Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood

This is the kind of book that having read it makes you feel like you have a fun, exciting secret, and saying too much would give it away and spoil it for those who follow after…

Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood

This is the story of Philo Hergenschmidt. By now, the whole world knows what he did, although many people don’t believe it. This is the story of how he did it. It was compiled from original research, contemporary news accounts, and interviews with the man himself. It ranges from the apocryphal, to the questionable, to the impossible. But every word of it is true.

Sometimes you admire a book for its complexity, its artistry, its craft. Sometimes a book just speaks to you on a deeper level and you hardly notice these things as you’re transported into and through its world.

Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves transported me, to the days of my boyhood and before, the “Golden Age” and before the Golden Age; the early magazine science fiction, all the way to Hugo Gernsback and Amazing Stories. There are bright young go-getting boys, amateur radio, gadgets and outdoor adventure. Over it all lays a sense of immense freedom, of a mostly distant government and mostly free range parents and a mostly bright, beneficent world.

The world Wood has built at first seems to lie on an alt-history timeline, where elements of the 1950s and 60s (broadcast television, transistor radios, airplanes, mainframe computers) combine with an aesthetic that is more 1920s and 30s: the look, the music, the attitudes. The reader might come to believe that this is because most of the action is set in a town of 20,000 or so in the Virginia mountains, where the people are extremely independent and self-reliant. Yet, when Philo and friends bicycle all the way to the big city, a trip that takes several days, to get parts for the “pirate” radio station that Philo has envisioned, there’s a certain aesthetic there, too. This is not the United States of some slightly altered future past. This is the Yankee Republic.

The plot of Pirates seems simple, on the surface. The  town can’t get FM radio because it’s in a deep mountain valley. Philo loves radio. Philo decides to build a station on a nearby peak so he can broadcast to the whole town. Philo and friends have adventures and learning experiences gathering the parts, building structures and electronic devices and running a station. A prototypical Amazing Story. And yet…by the time we finish this short book we discover there’s much, much more, a whole ‘nother layer, or many, to the history and future of Philo’s world.

Any explicit description of the ending would spoil the surprise, so I’ll say no more about it, but one other intriguing and rather surprising touch in the book is that unlike most Science Boy Scout adventures, in Philo’s world there are events that are, or seem, explicitly “supernatural.” I won’t describe these in detail either. This is the kind of book that having read it makes you feel like you have a fun, exciting secret, and saying too much would give it away and spoil it for those who follow after.

Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves is imaginative, enjoyable and original. It somehow manages to take the classic plot and tropes of American boyhood amateur radio fiction and Make it Great Again. And I’m happy as hell to report that a sequel titled Five Million Watts is due in a few months. [Edited: Mr. Wood informs me Five Million Watts is due out in two weeks. Splendid!]

Suitable for all humans from eight to 118, and unreservedly recommended!

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A Modest Proposal

(I wrote this back in 2007. It’s pretty freakin’ scary that it all still applies, except that the population of India, China and Africa has risen enough to demand some adjustments to the numbers, but they’re presented here as originally written. This is where pure logic and strict materialism leads: Beware, for there monsters lurk. Links not guaranteed to function.)

I well realize that this will come a shock, a terrible surprise of outrageous proportions; but…

Al Gore is right. Continue reading