WRIGHT ON: Lost Works – The Real Buck Rogers II

Tuesday , 31, January 2017 3 Comments

WRIGHT ON: Lost Works

The Real Buck Rogers II

Let us visit the lost and neglected works of the golden age of science fiction pulps or the silver age of pre-Tolkien fantasy, and see the futures as once they were. 

AIRLORDS OF THE HAN. by Philip Francis Nowlan is the second half of the seminal Buck Rogers story. It appeared in the March 1929 issues of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.

As all science fiction fans should recall, Hugo Gernsback is the editor of the first magazine exclusively devoted to science fiction for whom the once-prestigious Hugo Award is named. He is so honored because in his magazine the first primitive American pulp versions of stories fated to grown into a magnificent genre of science fiction had their advent.

He is not so honored because of his skills as an editor, at least not so far as AIRLORDS OF HAN is concerned. The story is not particularly poorly written. The words plod on in a workmanlike and uninteresting style that does not offend the ear.

But it is poorly edited.

The tale concerns one Anthony Rogers, a mining engineer and Great War veteran, who is overcome by radioactive gas after a mine cave-in in Pennsylvania, held in suspended animation for five hundred years, and waking to find America conquered. While he slept, America and Bolshevik Europe decimated each other in world wars, leaving both too weak to resist the great aerial fleets of the Han of Mongolia.

The Han, having discovered the secrets of the levitation ray and the disintegration ray (which turn out to be applications, oddly enough, of radio science) obliterate the cities of the West, decimate the populations, and send the remnant of survivors fleeing into the vast and pathless woodlands.

As centuries pass, however, the same superscience which gave them world dominion provides a life so soft and easy that the Han have fallen into sloth, decadence, and corruption; and meanwhile the Americans living as hunted nomads in the wild, in buried laboratories and factories, have discovered and manufactured superweapons of their own.

AIRLORDS is basically a somewhat tepid description of the futuristic weapons and battles of a second American War of Independence against the Mongolians.

The story follows the same formula as A PRINCESS OF MARS or SKYLARK OF SPACE or any other tale where the Earthman of the modern day lands among the strange savages of some exotic local, who always possess barbaric laws but futuristic science; he then woos some fair maiden, usually a princess; he then by his virtue, manliness and good luck becomes a war leader; he is admired by friend and foe alike; he utterly annihilates the foe.

These elements are present, but all in a dry and sketchy way, as if Nowlan is annoyed with the need for a story, and wants to get the plot out of the way and return to describing make believe weapons. Rogers is merely asserted to have impressed friend and foe, but nothing he says or does justifies the assertion.

It ends in a bloodless genocide, if so odd a paradox can be imagined.

How so stark and appalling an enormity as wiping out vast populations of civilians, women and children can be depicted, while making it a yawn-fest more likely to put the reader to sleep than to keep him eagerly turning pages is a remarkable failure of craftsmanship that merits closer study.

Somehow, Mr. Nowlan manages to take in innately fascinating concept for a story and execute it so poorly that superlatives of underachievement fail.

There are no characters worth mentioning who possess anything like a personality. There are no vivid descriptions, indeed, no description at all, except of weapons. Rogers, who is a wax manikin forced stiffly through the postures of being the hero, at one point is captured, tortured, and then escapes, but this is told in a fashion so perfunctory and curt that it could not possibly be less exciting.

Would-be writers interested in specifically how not to tell a story should scan these passages with a close eye to see exactly what not to do.

Or, as a seasoned professional, you can stand back and allow me the dangerous honor. Let me first prop up my eyelids with toothpicks and inject boiling black coffee directly into my carotid artery.

The most glaring failure of editing comes in the time honored art of the infodump.

Science fiction differs from all other genres in this one respect: in addition to plot, character, theme and setting, a science fiction story also must have world-building.

