April 30th, 2012

New Tilley Hat

Review: Tom Swift (original series), first three books

Having acquired a Kindle, I was greatly amused to read books published almost exactly a century earlier. I started off with a few free books that I had shared with Carole, then went hunting on Project Gutenberg Free Kindle classics. I'm several centuries behind in reading said classics, so naturally I immediately glommed onto the Tom Swift books. The original series, starting in 1910.

And yes, herein are SPOLIERS.

The first two books are Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle; or, Fun and Adventure on the Road and Tom Swift and His Motor Boat; or, The Rivals of Lake Carlopa. I was a major fan of the Tom Swift Jr. series, when I was a lad, many of which were contemporaneous. I've always wanted to read the originals; encountered one or two along the way, but this is the first time I've been able to simply read them all starting from the beginning.

I was struck by how different the world was in 1910. The action takes place in New York State, a day's motorcycle ride from Albany. Probably not too far from where I grew up, fifty years later.

In 1910, the roads aren't paved. Tom is constantly getting stuck in the mud or hitting a rock. Near Albany he encounters "macadam". Tom's father is an inventor, and independently wealthy. Therefore, Tom didn't go to college, preferring to learn at home. Tom also has his own patents, and his own money.

Gasoline powered motors had been around for a decade or so, and lighter-than-air flight for longer. So the motor car, motor bike, motor boat and aerial balloon he encounters in the first two books aren't quite cutting edge, but they are sill toys for the rich. Common fo'k would have seen them and been envious, but may never have ridden in a private car themselves.
more on the first two books and Our Hero TomCollapse )
The third book, Tom Swift and His Airship; or, The Stirring Cruise of the Red Cloud is more cutting edge. Heavier-than-air flight had only been around since the Wright Brothers, seven years earlier; within the lifetime of most of the readers. Action starts in the first chapter, when the aerialist Mr. Smart (the balloonist from the previous book) and Tom are trying to build an airship… and the aluminum tank explodes.

The term "science fiction" hadn't been coined, but there are several "novel features" of the airship itself that transcend the story from a mere pulp adventure. The airship is a double propeller biplane, capable of going (sit down now) 80 miles per hour! The aluminum tank (when it doesn't explode) holds a new fuel, and makes it very light; so light that can ascend straight up and float, like a balloon; this is why it's an "airship" and not an "airplane". They can manufacture fuel on board, and stay aloft for two weeks. The initial exhilarating test flight reminded me of Tom Sawyer Abroad, but they have to deal with the thinner atmosphere.

Electric lights are rare; if you travel by night, it's dark. This is before the Titanic; telephones are rare (and for the rich) and airships don't automatically have radios. Technology is coming into its own as an application of science. The world is changing as you watch.

When Tom invents a "simple thing" to fix the rudder and doesn't want to bother patenting the improvement, his aeronaut partner says, "Airships are going to be used more in the future than you have any idea of." The future! Ideas! Sensawonda!

I'm not going to recommend Tom Swift as high art, or even good YA fiction for today, but I was surprised at how easy a read they were. I will eventually read more in the series, whatever Project Gutenberg has.

Oh, and I didn't encounter any "Tom Swifties". At least not in the first two books. The writer doesn't use adverbs all that often anyway, and not for humorous effect.