Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Tom Swift Jr.

The kind of wonderful malarkey that we feed our young! I love reading this sort of motivated fashioning of subconscious response. The author—in this case, not a person but entirely a function—performs transcendental states of normalcy with his characters that requires a redefinition of normal. Excuse me, I should mench that I speak of the book TOM SWIFT and the Visitor from Planet X, by the noted pseudonym Victor Appleton II. And away we go.

Victor Appleton II, Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene, are the stage names for the gathering of hacks who cranked out these cheesy literary franchises (Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, if those authorial names don’t ring a familiar bell) They all seem like willing Rorschach tests amplifying our tenderest expectations. Hello, mirror to our innermost goofball!

So anyway, the Tom Swift Jr. series presents the 2nd generation of Swift. TS Sr. was essentially the same thing, boy scientific genius saving the world, circa the 30s. The telling theme, tho, is how Jr surpasses poor dadsville. Sr was brilliant but no patch on Jr. Jr’s taller than the dad, lankier, and his shit don’t stink. Jr works as equal with dad in Swift Enterprises, that world famous rocketship invention company, but we know who has the mojo. Jr has had plenty of adventures by the date of this visit from Planet X, and he’s a long in the tooth 18.

The back cover of this luminous text shows three people in SPACE SUITS flying around, along with a ROCKETSHIP powered, seemingly, by a fanning array of funnels on the forward part of the ship. The blurb keeps things clear: “For today's science minded boys! The Tom Swift Jr. Adventures in Science and Space.” Sorry girls. It would be crude to suggest that the adventures reside in calling this science, so I will refrain. The list of available titles consists mostly of specific inventions of young Swift, à la Tom Swift and his:

  1. Flying Car
  2. Jet Marine
  3. Rocket Ship
  4. Giant Robot
  5. Atomic Earth Blaster
  6. Outpost in Space
  7. Diving Seacopter
  8. Ultrasonic Cycoplane
  9. Deepsea Hydrodome
  10. Space Solartron
  11. Electronic Retroscope (shows I Love Lucy repeats!)
  12. Spectromarine Selector
  13. Electronic Hydrolung
  14. Triphibian Atomcar
  15. Megascope Space Prober (sounds fun!)

Wowzer! Live Writer’s spellchecker, completely unaware of the future, had quite a time dealing with that list! Are you even ready for the front cover, in 3 rich colours: Tom and his friend Bud Barclay in some sort of physical contest with a mechanical thing that may be very electronic in nature. As it happens, without giving the plot away, the robotic is a container for some extra-terrestrial brain energy. No kidding!

The cast looks like your basic 50s tv sitcom. Tom’s pal Bud Barclay is an 18 year old test pilot for Swift Enterprises. Of course he cannot keep up with Tom in heroism, but for the normals he’s no slug. Tom’s blonde, blue-eyed sister is Bud’s girlfriend. Sandy’s best friend Phyllis”Phyl”Newton is Tom’s girlfriend. Phyl’s the daughter of longtime friend and business associate, “Uncle Ned” Newton. Uncle in quotes always seems creepy, doesn’t it? I’m sure there’s a lot of partner switching that don’t get talked about here, the parts fit so well together. The mom is just a mom, tho Oedipal conflagrations, along with incestuous wildfires, burn widely here.

Action? The book begins immediately with an earthquake at Faber Electronics Company. Tom’s trying to fix Faber’s gyro-stabilizer. “If anyone can get the bugs out of your new invention, genius boy here will do it,” says Bud. Except aforesaid earthquake interrupts matters. The plant suffers devastation and many are seriously injured, tho not Tom or Bud. Good scouts that they are, they busy themselves with rescue work. Then home to a worried family and a hot meal by mom specified in the narration as delicious!

Something hincty about the earthquake, tho, being so localized. Hmm.

Next day Tom’s on his way to work in his sports car when a hitchhiker jumps in front of the car and takes Tom hostage. OMG! The hitchhiker has an accent!!! Fortunately Chow Winkler, former chuck wagon cook now head chef for Swift Enterprises—you read that correctly—doing his best Slim Pickens impersonation, helps Tom overwhelm the man with the accent. The Victor Appleton II Machine does not want to leave you guessing about this character. Not only does this person have an accent, his name is Samson Narko. No one on the up and up would have such a name. No, this guy is from Brungaria. You know, the country full of spies who favour world domination.

I never read Tom Swift when I was of age, more’s the pity. Hardy Boys, oh yes, Danny Dunn, The Happy Hollisters, but not Nancy Drew (for girls). I wish I could better reconstruct what I did read then. I was a steady reader, if not voracious like the sort that ploughs thru all the Waverley novels at age 7. But let’s don’t get distracted from Tom Swift and the Visitor.

The endpapers depict young Tom in maybe his own rocketship, but maybe it is his lab. He gazes out a large window at a nifty stealth bomber zipping happily by. He wears a striped t-shirt. He has a headset on, perhaps communicating with the stealth bomber. No lack of science stuff to soothe his science mind: dials on the wall, microscope, beakers, a breaker box, blueprints, models of various rocketships and submarines. Honestly, what more could a boy want? He looks pretty dreamy, having the world set up the way he likes it.

This series references a sense of science that remains strong even now, 50 years later. It lodges in the newest gizmos. Science serving humanity by giving us televisions, electric knives, electronic toothbrushes and all the other servile conveniences. The future designed by Steve Jobs, that is. Science just keeps the economic turbine spinning with unappointed flash. The Oppenheimer vision of the atom has no application here unless it could be merchandised.

I will not give away the exciting conclusion to this science-minded tale of good and evil but suffice to say Golden Boy proves central to all positive actions, and Chow Winkler gets to exclaim this lifelike gem of Texas talk: “Brand my rattlesnake stew!”