You might be asking, why review a magazine from 89 years ago? As an sf fan my library didn’t seem complete without it. The reason being that the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories is perhaps the most influential piece of pulp literature ever published. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury (now collectively known as The Grandmasters of Science Fiction) all named this single issue as a primary reason why they got into writing “scientific fiction” stories.
This issue also marked the beginning of the rise of American science fiction. The genre up to that point had been dominated by a Brit (H.G. Wells) and a Frenchman (Jules Verne). There existed science fiction stories before those two of course (many cite Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the origin of the science fiction novel) however it wasn’t until Wells and Verne that speculative stories relying heavily on science and technology came to prominence. American Edgar Rice Burroughs took Well’s torch and ran with it in the 1910s with his John Carter of Mars novels, but diverged from pure science stories to form the new hybrid genre of “science fantasy.”
Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories premiere issue came out in April 1926. It was the first magazine dedicated exclusively to science fiction, specifically the sub-genre of “hard sf.” This alone was a milestone. The first years of Amazing contained reprints of Wells, Verne, Burroughs, and Poe stories primarily. Many prominent writers of the period like H.P. Lovecraft avoided Amazing because the pay was low. Gernsbeck did not pay Wells and other writers reprint royalties either.
It wasn’t until the August 1928 issue, which featured the first chapters of two brand new short novels by American authors, that the magazine passed into legend. Those stories were Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan and The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith.
Armageddon 2419 A.D.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: A former Army Air Service captain who later worked for a chemical corporation is involved in a tragic accident. He is entombed after an explosion in a crypt full of a mysterious radioactive gas. Thinking that only moments have passed the captain digs himself out only to soon realize that he has been sleeping for 492 years! If you guessed that this captain’s name is Anthony “Buck” Rogers, then you guessed correctly. Armageddon 2419 A.D. is the famous airman’s very first appearance. Catching the eye of a newspaper publisher Nowlan was asked to adapt his character to the comic strip format and the rest is history. Buck Rogers would become the very first science fiction comic strip and the first science fiction themed radio show. The character would later go on to star in serials, movies, television, and of course he would be featured on toy ray guns for generations to come.
The novel is still very readable today and if it were to be a straight film adaptation it would probably be rated R. I found that not only did the famous authors above get inspired by this story, but I think Frank Herbert probably read it too. The lasgun/shield/bladed weapon dynamic from Dune seems to be borrowed from Nowlan. In Buck’s future America of 2419 ballistic weapons have evolved into essentially mini atomic artillery shells. So the use of them in war would cause such cataclysmic destruction that human combat has once again gone back to knife fighting. Buck (not given that nickname until the comics) is a veteran of World War I so he is very adept at hand to hand combat, surprising even his future comrades with his proclivity for violence. At one point he guts an enemy “bisecting him from groin to chin” with his deadly blade.
Gene Roddenberry was inspired by Buck Rogers and the copycat character Flash Gordon when he wrote the part of Captain Kirk. Buck has many Kirk-like qualities. He’s a take charge man of action and the ideal military leader. He is also a ladies man. He has sex with Wilma the very first day he wakes up in the future. I pictured Buster Crabbe’s face rather than Gil Gerard’s as I read the novel, but I couldn’t help imagine Erin Gray as Wilma for obvious reasons.
A cool aspect of the story is that it’s told in first person perspective. You get inside Buck’s head and see the future as he does. If you are familiar with the character then you know the tale, but I’ll summarize it anyway… Buck wakes up and immediately sees Wilma about to die while being pursued by a “Han.” She is bounding in giant leaps by using an anti-gravity belt which naturally makes Buck realize that he’s not in Kansas anymore. During her fight with the Han, Wilma drops her ray gun. Buck, without knowing what side she’s on, grabs it and blasts the Han to atoms. He learns from Wilma that the year is 2419 and the U.S. has been conquered by the Hans (essentially an Asian Empire similar to the ancient Mongolian Empire). There are a few racist slurs or what could be considered racist in our p.c. times, as the Hans are sometimes called the “yellow blight.”
Americans of this era are reduced to a small native population similar to the Native American Indians. The Hans live in giant ships in the sky and care little for the gnat-like savages below them. Fresh from the blood soaked battlefields of Europe Buck realizes that the Americans are not even utilizing their technology to take down the oppressive Hans. After Buck leads an overwhelmingly successful raid on a Han ship they elect him leader of their tribe. There are some more Dune similarities here as he becomes the “boss” and marries the tribe’s highest ranking female, Wilma. Once in charge Buck reorganizes the tribes and creates the greatest day of carnage the Hans have ever seen. He literally kills thousands of them without mercy, kind of like Muad’Dib’s jihad.
