Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar by Victor Appleton II

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

It’s impossible to pass up a title like Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar, especially when the first two lines alone make the book worth its 50 cent, castoff price: " ‘Tom, your new atomic sports car is absolutely dreamy!’ said Phyllis Newton. Eighteen-year-old Tom Swift Jr. grinned at the pretty, dark haired girl ...."

Tom Swift is the male counterpart of Nancy Drew, the fantastically accomplished, brave, upright youth, mature enough to be out of school and driving around having adventures, but young enough to still require fully adult mentors, and adult rescuers from danger when adventure turns rough. Like Nancy, he also has a strong, wise, moneyed father, another scientist and inventor whose Swift Enterprises is doing well enough to provide young Tom with a four-square-mile laboratory and production plant, where he creates atomic energy capsules and tests new, super-strength plastics. Early on, there is an atomic explosion in Tom’s lab, but he and his friend Bud clean it up right away, and then they relax over a pot of cocoa.

The storyline is gloriously wild. Someone wants to steal the secret of Tom’s new vehicle, and then his mother and sister are given two fabulous rubies which have something to do both with important advances in maser communications, and with a cursed ruby mine in the struggling young nation of "Kabulistan." Sinister men in turbans spy through windows, and a bomb goes off in an airport. Tom drives cars, pilots planes, and calmly deals with everyone from predatory business executives in "Shopton" to shady antique booksellers in Teheran and mounted Kurdish tribesmen in the highlands of central Asia. When he first shows off his atomicar for the press, he himself takes the controls after a reporter mocks the planned use of a robot-driver. ("Good heavens, boy!" his father bursts out later. "You might have been killed if the repelatron-force ray from your anticrash device hadn’t stopped that truck!") On weekends, Tom relaxes with his family’s business friends, strolling the artists’ colony in Taos, or hiking, swimming, and playing tennis in the Adirondacks. They all eat good meals, fried chicken and biscuits at home, sheep’s head and pomegranates abroad. Because of his previous inventions he has had contact with representatives of advanced civilizations in outer space, but they don’t make an appearance in this book.

To author Appleton’s credit, and apart from the credit he deserves for his research, he does keep his eye on two things throughout the story. He bothers to describe Tom’s experiments, albeit loosely – there’s talk of "hydraulic pressure gear," and valves and megacycles – and he bothers to include real violence, not gratuitously but because Tom gets involved with violent men. Only once does a mute thug aim a carbine at Tom’s friend, but when he does, he means business.

Tom Swift’s adventures must have been great fun for a boy to plunge into, say on a fine, free summer afternoon in 1962. They’re still quite a tour de force now.

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