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date: 26 February 2024

Asians and Asian Americans in Early Science Fictionfree

Asians and Asian Americans in Early Science Fictionfree

  • John ChengJohn ChengDepartment of Asian and Asian American Studies, Binghamton University


This essay considers the expressive and figurative dynamics of Asians in science fiction in the early 20th century. Racial sentiment and policy in the era saw and defined Asians as “ineligible aliens” to exclude from immigration and citizenship. Asian figures expressed these dynamics in science fiction, adapting Orientalist tropes and Yellow Peril themes to the imperatives of the emergent genre. The invisible menace of villainous masterminds like Fu Manchu from crime and detective fiction were refigured as visible science fiction foes whose defeat redeemed the power and potential of science from its degenerate and dehumanizing application. Asian racial tropes aligned particularly with science fiction’s concern about extra-terrestrial life forms. While the term “alien” was not used in the period for such creatures, its later prominence expressed valences and associations, particularly with “invasion,” that Asians originally represented in the genre.


  • North American Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)

To consider the subject of Asians and Asian Americans in early science fiction involves asking first what is meant by “science fiction” on the one hand and “Asian” and “Asian American” on the other. For both, it is necessary to distinguish between expressive or literary texts and their social and cultural significance or to frame the distinction differently, between representation and audience.

Critics and scholars have identified texts addressing scientific themes, which might be considered science fictions, dating back centuries and millennia. Those texts, when they were originally composed, however, were not understood to be part of a distinct genre of science fiction. Science fiction as a recognized genre of fiction was a product of early 20th-century publishing. Genre in that industrial context served to market magazines, and later books, that specialized in fiction whose characteristics and formulas readers came to associate with them. For science fiction in the period, scientific concepts and technological innovations—radiation, relativity, and rocket ships, for instance—provided the imagined means to travel to and pursue adventures on other worlds, in other dimensions, and in other times. Texts such as the works of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. G. Wells that predated science fiction’s emergence as a recognized genre were later classified after the fact because they matched its generic character.

Asian presence, or rather, representations of Asians and their associated valences, brought and adapted orientalist tropes and themes to the emergent genre. Their established racial conventions about exotic geographic place anchored the broader potential of the otherworldly places, specifically their inhabitants, that its fiction explored. For the United States and other industrializing colonial nations, potent ideas of invasion, threat, and peril associated with Asian migration and settlement also linked to a social and political sense of the “alien”—the legal trope “aliens ineligible for citizenship” articulating Asian difference, restriction, and exclusion from American immigration and naturalization. In an era when the term “alien” was not used to refer to extraterrestrial creatures, Asians were the aliens in science fiction.

A letter from a young Chinese American reader to Amazing Stories captured these interconnecting concerns. “Your wonderful and amazing magazine has filled every dull moment for about a year and a half,” Howard Lowe wrote to its editor in 1931.1 Conveying both praise and criticism for the magazine, the first to specialize in science fiction, Lowe raised two particular concerns. “Your artists always draw Martians almost like human beings,” he observed. “They seem to always have two eyes, two arms, a body, and two legs like us earthlings.” “I would like to see drawings in the future with different looking Martians,” he declared. “I am only a boy of thirteen and Chinese,” he continued. “I am most interested in your stories containing Chinamen as the villains,” he explained, while also making an appeal “please don’t always pick on them. I am sure others would do.”

Lowe’s points appeared unrelated on their face. His request for less human Martians argued pulp artists’ limited aesthetic imagination. His plea for non-Chinese villains argued against racial stereotyping. Nevertheless, the critiques were connected. Both contrasted science fiction’s actual against its aspirational content. Both argued that the conventional nature of science fiction’s creatures and their characterization limited the genre’s full potential. As an Asian American reader, Lowe’s social position perhaps also provided additional perspective, not only to observe science fiction’s representational dynamics but also to want to exceed them. Moving beyond human visual representation also suggested transcending human concerns, specifically racial categories and their consequences. Different-looking Martians and non-Chinese villains represented a broader imaginary vision for science fiction that was also less socially and culturally problematic for its various audiences. “Our magazine is the best of its kind on the market,” Lowe proclaimed at the end of his letter. “I don’t mean maybe!”

Racial Dynamics in Early 20th-Century Society and Culture

Racial categories and dynamics were certainly significant, indeed crucial, to the logic and order of early 20th-century American society. Decades of scientific thought, particularly the emergence of evolution as an explanatory mechanism for natural diversity, had elevated race from an expression of natural difference to an integral explanatory concept within human biology with significant historical, sociological, and anthropological implications. Racial science not only influenced social thought and movements like social Darwinism and the eugenics movement; it also provided the intellectual basis and justification for emerging legal regimes that enforced postemancipation racial apartheid, immigration restriction and exclusion, and colonial rule. Amid settlement and consolidation of the American interior western and overseas expansion, these institutional forms for racial difference collectively assuaged the anxieties of an emergent nationalism, distinguishing between citizens and those people seen as “colored” and not worthy of full inclusion and rights.

