An Audio-Book Review: Backwards, Into the Future!

Armageddon 2419 A.D.

By Phillip Francis Nowland

Two recordings published by Librivox

Read by Alan Winterrowd and by Megan Argo, Phil Chenovert, Kevin W. Davidson, Peter Hornacek, Malcolm Cameron, Arnie Horton and Mike Pelton.


The Story:

Here’s an interesting one for you. This is an SF novella from the 1920’s that, together with its sequel, The Airlords of Han, was later reworked into “Buck Rogers.” That is interesting by itself (although it is not quite Buck Rogers yet) , but the story-telling is a fascinating form that lies somewhere between the style of Jules Verne and ancient writers of fantastic fiction and the stories that comprise the corpus of modern Science Fiction.

Having read and listened to the early forms of fantastic fiction, I have come to realize that most, if not all, tend to be travelogues. The bulk of the stories (the entirety in many cases) involve people traveling to other lands and other worlds in which they encounter people whose lives and cultures are completely unlike anything they and their readers have ever encountered. The stories spend nearly all of their verbiage describing how life is lived in those exotic locales and sometimes describe how they managed to get there and back too. However, there is very little plot involved. The entire point is to describe a different sort of life, frequently opposite to anything the reader knows.

Verne did manage to slip some plot into his stories, but even so, many involve traveling to exotic places and seeing how life is lived there. Around the World in Eighty Days, for example, Spends most of its time going from place to place even though we also have the story of Phileas Fogg trying to win a bet with Detective Fix chasing him down for suspicion of having robbed the Bank of England. Much of Journey to the Center of the Earth talks about the places Verne’s characters go en route to Iceland (including Iceland) and then talk about the inside of the Earth in the same manner. Plot? Well, yes there is a plot, but far more description. Off on a Comet does not even worry about how they got there. Verne just says a comet crashed into the earth taking bits of the Earth and some inhabitants away with it. The plot is thin and the characters are all racial stereotypes. Some of his other stories have more plot to them, yes, but even then you can see his ancient predecessors’ influence on his Nineteenth Century fiction. This is not a criticism, really. It is just the way fantastic fiction was written back then.

Armageddon 2149 A.D. is about half travelogue and half story. More modern SF and fantasy spends more time developing the characters and plot, but this is definitely a transitionary piece of fiction showing us where the art was at that time.

In this story Anthony Rogers (later named Buck when the story was adapted into a daily comic strip) suddenly finds himself over five hundred years in his own future. How he does it is by getting trapped in a mine and breathing a mysterious radioactive gas which keeps him in some sort of stasis until he wakes up breathing fresh air. Now… what’s wrong with this picture? It’s worse science than the idea of Spiderman gaining his powers when bit by a radioactive spider, but I can forgive Nowland. In the 20’s who knew. It seemed radioactivity could do anything if used correctly. I think he must have been at least slightly acquainted with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity since some of his future people had ways to convert matter directly into energy and vice versa. He obviously had no idea of the amount of energy that might be involved and had no idea that it had to go somewhere, but he had that as an idea.

Still, this was the beginning of Buck Rogers and an early modern future history. Too bad he got almost everything wrong. That is a danger in future histories. A writer wants to create a plausible timeline starting with his own present and extrapolating possible future events until the point in time his story takes place. Well, people are not really all that predictable and future histories almost always go awry as time passes. In a well-crafted future history, a reader won’t really care if you thought the Soviet Union would last a thousand years or if Charles De Gaulle was voted President for Life in post-World War II France. Stranger things have happened and continue to do so.

In this case from his 1920’s perspective, Nowland foresaw a time when Imperial China would rule the world. How would he know that Mao Zedong would change all that? Forget about it and just go with this Chinese (who he sometimes describes as Mongolians) dominated world. He calls this the Han Dynasty of America. The Hans have a civilization with airships and disintegrator rays while what is left of the Americans have rockets they ride as well as a fantastically strong and invisible metal called Ultron. Actually as I listened I kept thinking the Americans (who at the outset are portrayed as somewhat backwards) are actually rather advanced even if only Rogers seems to know how to use any of their weapons effectively.

However, Nowland didn’t get everything wrong. He did accurately predict remote drones, Telecommuting, Paratroopers and night-vision equipment and bazookas. He predicted wireless phones, e-commerce and even red-spot (laser?) aiming on hand-held weapons. Not bad even if he kept talking about the Hans in what must have been a bad pun with Huns (who originally came out of Asia, not Germany.

The story is a bit thin and heavy-handed with American patriotism. I don’t mind patriotism, but this has a sort of racial aspect (white vs yellow… As far as I can tell there were no black or brown characters involved) going on and it had a very strong tone of racial superiority in it as well. (On the other hand, it inspired “Duck Dodgers in the 24 and a Half Century”) All this, however will not keep me from listening to the sequel when I have a chance. Stay tuned.

The Audiobooks:

As I often do when there are two or more recordings of a shorter work, I chose to listen to both of Librivox’s offerings. I think the one by Alan Winterrowd was the better of the two. Mister Winterrowd may not be a superb reader, but he is a very good reader. He put in just enough emotion to keep me interested and only once went into an annoying strange vocal ism and that was the fault of the writer, not the reader (a character was talking between huffs and puffs and Nowland wrote those huffs and puffs into the dialogue… it was annoying in both editions). I could definitely stand to listen to many more books read by him.

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