I was about ten years old when I came across a hardback early-edition copy of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. The first title in the series, Stand By For Mars!, was one of the offerings at a yard sale I’d been taken to by my grandmother, and probably the first really stellar yard sale find of my life. The book was published in 1952, a year when the words space cadet could still be uttered in snark-free sincerity. The cadets were officer candidates studying at the Space Academy, where they hoped to earn rank in the prestigious Solar Guard. In Tom Corbett’s world, space cadet was a title of honor for someone with lofty goals who’d worked hard, survived the cut, and made a commitment to years of dedicated study in pursuit of a life far outside the confines of the commonplace. I remember being surprised and a little hurt when I later learned of the term’s contemporary meaning as someone out of touch with reality, but then it always was a shock when something I’d picked up from books turned out to be in conflict with the world at large. Whenever feasible, I’d quietly continue to regard the book-truth as the higher authority. Out of touch with reality? Maybe my identification as a space cadet was more thorough than I realized.
Ah, the fifties. I wasn’t around for them myself; I was born in 1969, the year of Woodstock and fringed vests, a groovy year. But I’ve seen movies and ads from the preceding decade; I’ve heard some of the music and read some of the books. It was a different time, the fifties—a time of flared skirts, fitted waists, and elegant necklines for women; tailored suits, shined shoes, and unironic bow ties for men; and carefully sculpted hair for both genders. Women put on hats and gloves to go shopping and got more dressed up for a day of housework than I typically do for church. The military was strong, the economy was booming, and the suburbs were filling fast with gridlike housing developments which look like dystopian nightmares to us but represented comfort and security to those who built and lived in them.
I don’t mean to trivialize or romanticize the era or the generation. My grandparents and their contemporaries had been through plenty, with one world war in recent memory, another in recent history, and a depression in between. It was harrowing stuff, and people bore scars, physical and otherwise. The Civil Rights Movement was getting underway and exposing some ugly truths about American society, and the Cold War was a constant undertow of anxiety. Still, for all that, it was an optimistic time, and the Tom Corbett books are very much a product of that optimism. Tom and his unit-mates, Astro and Roger (yes, those are their actual names; just take a moment to revel in that), are fifties boys through and through, in spite of their futuristic escapades: clean-cut, decent, and upstanding for the most part. Astro and Roger have sad back-stories, but even their angst is pretty wholesome. Nowhere to be seen are the bleak economic prospects and moral ambiguity of Captain Malcolm Reynolds’ ’verse, much less his remarks about who has or has not been taking hold of his plow. I say again, it was a different time.
The adjective space is liberally used throughout the Tom Corbett books; the cadets wear space boots, carry space bags, eat spaceburgers, and even refer to girls as space dolls. Ingenuous is the word for it, but it’s not the only word I want here. Is there a term for the sort of anachronism that inevitably occurs when something is old-fashioned and (inaccurately) futuristic at the same time? I reach for that word when the books refer to the jungles of Venus, the deserts and canals of Mars, and various high-tech but strangely analog devices. The 1950s vision of the casually space-faring future is out of sync with our vision of it, and out of sync with our technological present day. While on leave in Atom City, the cadets order their restaurant meals (broiled dinosaur on Venusian black bread) remotely via microphone. And when Space Academy command finally locates them at that restaurant after a frantic search, a waiter brings a portable teleceiver to the table, plugs it into a floor jack, and spins some dials. There is no touch screen, no GPS. The smart phone, and the Star Trek communicator, were still a long way in the future, at least for the author.
I’m not mocking here. Speculative fiction is…well, speculative, and to fault a writer for not accurately predicting all future technology would be a rather jerk-like use of the historian’s fallacy. Carey Rockwell (probably a house name for a group of authors) and technical adviser Willy Ley made guesses based on information available to them at the time, and though I am no expert I think they did a good job. The take-off and landing sequences seem reasonable and well thought out to me, with constant coordination and adjustment between the engine room, the astrogation center, and the control deck; the tech talk is easy to follow and sounds convincing. I like the frequent references to the astral chronometer, as much a marvel to Corbett and his fellow spacemen as John Harrison’s marine chronometer was to ocean navigators of the 18th century.