The language is naturally dated to the 1920s, but this was still a really fun read so I think I will check out the sequel The Airlords of Han. Besides directly influencing Flash Gordon and Star Trek, Buck Roger’s of the comics would also influence other famous sci-fi characters like Superman. The character’s inspiration snowballed from the 1930s until now and cannot be underestimated. He was the first science fiction action hero. It should be noted that the Buck Rogers comic strip and ‘80s TV series bare little resemblance to this original version.
4 Ray Guns Outta 5
The Skylark of Space
Many people mistake the cover art of Amazing’s August 1926 issue to be a drawing of Buck Rogers, but it’s actually an illustration for the magazine’s feature story, The Skylark of Space by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Both stories just happen to feature anti-gravity belts, which must have been a cultural meme at the time. Whereas Armageddon would end up being hugely influential in pop culture, Skylark became one of the greatest inspirations in science fiction literature. Isaac Asimov said of the novel, “It had adventure of an unprecedented kind… the first great classic of American science fiction.”
E. E. Smith is considered to be the founder of the “space opera” sub-genre. Where as it’s easy to see how a war novel like Armageddon influenced writers like Heinlein, it’s just as obvious how Skylark influenced space opera writers like Asimov. Scientific discovery and technology is the cause for the plot, but the effects are all human. There are elements of the crime thriller, the intrigue of a spy novel, the action of a Western, and the romance of a Dicken’s story… in space!
Travelling faster than light with an FTL drive seems old hat these days, it’s shown in movies and TV shows so often, but there was a time before FTL journeys to distant stars. That all changed with The Skylark of Space, the very first interstellar story. Just that alone opened up a new world to fiction writers and readers. Travelling to other planets and solar systems…. the possibilities send the imagination soaring. Former Galaxy editor and sf novelist Frederich Pohl remarked, “With the exception of the works of H. G. Wells, possibly those of Jules Verne – and almost no other writer – it has inspired more imitators and done more to change the nature of all the science fiction written after it than almost any other single work.”
As 21st century reading, Skylark does not hold up as well at Armageddon. Smith was actually a real scientist and not a professional writer. He composed the book while working on his Ph.D. He would go on to write several sequels up until his death in 1966, but still remained a working scientist for his entire life. The very first voyage of the Starship Skylark was a trip around the Moon. Sadly Smith would not live see that historic visit happen for real by the Apollo 8 astronauts two years later. The invention of the fictional starship was inevitable, but it started here. The Enterprise and Millennium Falcon can be traced directly to this story.
Even more so than Nowlan, Smith loves ‘20s era slang. “Wouldn’t that rattle your slats?” or “‘Great Cat!’ he ejaculated” amuse us in ways he would never have imagined. What is perhaps most interesting is the scientific knowledge of the day. Smith is aware of Einstein’s work and incorporated it into the story. Atomic energy must have been a hot topic at the time as both stories feature it, even though it had not been invented yet. The whole basis of The Skylark of Space is the discovery of atomic fission. The only similarity to hero Dick Seaton’s discovery and the Manhattan Project is that energy is released from matter. The method is totally different. For example (and this is fortunate for Seaton) copper and not uranium or plutonium, is the element that is used for the reaction. To break the energy out of the copper Seaton first had to discover “X” the unknown element, which used in conjunction with copper and a particle accelerator, can cause an atomic blast or anti-gravity. It is this discovery that is used to power the Skylark to the stars.
What is any good Western without a villain? That would be the man who almost owned Seaton’s discovery, the owner of his lab, Marc “Blackie” DuQuesne. DuQuesne is a sociopath and decides to use every criminal trick in the book to get Seaton’s X element back and claim the power and wealth it will bring for himself. What follows is a wild chase through the cosmos, past black holes and strange planets. Smith mentions the cosmic speed limit early in the story but to the protagonist’s surprise they discover a new physical law where matter and velocity separate. This allows them to go many factors faster than the speed of light and reach distant solar systems with Star Trek like speed. Like Armageddon the denouement is an aerial battle of humongous proportions. Perhaps both authors were inspired by the zeppelins of the day as both of their wars imagine giant floating warships. Like Nowlan’s hero, Smith’s Dick Seaton quickly chooses sides (no Prime Directive here) in an alien planetary war and fights alongside them, becoming a legend in no time. The climax ofSkylark is tense and exciting, even now. Armageddon feels a bit more like a beginning chapter (as it certainly was) where Skylark is a proper science fiction novel. It has a great villain, romance, a hero of course, a loyal sidekick, and a ton of action. The blueprint for many imitators was all there.
3 Quantities of X Outta 5
As they are in the public domain you can read or download both of these novels for free on Gutenberg.com.