Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship

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Tom Swift and His Rocket ShipI was 8, maybe 9 years old, when my parents gave me a hardcover copy of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship by Victor Appleton II. Probably a birthday or Xmas present. I can’t recall which. I just recall how excited I was when I read this book – my earliest experience of science fiction. I soon had a couple of dozen of the Tom Swift books in my collection.

My memory of Tom Swift (Jr) and that book came back today when I wandered into a garage sale on Cedar Street and found a copy of the same original edition (1954) of that title. Fifty cents bought all those memories for me.

I don’t know if kids today have such a series – I know about the fantasy, the magic, the vampires and werewolves in their modern books, but are there books with some science in them like we had in Tom Swift? Given the audience and the times, Tom Swift Jr. was remarkable sophisticated as far as science was concerned. It inspired a generation to pursue science as a career. Or at least a passion, as in my own case. Is there anything comparable?

Finding the book also bought me the opportunity to do some research into the books, the series and the author. According to Wikipedia,

Tom Swift Jr. is the central character in a series of 33 adventure novels for male adolescents, following in the tradition of the earlier Tom Swift (“Senior”) novels. The series was entitled The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures… The covers were created by illustrator (J.) Graham Kaye. Covers in the later half of the series were mostly by Charles Brey. A total of 33 volumes were eventually published.
For the Tom Swift Jr. series the books were outlined mostly by Harriet (Stratemeyer) Adams, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, attributed to the pseudonymous Victor Appleton II, and published in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap. Most of the books were written by James Duncan Lawrence, who had an interest in science and technology and was faithful to the canon of the previous Tom Swift series.

So there was no “Victor Appleton II.” I think I wrote a fan letter to him, in the late 1950s or early 60s. Never got a reply that I can recall. But it doesn’t matter. The tales helped inspire me to become a writer because I wanted to tell stories like those I read. Never did much in fiction, but the urge still boils and bubbles beneath the surface. They also encouraged me to study science.

I read Tom Swift Jr. of course. The original Tom Swift had been a character created by another fictitious “Victor Appleton,” first published in 1910. The popular series ran through the 1920s and 30s, but Tom “retired” after 40 books in 1941 to marry his childhood sweetheart. The new series, launched in 1954, introduced a younger character, the son of the original Tom and Mary. I cannot recall now if I ever read any of the original series.

Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship was actually the third title in the new series that started in 1954. I suspect my parents chose that title because of my then passion for astronomy and space travel. The first satellite – Sputnik 1 – had been launched in October, 1957, and I remember standing in my backyard at night, with my father, watching the tiny dot of light go across the sky. I was awestruck. I wanted to go there, into space.

Back then, many of us dreamed of colonizing the moon, sending humans to mars, mining the asteroids, living in orbiting colonies. I was sure, at that age, I would be living on the Moon by the time I turned 20. I eagerly followed every launch, every advance, every mile we pushed further into space. I watched the moon landings on TV avidly, still believing that humans would be living on our neighbour by the time I turned 35. Maybe 40, latest.

My disappointment when sequential US governments cut the space program back to a mere shell of its former self still lives within me. Myopic religion, bad politics and worse economics killed that dream. Conservatives just don’t understand the innate human need to expand our boundaries. But I digress.

The Tom Swift Jr. series ran for 33 titles until 1971, although I stopped buying them in the early 1960s, somewhere around number 22 or 23. By the time I had read the last of mine, I was already moving on to adult scifi.

Unlike some of the books I read over the next decade – Edgar Rice Burroughs comes to mind – I never reread any of the Tom Swift books. At least as far as I can remember. I am tempted, though, to crack open the copy I bought today and see if it can rekindle any of the emotions that it first sparked in me, more than five decades ago.

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