Racial dynamics were equally present and worked in several ways within forms of cultural expression, sometimes at counterpurpose. Issues of production, representation, authorship, and readership complicate the notion that cultural products, including science fiction, are either progressive or regressive in racial terms. Racial segregation in the early 20th century extended to publishing and other culture industries. Early science fiction written by African Americans and featuring African American characters such George Schuyler’s “The Black Internationale” and “Black Empire” were not published in science fiction pulps like Amazing, Astounding, or Wonder, but, instead, appeared in African American publications such as the Pittsburgh Courier.2 While not science fiction, Henry “Yoshitaka” Kiyama was unable to find a venue to serialize his Four Immigrants comic strips, which featured a quartet of Japanese American immigrant characters and resorted to self-publishing them as a single-volume manga.3 Conversely, the biracial Eaton sisters, Edith Maude, and Winnifred, found publishing success writing under the Asian pseudonyms Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna.4

Structural obstacles to racial self-representation in publishing, however, did not preclude members of racialized groups from reading “mainstream” science fiction pulps. Fan historian Sam Moskowitz claimed that African Americans made up a significant portion of the science fiction reading public in Manhattan and Lowe’s letter evidenced Asian American readership. As Lowe’s letter also suggested, for such readers, race and science, as they worked in concert within science fiction, led to different, separable outcomes. On the one hand, contemporary racial and scientific views contributed to stereotypical and caricatured racial tropes within science fiction. On the other hand, science fiction’s emphasis on science’s possibility, even when expressed in such negative tropes, appealed to nonwhite readers for its transformative—if not yet realized—transcendent potential. In this sense, Asian representation was especially significant to science fiction because its specific racial tropes worked in both valences: shaping the representation of life forms and shaping the representation of science itself.

Race, Science, and Representations of Life Forms

Given the narrative structure of most early 20th-century science fiction stories, racial representation differed in who and in which realm of experience they operated. Many stories found their protagonists in original, usually contemporary circumstances, then followed them through travels and adventures to other places, whose conditions were the result of imagined or speculative science and from which they usually, but not always, returned. In pretravel circumstances, nonwhite characters were rare and, like other characters who did not take part in the story’s broader journey, incidental. Nevertheless, on occasions that they were visible, racial characters were subordinate characters. Richard Seaton, the hero of E. E. Smith’s “Skylark of Space,” for instance, employed both a dusky “colored” assistant and a Japanese American houseboy.5 Both were quickly left behind in the course of his intergalactic travels and adventures.

For science fiction’s destinations, however, race was a powerful means to imagine social and political concerns and, when linked to scientific discourse, represent them as natural difference. In this sense, evolution was especially resonant in the foundation it provided for those reconfigured natural and social orders. Because it offered a specific mechanism for biological transformation, evolution operated explicitly in stories like Edmund Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved” and others that explored the consequences of such changes, in Hamilton’s story in a single individual and at a greatly accelerated rate.6 Because it also suggested a broader, systematic explanation for biological diversity, evolution also applied, if indirectly and implicitly, in the many stories where protagonists encountered new and different forms of life. Whether they resembled variants on or combinations of earthly creatures, took geometric shape, or appeared in terms that defied comprehension, they were understood to be extensions of a natural “chain of being” beyond terrestrial bounds.

Evolution’s accounting—which was also historical account—for difference and diversity spanned and offered a scientific basis for science fiction’s alien encounters across space and time. This basis was significant because, as Lowe’s comments suggest, early science fiction’s creatures carried the weight of the genre’s expectations. How they were described and characterized conveyed not only the details of their being but also associations for the places that they inhabited and that science and readers explored. The “science fiction transformation,” Raymond Williams observed, required “radical linkages between life-forms and lifespaces.”7 The combination of wonder, awe, suspense, and tension they embodied in science fiction’s otherworldly encounters drove its adventures and defined the broader dynamics and limits of their possibility.

Within those encounters and dynamics, racial tropes provided familiar and adaptable references. Some stories addressed such references and their associated concerns directly. The black-skinned physically large and imposing Robots—who, despite the term, were biological, not mechanical—in Nathan Schachner and Arthur Zagat’s “In 20,000 ad!” and “Back to 20,000 ad” were the evolutionary extrapolation and expression of historical associations between African Americans and exploitative labor conditions within slavery and segregation.8 The Robots were contrasted with their rulers, white-skinned, superintelligent Masters whose centuries of controlled breeding had led both to the Robots and their atrophied bodies, which existed only to house their enlarged brains, and this dystopian future represented critiques of not only early 20th-century race relations and eugenics but also labor alienation. While these future Robots expressed the profound alienation of naturally marked inferiority and evolutionary primitivism, they nevertheless also marked the familiarity of its inclusion—or rather, its occlusion—within the American body politic.

For early science fiction’s imagined life forms, however, racial dynamics operated less directly and to mark their difference. John Rieder argues that stories’ depictions of creatures that protagonists met in their travels cast them within an ethnographic framework, enabling what he called a “colonial gaze.”9 That framing reformulated the relationship between native inhabitants and external visitors into one that privileged the latter as active observers while recasting the former as unfamiliar, exotic “others.” Within that colonial gaze, protagonists’ actions were similarly recast: Their defeat of native creatures and their representative difference—which also involved assumption of their territories—resolved the moral and social dilemmas of those encounters, turning conflict and conquest into discovery and exploration.

