Tom Swift: The Negative Zone In 1910 Edward Stratemeyer, a writer of popular children's books, did for literature what industrial moguls of that era were accomplishing for heavy industry: He…
Book Review

Tom Swift: The Negative Zone

In 1910 Edward Stratemeyer, a writer of popular children's books, did for literature what industrial moguls of that era were accomplishing for heavy industry: He invented a way of mass-producing fiction on an assembly-line basis, having a crew of low-wage writers manufacture prose using a foreman's chapter-by-chapter outline. The Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate created such sequel-after-sequel childhood heroes as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and the teenage scientific genius and inventor Tom Swift.

In his original incarnation, between 1910 and 1941, Tom starred in 38 novels (written under the pseudonym Victor Appleton), in which he invented the motorcycle, various kinds of airships, the talkies, and sundry other wonders. In the process Tom became fabulously rich, an industrial magnate, and a married man, while aging only a couple of years. By 1941 the real world had made most of Tom's early adventures look passe, and the series ground to a halt, to be revived in 1954 at the dawn of the Space Age.

In a second series of 44 books, written by a syndicate assembly line called Victor Appleton II (Edward Strat-emeyer had died in 1930), Tom Swift Jr., effortlessly anticipated the rise of the nuclear power industry and the space program, landing on the moon and colonizing it. Commercially, Tom Swift Jr. was not as huge a success as his old man, racking up total sales of only 6 million copies as against Swift Sr.'s 14 million, but that was enough to keep Tom's name alive and even, for a while, proverbial among adult punsters of the early '60s who invented hundreds of ''Tom Swifties.'' Examples: '''Let's write some more sequels,' Tom said repeatedly.'' Or '''I just lost a game of Russian roulette,' Tom said absent-mindedly.''

Now Tom Swift has been reborn again, this time by book packager Byron Preiss, and here he is in the first two titles of a series of paperback originals tailored according to the tried-and- true formulas, Tom Swift: The Black Dragon and Tom Swift: The Negative Zone. In The Black Dragon, Tom's first invention for the postmodern age is a superconductive skyboard that flies through the air. The villainous mad scientist Xavier Mace covets the skyboard and kidnaps Tom's best friend, Rick Cantwell, when he's test-piloting it. Mace is a dangerous man, as Swift Sr. explains: ''When the Nobel committee discovered (that Mace's theories were based on Nazi death-camp experiments) and rejected his work, Mace devoted himself to making money. His companies pollute more water, build more weapons, and destroy more lives than any organization on Earth.''

Mace is the traditional Swift blue meany, and the girls in the new books are similarly true to type. Girls have always come across as, well, girlish in Tom Swift adventures. Consider this cameo appearance of Tom's sister Sandra, who, as the action starts, immediately faints: ''Carefully, they picked up Sandra Swift and headed down the hallway again. Her eyes fluttered open, and she looked dazedly around. 'Wha-?' she managed to say.'' And ''Wha-?'' is about her limit. Clearly, the manufacturer believes that the target market of 11- year-old boys wouldn't want to admit members of the other gender into their genre.

The showdown, with Tom and Rick confronting a horde of Mace's kamikaze robots and then the Black Dragon (a.k.a. Mace) himself, is a reasonably professional slam-bang finale with James Bond production values revamped for a sixth-grade reading level, and it lifts the book's final grade to a B-.

The Negative Zone comes closer to ordinary sci-fi, with a plot premised on an alternate universe with an alternate Tom Swift as evil as Xavier Mace. When Tom Swift gets sucked through a black hole and ends up in his doppelganger's universe, the doppelganger symmetrically pops into Tom's universe and exhibits some highly antisocial behavior. The writer who's masked behind ''Victor Appleton'' in The Negative Zone is obviously impatient with the constraints of the Stratemeyer formula and has fun pitting Tom against the law and giving Tom's girlfriend Mandy a tattoo just above her navel. Of course, she's the alternate Mandy, but even so. Things get so far out of hand that Tom ruthlessly blows up a motel room to escape the cops. This isn't the Tom of tradition, though it may be that bad boys have more fun. Certainly the second and more preposterous of the new stories has the edge in imaginative energy. B

What Tom Swift offers that can't be found in the entry-level sci-fi of current teenybopper favorites such as Piers Anthony and Orson Scott Card is a sanitized and simplified environment in which adults are irrelevant. Tom lives in a just-for-kids playground where teens have opportunities denied them in grown-up books. He can run his own fusion reactor in his own underground bunker, and when his friends wonder if that's quite safe, he can reassure them, ''Trust me, guys. I'm using hardly any deuterium.''

The best thing about Stratemeyer's fiction products has always been their effectiveness in luring young readers across the gap from comics to books that require you to make up the pictures in your own head, and this continues to be true now that packager Preiss is handling the series. (Most grown-ups with an appetite for reading novels tend to forget what an extraordinary skill novel reading is.) In days of yore, librar-ians and the sterner sort of schoolmarms frowned on Stratemeyer books as being escapist trash and lacking intellectual nutrition-which gave them the additional glamour of being forbidden fruit.

Nowadays anything that will get kids away from the TV for half an hour at a time is considered wholesome as broccoli. But Tom Swift has his work cut out for him if he's going to compete with the sci-fi available in movies, where you can see flying skateboards in action (Back to the Future Part II) and on TV, where the Star Trek crew visits a different alternate universe almost every week.

Tom still has one great advantage-the privacy of reading, the way you and the story on the page can connect in your own consciousness, the way you can take a book under the covers and read it by flashlight, the way every novel is a black hole through which you can enter the alternate universe of your imagination. Such is the secret wisdom of Tom Swift, which no grown-up ever quite seems to understand.

Originally posted Dec 21, 2007 Published in issue #71 Jun 21, 1991 Order article reprints