Even science fiction tales set in the modern day here on earth must contain some extraterrestrial, futuristic, or unearthly element intruding into an otherwise mundane cast, scenery or props, or else it is not a science fiction story properly so called. This requires some explanation be passed to the reader, directly or indirectly, of how the strange, new world differs from the world we know. When it is done directly, as a lecture, this is called an infodump.

The editor let stand Mr. Nowlan’s teethgrittingly bad solecisms in this area, where an action scene, for example, will be interrupted by two chapters of digression explaining the make-believe science of the Twenty Fifth Century, or telling of some siege or battle where the first person narrator was not present, before cutting back to the action.

The same overlong infodumps, had they been placed elsewhere, or put into dialog, or cut into the story only where the information was needed, would have been more sound craftsmanship. (I myself have nothing against overlong infodumps, as longsuffering readers of my own works know all too well.) But, like any sleight of hand of the storyteller’s art, there are ways to do this poorly, and ways to do it craftily.

For example, when H.G. Wells pauses to describe the mechanism of the heat-ray of the Martian fighting machines, or the magnetic muscles of their tripod legs, the description is woven smoothly into the text just at the point where the reader is curious about the information, and the information is crucial to understanding what is happening in the scene immediately following.

The past master of this particular art is Robert Heinlein. If any would-be writer wants to learn the trick of inserting needed background information seamlessly into a narrative, look at the passages where, for example, Mobile Infantry powered armor is described in STARSHIP TROOPERS, or the mechanisms of a spacesuit are explained in HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL.

The essence of the trick is first to tickle the reader’s curiosity about the matter. Let the viewpoint character have something at stake should he learn or fail to learn the information (even if the only thing at stake is the satisfaction of the character’s own itch to know). Then let the reader learn the information when the reader does, and, more to the point, have the character use the information.

When it is done this way, the infodump becomes a revelation, as satisfying as a scene where a detective identifies the murderer, rather than just being background information making no difference to the plot.

And, of course, the other point is to make adorn your lecture with metaphors or illustrations or something else to make the thing not dull.

Consider this passage from Heinlein, describing a space helmet:

The helmet was monstrous. It contained a drinking tank, pill dispensers six on each side, a chin plate to the right to switch radio from “receive” to “send”, another on the left to increase or decrease the flow of air, an automatic polarizer for the face lens, space for radio circuits in a bulge back of the head, and an instrument board arched over the head…

Above the lens or window there were twin headlights. On top were two antennas, a spike for broadcasting and a horn that squirted microwaves like a gun—you aimed it by facing the receiving station. The horn antenna was armored except for its open end. This sounds as crowded as a lady’s purse but everything was beautifully compact; your head didn’t touch anything when you looked out the lens.

Merely by likening a radio horn to a gun or a helmet to a lady’s purse, the description is vivid. Compare this, which is merely one small part of a passage that goes on interminably:

The Hans’ power-stations used to broadcast three distinct “powers” simultaneously. Our engineers called them the “starter,” the “pullee” and the “sub-disintegrator.” The last named had nothing to do with the operation of the ships, but was exclusively the powerizer of the disintegrator generators.

The “starter” was not unlike the “radio” broadcasts of the Twentieth Century. It went out at a frequency of about 1,000 kilocycles, had an amperage of approximately zero, but a voltage of two billion. Properly amplified by the use of inductostatic batteries (a development of the principle underlying the earth induction compass applied to the control of static) this current energized the “A” ionomagnetic coils on the airships, large and sturdy affairs, which operated the Attractoreflex Receivers, which in turn “pulled in” the second broadcast power known as the “pullee,” absorbing it from every direction, literally exhausting it from surrounding space. The “pullee” came in at about a half-billion volts, but in very heavy amperage, proportional to the capacity of the receiver, and on a long wave—at audio frequency in fact. About half of this power reception ultimately actuated the repeller ray generators. The other half was used to energize the “B” ionomagnetic coils, peculiarly wound affairs, whose magnetic fields constituted the only means of insulating and controlling the circuits of the three “powers.”

