Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon — 2419 A.D. was first published in 1928. In 1929, it was followed by a sequel, The Airlords of Han. This background was reworked for the comic strip “Buck Rogers,” which has been adopted into radio, movies, television and roleplaying games. The edition I first read (the cover featured here) was the combined edition Ace created in the 1960s. Since I no longer own that, I’ve resorted to reading the Project Gutenberg editions.
Anthony Rogers was just another radioactive-gas entrepreneur when a surveying foray into a promising mine ended in tragedy. Trapped by the tunnel collapse that killed his companions, Rogers was overcome by the very radioactive gases he hoped to mine. Death seemed certain.
Four hundred years later, Rogers wakes to find America transformed.
The towns of the Wyoming Valley are nowhere to be seen. They have been replaced by endless forest. When Rogers sees what he takes to be a teenaged boy attacked by ruffians, he intervenes. The seeming boy is a woman, Wilma Deering. Like her stalkers, she is armed with rocket pistol and anti-gravity belt. She must be armed to venture outside her community, which is but one symptom of the horrific conditions under which Americans languish.
Left in a deplorable state after a savage war with Bolshevist Europe, the United States was unable to match or resist China’s repellor-born airships and disintegrator rays. North America was crushed by the Han in 2109. The Han economy was extensively automated, which meant that America’s new rulers had no use for the whites. Those who survived the conquest fled into the wilderness, where they and their descendants carried out a largely futile guerrilla war for the next three centuries.
Despite living in scattered, hidden outposts, American gangs are not entirely without science and technology. Hence Wilma’s use of rocket pistols and anti-grav. The anti-grav depends on a negative weight substance called inertron. Inertron, only recently developed, is also immune to the effects of the Han disintegrator rays. It would help the whites resist the Hans … if only it could be produced in bulk.
Rogers can’t help with the inertron shortage, but he does have Great-War-honed skills that were lost centuries ago, when America was crushed. Rogers figures out how to use Han repellor rays against the airships; Rogers teaches the guerrilla gangs the benefits of artillery barrages. No surprise that he soon rises to leader of the Wyoming Valley Gang.
Bold and brave, Rogers prefers to lead from the front. This is all very inspiring, no doubt, but it means that Rogers misses a lot of the fighting after he is captured by the Hans. While incarcerated in a prison cell, he gains an in-depth look at Han culture. He also risks death when the Han cities, including the one in which he is imprisoned, are wiped from the face of America.
Will he survive? What do you think?
This is a classic Yellow Menace novel; it’s intrinsically racist, right down to the assumption that American = White. Other ethnic groups inhabiting the US in the 1920s have disappeared. Best not to ask how that happened.
For reasons about which I can only speculate (probably not reader backlash, given how popular Yellow Menace books were) Nowlan introduces a brotherhood of mankind theme in Airlords of Han, in which all of the races of humanity, with one exception, turn out to have positive qualities even Wilma acknowledges.
In the years that followed, Wilma and I travelled nearly every nation on the earth which had succeeded in throwing off the Han domination, spurred on by our success in America, and I never knew her to show to the men or women of any race anything but the utmost of sympathetic courtesy and consideration, whether they were the noble brown-skinned Caucasians of India, the sturdy Balkanites of Southern Europe, or the simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa, today one of the leading races of the world, although in the Twentieth Century we regarded them as inferior. This charity and gentleness of hers did not fail even in our contacts with the non-Han Mongolians of Japan and the coast provinces of China.
How does the author reconcile this belated embrace of diversity with violent hatred of Hans? Surprise: the Hans aren’t human!
Latterly, our historians and anthropologists find much support for the theory that the Hans sprang from a genus of human-like creatures that may have arrived on this earth with a small planet (or large meteor) which is known to have crashed in interior Asia late in the Twentieth Century, causing certain permanent changes in the earth’s orbit and climate.
Geological convulsions blocked this section off from the rest of the world for many years. And it is a historical fact that Chinese scientists, driving their explorations into it at a somewhat later period, met the first wave of the on-coming Hans.
The theory is that these creatures (and certain queer skeletons have been found in the Asiatic Bowl) with a mental super development, but a vacuum in place of that intangible something we call a soul, mated forcibly with the Tibetans, thereby strengthening their physical structure to almost the human normal, adapting themselves to earthly speech and habits, and in some strange manner intensifying even further their mental powers.