Asian racial tropes bridged these direct and indirect dynamics. While Asian characters were not especially prevalent across the gamut of stories overall, story titles from Amazing Stories such as Malcolm Afford’s “The Ho-Ming Gland,” W. I. Hammond’s “Lakh-Dal, Destroyer of Souls,” and Volney G. Mathison’s “The Mongolians’ Ray” show that Asian references were not uncommon. When early science fiction imagined life on other worlds and in other times racially, more often than not Asian representations, figured as civilized but alien, were the convention for that difference. While seen as inferior and in decline compared to the modern West, Asian civilizational achievement nevertheless occupied a different place on the spectrum of progress from other “primitive” races seen to have none, a significant feature in science fiction and evolutionary timelines more concerned with the future than the past. At the same time, their exotic and foreign difference still drew the focus of science fiction’s colonial gaze. The combination gave science-fiction Asians specific significance, particularly in comparison to heroic protagonists. The associations they carried were instrumental in the mythos of some of the most successful characters in early science fiction—ones that crossed over into media beyond pulp fiction to become enduring characters in American popular culture.

Asians were the future foes of Anthony “Tony” Rogers, the hero of Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Armageddon–2419 ad” and its sequel, “The Airlords of Han.”10 Rogers, who would achieve greater popularity as “Buck” in comic strip, radio, and film adaptations of Nowlan’s character, was a 20th-century man propelled into a brave new 25th-century world. After a centuries-long sleep in a state of suspended animation, Tony awoke to a world where Asians had invaded America and ruled its earth and skies. Meeting and allying with rebel Americans, he rose to lead them in a Second War of Independence against the oppression of those Mongolian Han Airlords. As the title of Nowlan’s original story declared, this future war between the white and yellow races of the world was literally Armageddon, whose final resolution was the eradication of its American’s Asiatic adversary. As Tony promised Wilma Deering, his comrade at arms and love interest, after their victory at the story’s conclusion, “we shall live to see America blast the Yellow Blight from the face of the Earth.”

An Asian nemesis, Ming the Merciless, provided a similar backdrop for Flash Gordon, a variation on Buck Rogers’s original whose comic-strip, science-fiction adventures crossed over into 1930s film serials and, later, into 1950s television.11 Although actually the ruler of another planet, Ming and his people were figured as Asian. He and other men of his race wore costumes reminiscent of the long formal robes of Chinese Mandarins, and they shared the physical features of long, narrow faces, shaved heads, and goatee and mustache originated and associated with the literary and film character Fu Manchu. Aurally reinforcing the racial reference, Ming’s name mirrored a Chinese imperial dynasty, while the alliterative name of his world, Mongo, suggested an abbreviated “Mongolian” or “Mongoloid.” On a collision course with Earth, Mongo, the “Planet of Doom,” represented the same racialized threat for Asian domination as Rogers’s Han Airlords, but of extra-terrestrial origins.

Ming’s people, moreover, were Mongo’s Orientals. Combining several disparate Western tropes associated with Asia, they conveyed a specific exotic character—what Edward Said called “Orientalism”—to their planet.12 In this sense, while the men and women of his race were clothed in different regional Asian styles, the one in Chinese garb and the other in revealing clothing that echoed European representations of women in Middle Eastern harems, they still belonged to the same Oriental race. In the original comic strip, they were visibly a yellow race, with each character colored an intensely bright yellow to emphasize the association.

That Asians were the most natural enemies in interwar science fiction was no historical coincidence. With “Open Door” policies that forced the Qing empire into neocolonial and extraterritorial relationships, Commodore Perry’s expedition similarly to “open” Japan to trade, and seizure, annexation, and colonization of Hawai’i, Guam, and the Philippines, United States foreign policy in the 19th century centered on expansion of its interests in Asia and the Pacific. At the same time, much of the social and political discourse about Asian migrants to and in the United States, many socially dislocated as a consequence of American and European policies in Asia, centered about their developing and diminishing political position. In legislation, political agreements, and court decisions beginning in the mid-19th century and culminating in the 1924 Immigration Act, individual Asian groups were first prohibited from immigrating, then barred from gaining naturalized citizenship. Giving rise to a legal category, “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” its designation and distinction became the basis to confine Asian Americans to second-class political, social, and economic status. Additional laws extended that status to their families, prohibiting marriage between Asians and whites and stripping citizenship from native-born women who married Asian immigrants.

