Monday, January 24, 2005

A Sentimental Journey: Alan Chapman, The Radio Boys' First Wireless, Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1922.

Talking about a book that was published in 1922 (before "genre sf") and is all about wireless, which was far from speculative, may seem a bit odd. But I have three justifications. The first is that Hugo Gernsback was as much (if not more) a hero to radio people as he is to science fiction, and the early years of sf magazine publishing were supported by advertising revenue from the radio industry. The magazines used to be full of adverts to "make a career in the new field of Radio". And I have always been sentimental.

My second reason though is more "on topic". I'm not much for the "Sf is dying" refrain. I bet you could find it in magazines of the 1930s if you looked (certainly there were complaints when the wonder stories began to disappear), but I do think there are changes in the genre (such as the move away from engineering sf) which are about changes in the way in which the west relates to science and technology, and makes me wonder if we are due a boom in science fiction from one of those many countries that fill western Universities' departments of chemistry and engineering. Radio Boys helps explain what I mean.

The plot is terribly simple: four boys go to a lecture on radio, decide to build one, then build one each for a competition, and one of them wins the competition. There is a small crime-mystery threaded through but I don't get the feeling the author is terribly interested in that. I suspect a publisher insisted that you couldn't write story about building a radio.

One of the startling things (to modern eyes) of this book is how visible the technology is. A young man explains to the boys how to build a radio, and, from bits and pieces around the house (and with the kind of tools that would make a modern parent shudder) they do, and without adult supervision. The lecture that is provided (two pages) is clear, concise, and I could follow the instructions. It also managed not to sound boring.

I'm not sure that this kind of physical experimentation is even possible in most western households today. Most households don't have the make-do-and-mend culture that means that bits of wire, silver foil, and wood are hanging around the house. More to the point, how many items around the house can be taken apart? How can children learn how things work when prising apart a watch shows you circuit boards and opening the car up reveals a large lump of plastic? This change has taken place in my life-time. What used to be a matter of child-hood tinkering, has now been withdrawn to the classroom which--to go back to my throwaway line earlier--might explain why Engineering departments in the west are filling up with students from countries where technology is still visible (this isn't a complaint by the way, just an observation). The science museum sells a crystal radio kit, but it's just not the same.

My final reason for keeping this book in my list, is that it exemplifies the sense of wonder, and the romance with the workings of the universe that is such a part of science fiction. There is a point where one of the boys dashes home to get headphones and the other boys start without him. When he gets back he asks if they can get the musicians to wait for him....

"The absurdity of this idea [of asking musicians on the radio to wait for a listener] raised a laugh, which was suddenly cut short as the first notes of a rousing marc came ringing into the ear-phones. Every note was true and distinct as before, with practically no interference, and when the last note had died away the boys rose and as though actuated by one impulse, executed an impromptu war dance.” (133)"

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