The repeller ray generators, operating on this current, and in conjunction with “twin synchronizers” in the power broadcast plant, developed two rhythmically variable ether-ground circuits of opposite polarity. In the “X” circuit, the negative was grounded along an ultraviolet beam from the ship’s repeller-ray generator. The positive connection was through the ether to the “X synchronizer” in the power plant, whose opposite pole was grounded. The “Y” circuit travelled the same course, but in the opposite direction.

And so on for page after page.

It must be noted that each part of the space helmet mentioned above is used in a later scene, where the hero there is making a desperate trek with limited air across the lunar surface.

It must be noted that exactly nothing mentioned about this description of the airships of the Han is used again. The reader need only know that the disintegration rays disintegrate their targets, a fact we can glean from the name, and that the whole apparatus is powered by broadcast power. No one inside or outside the story cares or needs to know which circuit connection is grounded where.

The author goes into similar detail describing the circuitry of how the ground stations connect to the chest radiophone and ear receivers worn by the Americans, and, again, the information has no purpose inside the story.

The whole of this technical digression, which happens, let me emphasize again, just as Rogers is in the middle of a battle and about to dive-bomb an enemy warship, is over two thousand words. That as long as some complete short stories I’ve read.

Let us compare and contrast with the detailed treatment of scene of Rogers, after his capture, being tortured, brainwashed, and seduced by beautiful oriental women:

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.

The text in less than 500 words describes that the Han faked pictures of Roger’s wife being tortured, but Rogers knows she is made of too stern a stuff to break; and describes how Rogers resists hypnosis, in part because he is a man of the far past to whom all these surrounding events still do not as yet quite seem real. This description is five paragraphs, or roughly the same length as my summary of it here. And my summary has more drama to it.

And so they failed.

More than that, I think I won something nearer to genuine respect from those around me than any other Hans of that generation accorded to anybody.

Among these was San-Lan himself, the ruler. In the end it was he who ordered the cessation of these tortures, and quite frankly admitted to me his conviction that they had been futile and that I was in many senses a super-man. …

Another was his favorite concubine, Ngo-Lan, a creature of the most alluring beauty; young, graceful and most delicately seductive, whose skill in the arts and sciences put many of their doctors to shame. This creature, his most prized possession, San-Lan with the utmost moral callousness ordered to seduce me, urging her to apply without stint and to its fullest extent, her knowledge of evil arts. Had I not seen the naked horror of her soul, that she let creep into her eyes for just one unguarded instant, and had it not been for my conviction of Wilma’s faith in me, I do not know what—but suffice it to say that I resisted this assault also.

Suffice it to say, indeed.

The whole scene, from start to finish is precisely 860 words, whereas the description of the super-duper science of the Twenty-Fifth Century preoccupies 2200 words and change.

Now apparently the editor, Hugo Gernsback, thought that the readers would be two and a half times more interested in how the circuits of the synchronizer aboard the Han warship of the polarized pre-disintegration connections would be grounded, or at how many cycles of megahertz the starter broadcasts operated, than a description of sadistic but beautiful oriental princess tormenting a seducing healthy young American buck, and so Hugo did not return the manuscript to Nowlan, with instructions written in angry, jagged red pen to expand the interesting scene and cut back the dull.

Speaking as an aficionado of pulp magazines, old black and white serials, and the like, I have to say that scenes where the brawny-chested but virtuous All-American boy, in chains with his shirt torn, his muscled oiled with sweat, resists both the exquisite agony of the oriental tyrant’s tortures and the exotic allure of his beautiful but evil daughter, are something of a trope in this genre. But compared to Fa Lo Suee, Talia al Ghul, or Princess Aura, the sheer lazy brevity of the passing mention here makes Ngo-Lan the least of all her sisters.

