The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

The “Buck Rogers” Quandry – In Which I Contradict Previous Views

Posted by BigWords on February 20, 2010

If you have been reading through the posts here for any length of time you will probably be aware of my opinion on the accuracy with which a character’s continuing adventures should be to its’ originating material. The whole debate about screwing with a character’s personality, the setting within which they operate, the surrounding characters, the tech level (and a hundred other details) is open to discussion once more, as I find the constant chatter concerning the proposed Buck Rogers film has managed to overlook a simple fact – the original incarnation of the character is a racist thug. That comment is probably going to upset a few people, but is the nicest thing I have to say about Anthony Rogers.

The views of the character were seen as acceptable back when Philip Francis Nowlan’s novella Armageddon 2419 was released, and contemporary authors (Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft to name two) pushed similarly bigoted ideals onto the stories they churned out, so it isn’t as is the story stands alone as an Aryan call to arms. Armageddon 2419 is, in many ways, a poorly written story (not as bad as Airlords Of Han, but still…), featuring unsympathetic characters and illogical plot devices throughout. Ah, and I mentioned the sequel, which deserves a word or two of its’ own.

Airlords Of Han is shit. This may come as a shock to anyone who believes that Buck Rogers stands alongside Flash Gordon, The Rocketmen and Lensman as a paragon of the Golden Age of SF characters, but it is undeniable that an entire chapter devoted to the explanation of the fictional technologies of the future is a waste of paper and time. When it does manage to stay on track, the even crueler depiction of the Hans (a race who do not believe in either respect or the soul) reinforces the surplus of negativity with which I have always associated the character. So… Ignoring my previous entreaties to stick to the original depiction of a character, adapting the books is out of the question.

What of the comic strip? When the comic strip started, a few years later, the more obvious elements were removed at the expense of even more logic., and… Well, aside from the fact that Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Lensman, the original Battlestar Galactica and a thousand lesser films and television shows have already churned over the same ground – and sometimes to much better effect – I believe a loose adaptation of those stories may prove more fruitful. And the SF element is greater in the strip than the two novellas, wherein the level of technology has been stunted due to a prolonged war (entirely situated on planet Earth) with the Han. I never liked the television series, so I don’t know why anyone would consider it to be worth updating – at least in a straight retelling. In the mode of a parody (deep into Spaceballs territory) it would be fine, but really… Do we need that?

In formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of defeat, but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress toward a victory.

Alfred North Whitehead

And so I will contradict myself.

All we need (that is, all we really need) is for a character named ‘Rogers’ to find himself at some point in the twenty-fifth century – not necessarily in 2419, but that would be a nice touch – and to get into a few scrapes. Wilma (who does appear in the novellas) should really be present, though Twiki can be safely ignored. That’s pretty much all we need in a film script bearing the title “Buck Rogers” – though there will always be the nagging doubt that another property would be deserving of a remake more than a soggy old, used and abused, hokier-than-hokey SF anomaly. Okay, so that’s maybe a tad too critical of a deliberately camp old television show, but I stand by my assertion that there are many (more deserving) properties which deserve better treatment.

You might agree, you can certainly disagree, and even if you can’t raise the energy to care, a film will probably arrive at some point.

Armageddon 2419 is available online at Project Gutenberg Australia
The Airlords Of Han is available online at Project Gutenberg Australia

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3 Responses to “The “Buck Rogers” Quandry – In Which I Contradict Previous Views”

  1. Al Harron said

    Your use of the phrase “pushed similarly bigoted ideals” is problematic, as it gives the impression that these authors made a conscious effort to use their fiction as a platform for their beliefs.

    On the contrary, I think it’s more a case of the mores and standards of the time being reflected in their work. Certainly, one should never forget just how sickeningly pervasive racism was in the 1920s and 1930s, and no author writes in a vacuum, some of those monstrous facets will creep in.

  2. bigwords88 said

    Yes. Just “yes” will suffice here. Okay, I need to expand on my use of the phrase I should really sleep on a thought before I make an inflammatory post, so I can edit for problematic phrases…

    The entire era was rife with casual and unthinking racism, from Sax Rohmer’s “Yellow Peril” to the ‘sub-men’ of Lovecraft’s work, and there’s a quote (from an early Tarzan novel, though I can’t place the title) which likens the natives’ thought process to that of the beasts of the jungle. In the case of The Airlords Of Han, however, this gets pushed up a notch – and if you follow the link to the text you’ll see for yourself the length to which Nowlan manages to stretch even contemporary mores to horrifying new levels. There isn’t any respite from the onslaught of derogatory remarks, whereas other authors softened their views over time. There are a couple of good Tarzan novels from the thirties in which Edgar Rice Burroughs projected the ‘savage noble’ archetype onto the natives, eliminating some of the obvious inherent racism of the early novels.

    This period serves as a quandary for modern readers – do we overlook the distasteful elements (at the expense of the author’s beliefs and the era) or do we let them slide through on a “history pass” (and not bring up the question at all), because of the date of publication? In any case, my assertion that The Airlords Of Han is a terrible novel (racist or not) is entirely correct. I refuse to be bowed in this regard. There is so many deficiencies in the plot, the setting and the actual writing that any critical regard for the text is rendered moot by pointless inserts. Seriously, anyone who can get through the chapter which details the technology of the 25th century without skipping over the odd sentence here and there is a better man than I – the novel is filled with type of bad writing which lowers opinion of an entire genre.

    I’m not going to let the artists of the era off either. Have you read The Yellow Kid? Yup, that comic is just as bad as any of the novels I have a problem with. And from Tarzan there is this image:

    As a side-note, I was going to try and point out authors from the thirties and forties who didn’t casually belittle individuals for the color of their skin, but nobody comes to mind. The pulps (and novels of the period which use the same loose, quick writing) have the ability to divide readers greatly, so I expect there is more on this topic to be chewed over.

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