Saturday, July 23, 2016

Buck Rogers - The Airlords of Han

Philip Francis Nowlan (1888-1940) wrote a number of science fiction stories but is best remembered as the creator of Buck Rogers. Buck Rogers made his debut in the 1928 novella Armageddon - 2419 A.D. and later featured in a long-running comic strip (also written in its early days by Nowlan). 

The Airlords of Han, the second Buck Rogers novella, appeared in 1929. The two novellas were later republished in a single volume edition.

In 1927 Anthony “Buck” Rogers is overcome by radioactive gas in an abandoned coal mine and left in a state of suspended animation. When he is finally revived in the year 2419 he finds that the United States has changed rather dramatically. After a long and disastrous war against Bolshevik-dominated Europe the US has been conquered by an Asiatic race known as the Han (although in fact they are not of entirely earthly origin). Most of the US population has been killed. The survivors carry on a guerilla war against the Han. Initially the Han have all the technological advantages - they have repeller beams to power their spacecraft and deadly disintegrator beams. The Americans, organised into scattered tribes, have however made some technological breakthroughs of their own, such as the manufacture of the weightless and totally inert element inertron.

The Han dominate the country through their fifteen major cities such as Nu-Yok and Bos-Tan. The Americans have come to dominate the countryside.

This is the background to Armageddon - 2419 A.D. which deals with the early stages of the great war against the Han in which Buck Rogers will play an important role.

In The Airlords of Han the war intensifies as both sides develop new weapons and tactics and the conflict becomes ever more savage. Rogers is captured during one battle and subjected to months of hypnotic and moral torture. During his captivity he learns much that would be of value to the American forces but escape seems impossible.

Nowlan isn’t content just to tell us that these armies of the future have weapons like disintegrator guns. He tells us how these technologies work. We therefore get some of the most intricately detailed technobabble in all of science fiction. The downside is that he gives us this information in slightly clumsy and excessively lengthy infodumps but the upside is that it’s all so gloriously silly that it’s difficult to complain.

While the explanations of the workings of the technology are pure pseudoscience the book does anticipate many later technological developments - such as drone strikes. Most of the Han industry is essentially robotic with humans controlling the process through telescreens without having to leave their comfortable apartments. Interestingly enough while enormous claims were being made in 1929 about the potential of airpower to win wars on its own Nowlan seems very sceptical. He clearly believed that a future war would ultimately be won by boots on the ground with artillery being more important than airpower.

In between the infodumps the action is pretty much non-stop and surprisingly violent it is too. The First World War had obviously made an impression on Nowlan and the future war that he describes is very much total war with civilians being considered to be perfectly legitimate targets. This is more than just a war - it is a clash between civilisations that regard each other with hatred and contempt. Although Nowlan died in 1940 one gets the feeling that the emergence of total war in the 1939-45 conflict would not have surprised him.

These Buck Rogers novellas can be considered to more or less belong to the space opera  sub-genre although the action takes place entirely on Earth. The epic scale of the battles is certainly what you expect in space opera. 

The Han are described as Mongolians but it is hinted that their origins may lie beyond the Earth and that they are not entirely human. Their partly Asiatic origins might lead you to suspect that these stories form part of the then-popular Yellow Peril genre but I’m not sure this is quite true. The Han civilisation is avowedly materialistic and atheist and may be more reflective of the Bolshevik Peril than the Yellow Peril. The Han civilisation seems like a mix of feudalism and communism and the author makes it clear that it is also very much a decadent civilisation. Oddly enough, given that the book was written in 1929, the Han bear a closer resemblance to the soviet communism of the 50s and 60s than to the Soviet Union of the late 20s.

It should be noted that in these two early novellas the hero Anthony Rogers has not yet acquired the nickname Buck. He’s a typical square-jawed action hero. Generally there’s no attempt whatsoever at characterisation, although the chief villain San-Lan is quite interesting.

This is military sci-fi rather than adventure sci-fi - there’s plenty of action but it’s large-scale action with the hero’s own exploits playing a comparatively minor role.

Buck Rogers would go on to feature in an excellent 1939 movie serial and the fun 1970s TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

The Airlords of Han is pretty enjoyable. Recommended.

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