For the record, Ngo-Lan is mentioned exactly one more time. Rogers comes across her during his escape while waiting for an elevator. After the other two Han men waiting on the elevator platform are killed (one by the other, and the survivor by Wilma Rogers nee Deering), he binds and gags her and leaves her lying in an abandoned spot. Since the whole city, later that same day, is obliterated by atomics, the gallantry of leaving her alive, while welcome, is but temporary.

No other gallantry is shown any civilians among the foe, not even to the sprightly young daughter of the Emperor whom the narration mentions in exactly one line.

Indeed, in a rather casually grotesque scene, the Han refugees in countless numbers attempt to escape from the threatened enemy capital via ray-bored tunnels, are hunted down by Rogers and his squad and obliterated by the orb-shaped flying drones called air-balls (pictured on the cover illustration seen above).

These can spew out poisonous gas, or germ weapons causing plagues, or simply ignite themselves in atomic explosions, but the preferred method of mowing down fleeing women and children is to send the air-ball rocketing, faster than a cannonball can fly, through crowds, splattering bodies like dropped tomatoes and breaking bones like toothpicks.

Of course, Rogers, the designated hero, is exposed to absolutely no danger during these maneuvers, since he is safely hidden miles away, wiping out countless fleeing civilians like a gamer playing a first person shooter game, except one where you throw your admantium camera lens through the enemy’s body at rocket speeds.

The air balls eventually find and destroy a refuge city hidden miles beneath the earth, described as a wonder of engineering genius and architectural beauty. It is blown to flinders.

There is another, absurdly brief, description of the fall of New York: the Americans shoot it with atomic bullets sheathed in disintegration-proof jackets, leaving a crater. When the broadcast power stations are destroyed, and airships crash.

Next, the absurd Rube Goldberg hand to hand weapons, armored diving bells with guns in the helmet, shields armed with rocket bullets, or rifle-battleaxes, which were described at tedious length in an earlier chapter, now are used mopping up the crash survivors.

It should be noted that the description of the weapons takes longer than any description of the fight where they are used.

But placed awkwardly during and before these events, we spend a few paragraphs with the imprisoned Rogers among the Han, like Gulliver among the Laputans, describing the oddities and mores of the Twenty-Fifth Century Mongolians.

The futuristic speculation Nowlan does he does well.

If the reader will forgive the length of this quote, the following passage might be of interest, because it embraces the central theme of the book:

Every Han city had many public-view broadcasting stations, operating on tuning ranges which did not interfere with other communication systems. For slight additional fees a citizen in Lo-Tan might, if he felt so inclined, “visit” the seashore, or the lakes or the forests of any part of the country, for when such scene was thrown on the walls of an apartment, the effect was precisely the same as if one were gazing through a vast window at the scene itself.

It was possible too, for a slightly higher fee, to make a mutual connection between apartments in the same or different cities, so that a family in Lo-Tan, for instance, might “visit” friends in Fis-Ko (San Francisco) taking their apartment, so to speak, along with them; being to all intents and purposes separated from their “hosts” only by a big glass wall which interfered neither with vision nor conversation.

These public view and visitation projectoscopes explain that utter depth of laziness into which the Hans had been dragged by their civilization. …

Why should he leave his house? Food, wonderful synthetic concoctions of any desired flavor and consistency (and for additional fee conforming to the individual’s dietary prescription) came to him through a shaft, from which his tray slid automatically on to a convenient shelf or table.

At will he could tune in a theatrical performance of talking pictures. He could visit and talk with his friends. He breathed the freshest of filtered air right in his own apartment, at any temperature he desired, fragrant with the scent of flowers, the aromatic smell of the pine forests or the salt tang of the sea, as he might prefer. …

There was even a tube system, with trunk, branch and local lines and an automagnetic switching system, by which articles within certain size limits could be despatched from any apartment to any other one in the city.

Not only does this follow in the footsteps of The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, which was published two decades before (in 1909), it anticipates the wall screens of FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury published two decades later (1953).

And it sounds like me at my computer, shopping, socializing, telecommuting, and ordering take-out without moving from my seat. Hmm.

