. Previously, I’ve focused on fiction. This time, I’ve decided to do something different. There’s a cover painting that I first saw about 40 years ago that I’ve never been able to forget.

Star Born, by Dean EllisArtist Dean Ellis (1920 – 2009) was one of the top SF cover artists in the 70’s and 80’s, noted for realistic space scenes. He produced the painting below for the 1970 edition of Andre Norton’s Star Born (click on the picture to see it in full size).

This is one of my favorite cover paintings of all time. It is, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain, because copyright laws were different back when this painting was produced.

When I was a kid, first discovering science fiction, Andre Norton was the author, producing four squeaky clean adventure novels every year without fail. She was YA before YA was ever a category for books. Star Born was one of the first books I discovered (and devoured). Even at the time, I was mesmerized by the cover, which was literally the most striking cover I had ever seen.

Most covers that featured star ships showed them in flight, with some fanciful flame shooting out the back, or in mortal combat with laser beams flashing. This looked like a working ship, newly landed on some alien planet, with no spaceport or support infrastructure anywhere in sight.

It’s journey done, the crew begins unloading the newly landed colony ship, which towers over the surrounding plain like a 40-story building. There are cranes to assist in the unloading of the equipment and supplies. A separate shuttle is being assembled from parts stored in the larger vessel. Passengers who have been allowed to leave the vessel gather around and watch, while others still aboard the ship view the scene from windows.

I like to think of a painting as a canvas for the imagination, not just for the artist but also the viewer. The artist has a vision and tries to communicate that vision as best he can via the medium of paint. A viewer looks at the painting, sees the details the artist has provided, and imagines the scene in their own mind, augmenting it with details from their own imagination.

Start Born, the novel by Andre NortonFor me, this painting evokes many emotions. The sense of accomplishment in successfully reaching, and landing on, an alien world. A sense of sadness, in that this is probably the last journey of the colony ship, it’s probable fate to be dismantled in order to provide materials for the new colony. The excitement of a new beginning, with all sorts of possibilities ahead. The fear of the unknown, because who knows what dangers lie in store for the colonists. The determination to succeed despite all obstacles; if you don’t have this, then you’re not really suited to be a colonist. A sense of opportunity, because new challenges breed new solutions.

If I could say something to Dean Ellis about this painting, it would be this: Bravo!

I hope that someday I have a cover this great for one of my books.

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Armageddon 2419 A.D.

Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan, 1972 combined edition - the original Buck Rogers novel
Armageddon 2419 - Another Ace cover for the combined novel
Armageddon 2419 - Unknown Edition
Armageddon 2419 - Advertisement
Armageddon 2419 - Amazing Stories 1928
Airlords of the Han - Amazing Stories 1929

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:

    Armageddon 2419 A.D.
    The Airlords of the Han

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.

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Forgotten Gems: Phoenix Without Ashes

Phoenix Without Ashes by Edward J. Bryant & Harlan Ellison
Graphic novel by Harlan Ellison, Alan Robinson and Kote Carvajal
Deluxe, hardcover, numbered graphic novel, with a great cover
The Starlost - Available on DVD

The story, “Phoenix Without Ashes,” has a tumultuous history. “Phoenix Without Ashes” began as an award-winning screenplay by fiery, iconclastic writer Harlan Ellison; it won the Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay in 1974. It was the basis for a low-budget, Canadian television series called The Starlost during the 1973-74 season. Ellison was reportedly so dissatisfied with the execution of the series that he had his name removed from the credits and replaced with his infamous “Cordwainer Bird” pseudonym. The series subsequently ended after only 16 episodes.

The screenplay was very competently adapted as a novel in 1975 by Edward Bryant, a Nebula-winning SF writer who’s more familiar to folks nowadays as a horror writer and a Locus reviewer of horror fiction. “Phoenix Without Ashes” was also adapted in 2010 by IDW as a nicely executed graphic novel, a medium to which the story is admirably suited.

All of the printed incarnations of the story are well worth reading:

  • “Phoenix Without Ashes” — screenplay by Harlan Ellison, 1973.
  • Phoenix Without Ashes — novel credited to Edward Bryant & Harlan Ellison, 1975.
  • Phoenix Without Ashes — script by Harlan Ellison, graphics by Alan Robinson, coloring by Kote Carvajal.

Enough with the history lesson. What’s it about?

Devon has grown up in the community of Cypress Corners, a domed community only fifty miles across. Cypress Corners is a strict religious society modeled loosely on the Amish. Problems ensue because Devon is in love with a young girl named Rachel, but cannot be with her because the Elders have promised her to another man. His questioning of the teachings and edicts of the Elders leads him on a journey of discovery that turns his whole world view completely upside down.

In time, he comes to realize that his knowledge of history is all lies, that his world is in deadly danger, and there is nobody else in a position to rescue them except him. The resolution, while open-ended, is nevertheless satisfying because Devon has learned what he must do with his life.

As one might expect, it’s an excellent screenplay. It does an admirable job of setting up the central conflicts, but deliberately leaving them without a resolution; it was, after all, a one-hour pilot for a television series. It also does a top-notch job of introducing the audience to the concept of a generation ship. While this may seem like old hat to SF fans, this was a ground-breaking concept for the average television viewer in the 1970’s (or even today, for that matter).

How Do I Get It?

The problem with some older works is that they can be a little hard to find. For those who are interested, the novel, by Edward Bryant and Harlan Ellison, can be bought used from The novel also includes additional details, also written by Harlan Ellison, regarding his experiences with the production of the TV series, The Starlost. Fascinating, if a bit one-sided.

The graphic novel is recent, and is readily available for purchase anywhere. The art is excellent; they really did a great job with it. There is also a signed, numbered, hardcover deluxe edition of the graphic novel which is only available used for an extortionate price; I included a link on the right mostly because the cover of that edition is really nice.

What about the screenplay? Well, it was published in hardcover in 1976 in an anthology called Faster Than Light, edited by Jack Dann and George Zebrowski. A paperback edition of that anthology was published in 1982 by Ace (this is the edition that I own). The hardcover is available used from Amazon. The other stories in the anthology are reasonably good. Harlan’s screenplay, though, was the true stand-out for me. I’m not aware of it having been collected anywhere else (but you never know).

Interestingly, the series, The Starlost, is also now available on DVD. I vaguely remember watching the pilot when I was a child and thinking that it was interesting, even if the special effects weren’t great. I only saw a few other episodes, but I remember that they seemed to get progressively dumber. So, now you can watch the series, compare it to the original story, and form your opinion on this notoriously controversial issue.

On a side note, the show starred Keir Dullea, who you may remember played David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its much later sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two.

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