Amid this constellation of linked concerns, racial exclusion—Asian ex-corporation from the American body politic—remained their categorical resolution. While Asian Americans and their allies challenged these laws, policies, and attitudes, Asians became the aliens in American political and social discourse. Asians in America, including native-born Asian Americans, occupied a precarious political position. As diverse outsiders collectively defined and categorized by their exclusion, their presence also helped define the significance of American citizenship by marking the boundary between alien and citizen in clear and sharp symbolic contrast. They were what historian Mae Ngai called “impossible subjects” in the American political landscape.13

Asian racial tropes within science fiction’s representation of life forms signified the inversion of these social and political dynamics, expressed in literary and cultural form. As Elaine Kim observed, “Anglo-American literature does not tell us about Asians. It tells us about Anglos’ opinions of themselves, in relation to their opinions of Asians.” “The function of stereotypes of Asians in Anglo-American literature,” she continued, “has been to provide literary rituals through which myths of white racial supremacy might be continually reaffirmed, to the everlasting detriment of the Asian.”14

Fu Manchu: The Peril and Revelation of Oriental Villains

Early science fiction’s Asians, however, were significant not only in how they figured the representation of life forms, but also in how they configured the place and potential of science. A product of pulp publishing, editors and writers participated fully in the industry’s impulse to borrow and experiment with generic conventions. In that industrial context, interwar science fiction shared with other pulp fiction, particularly detective, mystery, adventure, and horror stories, a concerning fascination with the “weird.” A fraught combination of difference and danger, the weird reveled in revealing unknown qualities of people, things, and places to surprise and shock readers. Evidenced in the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” features that science fiction and other pulp magazines carried, this sensibility found its most popular and enduring expression in the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and weird pulps such as Weird Tales. Science fiction’s contribution to its delicate tension was to add a measure of science and technology. “When I wrote science fiction,” the pulp writer Paul Ernst recalled, “it was just a wisp of science built around the weird.”15 Orientalism’s association with exoticism and difference resonated with both the general weirdness within interwar science fiction and the specific weirdness of its scientific and technological anxieties.

In this regard, when Asian Oriental figures helped demonstrate the authority of scientific knowledge, their racial difference gave the facts they represented an additional mystique: the excitement of scientific discovery included the revelation of hidden secrets of nature. The manner of their scientific explication resembled the manner in which science fiction pulps’ readers, like Howard Lowe, shared their individual know-how in letters to the editor: It was information revealed, not knowledge learned and fully understood. Its detail was incidental but significant and sometimes surprising.

Racial information in Edward H. Keller’s “The Feminine Metamorphosis,” for example, provided the resolution to the story’s anxious moral about gendered propriety and use of science.16 In its tale, a conspiracy of women frustrated by their exclusion from a male-dominated power elite turn to Asian biology to address their situation. Injecting themselves with the distillate of “gonadectomies” performed on abducted Chinese men, they changed their appearance and form, the story’s titular “feminine metamorphosis,” to gain transformative scientific power and world domination. As revealed in the story’s conclusion, however, their triumph was temporary because their transformations were tainted. Taine, the detective investigating their conspiracy, explained to them that, because of inherited traits, Chinese men became permanently insane in late adulthood, a fate they would also soon share. The women’s inferior knowledge of Chinese biology, as much as the actual working of that biology itself, restored natural order to the relations of men and women and resolution to the story’s concerns about gender, power, and science.

Racial form and characteristics amplified revelations of racial science and found its greatest expression and embodiment in the figure of the evil Oriental genius. In this regard, Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu provided the model on which other similar characters were based. Rohmer’s first description of his signature villain captured many of the associations he and his imitators combined to great effect. With a “brow like Shakespeare,” a “face like Satan,” and “long-magnetic eyes of true cat-green,” his physical features signified culture, evil, and a mesmerizing charisma. The menace of his form was multiplied by his mind, “all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect,” and his capital, having at his disposal “all the resources . . . of a wealthy government.” His far-flung organization was shielded by its secrecy and aided by conspirators who “denied all knowledge of his existence.” “Imagine that awful being,” Rohmer explained, “and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”17

Rohmer’s formulation was particularly adept because Fu Manchu combined two strands of concern associated with the concept of an Asian “yellow peril.” Many scholars trace the origin of the phrase to German Kaiser Wilhelm’s late 19th-century concern about the challenge Japan posed to European interests following its victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War.18 Its specific anxiety about an ascendant, industrializing Japan and the competition it represented to Western imperialism in Asia and the world, fed into other broader anxieties about Asians generally. Nineteenth-century American and British agitation and press about the threat of Asian peoples applied the phrase and reconfigured its meaning to express the menace that Asian migrant labor represented to industrial capitalism, specifically imminent invasion of their multitudinous masses to Anglophone settler colonial regions. Fu Manchu’s popularity, and that of other Oriental villains, derived from their combination of both concerns. Their threat was knowledge, wrongly and nefariously used and backed not only by new technology but also by alien hordes. As Michael Traile, the secret government agent who faced off against Dr. Yen Sin, a variant on Fu Manchu’s original, observed, “He has a habit of combining the mysticism of the East with the latest devices of the West, and with diabolical results.”19

First appearing in prexWorld War I British magazines, Fu Manchu found greater success in interwar America. In the 1930s, Collier’s magazine serialized several of Rohmer’s novels, reviving the fortunes of the author and his character. Their success led to printings in book form, which sold tens of millions of copies, and film and radio adaptations and helped beget imitative pulp titles such as Oriental Stories (1930–1934), The Mysterious Wu Fang (1935–1936), and Dr. Yen Sin (1936), the only pulp magazines to feature villains as title characters. Their visibility in popular fiction, given the assignment of Asians within American racial politics, illustrated the inverse relationship between cultural representation and political power: Disempowered, disenfranchised, and excluded Asians gained greater visibility refigured fictionally as powerful alien invaders.

