Tom Swift and His Flying Lab: The series that introduced me to sci-fi

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Tom Swift and His Flying Lab by Victor Appleton II

What was the first science fiction novel that you ever read? For a long time, the answer to that question, for me, would have been Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic Childhood’s End, which Mr. Miller, back in high school, made us all read for English class. (A very hip teacher, that Mr. Miller!) Upon further reflection, however, it has struck me that I probably read Jules Verne’s 1864 classic A Journey to the Center of the Earth back in junior high school, and that, going back to late public school, there was the series of books featuring teenage inventor Tom Swift, Jr. Baby boomers may perhaps recall how very popular these books were back when, vying for sales with such other series as THE HARDY BOYS and NANCY DREW. But whereas those other two series continue to be published to this very day, in new editions, the Swift books have (for the moment, anyway) fallen into oblivion.

Fifty years ago, however, things were quite different, and the 33 novels in the TOM SWIFT, JR. series (which started in 1954 and ran till 1971), with such imagination-stimulating titles as Tom Swift and His Deep-Sea Hydrodome, Tom Swift and His Spectromarine Selector, Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar, Tom Swift and His Repelatron Skyway and Tom Swift and His Polar-Ray Dynasphere — not to mention wonderful cover artwork by J. Graham Kaye and Charles Brey — were enormous best sellers. What I and most other kids were not aware of at the time, however, was that this series was merely the sequel to an earlier, equally successful run of books featuring Tom’s father, Tom Swift, Sr.; a series of books that began with the more mundanely titled Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle in 1910 and wrapped up in 1941, after a run of 40 novels. Those original books were written by various authors using the pseudonym “Victor Appleton,” and thus, appropriately enough, the second series was attributed to the equally pseudonymous “Victor Appleton II.” (For an exhaustively detailed article on these two series, plus two other series that were to follow, I would suggest the Wikipedia entry on the subject.) Feeling in a nostalgic mood just recently, this reader decided to take in the very first book in the Swift, Jr. series, 1954’s Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, which I’d been fortunate enough to find in the children’s section of NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand; a great $5 bargain, indeed, for the original hardcover edition!

Tom Swift and His Jetmarine Mass Market Paperback – April, 1977 by Victor Appleton II (Author) Be the first to review this item Book 2 of 33 in the Tom Swift, Jr. Series

Book 2

The book, naturally, introduces us to Tom Swift, Jr., who, as it turns out, has inherited his father’s genius for inventing in spades. Working alongside his Dad at the Swift Enterprises complex in Shopton, U.S.A., 18-year-old Jr., when we first meet him, is putting the finishing touches on his latest project, the Sky Queen, aka The Flying Lab: an enormous, three-level airplane that is capable of vertical takeoffs and supersonic travel speeds, and that contains a full suite of multifunctional laboratories. The atomic-powered supercraft also has ample room to carry a miniature plane, dubbed the Kangaroo Kub, as well as a small helicopter, the Skeeter. But just as Tom, Jr. is ironing out the final wrinkles in his latest creation, two more challenges crop up to further complicate his young life. The first is the crash-landing, in the middle of the Swift runway, of an object from space: a cigar-shaped artifact covered with symbols in an alien writing. (Tom intermittently tries to decipher the meaning of these symbols throughout the novel, but its ultimate resolution, I gather, is left for a future book.) More pressing for Tom and his associates is a request from Hemispak, an international scientific society, to (a) help in the recovery of some kidnapped scientists in the South American country code-named Bapcho; (b) assist in the finding of Bapcho’s legendary uranium deposits; and (c) aid in the quashing of a rebellion by the Bapcho separatists in Verano (isn’t that Spanish for “summer”?).

And so, off goes Tom and his best bud, Bud Barclay (who’s not nearly as bright as Tom but, football player that he is, is good to have around in a fight), as well as Tom Swift, Sr. and Texan cook Chow Winkler (a roly-poly ex-cowboy fond of such phrases as “Brand my fuselage,” “Brand my tall pines,” and “Brand my navy beans;” the supposed comedy relief character who is rarely amusing and who I can’t help imagining being portrayed by Andy Devine), aboard the newly completed Flying Lab, to see what they might accomplish…

Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship Mass Market Paperback – April, 1978 by Victor, Ii, Pseud. Appleton (Author)

Book 3

I inferred earlier that these Tom Swift novels probably served as introductions to the wonderful world of sci-fi for an entire generation of readers, although to be honest, this initial Swift, Jr. outing only features minimal s-f content; later installments, as the titles themselves indicate, would veer more solidly into sci-fi territory. What science fictional elements exist in this first novel are essentially limited to the numerous inventions that the teenaged genius comes up with; otherwise, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab is more of an action/adventure story for young readers. Besides the Flying Lab, which would figure in later novels, Tom also puts together, during the course of this introductory book, a security amulet used in conjunction with Swift Enterprises’ radar; an infrared penlight; the Damonscope (a super Geiger counter, capable of detecting uranium from many miles up); the Swift Spectrograph, capable of instantaneous analysis; and a brand-new combination of elements, dubbed “magnalloy,” for the Flying Lab’s jet lifters. Bright boy, that Tom!

The book, to its credit, is extremely fast moving, with each chapter ending in cliffhanger fashion, and “Appleton II” (for this book, the author’s actual name, I believe, was James Duncan Lawrence) dishes out any number of action set pieces. Among them: an attack on the small commuter plane that Tom and his sister Sandy are test-flying; the frantic search for Sandy after she is kidnapped; the discovery of a ticking time bomb aboard the Flying Lab; Tom and fellow engineer Hank’s escape after being kidnapped themselves; Tom’s fight with a Verano plotter near an open hatch while the Flying Lab is in flight (perhaps the hairiest moment for the young inventor during this adventure); a stubbornly insistent, magnetic homing missile that is fired at the Sky Queen; an avalanche that nearly does Tom and his chums in; and, of course, the ultimate rescue of those missing scientists. Nary a dull moment, as they say.

So, how well does Tom Swift, Jr. hold up for a middle-aged adult, many decades past the books’ target audience of, say, 10- to 13-year-olds? Well, I’m not going to lie to you. Tom Swift and His Flying Lab is rather clunkily written, with a lack of convincing descriptive detail, an overly abrupt ending, superficial characterizations, failed humor, and villains who just aren’t quite as nasty as they could be. Perhaps things change as the series progresses. Again, these books were written for a pre-YA audience. But make no mistake: They are real books, each of the hardcovers being nearly 200 pages long. For an adult, they should provide some simple, nostalgic fun; for tweens, they should make for perfectly acceptable, exciting fare. Personally, I enjoyed this first outing so well that I have actually tracked down and purchased another novel from the series for future light reading; book 23, Tom Swift and His Aquatomic Tracker (1964). Stay tuned…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. Sandy Giden /

    I read these when I was a kid. I remember getting the whole set at a local used book store. I’m not sure they would hold up now for me as an adult but they did get me interested in reading sci-fi.

  2. I heard about Tom Swift, of course, but I’ve never read these.

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