Tom Swift and the Obsolete Future

In a much earlier entry I think I mentioned the Tom Swift series of adventure novels, which I discovered in a box under the stairs. They had belonged to my dad when he was a kid and although he didn’t have the complete series, he had a lot of them. Well, I’ll read anything that isn’t actually on fire and these were even science fiction, so I read the crap out of them.

They provided a good amount of entertainment for 9-or-10-year-old me, which was good, but I also (I guess obviously) continue to think about them from time to time. If you’re not familiar with the series (which isn’t unlikely; I think the books are out of print and at least one attempt at a reboot/revival did not seem to succeed) they are about a young genius American (this is important) inventor named Tom Swift, his friend Bud, and various other people who hang around his dad’s (of course fabulously wealthy/successful) corporation of Swift Enterprises. Tom creates all kinds of amazing technology that never fails to lead to exciting adventures.

He builds space ships and submarines and huge aircraft and levitating roadways and, well, anything you might expect to see in circa-1950s science fiction. It is a vision of the future where scientific discovery is good for its own sake (as I recall them, Tom builds a lot of this stuff kind of just because) and ultimately always leads to good results. Tom’s technologies usually end up promising some kind of fantastic reward that will be free of negative consequences, which is a particularly optimistic progress narrative that I imagine would sit a bit uneasily for contemporary audiences.

If I remember it right, when Tom builds his Atomic Earth Blaster (because, again, why not) the thing can burrow down through the Earth’s crust and the idea is to siphon off incredible mineral wealth from the mantle, for example. Now, perhaps a geologist would tell me that, were such a thing possible, it would actually be fine to do, but I do remember thinking at the time that basically sticking a straw into the planet and sucking out the gooey centre was a sort of alarming idea. No-one in the books ever thinks about these kind of issues. Most of the inventions are atomic. This is always fantastic.

Of course you can’t have a story without conflict of some sort and the books don’t just present Tom with technological or scientific challenges. (In fact, most of his ideas work pretty flawlessly – when not sabotaged, see below – and the science is sufficiently lunatic that trying to apply real physics/chemistry/whatever problems to them would probably not work) The writers (the series had a few) instead give Tom human rivals, who are usually thinly-disguised Soviets. They’re never described as actually being from the USSR (and I’m not sure why not, to be honest) but they are from pretend Eastern-European-y nations with names like ‘Brungaria’. They are usually attempting to steal some Swift technology, or outdo Tom in the race for some Science Achievement. Their technology is always either inferior to the American model, dangerous, or both. They are of course dastardly villains who resort to all sorts of underhanded tactics that usually includes messing with Tom’s invention somehow. Perhaps needless to say they also always lose and end up needing to be rescued by the good-hearted American crew.

Again, very 1950s. This is the Cold War and maybe especially the Space Race acted out over and over, along with installing some ideas about what the other side is/was like in the reader. It’s interesting that they don’t (I think) ever actually mention Communism. It is a very binary view of things; the Brungarians are never given any sort of justification for their actions – they’re just rotten people – and I don’t recall the books ever giving us an Opposition character who was even slightly sympathetic or in any way praiseworthy. They are all fools, thieves and cowards; again a portrayal that perhaps wouldn’t please many modern readers, and also perhaps a slightly alarming world view to be presented in books intended for adolescent readers.

Then you get into the portrayal of race. There are a few (very few) occasions when Tom, his white family, and his white friends, encounter some non-white people. There is no way to describe these as anything other than breathtakingly racist. In the book with the levitating roadway, Tom’s plan is to build the thing across a vaguely-defined African jungle because it will be so much easier than building a regular road. (Science!) This leads to encounters with Africans who refer to anything vaguely technological as ‘juju’ and at one point are terrified into submission by Tom playing some recorded music. Even 9-or-10-year-old me kind of winced at that one. I don’t know what to say about the politics of these portrayals beyond the obvious white man vs. savage imagery that seems more suited for the 1800s than the mid 20th century. Africa itself is described as being sort of uniformly covered with jungle and populated by people just waiting for Americans to show up and solve their problems. Heck, it’s not even clear whether the Africans want the bloody levitating roadway – Tom’s just decided it’s a fantastic idea.