While Oriental villains originated in detective and crime fiction, their figurative associations aligned with science fiction’s concern about science and its social implication. Dr. Yen Sin’s epithet, the “saffron-skinned wizard of crime,” referenced and invited comparison to Thomas Edison, the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” and inventors generally. Celebrated for his many inventions, from the incandescent light bulb to the phonograph to the motion picture at the turn of the century, Edison’s popularity affirmed American ingenuity and individualism while his success applied industrial and corporate practices to innovation, pioneering techniques that created modern industrial research laboratories like the one he built in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Seeking to mass-produce technological innovation, they also redefined invention: Within their large and centrally organized enterprise, although managers, engineers, and production workers were acknowledged for their contributions, increasingly laboratories and corporations received credit for new products. While Edison’s wizardry was his singular credit for the collective effort of Menlo Park, his success was also the source of his eventual decline. As the historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes noted, after World War I, laboratories, not their celebrated leaders, became the symbols of invention and discovery. “Industrial scientists, well publicized by the corporations that hired them,” he explained, “steadily displaced, in practice and in the public mind, the figure of the heroic inventor as the source of change in the material world.” “Research and development” began to replace “invention” in everyday language as American invention shifted from a “revolutionary to an evolutionary mode.”20

Both evolutionary and revolutionary, the Oriental villain spoke to these developments. A modern foe to less-popular and remembered protagonists, he possessed far-flung capital and organization: to build and run research laboratories, to furnish and maintain lavish headquarters, and to travel by ship, plane, car, or even submarine. He also had a seemingly endless supply of South, Southeast, and East Asian henchmen, turncoat Caucasian men, and enslaved white women to do his bidding while strange and weirdly unnatural creatures in their service exhibited the perverse results of their experiments in miscegenation. Vast and expansive, their criminal empires nevertheless remained secret and invisible, remarking not only on the corporate growth and consolidation of science, but also on its occurrence beyond the perspective of ordinary individuals. Figuratively, defeat of their diabolical schemes, then, reversed and contained the discourse of modern science’s incorporation.

Stories featuring their evil genius also assuaged concerns about science in society on another level. If revelation of “weird” and suspenseful information affirmed readers’ knowledge and individual ability, the organization of Oriental villains’ invisible empires amplified that effect. The invisibility of their modern yellow peril existed to be made visible and drive the melodrama of their potential threat. While from the purview of stories’ characters, villains’ organization and knowledge were hidden and unknown, an inscrutability they frequently announced, stories’ narratives revolved around revealing details about that organization and knowledge through protagonists’ actions and for readers’ anticipation and explanation. Stories’ adventure and suspense were the result of the continual interplay of these different perspectives. Oriental villains’ figurative combination of science and organization were also and actually the means for their containment. Not insignificantly, if industrial Japan represented the actual historical “Yellow Peril” to Western expansion, Oriental villains, that peril’s singular expression in popular culture, were cast as Chinese—and occasionally and alternatively as Tibetans—and their invisible empires based in “Chinatowns,” geographically familiar, but culturally exotic areas designated to contain diasporic Asian communities.

Oriental Villainy and Science Fiction

The dynamics of their figurative peril worked to similar and greater effect adapted to science fiction. Transferred to other worlds and times, villains’ knowledge, organization, and empires, while still foreign, revealed what was new, potential, and future rather than what was presently hidden. In projecting racial characters through imagined evolution, their threat, while still diabolical, was naturalized: Science fiction’s Asians were not criminal but corrupt, inhuman, and ultimately, not human. Defeat of their visible nature affirmed not only protagonists’ character and ability, but their virtue and attitude—as well as readers’—particularly with regard to science and technology.

In that sense, Tony Rogers’s 25th-century war of independence was not only revolutionary; it was also a contest between social paradigms expressed in evolutionary modes. Although the Mongolian Han were literally lords of the air, the strength of their science was also the source of their social and moral decline. Living in enclosed glass cities in the sky and traveling en masse in airships propelled and armed by powerful rays, they were removed from the need for external resources or territory. That enclosure and dependence on technologies that controlled and manipulated nature at a distance rather than engaging it firsthand bred isolation and indolence in a “degraded scheme of civilization” focused on luxurious vice. The forests of their neglected empire, instead, fostered the vitality of the new, white Americans with whom Rogers found common cause. Retaining a connection to the earth, they traveled on land using antigravity belts that enhanced, rather than replaced, their physical strength and ability. Their individual and self-reliant use of science avoided its moral degradation. Similarly, those virtues applied to military tactics mirrored their metaphoric Minutemen forebears and allowed Rogers’s future revolutionaries to triumph over a technologically superior but socially regimented Han.