The point being made, and a rather adroit point at that, is that automation leads to ease and hence a decay of the body, and mass communications leads to a decay of the spirit.

Also of interest are Nowlan’s speculation of the Han running their entire economy on credit without any gold currency (a speculation whose outcome we in this generation will see, in all its folly and horror, come to pass).

He also posits a system where the Imperial government own all the shares of stock in the corporations. This is basically syndicate socialism. Perhaps a generous reader can excuse him this naivety, for rare indeed was the man of Mr. Nowlan’s generation who had enough knowledge of economics to see the flaws and fallacies in the theory. Like eugenics, it was all the rage back then.

Another interesting point is that the Han have a marriage system utterly unlike America of 1929, and uncomfortably similar to America of 2017.

When one considers that the Hans, from the days of their exodus from Mongolia and their conquest of America, had never held any ideal of monogamy, and the fact that marriage was but a temporary formality which could be terminated on official notice by either party … it is easy to see that no such thing as a real family life existed among them.

Free women roamed the corridors of the city, pathetically importuning marriage, and wives spent most of the time they were not under their husbands’ watchful eyes in flirtatious attempts to provide themselves with better prospects for their next marriages.

Naturally the biggest problem of the community was that of stimulating the birth rate…

Sound familiar?

One idea used by the Han is that in order for women to be lured by bounties paid for having children, all other sources of income, that is to say, women entering the workplace, are forbidden.

This has not yet been suggested by the social engineers of modern Europe, but no doubt soon will be.

There is also this:

The Han philosophy for centuries had not admitted the existence of souls. Its conception embraced nothing but electrons, protons and molecules, and still was struggling desperately for some shred of evidence that thoughts, will power and consciousness of self were nothing but chemical reactions.

Sound familiar?

Another sign of the corruption of technology is the predominance of the Yun-Yun (Union) men among the working class. As the only ones able to repair the machinery on whose working all their lives depend, not even royalty among the Han dares meddle with them. This is somewhat a droll comment on the thuggish and intimidating Union practices of the Nowlan’s generation (which even in those days had ties to organized crime, Democrat machine politics, and Communist subversion).

In a closely related theme, one of the few interesting points in book, at least for fans of military SF, is that Rogers (and, presumably Nowlan) insists, much as Rico (and, presumably, Heinlein) will insist in STARSHIP TROOPERS, that neither air power by itself nor firepower by itself can carry the day.

As in World War One, bayonet charges are necessary. The lesson learned both by the Vietnamese War and the current unnamed war carried on by air raids and drone strikes, is that soldiers unwilling to come to hand to hand combat with the enemy cannot take and hold the territory.

And it is a sign of weakness of the Han that they are not willing to put boots on the ground, but only destroy ground targets while safely airborne.

Sound familiar?

The contrast with the Spartan nomads of Twenty-Fifth Century America is stark.

In the final battle scene, Rogers turns over his command to his wife, because he wants to go out and bayonet the enemy face-to-face. Wilma, in turn, motivated by the warlike desire to fight and die by the side of her man, goes with him.

For the first time in the tale, we have bit of vivid action. I think it is the only vivid scene in the whole, yawnworthy yarn.

Allow me to quote at length, if only to show that Mr. Nowlan could have written the whole book this way, but for some reason, did not:

Great, blinding flashes, like a continuous wall of gigantic fireworks, receded up the valley ahead of us, sweeping ahead of it a seething, tossing mass of debris that seemed composed of all nature, tons of earth, rocks and trees. Ever and anon vast sections of the mountain sides would loosen and slide into the valley.

And, leaping close behind this barrage, with a reckless skill and courage that amazed me, our bayonet-gunners appeared in a continuous series of flashing pictures, outlined in midleap against the wall of fire.

