Thursday, January 2, 2014

Deep Space and Martian Deserts

Tom Corbett come into existence in a roundabout way. Writer Joseph Greene authored a radio script in 1946 titled "Tom Ranger," but this was never produced. Then, in 1948, Robert Heinlein wrote the novel Space Cadet, which sold rather well. This convinced Greene to dust off his space cadet radio script, which eventually found its way to television in 1950 as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

Tom became a pretty popular guy. The same cast of actors doing the TV show brought it to radio in 1952 and there were also comic books, novels, coloring books and a Viewmaster set.

The first of the eight novels is also from 1952. Stand by for Mars was written under the pen name of Carey
Rockwell--I'm afraid I'm not sure if the author was indeed Joseph Greene. But whomever wrote it, it's a fun book.

The novel tells of Tom's first few months at the Space Academy. In terms of characterization, it's fairly straightforward--Tom is a straight-arrow guy who wants to do well. One of his teammates (cadets are assigned to teams of three) is Roger Manning, who is brilliant but snotty and disrespectful. The third team member is Astro, who is already a skilled engineer but struggles with the advanced mathematics he must learn.

Most of the character development comes from the three learning that they can trust each other and discovering what makes Roger such a jerk. These characterizations are all predictable, but they are handled competently and we end up liking the trio.

Thematically, Stand by for Mars is very similar to Heinlein's novel in that it emphasizes loyalty, idealism and (perhaps most importantly) intelligence as being the most valuable traits for an astronaut to have. We never
forget that Tom, Roger and Astro are able to handle complicated math, engineering and navigational problems. At one point, when Roger talks about doing logarithms in his head when no computer is available, you kind of want to smack him one for being such a smarty-pants. But you don't doubt for a moment that he can do it.

The action scenes are also handled well. While out on training maneuvers, Tom's ship answers a distress signal. What follows in quick succession are rescuing passengers off a damaged ship before it blows up; doing make-shift repairs on the ship; crash-landing in the Martian desert; surviving a three-day sandstorm; digging their way out of the wrecked ship without drowning in powdery sand; and walking across the blistering hot desert with insufficient water.

It's well-told and exciting stuff, with the emphasis on the necessity of teamwork and the need to think & act intelligently. Everything Tom and his team do makes sense, as they take carefully calculated risks before acting to first save others and then save themselves.

In the hands of a less-skilled writer, Stand by for Mars would be corny and forgettable. But Carey
Rockwell--whoever the heck he was--creates likable characters and has them acting in believable ways. The writer, I think, believed in the ideals he was presenting and his effective prose is combined with this sincerity to give us a classy and entertaining story.


  1. I've long heard of Tom Corbett but knew next to nothing about him, so I appreciated your crash course. Great images, too. I'm almost thinking of peeking into eBay to see if I can get a Corbett book because from your description I think I would enjoy it. Young adult science-fiction is tricky--HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL by Heinlein is my favorite of the genre (once called "juveniles," right?). I recently caved to pressure and read Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME and was underwhelmed. I couldn't see why it's considered a modern classic of YA SF. Maybe it's because at heart "my" science fiction is of an earlier age--Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and the original STAR TREK series. Maybe I'll add Tom Corbett to the list thanks to you. ~ Gary in Omaha

  2. Gary--Yes, YA science fiction novels were once called "Juveniles." If you enjoy Heinlein's juveniles, then you will probably enjoy the Tom Corbett novels quite a lot.

    I liked Ender's Game, but I agree that the older SF has a different--and I think fresher--feel to it than most modern SF. There is a joy and a sense of wonder to them that seems to have largely been lost. Maybe many readers have gotten too used to going into space vicariously via science fiction and it no longer seems like such a big deal to them.

    Of course, all this begs the question: Who would win a fight between Buster Crabbe's Flash Gordon and William Shatner's Captain Kirk?

  3. Good news for Gary and others: most of the Tom Corbett novels are available for free download on the net


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