Virtuous opposition to Asian Orientals not only resolved science fiction anxieties about the future; it also helped figure the dynamics of war between worlds. Conflicts between the inhabitants of imagined worlds was not new, but the imperative to repel Asiatic invasion helped to align and assure tensions within one of science fiction’s signature concerns, invasion from outer space. Small and subtle changes in versions of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds over the early 20th century spoke to that influence. While Wells’s novel framed Martian invasion of the Earth as an interplanetary extension of evolution’s struggle for existence, it originally left that struggle’s moral dimensions ambiguous. Its 1898 publication included an epigraph and prologue that questioned human assumption of moral superiority and, indirectly, substituting species for race and nation, late-19th-century evolutionary rationales for imperialism. Subsequent versions, however, were less introspective and circumspect. Amazing Stories’ 1927 reintroduction to new American audiences omitted the epigraph and the magazine’s cover and inside illustrations emphasized the carnage wrought by superior Martian technologies. CBS and Mercury Theatre on the Air’s 1938 radio adaptation, whose broadcast on Halloween weekend famously sparked a public panic, was similarly unequivocal. Its revised prologue omitted references to human ruthlessness and emphasized a collective and comprehensive sense of invasion. In a performance that made him famous, Orson Welles’s narration made it clear that “we” were being invaded.

The racialization of Asian characters brought a similar clarifying perspective to the contests human heroes had with creatures on other worlds. While those protagonists’ travels were cast as exploration and discovery, the conflicts and battles they had with natives demonstrated the dangers involved. Their adventures required moral and ethical justification, particularly when their victories claimed new territories. As use of the phrase “conquest of space” to space exploration illustrated, the two ideas aligned. The associations that Asians brought to science fiction, as colonial others and opponents, with advanced and degenerate civilization, facilitated that connection. Degeneracy justified conquest—exploration’s coincidental and expeditious by product—as redemptive reclamation.

This sentiment found its perhaps fullest expression in the figure of Ming the Merciless. Among the most popular and well-remembered characters in mid-century comic strips, Ming epitomized science fiction’s update to Fu Manchu’s incorporated yellow peril. His revision, however, reconfigured that peril’s dynamics, shifting its register from hidden struggle to direct conflict. Overseeing a planetary empire rather than an underground criminal enterprise, Ming did not prefigure Asian invasion; he reigned over its result. His dominion was clearly visible, ruling subjects of different species rather than minions of different races and spanning terrain, on land, at sea, and in the air, whose nature those species represented. Superior technology applied to technocratic efficiency assured his authority while their Oriental association also suggested the seeds for its opposition. “We, on this planet, have progressed far beyond you earthlings,” Ming remarked, having captured Dale Arden, Flash Gordon’s companion and love interest. “The reason for our success is that we possess none of the human traits of kindness, mercy, or pity,” he explained. “We are coldly scientific and ruthless!” Deploying a “dehumanizing” machine to force the same transformation on her, he assured her that if she survived its process, she would become his wife. Escaping his clutches and avoiding his machine, the resistance she, Flash, and their allies raised against Ming, his empire, and the values they represented was the primary premise of the Flash Gordon comic strip.

The character of this dynamic reversed the idea of invasion in Oriental villains’ terrestrial narratives. The original doom that Flash, Dale, and their scientist compatriot, Dr. Hans Zarkov, traveled to Mongo to prevent, an imminent collision that would have destroyed Earth, never occurred. Instead, the long arc of the comic strip’s adventures was Mongo’s redemption from Ming’s corruption and oppression. In this regard, while the trio of Earthling humans were its actual invaders—of Mongo—they were nevertheless framed as liberators. Ming’s menace, moreover, served as framing device for the strip more than it actually drove the adventures of Flash, Dale, and Zarkov. Appearing at its onset to represent his omnipotence, Ming disappeared for long stretches, reappearing periodically and briefly to restate that original position. His status was symbolic: his despotism nullified his political authority and rendered the lands he ruled ideologically neutral territory.

In that absence, Flash and his friends journeyed across the planet encountering its other residents. Meeting a veritable menagerie of otherworldly hybrid creatures—lion-men, hawk-men, shark-men, and more—the Earthlings overcame initial hostility and conflict to befriend these foes and convince them to ally against Ming. In that sense, their adventures were a liberating contest for the state of the Mongo’s nature; they presented a redeeming discourse on science’s imagined and transformative potential. All-powerful in principle and extraterrestrial in origin, the visitors from Earth revealed Ming to be familiarly Asian; even within his own body politic he required exclusion and ex-corporation.

Asian Aliens

This revised dynamic for Asian villainy resonated significantly beyond their explicit racial representation, passing on its associations to what is perhaps science fiction’s hallmark trope, the alien. While Asians were familiarly alien in the context of early 20th-century immigration, the term “alien” was rarely found science fiction at the time—and was used as an adjective, not a noun. Other terms, “foreign,” “odd,” “weird,” “strange,” and “beastly,” were used in similar fashion and far more frequently. In that era, “alien” connoted difference; it did not denote creatures from outer space or other worlds.