To be honest, the relevant passages read a lot as though Rogers, who is explicitly relating the events of the book long after the fact and some time after old age stole Wilma from him, is desperately trying to come with a framework in which Wilma was not a frothing, homicidal racist … or at least one in which the extremes of the woman with whom Rogers is helplessly smitten are excusable. The Han don’t do anything to the Americans which the Americans did not first do to the Native Americans. And Hans aren’t all bad, although they are pretty flawed. When the Hans torture Rogers, their methods are comparatively humane by contemporary standards. No waterboarding, for one thing.
I spent two months as a prisoner in Lo-Tan. I can honestly say that during that entire time every attention was paid to my physical comfort. Luxuries were showered upon me. But I was almost continuously subjected to some form of mental torture or moral assault. Most elaborately staged attempts at seduction were made upon me with drugs, with women. Hypnotism was resorted to. Viewplates were faked to picture to me the complete rout of American forces all over the continent. With incredible patience, and laboring under great handicaps, in view of the vigor of the American offensive, the Han intelligence department dug up the fact that somewhere in the forces surrounding Nu-Yok, I had left behind me Wilma, my bride of less than a year. In some manner, I will never tell how, they discovered some likeness of her, and faked an electronoscopic picture of her in the hands of torturers in Nu-Yok, in which she was shown holding out her arms piteously toward me, as though begging me to save her by surrender.
No Han prisoner in the hands of the Gangs would have been treated as kindly. I joke. The Gangs don’t take prisoners.
The author does seem to paint Han culture as effete and inefficient. But as flawed as many of their customs are1, they are not flawed in any way that seems inhuman. The culprit seems to be the very technology that gave the Han domination of the world; there’s no particular reason anyone needs to work hard to maintain the system. After three centuries without a serious challenge, they’ve gotten pretty slack.
Socially the Han cities were in a chaotic condition at this time, between morals that were not morals, families that were not families, marriages that were not marriages, children who knew no homes, work that was not work, eugenics that didn’t work; Ku-Lis who envied the richer classes but were too lazy to reach out for the rewards freely offered for individual initiative; the intellectually active and physically lazy Ki-Lings who despised their lethargy; the Man-Din drones who regarded both classes with supercilious toleration; the Princes of the Blood, arrogant in their assumption of a heritage from a Heaven in which they did not believe; and finally the three castes of the army, air and industrial repair services, equally arrogant and with more reason in their consciousness of physical power.
Faced with the loss of their North American cities, the Han plan to move into subterranean facilities. San-Lan, ruler of North America, delivers this defiant speech to Rogers:
[…] we are a civilization. We shall make our own sunlight to order in the bowels of the earth. If necessary, we can manufacture our air synthetically; not the germ-laden air of Nature, but absolutely pure air. Our underground cities will be heated or refrigerated artificially as conditions may require. Why should we not live underground if we desire? We produce all our needs synthetically.
“And then, from our underground cities we will emerge at leisure to wage merciless war on your wild men of the forest, until we have at last done what our forefathers should have done, exterminated them to the last beast.”
It took me some time to spot where I’d heard something like this before: Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit — Will Travel:
I looked around at the hall. — the cloud-capped towers…the great globe itself — “Just this!” I said savagely. “It’s not a defense, you don’t want a defense. All right, take away our star — You will if you can and I guess you can. Go ahead! We’ll make a star! Then, someday, we’ll come back and hunt you down — all of you!”
“That’s telling ‘em, Kip! That’s telling them!”
Nobody bawled me out. I suddenly felt like a kid who has made a horrible mistake at a party and doesn’t know how to cover it up.
But I meant it. Oh, I didn’t think we could do it. Not yet. But we’d try. “Die trying” is the proudest human thing.
So who’s the white hat and who’s the black hat here?
1: The Han seem to be trying to cope with something like the Demographic Transition. Their cunning solution was to force Han women into economic dependence on men (at least for luxuries; they get a basic income, men only get a pension). The reasoning appears to be that women would therefore be motivated to produce lots of babies. The reality appears to be that they don’t get pregnant any more frequently than they did before basic income, but they do get quite adept at trading in their old husbands for better models.