As a kid I only read Stand By For Mars!, the first book in the series. I don’t remember ever seeing any of the others or seeing another copy of that one. I never read the comic books or saw the TV show, or even knew of their existence until recently. But I certainly read the heck out of the book I had. It’s cozy. I like how the boys take aptitude tests at the Academy to get assigned to their various stations, and I like their personality conflicts and eventual loyal friendship. They’re a mixed bag: Astro, the engineer, a tactile learner, big, good-natured, uncomfortable with books but able to work out creative on-the-fly solutions to practical problems; Roger, the astrogator and radar man, brilliant, touchy, cocksure, secretive, unstable; and Tom on control deck, the leader, the guy who sees the big picture and has to sift through information and conjecture, risk and reward, as well as keep peace between the other two, balancing their personalities just as he balances the Polaris during landing and take-off. Running a spaceship is hard work, mentally and physically, and at the end of a long day of field exercises, overhauling the Polaris, or lacing a copper satellite with explosive charges while broiling inside their space suits under the heat of Alpha Centauri, the cadets relax together in the ship’s galley over sandwiches and hot tea or cocoa.
This was my formative science fiction. My earliest sci-fi stories (not that they’re much to get excited or analytical about) show as much of Space Cadet influence as of Star Wars. But whenever I mention the books, no one knows what I’m talking about. They’ve been out of print for a while, but most of them are available on Project Gutenberg, and I bought a Tom Corbett Megapack for $0.99 for my Nook. Now I’m making my way through the series, all but the first of which are new to me, and I feel like I’m catching up with old friends. Though still students, the boys seem to spend little time in the classroom these days; they’re always getting pulled out on special assignment. So far they’ve carried out a rescue mission on a disabled ship, been marooned on a Martian desert, and blown a copper satellite all the way from Alpha Centauri to Earth. There were even a couple of murders of minor characters. I was interested to see that Roger, though he’d shaped up considerably by the end of the first book, is still a loose cannon, with a tendency to mouth off and start fistfights, jeopardizing missions and endangering the rest of the crew. Tom and Astro know this, but by golly Roger is their loose cannon, and they never swerve in their loyalty to him. Early in Book 2, Danger in Deep Space, Roger commits negligence at his post while trying to get on with a girl.
There’s an accident and an investigation, and Roger, afraid he’ll get drummed out of the Academy and end up on a prison asteroid, breaks parole and takes up with some space tramps. Like all the villains so far, these guys are obvious malefactors—bad-tempered, not too bright, and clearly up to no good. But the big reveal of the evil plan in Book 3, On the Trail of the Space Pirates, actually took me by surprise. It was original and clever, in fact too clever for the duo of unambiguous surly villains; perhaps they will turn out to be only the henchmen of some yet unseen mastermind. To find out, and to recover the stolen technology whose loss puts the entire solar system at risk, the boys and their Academy commander, Steve Strong, must go undercover as smugglers on the seamy sides of various spaceports. Strong advises the cadets as to how to project the right seedy, unscrupulous image—though Roger, it must be said, gleefully takes to the part like a natural-born miscreant, with little to no need for directorial input. However, Strong also cautions them to stay away from alcoholic Rocket Juice and drink lightly sweetened Martian Water instead.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten for now. Still to come are Books 4-7: The Space Pioneers, The Revolt on Venus, Treachery in Outer Space, and Sabotage in Space. That’s the whole series except for Book 8, The Robot Rocket, which is unavailable due to rights issues. What happens in The Robot Rocket?! I may never know. Wikipedia hints that at some point in the series we may lose Roger (to what? death? disability? disgrace?), so I’m a little anxious as I progress through the books. As part of my megapack I also received three bonus novels: Rip Foster in Ride the Gray Planet, by Blake Savage; Star Born, by Andre Norton; and The Secret of the Ninth Planet, by Donald A. Wollheim. All were published in the fifties. While searching for the Tom Corbett books, I discovered the radio show, the TV show, the comic book series, and this fan site. Apparently someone also wrote some Manga Tom Corbett comics, but these are not regarded as canon. There were even some musical recordings inspired by the stories, performed by the Space Cadet Marching Band and released by Golden Sound Records.
The fan base appears small, but I’m pleased to have finally come across it. These are good books, wonderfully representative of their time, and they shouldn’t be forgotten. Look them up! Buy them! And settle in with some sandwiches and hot tea in your very own galley for an evening of retro futuristic fun.