Baron Dave Romm (barondave) wrote,
Baron Dave Romm

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.

The characters: "Why I was christened Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, but folks most ginnerally calls me Eradicate Sampson, an' some doan't eben go to dat length. Dey jest calls me Rad, fo' short." He is described as "colored" and "darky" and calls himself "nigger" and "coon". Like the rich, bumbling (exuse me, "eccentric") Mr. Damon, "who appeared to be very fond of blessing his various organs and his articles of wearing apparel", he's comic relief. Still, Tom is friendly and sticks up for his friends. Rad's encounter is typical: Tom nearly runs him over, and is very sorry. Rad's speech patterns are distinctive, in this case full of negro shuffle. Tom uses his knowledge as an "inventor" to fix some of Rad's broken equipment, and Rad is grateful. Tom promises to find work for him, which he does. In return Rad becomes a continuing character. He helps provide clues and advances the plot in the three books I've read so far.

The whole thing has an innocent, collegiate affair. Tom doesn't feel in mortal danger even when chasing crooks. That just isn't done. There are unwritten codes. The first two books are notable for their lack of physical violence, at least by today's standards. The main spirit of adventure is in Tom's bravery, ingenuity with mechanical devices and the speed he can get out of his engines.

Tom is egalitarian, fair to all, and has a reputation as such. When others disparage women's ability to drive cars, Tom sticks up for their skill. He may live in a world barely out of the 19th Century, but he remains A Good Guy into the 21st.

The writing is clunky, but the characters are drawn distinctly and the plot zips along. The technology of the motor bike and motor boat are used well; Tom tinkers with them and they function more efficiently. Perhaps "spark plugs" and "carburetors" held a more mystic allure for young boys before they were common, but I still couldn't do what Tom did to improve the engines.

We meet various people who are in the Tom Swift Jr. books, including Mary Nestor. Definitely a series, with the writer commenting "… as we saw in the previous book" and other meta narrative.

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.

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