The familiar conventions of Asian difference grounded concerns about alien difference in science fiction. While in the abstract, the idea of life on other worlds offered fertile grounds for imagination, without a point of reference, its myriad possibility was a diversity that could not be fully realized; their life forms could only be described and not understood as things in and of themselves. Asians, whose form was part of their figuration, bridged that divide and provided perspective for projected comparison even if their racial basis also limited the possibilities for imagining alien life. Their apparent lack of human emotion, in particular, allowed their association with nonhuman beings; its characteristic was doubly dehumanizing for its social implication and its radically natural expression. At the same time, otherworldly creatures assumed the roles that Oriental Asians played in figuring fundamental difference: revealing information about unknown nature; representing science’s negative potential; and expressing contemporary social anxieties about the body politic. They became alien by association with Asians and only later, in the Cold War period, became aliens by themselves.

The affinity of Asian racial difference to alien difference explained the greater presence of Asians within science fiction’s alien adventures. The affinity was so significant that it occasionally found direct expression. As Cliff Hale exclaimed to Ray Fletcher, his fellow chemist-hero in William Lemkin’s “The Doom of Lun-Dhag,” when they realized the foe they faced was not Martian, but an Oriental villain, “Tibet or Mars! . . . it makes no difference.” “We’re in a jam,” he continued, “and we’ve got to get out of it—somehow.”21 Indeed, several Asians in early science fiction had extraterrestrial ancestry, realizing the full import of Hale’s exclamation: There was literally no difference between Orientals and aliens because they were one and the same enemy race—and species. The Han Airlords in Tony Rogers’s 25th-century world were revealed to be the result of an intervention from outer space. Creatures arriving on a meteor that crashed in 20th-century Tibet interbreed with nearby natives, imbuing their hybrid offspring with greater strength and mental abilities, but “a vacuum in place of that intangible something we call a soul.” Their subsequent global conquest, in this sense, was the result not of ordinary historical social development but of extraordinary, extraterrestrial interference in Earth’s evolution. They, and their successes and failures, were neither simply Asian nor alien, but both.

This unnatural natural history added new dimensions to the associations of both. On the one hand, it confirmed Asian scientific achievement, already suspected of evil intention and moral degradation, to be a cheat in the otherwise normal clash of civilizations. On the other hand, it added to early 20th-century America’s already potent anxieties about the consequences of miscegenation, which it suggested could not only be interracial but also interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic. These additional associations informed and transformed the already resonant meaning of Wilma Deering’s first words in the comic strip adaptation of Rogers’s adventures. In its first panel, Buck emerges from his five-century slumber to see the woman who will ultimately be the love of his life blasting distant figures and cursing them as “Half Breeds!”

Alien Aliens

In the aftermath of World War II, the relationship of Asians to and within the American body politic were transformed. As Asian nations became significant American allies within Cold War geopolitics, Asian migrants and residents of the United States were no longer aliens to be excluded, gaining access to naturalized citizenship, immigration in larger numbers, and removal of racial barriers to jobs, marriage, and civil rights. Asian American, a term they self-consciously adopted in the late 1960s and introduced into public popular discourse, represented their changed status.

Not incidentally, Asian Oriental villains figured less prominently in science fiction and American popular culture, although they continued to appear occasionally late into the 20th century. Similarly transformed by circumstances during and after the war, science fiction expanded beyond its original moderate success in pulp magazines. Surviving the industry’s demise, the genre gained greater and general prominence in a variety of popular cultural forms, paperback books, comic books and graphic novels, film, and television. In the Cold War period and later, the subjects and dynamics Asians figured earlier and racially found new valences in the emergent figure of the space alien.22 Fully extraterrestrial and nonhuman, these aliens nevertheless retained elements of their figurative forebears: sudden appearances and disappearances of aerial flying saucers and other UFOs (“unidentified flying objects”) and the possibility of their landing marked anxieties about the social and natural consequences of invasion, abduction, and enslavement by unknown others. Continuing science fiction’s reorientation of Oriental peril from the earth to the sky and space, the new nature of alien invaders from outer space contained renewed concerns about science and its social consequence: industrial and organizational efforts for manned exploration of the atmosphere and outer space amid a geopolitical space race with implications for not only atomic warfare, but also nuclear annihilation.

While Asians were no longer its aliens, the dynamics they figured for early science fiction remained. “While the utopian transformation is social and moral,” the literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams observed, “the science fiction transformation, in its dominant Western modes, is at once beyond and beneath: not social and moral but natural.” “A mutation at the point of otherwise intolerable exposure and crisis,” he continued, it requires “not so much, in the old sense, a new life as a new species, a new nature.”23 Despite Howard Lowe’s protestation, the Chinese villains he observed were interconnected and instrumental to the tension in his other concern about human Martians: the nature of science fictional species. In early science fiction, racial villainy not only assured the character of heroic protagonists; it also enabled the potential for alien life. While Lowe wanted Chinese picked on less frequently, he was not against villains. Sure that “others would do,” he recognized their dramatic place in science fiction’s amazing stories.

