On My Shelves: Tom Derringer and the Aluminum Airship


Lawrence Watt-Evans is one of my favorite authors, and he nails this one perfectly.


The initial, spoiler-free review: _Tom Derringer and the Aluminum Airship_ is a nigh-perfect recapturing of the spirit of pulp and, really, pre-pulp adventure fiction. Not really steampunk, but close to it, this is more an Edisonade or a Vernian homage in a sense. The language and setting evoke those of the older works, while avoiding the overly-intrusive narration which sometimes will mar older works for new readers.


Tom himself is an engaging, straightforward protagonist and his companion Betsy Vanderhart, while not getting quite as much screen-time (it's a purely first-person story from Tom's point of view) is also intelligent, engaging, and capable. This is clearly suited for younger audiences, from about 12 up I would say, and definitely worth even much older readers' time.


Somewhat spoilery full review:


This is what Jules Verne might have written if he'd grown up in America, and then had the opportunity to come forward in time and write now. There is much of Verne in the setting and language, and indeed the very setup is reminiscent of many similar events in Verne's various works.


At the same time, Lawrence Watt-Evans avoids the pitfalls of Verne from the modern view -- the too-tedious detailing of every item and scientific fact, the too-common diversions in the narrator's thoughts, which reduce the impact of events at times for a modern reader unused to these older habits of literary fiction.


Tom Derringer is a young man living in an alternate past in which "adventurer" is a recognized avocation of both respect and concern. These are adventurers of the true pulp tradition -- delving into forbidden territories, discovering lost cities and stopping mad scientists, explorers and treasure-hunters and heroes all in one. When he discovers his father's old journals and finds that his father was, in fact, one of the most celebrated adventurers of his time, Tom cannot help but be drawn by the fascination of his father's many adventures, and soon decides that he, too, wants to become an adventurer.


The first surprise, for those accustomed to the older stories of this sort, is to see that his mother, while worried, will not stop him -- but instead will help him gain the training he needs to become an adventurer who might survive, rather than die in a blaze of ill-considered glory; trained he is, for years, until at the age of 16, he sets out upon his first adventure -- tracking down a mysterious flying object which is an airship made of the impossibly rare and expensive metal aluminum.


Tom is just a joy to follow along with as a reader. His training and background have combined to make him simultaneously more mature than his years, and more innocent than almost everyone he encounters. The combination turns out to be a formidable weapon; he often can use his guileless approach to disarm others' suspicions or, at the least, confuse them into taking different actions than they might have otherwise taken. He has the typical teenager's blithe acceptance of his own invulnerability, which leads him to sometimes forget that fear is a useful warning. But overall he is skilled enough and determined enough to make it through challenges that would daunt, or even defeat, far older men.


His companion on most of the adventure, Miss Vanderhart, is similarly self-possessed and skillful; she is Tom's superior in technological areas, able to kitbash up a primitive aqualung in the middle of a jungle with nothing but a few pieces of wreckage and her belt of tools. While there are gentle hints of romance, the story does not focus on this and in fact it is more hinted at through avoidance than anything else.


I *love* this kind of stuff. In a way, this reminded me of another recent pulp-novel entry, Harry Connolly's King Khan. I can, somewhat, imagine the latter occurring in the moderate future of Tom Derringer, although it appears that the pulp science is even more extreme in King Khan than in the world of Tom Derringer; still, Tom explicitly mentions things like lizard-men, Shangri-La, mystic temples, and so on, so perhaps not.


Tom's world isn't ours; it's clearly an alternate American history, where the world is a stranger, wilder place, a place that needs trouble-shooters -- and that is what the adventurers are for. At the same time, Lawrence Watt-Evans is clearly aware of the real forces of history that would exist, and that can be applied to this novel; the consequences of the European invasion and manifest-destiny conquest of the Americas play a considerable part in the plot.


Mostly, though, this is a true-blue adventure novel with our heroes going from one peril to the next and solving them with a combination of luck, skill, and quick wits – a fine and enjoyable ride through a world that is brighter, stranger, and more adventurous than any that really was.


The novel ends with an obvious lead-in for another novel, and I very much look forward to seeing any sequels!


Your comments or questions welcomed!