An America defeated and over-run by evil forces! Brave patriots clustering in the forests, awaiting the moment to emerge and drive out the invaders! A bold leader who comes out of nowhere to rally the rebels to victory and romance a beautiful lady warrior!
Sound like the plot of some movie you’ve seen?
Actually it’s a classic science-fiction story, and it tells us our nation’s second war for independence will begin right here in Wyoming Valley a couple of centuries from now.
In 1928 and 1929 the sci-fi magazine “Amazing Stories” published two short novels about the action hero who later became known as Buck Rogers. While later entries in the Rogers franchise took place all over the universe, the original tales eight decades ago were set right here in our own community along the Susquehanna. Here’s the story, as related in the first of the novels, “Armageddon 2419.”
World War I veteran Anthony “Tony” Rogers is sent by his employer to check out reports of valuable radioactive gas in an abandoned coal mine near Wilkes-Barre. However, a rock slide traps him there and the gas puts him into a state of suspended animation until a seismic disturbance five centuries later frees him.
As he’s trying to get his bearings, Rogers encounters a beautiful young woman pursued by two men. Properly chivalrous, he helps her kill them, and in gratitude she introduces herself as Wilma Deering and fills him in on what’s going on.
A couple of centuries ago the evil Han people of Asia invaded and subdued an America that had been weakened by war in Europe, killing most of the U.S. population and turning the survivors into hunted bands of refugees.
She escorts him to the camp of her people, the Wyoming Gang, thousands of hardened fighters from the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre areas who now live in the forests, conducting occasional guerrilla raids against their Han overlords.
The adventure tale continues into a sequel, “The Airlords of Han,” concluding as Rogers, Wilma (to whom he’s now married) and the Wyoming Gang finally destroy the oppressors, restoring America’s honor and independence, never to be lost again.
The franchise took off. Within months “Buck” Rogers (Tony’s new name) was the star of a newspaper comic strip, quickly followed by a radio show and, in time, by a movie serial. Buck Rogers-themed merchandise (a game, dolls, a secret code) soon hit the market. Wilma acquired a brother named Buddy, evil acquired a new face in Killer Kane and Buck acquired the ability to travel in space.
The TV era saw shows in the 1950s and 1970s as well as comic books and, more recently, a video game.
Here’s the big question. How did Wyoming Valley get into the mix, however temporarily? Well, the original stories were written by Philadelphia native Philip Francis Nowlan, certainly no stranger to eastern Pennsylvania. He evidently needed a coal mine for his story and knew where to find one.
Hey, what’s sci-fi without a prediction or two? While the early stories were yawningly heavy on “technical” explanation of anti-gravity and wizard weaponry, they also foresaw electronic data bases, flip-top “communicators,” visual security systems and direct deposit of money.
Buck Rogers will probably never return to our neighborhood now that he can roam the galaxy. But we can forever enjoy his early adventures along the banks of the Susquehanna. It’s easy, because the two novels are available online for free.
Not so long ago that would have been science-fiction.