As I prepare to play Seastalker for The Adventure Gamer, I am continuing to read Jim Lawrence’s earlier juvenile fiction. Last month, I took a look at my first Hardy Boys story, The Ghost at Skeleton Rock. This time, I wanted to jump back to Mr. Lawrence’s very first (that I have been able to find) published novel, 1954’s Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster.
Tom Swift was, like the Hardy Boys, a Stratemeyer Syndicate series. Like all Syndicate series, Tom Swift stories were written by a pseudonym consisting of a collection of writers and editors rather than a specific individual. Individual stories could be outlined by one author, written by a second, and edited by a third before having a finished product. (And, in a few cases, completely rewritten by a fourth for re-releases.) Tom Swift stories were actually among the oldest of the series, with the first novel, Tom Swift and his Motorcycle, published in 1910. In these early stories, Tom Swift was an adventurer and inventor who solved problems using the power of his intellect and his increasingly sci-fi inventions. Unlike most of the later series, Tom Swift was allowed to age over the course of his adventurers, eventually getting married and having a son, Tom Swift Jr. His son then became the star of the stories from the 1950s onward, although from that point the characters did not continue to age through their original runs. The original continuity ended in 1971 although three further Tom Swift series were released through the mid-00s. It’s likely the stories will be picked up again.
I didn’t know any of that when I sat down to read this book for the first time. The story opens with Tom having just invented an atomic-powered boring machine. He and his friends test it outside of town, but it is not fully successful as they strike a water main and the local water company is unhappy. They also reveal that there is a drought going on which might require them to tap into another reservoir, but it will take too long to build a pipe to it. (That couldn’t possibly be a hint, right?) While Tom is explaining his failure to the authorities, someone steals his boring machine and he is forced to track them down. But while Tom is a great inventor, the thieves still overwhelm him easily when he finds them, leaving him tied to a tree while they escape with the borer. After being rescued, Tom and his friends learn that the thieves were spies from the fictional country of Kranjovia. They eventually recover the machine, but with the most critical and secret components removed.
While discussing the issue with his parents (the heroes of the original Tom Swift stories), Tom Jr. gets the idea to use an upgraded version of the borer to drill a hole through the Earth’s crust to the molten iron beneath the surface. This would help the United States recover from a critical iron shortage. Tom plans to do this by mining at the South Pole, where the distance to the iron will be shortest. He’ll have to make it (using atomic power!) so hot that he will convert the earth into gas as he is digging rather than simply displacing dirt. From here, the story takes off as you have spies that seem to be able to easily pierce Tom’s defenses, including breaking in through his customer home security system to steal the plans for the upgraded borer, difficulties with the United States government not wanting to approve the trip, and Tom’s travails designing up upgraded borer (including nearly killing himself in a chemical explosion!) There is sabotage and subterfuge as the action shifts to the South Pole where Tom nearly gets the United States into a war as he and the spies fight over who and get their borers working first and achieving the dream of limitless iron. And of course Tom drills the line for that new reservoir, saving his town from the drought, because he’s just that good.
I am skimming on some of the details, but overall the story is well-written and paced. I was surprised– no, thrilled– by the focus on Tom as a man of science. The process of invention is discussed and real setbacks are experienced, although ones always solved in the end by Tom Jr’s brilliance. I can’t imagine a kids book being this interested in US foreign relations (although this was the cold war) or things like government permits. As a bit of a geek myself, I found myself relating much better to Tom than I did the Hardy Boys and as a result, I enjoyed this book immensely. The science is fairly bunk, a combination of “atomics can solve everything” and a misunderstanding of just how much energy would be required to vaporize millions of tons of rock while not melting the boring machine, but the back and forth with the spies (who are surprisingly competent overall) and the eventual race to the finish, and even near all-out warfare in the Antarctic, was fantastic. Although the story focused on Tom, he did have a few secondary characters that I enjoyed, although their development was not the focus of the story and I do not know how many of them stick around through other books.
One final point, I loved that this book was more serialized than the Hardy Boys one that I read. I do not know how typical this is of the series, but there were repeated moments where they discussed past inventions and discussed mysterious signals from space that (from what I subsequently read) won’t be resolved for numerous more books. That plus the inclusion of several of the original Tom Swift characters really pushed all the right serialization buttons for me; I only wish that I had some connection to those characters by reading the original stories. I doubt I ever will, but it may be worth it some day to read a few more.
All in all, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. For a first effort by Mr. Lawrence, this is fantastic and it’s easy to see why he would have gotten the job. My plan had been to read his first Nancy Drew story next, but given that it’s already January, I think I will jump straight to playing the game next. I’ll try to pick up a few more stories when I eventually get to Mr. Lawrence’s Moonmist, his second and final Infocom game, hopefully later this year.