My original intent was to read Armageddon 2419 A.D. and write a review of that classic pulp tale in which the iconic hero Buck Rogers was introduced. I am a big fan of pulp era science fiction and fantasy, but had never read the early Buck Rogers stories, being more familiar with the character through comic strip reprints and the syndication of the 1970s television show. Given my own interest in dipping into the “Planetary Romance” and “Swords and Ray Guns” sub-genres of pulp sci-fi, Armageddon 2419 A.D. seemed like a perfect place to start. Unfortunately, I did not make it very far into the novella before running headlong into a literary wall standing between 1929 and 2013 (or, really, any year after 1963 or so): blatant racism as a key component of the plot.
Pulp fiction is often accused of an inherently racist tone. Usually, I find such accusations a little too hysterical and a little too out of context. The depiction of African Americans by H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, for example, is stained by the times those writers lived in, not, I don’t think, by any real enmity on their part. Philip Francis Nowlan’s tale, however, doesn’t just include an attitude considered inappropriate today, but wallows in a targeted prejudice. For those not familiar, as I was not, with the plot Armageddon 2419 A.D. here is a short summary: a white male American scientist wakes up five centuries hence to fight against buck toothed Chinese Yellow Demons in a war for truth, justice and the American way.
Because I stopped reading shortly after these elements became clear in the text, I do not want to talk too much about the story as a whole. There are some interesting post-apocalyptic world building bits (disparate “gangs” in the American wasteland coming together to fight the Chinese overlords) and some fun pulp sci-fi ideas (I particularly like the anti-gravity technology depicted in the story). Nor do I want to dwell on issues of racism in pulp fiction, as it is an old argument that has seen much fandom debate and even a few attempts as professional deconstruction. I am more interested in the question: why did I not know I would encounter such racism in this story?
That may seem like a strange question but allow me to explain. Buck Rogers is one of those translucent American icons. By translucent, I mean that most everyone knows the name and has a vague image in mind, but very few people can state any specifics about the figure. Compare this to Superman, for example, who is a much more concrete American iconic figure. Most people cannot go on about minutia in regards to Superman, but they can tell you all the relevent details without even thinking too hard: doomed planet, rocketed to Earth, raised by farmers, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Big Red “S”. Compare that to Buck Rogers: what is his real name? what was his job? how did he end up in the future? If anyone knows any of these details, they are likely based on the television series. Who knows, for example, that Anthony “Buck” Rogers was a scientist who was trapped by a mine cave in and held in suspended animation by irradiated gas, only to wake up in 2419 in the midst of a new war for independence against the sinister Han empire? Certainly not I.
What I knew before reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was that buck rogers was a jet pack wearing, ray gun wielding science hero from the “modern world” who ended up in the future due to a malfunctioning space craft and who was embroiled in wars not against racist stereotypes, but Venusians, Martians and other inhabitants of our future Solar System. My “knowledge” (such that it was) came less from comics strips and even television than it did from the TSR Role Playing Game of my youth. Nowhere in those pages on learning how to create a thrilling science hero was I presented with rules regarding the ethnicity of my character.
What this speaks to, I think, is a tendency to sanitize our cultural icons as they age, especially those ones that tend to be “firsts”. Buck Rogers is iconic because he was the first science fiction comic strip hero and one of the longest running. For all intents and purposes, the comic strip Buck Rogers *is* the character and the Anthony Rogers of Armageddon 2419 A.D. is no more “Buck Rogers” than the 1933 despot created by Siegle and Shuster is “Superman.” The process of becoming an icon includes reproduction and revision and conversion to other media. In this process, a figure is molded by many hands and seen by many eyes and what emerges, eventually, is a creature of consensus. As time goes on and as society and culture change, the icons that remain relevant change too. Those that do not become relics of the past and quaint examples of “the way we used to be.”
What is interesting is that Buck Rogers is such a relic, but not of the late 1920s when he was created, but of the Cold-War of the height of his popularity. Even the television show was something of a throwback and modern attempts to revitalize the character, whether through games or comic books, have failed to recapture our popular interest. Maybe someone will come along and revitalize the character, but even if that happens we can be sure they’ll leave the Yellow Demons in the dustbin of history where they belong.