Tom Corbett: Space Cadet

Many years ago, sometime in the early 70s growing up in the English suburbs of Montreal, I started to read voraciously. I remember it being so bad that my mother would confiscate all the books we were taking on a holiday and then dole them out so I wouldn’t read them all in the first few days. The books themselves came from frequent visits to the used bookstore and the local libraries (one of which, in Pointe Claire I believe, was housed in an old mansion with broad wooden staircases and cool turrets to read in) and, of course, the dependable school-based Scholastic Book Club.

At the point I discovered science fiction we were still  on Roosevelt in our Dollard des Ormeaux house. I discovered it in my brothers’ room, sitting on the shelf under the window.

Although I was the youngest, my brothers shared a room and I had one to myself. The logic had been that since Dale (the eldest) had his own room in the old Roxboro house, that it was now my turn. In retrospect that doesn’t really explain why Doug didn’t get a room. Wouldn’t it have been his turn? I now suspect that in my somewhat notable precociousness (my mother had resorted to a leash for most of my terrible twos and threes), no one wanted to bunk with me and that having Dale and Doug together was the best solution for my parents’ sanity.

Be that as it may, I found the book in their room. It was one of those old green-turquoise, cloth-bound 6 x 9s with a foil line drawing on the cover and the embossed title Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. At least I remember it saying that; turns out I was wrong. But more on that later. I don’t believe I had ever read  a hardcover book of this nature & vintage before. Certainly the type is now ubiquitous  in every garage sale or (more horrifically) displayed in show homes or trendy restaurants with ripped pages and torn covers. But at this point I do believe it was the first book of that vintage I had come across aside from my mother’s old nursing texts. I have no idea whose book it was or who had obtained it from the used bookstore, but from that moment on it was my book.

I remember being reluctant to read it. There was no fancy cover with interesting images, no book blurb to tease, and frankly I had never read a science fiction book before and the idea didn’t seem as enticing as a talking mouse detective with a cool-sounding name like Basil. I think it was nothing more than desperation that prompted me to finally read the thing.

These were the days that I surreptitiously read beneath the cover with a flashlight perched on my shoulder so my parents wouldn’t know that I was staying up late. I am now amazed at the logic trail that led me to believe my efforts remained secret. While ostriches may not actually stick their heads in the sand to hide, I believe we humans continually do so from an early age: Look! I can’t see you so you can’t see me! While I can’t honestly state that was how I read the book that first time, I am quite certain it was a method employed in the second, third and many subsequent readings. I fell in love with that book immediately.

Not long after, we packed up and moved thousands of miles west to Brooks, Alberta, and I entered junior high school. There the library supplied many, many new adventures and there I discovered Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and, to my still undying pleasure, most of Robert A. Heinlein’s juvenile novels. I read my way through  all those ratty sci-fi paperbacks often multiple times, while simultaneously working my way through every  horse book from Black Beauty to the Black Stallion in the public library. But mostly, it was in the wire racks of well-thumbed paperbacks in Brooks Junior High School that I found the best and the brightest. It is a still guilty/pleasure that I retain one or two yellowed  pocket books with BJHS stamped on the pages.

At some point or another in the three years of junior high, definitely not on my first read, I noticed some startling similarities between my first love, Mr. Corbett, Space Cadet of the Solar Guard, and Cadet Matt Dodson of the Space Patrol from Mr. Heinlein’s Space Cadet. I never really thought too much about it and by that time the original Tom Corbett hardcover had disappeared, perhaps in the move West, perhaps in an unthinking purge of possessions.

I had not yet acquired the pack-rattish fetish for owning books that I (and without exception, all of my closest friends) now have, although I can state from the books in my collection it happened sometime in junior high. That first glimpse at SF had been at least three long young-man years in the past. In fact, I don’t think I gave the Tom Corbett book more than a passing thought for years, so absorbed was I in reading the entire back catalogue from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And then, when I got a job and a car, the trips to the city usually consisted of collecting new books to read and new authors to collect.

Sometime later, when I was in University studying fine and proper English literature and the internet was just beginning to become a useful tool, I  thought to look up the Tom the space cadet book of my childhood. By that time my recollection of it was very vague, and initially I thought I was looking for the popular Tom Swift books. Imagine my surprise when I found there was a whole series of them and none that I could find were about space cadets or rocketships or anything remotely sci-fi. In fact my boyhood inspiration seemed to be chiefly known for his inspiration of Tom Swifties, an adverbial play on words, e.g., “‘I lost my crutches,’ said Tom lamely.” With the still rudimentary nature of such online powerhouses such as Compuserve and usenet at the time, I pretty much gave up looking any further.

Another decade or so passed and, upon the umpteenth reading of the venerable Space Cadets, I again was struck with a desire to investigate the apparent plagiarism between what I remembered of Tom and his adventures on Mars and the plot of Heinlein’s novel. This time the internet brought to light the error of my previous research and revealed  was indeed a series of books written about a young space cadet named Tom Corbett by a fellow named Carey Rockwell. Wikipedia to the rescue and I soon discovered the series of books was apparently based on a radio, then TV, show in the 50s and there was in fact no such person as Carey Rockwell. The more curious of you can read more about it all  here.

The book I had read as a young’un was book one of a series of eight and had in fact been titled Stand By For Mars! The similarities to Heinlein’s Space Cadet were acknowledged, but the story for Stand by for Mars! had apparently been based on a script written in 1946, two years before Heinlein’s book was published. There is still a mystery there, but something obviously more complicated than mere plagiarism. Still the original mystery was solved and, except for the hollow place in my book-collecting soul the size of a small green hardcover, I was satisfied. I think it occurred to me at some point to search for a copy online when eBay was first on the scene, but it came to naught and I resigned myself to my memories.

Skipping ahead another decade more or less and we find ourselves in the freshly minted era of ebooks and Project Gutenberg’s great dream. Not that long ago in the scope of things, I started to read ebooks and often found myself buying texts in epub format that I already had in paperback. It once again occurred to me that the long elusive Tom Corbett might be accessible online in some format or another. Much to my delight I found it on epubbooks.com and immediately downloaded it and dived right in. Not quite the sweeping in-depth vision of space cadetedness I had constructed in my mind’s eye over the years, it nevertheless sufficed to scratch that decades-old itch. I was pretty damned pleased with myself for recapturing a moment of my childhood.

A few months later I found the other seven books in Project Gutenberg editions and acquired them as well. I will admit that it wasn’t until this winter that I finally started in on the other seven books; they held no sentimental value and frankly were the kind of juvenile schlock that any semi-educated reader in this modern and sophisticated age will generally turn his nose up at.

But whenever I reread early SF or juvenile books (or see an old movie for that matter) I am always struck by the learning process we all go through and how one’s vision is always based on what came before. I am always grateful I read Lord of the Rings back in those Brooks Junior High School editions; what more recent writers have built on that foundation is often astounding, but without Tolkien’s first masterpiece none of that would have come to pass. I’m so grateful I read those first and he remains the master in my personal chronology.

So now I am trying to read the remaining Corbett books with that in mind. We all, readers and writers alike, have to start somewhere, and if our palate eventually becomes too refined to tolerate the plonk we were weaned on, we can’t ever forget that without those first precious tastes, we will lose the opportunity to grow into the connoisseurs we believe ourselves to be.

And now you know why I am such a SF-schlock nerd…