Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #4: "Armageddon 2419 A.D."
by Philip Francis Nowlan

For a change of pace, I am reviewing a single book, rather than an entire corpus, but it is one of the most important books in the history of science fiction. "Armageddon 2419 A.D." (***) is the story of Anthony Rogers, who was plunged by accident into five centuries in suspended animation. In the subsequent syndication of the story, his name was shortened to Buck Rogers.

The pre-Golden-Age science fiction of the twenties and thirties was, with few exceptions, badly written. It was written by technology- and science-intoxicated writers, for readers of a similar bent. Old and hackneyed cliches of science fiction were new, and exciting, and sufficed. "Armageddon 2419 A.D." embodies the best and worst aspects of that "gadget fiction". Like so many books of its time and genre, it can still be read with unfeigned enjoyment by by readers in that magic early-teen/late-preteen category, but for most others it must serve as an interesting period piece.

*Very* interesting, though. This was a time, as I remarked, when many cliches of the genre were being born. If a later author could rattle offthe term "ray gun" and expect readers to understand, it was because Nowlan spent five or ten pages painstakingly explaining the concept. (Buck Rogers went into long-lived comic-strip syndication, bringing ray guns, flying saucers, and similar concepts into general public awareness. This, in turn, also made science fiction more accessible to new readers.)

The story itself -- shorn of its long lectures about anti-gravity metals created from etheric vibrations and disintegration rays capable ofconverting matter to electronic vibrations, and so forth -- thrilled me when I was twelve years old. Actually, it's pretty appalling. The world of the twenty-fifth century is ruled by the evil Han (no prizes for guessing where they're from) who exterminated most of the other inhabitants of the globe and then settled into a life of decadent luxury in a few heavily automated cities. Rogers wakes up just in time to help lead the descendents of the surviving Americans in their war to exterminate the Han.

The Han are evil and soulless, of course, so there is no moral objection to destroying them. It would be a mistake to take this to indicate that Nowlan was writing in simpler times. He was writing for a simpler audience -- the kids of whatever age who were reading "Amazing Stories".

(This might be as good a place as any for a digression concerning books of previous decades and generations: The mores and prejudices of the writers will rarely match our own. Their books may strike today's readers as racist or sexist or intolerant or naive. Fair enough: Ours could as easily strike them as godless or obscene or pornographic or naive -- and I'd love to know what faults people half a century from now will find in our favorite works. People have always been moral snobs. This doesn't mean that the problem isn't real. Having characters behave or speak in ways we find objectionable *is* going to lessen our enjoyment of a book. But we can still appreciate these books on their own terms, without sitting in judgment upon them.)

Armageddon 2419 has its share of features to make today's reader wince, though fewer than many, frankly. Even if an author is well-intentioned, as Nowlan seems to have been, a modern reader may wince at descriptions suchas "the simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa". That reader may find some of his 'science' short-sighted, may feel that his enthusiasm for the tactics of WWI exceeds our own. May find, in other words, that the book was written sixty-five years ago.

My own copy is the 1962 Ace reprint, which consists of the originally 1928 novella and its sequel, which was originally titled "The Airlords of Han." The cover describes it as "complete and unabridged", but the forward notes,with somewhat greater accuracy, that "a certain amount of revision and condensation was necessary." I understand the condensation to have been applied primarily to the technical handwaving. (This is a mixed blessing.When sf of this period is read on its own terms, that handwaving is often one of the best parts.) I believe it's been reprinted since.

If you're looking for a good sf/adventure, pick something more recent. This book -- one of the best-written of its kind -- should be read by people who have an interest in the earlier days of science fiction, who wish to traces the roots of the genre we know today, or who have simply read enough pre-Golden-Age science fiction to acquire an appreciation and a taste for it.

%A Nowlan, Philip Francis
%T Armageddon 2419 A.D.
%D 1962
%I Ace
%P 190
%O The first half originally appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928.
%O The second half, under the title "The Airlords of Han", appeared in 1929.
%O There are other reprints, both earlier and later than the 1962 edition.


Standard introduction and disclaimer for Belated Reviews

Dani Zweig