No. 1 – Philip Francis Nowlan, Buck Rogers, and Military SF.

I’m both stunned and excited by the comeback of Amazing Stories and that I have become a part of this historic process. And it is a historic process. I’ve been looking back at what Amazing Stories’ accomplished in the past and it just increases my anticipation. With a history of so many great writers and SF luminaries having graced its pages, the resurgence of Amazing Stories, as a literary venue, gives new writers a much needed home. Maybe as an avid fan of SF my zeal is excessive, but I’m a true believer. As a true believer, I think anything worth doing is worth overdoing. There’s nothing like overkill in reaching for an objective. My objective is to share my zeal of science fiction as we launch a new era in SF history.

I have another objective, too. While I’m always looking at new authors, I like the whole march-of-time thing, so I’m going to take a journey through a science fiction library. Looking over our shoulders, into the past, is an inexpensive indulgence in some low-cost time travel. The SF landscape is chock-a-block with subcategories and genre crossovers that were begun in Amazing Stories’ first seventy years. Many of the visions of those early authors scratched out new territory for fiction in politics, in religion, and even in science itself. I’m sure you’ll find some of these treasures from the past worth picking up or rereading. Some of these author’s works never seem to get old. Trying to predict the future is an old game and it’s a real kick to see who gets it right and who’s just barking mad.

The history of Amazing Stories’ illustrates just how prescient some of these earlier writers were. And just for the record, I feel compelled to cut science fiction’s past off before Francis Bacon. Personally, I just can’t buy into the argument that The Epic of Gilgamesh is the primal begetting of modern SF. Bacon was instrumental in altering contemporaries’ perspectives from the past to the future. He also used observation of a small event or fact as the basis of his theories. You know—science-like stuff. Bacon abandoned Roman antiquity as the end-all of useful knowledge and started doing his own research. He died as a result of attempting original research, on the forward edge of The Enlightenment, the true birth pangs of both modern science and modern science fiction.

Embracing science and technology gave humanity a reason to anticipate the future. Why, the future might be here next week, after all. So, for me, everything before that era is really proto-science fiction or just very clever fantasy.

My publisher declared that we live in a science fiction world, drawing on an old Ray Bradbury quote:

“Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction.” – Ray Bradbury

Okay. It’s alright for you to disagree as I’m sure a few readers will, just on principle. But let me offer you an anecdote regarding Bradbury’s statement.

You may recall that Ronald Reagan met Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland to discuss nuclear arms proliferation treaties. Gorbachev listened for some time–then said that all this was well and good, –provided the U. S. dropped the Strategic Defense Initiative. This was better known as SDI, or the Star Wars program of missile defense. Reagan got mad, stood up, and walked out of the meeting.

Many of the policy advisors at CIA, at the Defense Department, and on the president’s scientific advisory council, who were in the know, felt that SDI was unlikely to ever work. They opposed it as a hopeless, pork-barrel boondoggle that had too many variables to ever become a reliable system.

I suppose Gorbachev and his cronies couldn’t be sure about that. Reagan had been told, but he chose to not believe those advisers. For one thing, it was such a sexy plan. And as plans go, this one has to rank right up there with the very best science fictions stories ever published. I say this mostly because of how effective it was in suspending not just our disbelief, but the USSR’s well. Never underestimate the power of a good SF story.

Shortly after submerging myself in SF history, I discovered that Amazing Stories had helped some of my favorite authors get started. One such writer was Philip Francis Nowlan who created the character Buck Rogers. Nowlan first published his novella in the Amazing Stories’ August, 1928 issue as Armageddon 2419 A.D.  It was followed by The Airlords of Han, also published by Amazing Stories, in 1929.
Armageddon 2419 ADThe Buck Rogers narrative includes a variety of prescient military innovations and tactics. Nowlan predicted the coming use of bazookas, night-vision goggles, paratroopers, remote attack and reconnaissance drones, and the limits of air supremacy without concurrent ground forces. Military science fictions have never been the same.

He also predicted telecommuting and E-commerce. His vision of a ubiquitous telepresence has more similarities with the World Wide Web and today’s internet than not. Philip Francis Nowlan’s Buck Rogers became serialized as a comic strip, became embedded in the national consciousness, and ran until 1939.

I think military science fiction is a fascinating cross over genre with both fantasy and history. Its popularity seems to ebb and flow, no doubt because of changing cultural perspectives on the legitimacy of war. It seems, however, that it will always have a home with avid readers and fans. I’ll be looking hard at military science fiction again and again so I’ll return to this subject repeatedly since there are so many military SF stories worth reading.

Amazing Stories’ first issue was published in April, 1926. As a matter of passing interest, I discovered that a working television was invented that year. Also that year, the first Goddard rockets shot skyward and climbed into our skies, reaching for more. So much was changing in the world as Amazing Stories magazine was first launched.

Once you develop a taste for reading SF, you might suspect that today’s technology is being driven by visions of tomorrow. It really does seem that our accomplishments follow our dreams, that our facts follow our fictions. If there is one thing we should recognize, it’s that our writers and artists pave the way for us to envision our tomorrows. We seem to take note when we discover that a particular writer can apparently see into the future.

What I find interesting is this instinct to predict. Prescience raises our view from gawping at the mud to gazing upon the stars and it’s one ability that leading SF luminaries seem to share. They foresee the future approaching and embrace it. I suppose that many contemporaries shared their visions, but it needed an SF writer to articulate technology’s, and society’s, possible evolution. We don’t always recognize a genius on first publication. Sometimes it takes years for the masses to accept that a particular writer really could see into the future.

Okay. I admit that there are plenty of writers that get the future wrong, too. Maybe that’s why the ones who get it right are so remarkable.

Philip Francis Nowlan got a lot of things right so I recommend Buck Rogers and Armageddon 2419 A.D. They deserve a place on a shelf in your SF library of SF luminaries. While it may be hard to find a copy these days, it’s worth chasing down. If you need a little help, start with the Internet Speculative Fiction Database or contact Project Gutenberg to download a digital copy of the work.

How far have we really gone? We keep discovering new technologies and perfecting old ones. One thing seems certain. Our rapidly evolving technology provides the catalyst for a robust social evolution. It’s the evolution that drives our imaginations and that makes our writers such a valued commodity.

In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to revisit our past SF luminaries. I’m optimistic that previous SF writers will give inspiration to today’s young writers. They will also give us reason to look forward to the future of our continuing adventures in Amazing Stories.

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4 thoughts on "No. 1 – Philip Francis Nowlan, Buck Rogers, and Military SF."

  1. I was completely *hooked* on the Buck Rogers tv series back in the early '80s, never realized they were based on a book … need to check that out. I'd also LOVE to get hold of some dvds of the tv version, if they are available — just to see how it holds up, these days!

    1. J. Jay Jones says:

      There's a link for an Ebook copy at the end, but I admit, I prefer reading hardcopy over Ebooks. It's really tough to find a hard copy these days, but it can be done if you're patient. You know, Flash Gordon videos can be had easily enough, but I haven't seen any Buck Rogers available on DVD.

  2. I'm looking forward to this series. I haven't read nearly enough and don't read fast enough, so I don't suppose I'll ever catch up. However, I have a soft spot in my heart (or is it just snooty ambition?) for the "luminaries", as you call them.

    1. J. Jay Jones says:

      I hope you enjoy the series. I freely admit that some of these early SF writers were so prolific you'd have to be a speed reader to keep up with them. I'll try to keep putting in reviews of lesser known works so you'll get some decent exposure to their works.

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