This resolution, however, carried consequences for the notion of progress and agency. If early science fiction allowed protagonists—and readers—to imagine encounters with life on other worlds, dimensions, and times, the logic of their travel circumscribed that fiction’s full potential. Transported there and back by scientific means, their adventures radically separated, rather than connected and explained the relationship between those places and Earth. They were “other” worlds in several senses of the term. If the explanatory dynamic of Asian aliens’ otherness enabled protagonists’ adventures and readers’ agency within those imagined places, the difference of their nature remained fundamentally unaltered. When protagonists returned, the consequences of their actions seldom returned with them. In early science fiction’s imagined worlds, racial life redeemed science’s inspirational purpose ironically by removing potential and progress outside the contingent connecting arc of human history.

Discussion of the Literature

Studies of early science fiction have mostly viewed its history from a literary perspective, varying in their specific approach and concern. General works explore the chronology and development of science fictional themes,24 while more scholarly works consider the genre’s dimensions.25 Scholarship on the interwar period has centered on its specific conceptual formulation, expressed in the ideas and efforts of Hugo Gernsback, the inventor and popular science enthusiast turned publisher who introduced the term “science fiction” to popular discourse.26 Historians of science, increasingly interested in popular science, have also considered the genre’s circulation of scientific ideas.27 Intellectual and cultural historians have also situated science fiction within a broader modern impulse to imagine alternative realities.28

Similarly, studies of American representations of Asians in the late 19th- and early 20th-century popular culture have considered their specific place in science fiction. Studies in the 1970s and 1980s of Chinese and Chinese Americans in American popular culture referenced the genre,29 as do historical studies of popular cultural representations of American and Asian relations.30 The idea of the “Yellow Peril” features prominently in this analysis, with works archiving its expression in various forms31 and others specifically considering the role of the Fu Manchu character in its spread and circulation.32 American cultural historians have also linked the “Yellow Peril” to other broader historical cultural concerns, such as nuclear apocalypse.33

Studies of race in science fiction are a late 20th- and early 21st-century development in science fiction studies and in literary studies of speculative fiction.34 Several monographs and anthologies consider the place of both specific racial groups35 and race comparatively in science fictions.36 Other works have usefully examined race’s role in figuring colonialism in science fiction37 as well as space exploration.38 Scholars interested in Asia and Asians have adapted Edward Said’s notion of orientalism in particular to consider speculative fiction’s “techno-Orientalism.”39 Concerned with science fiction not only about race, but by nonwhite authors and for multiracial audiences, much of this recent scholarship generally focuses on contemporary and late 20th-century science fiction.40 The genre’s turn in the 1960s toward more speculative modes and concomitant shifts in social attitudes as well as later globalization of popular culture industries opened more opportunity for authors and audiences—although recent controversies about industry awards reveal that tensions about race in science fiction remain.

Links to Digital Materials

Digital Public Library of America. Includes digitized materials related to Oriental villains in early science fiction, including several Fu Manchu novels, yellow peril imagery.

Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy. One of the largest collections of material related to science fiction, fantasy, and related genres, including early science fiction pulps and fanzines, is housed in the Special Collections & University Archives at the University of California, Riverside.

ERBzine. A weekly online fanzine devoted to Edgar Rice Burroughs includes a six-part online series on Flash Gordon, includes digital reproductions of first forty-six strips (January 7–November 18, 1934) and discussion of the geophysics of Planet Mongo.

FictionMags Index. An extensive community cataloged index to late 19th- and early to mid-20th-century fiction magazines, including early science fiction.

Internet Archive. Includes various materials related to Oriental villains in early science fiction including Fu Manchu novels, yellow peril imagery, and radio and television broadcasts of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s and 1940s.

Internet Speculative Fiction Database. An extensive community crowd-sourced online catalog of works in science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts. The New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts collections includes documents and records for Popular Publications (1910–1977), which published several science fiction titles including Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Project Gutenberg. Includes digitized materials related to Oriental villains in early science fiction, including several Fu Manchu novels and full texts of Philip Francis Nowland’s stories originating Anthony “Buck” Rogers: “Armageddon—2419 ad” and “The Air Lords of Han.” Pulp Fiction at the Library of Congress. Guide to the pulp fiction collection at the Library of Congress, including a list of microfilmed titles. Three science fiction/fantasy titles, Amazing Stories, Black Mask, and Weird Tales, were transferred to Rare Books and Special Collections Division.

The Pulp Magazines Project. An open-access digital archive of US, British, and Austrian fiction magazines, 1896–1946, including early science fiction, with more than 400 fully reproduced issues and additional contextual material and links.

Roland Anderson Buck Rogers Comic Strip Archive. Collection of early Buck Rogers comic strips (1929–1933) digitized from originals from the Worcester, MA, Evening Gazette.

Further Reading

  • Bahng, Aimee. Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
  • Bowler, Peter J. A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Cheng, John. Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
  • Gernsback, Hugo. The Perversity of Things—Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction. Edited by Grant Wythoff. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
  • Huang, Betsy. Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Lavender Isiah, III, ed. Dis-Orienting Planets: Racial Representations of Asia in Science Fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017.
  • Mayer, Ruth. Serial Fu Manchu: The Chinese Supervillain and the Spread of Yellow Peril Ideology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.
  • Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
  • Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, eds. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.
  • Sohn, Stephen Hong. Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
  • Tchen, John Kuo Wei, and Dylan Yeats. Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. London: Verso, 2014.