Again, this is a vision of the future that I don’t imagine a contemporary audience would feel very comfortable with, or at least I hope not. You’ll notice I haven’t really mentioned women yet, which is because they’re hardly in the books. Tom has a mother (of course) who is a sort of standard 1950s mom, a girlfriend who primarily functions as someone needing to be rescued, and a little sister who of course idolizes her brother and is not as good at science. A little surprisingly (maybe) she is a good pilot, which mostly makes her a plot device for when someone needs to fly one of Tom’s inventions but he also needs to be doing Another Thing. She’s constantly described as ‘pert’, and I don’t think I knew what that meant.

The books were, I guess obviously, intended for (white American) boys and so perhaps this is no great surprise, although even the idea of ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls’ seems to be an idea that we are (fortunately) moving away from. Certainly, the portrayal of women and their role in Tom’s world would be yet another thing unlikely to satisfy a modern reader.

This is turning into a bit of a long entry, but the point is that the Tom Swift books are, theoretically, presenting a vision of the future, but it isn’t a future that has much resonance for readers today or, I guess, that we would think is very likely. I doubt anyone is out there working on an Atomic Earth Blaster, although if you are I kind of want to know. Along with having ditched (largely) the Cold War mentality and the colonialism and the sexism, I don’t think we have the same optimism about science and technological progress that previous generations did. We don’t expect that all our problems are just a magic invention away from being solved. Very often now, technology is the problem.

So the future presented in Tom Swift is, in a way, obsolete. I think there are lots of SF books out there that present these obsolete futures, which are left as fascinating cultural or social artifacts of the imaginations of the past. I heard William Gibson talk about his writing last year and he mentioned that Neuromancer is not really about the future at all, it was a book about the 1980s. I still feel that Neuromancer has aged reasonably well, and I’m not sure I would call its future ‘obsolete’. Yet. Maybe. Anyway I’m biased, I love that book.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this beyond finding these discarded or invalidated futures to be a striking legacy of years of speculative fiction writing. In recent entries I wrote about how some of the strengths of speculative fiction is that it gives us the ability to imagine how things will work out and find answers to our questions; I find it intriguing that we have this fossil record of previous sets of answers and questions there to examine and enjoy (because even obsolete futures can still be fun to explore, although maybe not Tom Swift) and to see how we once thought things might end up, or should end up. Maybe they’re more like paths we never went down (and, perhaps, never could have gone down) rather than fossils.

Anyway, that turned into a longer one than I anticipated. Thanks for hanging in through it all.

*** – from doing a pathetic amount of research for this entry, I discovered that the Tom Swift books I read were themselves a revival of an earlier series set in the 1910s. Thus the character I read being Tom Swift, Jr. Apparently there have also been two revival series. I think I need to try to read the 1910s ones, some day.

—–

It is Canada Day tomorrow. Canada is an interesting place because I think most Canadians would agree that there are significant problems with our country and the society we have built, but then likely disagree over what those problems are, or what the solutions should be. Thus does the endless political wrangle churn relentlessly onwards.

I think, though, that most Canadians would also agree that, by and large, we live in a wonderful country whose heart is usually in the right place and that we are very fortunate to do so. As a writer and a scholar I know I am afforded freedoms I would not get elsewhere. Plus, it’s really quite beautiful here.

All of which to say that even though our nation has problems before it – reaching some kind of just and fair relationship with First Nations people seems prominent among these – I genuinely enjoy and celebrate on Canada Day. We do all right. We live in a good place.

Happy Canada Day.

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2 thoughts on “Tom Swift and the Obsolete Future

  1. PaulCHebert says:

    I’m starting to make good on my promise to read and re-read some of the classic sci-fi from a slightly later time, largely the 60s and 70s. I’m really interested in how writers in the past imagined the future, and as Gibson points out, what that says about their present. All that to say thanks for the timely blog post….

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