In yet another clever bit of military Sci-Fi, the Han soldiers escape the atomic barrage passing over their heads by boring deep foxholes in the ground with the beams of their hand weapons, emerging when the barrage passes overhead. Americans in anti-gravity belts, leaping in hundred-yard weightless leaps, attack with ax and bayonet:

Thrust! Cut! Crunch! Slice! Thrust! Up and down with vicious, tireless, flashing speed, swung the bayonets and ax-bladed butts of the American gunners as they leaped and dodged, ever forward, toward new opponents.

Weakly and ineffectually the red-coated Han soldiery thrust at them with spears, flailing with their short-swords and knives, or whipping about their ray pistols. The forest men were too powerful, too fast in their remorselessly efficient movement.

With a shout of unholy joy, I gripped a bayonet-gun from the hands of a gunner whose leg had been whisked out of existence beneath him by a pistol ray, and leaped forward into the fight, launching myself at a red-coated officer who was just stepping out of a “fox hole.”

Like a shriek of the Valkyrie, Wilma’s battle cry rang in my ear as she, too, shot herself like a rocket at a red-coated figure.

I thrust with every ounce of my strength. The Han officer, grinning wickedly as he tried to raise the muzzle of his pistol, threw himself backward as my bayonet ripped the air under his nose. But his grin turned instantly to sickened surprise as the up-cleaving ax-blade on the butt of my weapon caught him in the groin, half bisecting him.

And from the corner of my eye I saw Wilma bury her bayonet in her opponent, screaming in ecstatic joy.

As readers of the first half of this story will recall, Wilma is, however, the least competent warrior-girl in all scientifictiondom. Immediately after their signal victory, she faints.

Counting this together each fight scenes in both installments of the story in which she appears, she faints or is struck senseless in all of them. That is some sort of record.

The surrounded enemy troops, rather than surrender, commit mass suicide via disintegration.

It is mentioned in passing that after the fall of the capital, the other Han cities in America, and then the world, are wiped out and their populations hunted down.

The final paragraphs of the tale contain something of an apologia for savagery of Wilma, perhaps of all the Twenty-Fifth Century Americans. Here the author does the one thing I enjoy most in any story penned by anyone. He looks at both sides of the issue:

As I look back on those emotional and violent years from my present vantage point of declining existence in an age of peace and good will toward all mankind, they do seem savage and repellent.

No kidding.

Had the Hans been raging tigers, or slimy, loathsome reptiles, would we have spared them? And when in their centuries of degradation they had destroyed the souls within themselves, were they in any way superior to tigers or snakes? To have extended mercy would have been suicide.

If this sounds harsh, keep in mind that readers of that day and age, unless they were Armenian Christians from Turkey, were aware of no genocide within living memory.

The horrors of scientific warfare predicted by science fiction had not yet come to pass in real life.

And, since we live in an age when our enemies have grown to be as soulless and savage as tigers or reptiles, the moral quandary of what to do when mercy is suicide is a trenchant question indeed.

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.

This puts to rest the common enough accusation that the story is somehow racist. Or, if it is racist, it is racist on behalf of the Mongolians, who are super-scientific world-conquerors.

The simple fact is that one cannot tell a story about American being overrun by Mongols without making Mongols the bad guys.

The other simple fact is that Europe, having been invaded more than once by hordes from East or South, is fascinated by invasion tales.

For the same reason, because the Fall of Rome lingers in our racial memory, science fiction stories about the collapse of empires and the onset of Dark Ages recur in writers from Frank Herbert to Isaac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke.

The claim that some moral precept should prevent us from telling or hearing tales about America being overrun by Mongols is folly: let him who proposes such a precept provide a list of the races whom it is legitimate to cast as aggressors and foes in future wars. Then let him explain how the mere act of drawing up such a list of which races it is legitimate to cast as villains is not itself a violation of that alleged precept?

The point being made is not that all Chinese are savage, hyperintelligent, lax and corrupt, but that technical advancements made by men who ignore, or lack, spiritual development lead nowhere but back through sloth and corruption to savagery.

