Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tom Swift, Jr. and his Jetmarine

From Goodreads.
My copy had lost its dust jacket.
 Tom Swift, Jr. and his Jetmarine by Victor Appleton II

To say that my father was a reluctant reader* when he was a kid is a gross understatement. Stories of his schoolboy antics would curl the hair of the most stalwart teacher. He was a contrary feller (still is) and he chaffed at the impositions of the school system. I imagine you, dear readers, know one or two kiddos like this. But Dad loved history, especially military history, and he loved Tom Swift, Boy Inventor books, so when I came across this book at my local used book store, I decided to give it a go.

So the plot of Tom Swift and his Jetmarine is pretty movie-of-the-week -- some pirates are disabling ships in the Carribbean, only these aren't like Johnny Depp -- they're high tech wizards who use some sort of improbably device that renders the passengers and crew unconscious so the pirates can take all the valuables (like jewels and uranium -- who sends uranium on a passenger ship??) without a fuss. Only now, at the beginning of the book, they sank a ship, and that aboard that ship was "Uncle" Ned, Tom Senior's BFF. Of course, the Toms, along with their friend Bud, with the might of the US Navy behind them, are on the job.

This book was published in 1954, so for a jaded 21st century gal, some of the inventions and conventions of the novel seemed quaint. Television phones? We have Skype. Loving sexism in the way the Tom Junior treats his mother and sister? Adorable ignorance of a bygone era. But, I have to say that despite the smug modern view I have, I found the science really interesting, if improbable. For example, Tom's jetmarine, essentially a personal submarine, is a nuclear sub powered by Swiftonium, a radioactive element the Swifts discovered in South America. And Tomasite, a plastic developed at Swift Enterprises designed to counteract gamma radiation from the Swiftonium. As I read the story, part of me was all, "yeah right," but it's really no sillier than kryptonite or any other devices used by Marvel and DC characters. And I found myself wanting to call up my friend Alex, who is studying nuclear physics and ask him if any of this was possible. I was getting excited about exploring the science, testing what was possible from Tom Swift's world and what was fantasy, and this is where I think Tom Swift stories have their greatest merit. Not only are the stories just entertaining (and as someone who counts The Librarian: Quest for the Spear among her favorite movies, I have NO room to throw stones), but I can see how the stories inspire readers to imagine what might be possible, what might be invented, and I worry about a profound lack of imagination, or a systematic quashing of imagination. Besides giving my Dad something to read, Tom Swift stories inspired Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and authors  Ray Kurzweil and Isaac Asimov. I don't know much about Kurzweil beyond the term "singularity" and mentions in John Hodgman's book That is All, but I don't think we can deny the influence Apple and Asimov have had in our world. And without Tom Swift, we wouldn't have that immortal phrase, "Don't tase me, bro!" The acronym TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.

Like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins series, the Tom Swift were actually ghost written by several people for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging company founded by Edward Stratemeyer in 1906. The Tom Swift series was first published in 1910, and various series were released up through 2007, which fills my nerdy, trivia-loving heart with glee. Tom Swift, Jr. and his Jetmarine is the second book in the second series, which was published between 1954 and 1971, but like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, you don't need to read these books in order. Each is a self-contained adventure.

This is cross-posted at my blog, (Library Lass) Adventures in Reading, with some additional, albeit rambly, thoughts. I recommend this for 4-6 grade readers.

*But there's hope. Now that Dad has a Kindle and can embiggen the font AND read whatever he wants, free of the shackles of educational oppression (as he puts it), he reads all the time.

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