Since Progressives place such stock in progress, the rather cynical warning that human nature places limits on progress, even in a tale as harmless as this, cannot be answered by the Progressives. Easier to call the author a racist.

There is an odd and awkward afterward tacked on to the end of the tale, where it is revealed that the Han were actually crossbred space aliens who lack souls.

It has no bearing on the plot beforehand, and, if anything, by making the Han halfhuman, diminishes the force of the warning that reliance on a seductive technology has dehumanizing effects.

One other critic I have read said, perhaps in jest, that Nowlan added this afterthought to appear less racist. This is betrays the parochialism of the critic and sheds no light on Nowlan’s motive for the afterward.

As a writer myself, I speculate that Mr. Nowlan wanted to make room for a sequel, and realized while typing the last chapter that if the Han enemy were wiped out everywhere on Earth, the only way to continue the war would be to have primordial Han on other planets in the solar system.

What is perhaps disturbing about reading this ninety-year old yarn is how much the children of the current generation resemble the Han and how little we resemble the stern and stoical Americans of the Twenty-Fifth Century, creatures of remorseless discipline, precise and honest science, pragmatic outlook, and unconquerable spirit.

I will confess that this tale, or this half of the tale, bored and irked me far more than did the first half reviewed in last week’s column. Perhaps this is due to a growing familiarity hence exasperation with the weaknesses of Philip Francis Nowlan as a writer, or perhaps due to the difference between a story where Jack kills a Giant and a story where a Giant kills a Giant, and a sickly one at that.

But let us not overlook the good in this tale:

The speculations about futuristic warfare, and the sheer cleverness and good sense of the writer in imagining and describing the side effects of his make believe weapons are just as satisfying in this second half.

I have read writers far more skillful in every other area of the science fiction writer’s craft make the jarring error which Philip Francis Nowlan never makes, not once: the unforgivable error of not thinking through all the ramifications of your counterfactual conceit.

(If you have ever encounter a science fiction tale where the a hero can walk through walls but does not fall through floors, you know what error I mean.)

For example, I was delighted with the descriptions of how to attack an armored car surrounded with a cone-shaped disintegration field, for the author kept in mind that the field first, could not extend beneath the car, and that, second, on any irregular surface, the skirt or edges of the field would dissolve the ground and dig itself deeper irregularities.

And again, when the Americans invent a material invulnerable to disintegration, and launch a ship armored prow to stern into the air against them, the Han use their allegedly now-harmless disintegration beams to make pockets of vacuum beneath the ship in flight, battering it earthward and causing it to crash. Because Nowlan never forgets that his disintegration rays also disintegrate air.

Despite all the complaints given above, the tale still deserves a passing grade and should be recommended it to any reader whose tastes allow him to take his science fiction in the raw and rough, without either the sparse craftsmanship of Robert Heinlein, the brilliant subtlety and humor of C.S. Lewis, or the ornate yet energetic purple prose of writers like A. Merritt or E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith.

Let all due credit be given Francis Nowlan for anticipating, nearly a century ahead of time, the mindset which the current generation ever more closely resembles.

If nothing else, it is cheering to see a tale where the Americans, motivated by clearly American spirit, are clearly the good guys, and centuries of being hunted like beasts in the woods by savage oppressors has not quenched either their bravery, their scientific curiosity, or their love of independence.

3 Comments
  • VD says:

    “The simple fact is that one cannot tell a story about American being overrun by Mongols without making Mongols the bad guys. The other simple fact is that Europe, having been invaded more than once by hordes from East or South, is fascinated by invasion tales.”

    A timely review indeed. I wonder if we will see a revival of such tales in the genre; one would tend to imagine that the age of the stories of the welcome and misunderstood Other is rapidly coming to a close.

  • Doc Rampage says:

    Could you check your spam box? For some reason, my comments aren’t getting through at several sites, including one I left here.

  • Dave says:

    Right on! CH Blog and JCW

    https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25438

    [Full AudioBook] Philip Francis Nowlan: The Airlords of Han

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