Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

In a recent issue of Wireless World a contributor bemoans the way the spaceships of science fiction still seem to be using outmoded radio techniques ... like calling "Over" after each message as if it were still beyond human ingenuity to design a set that would transmit and receive simultaneously. He can't have read much science fiction, because he doesn't know the half of it. Most of our current spaceships are using radio equipment so far behind the times it's a wonder that when they are tuning in on the latest from Earth Control they don't get the Savoy Orpheans. The item that's always annoyed me most are those blooming rheostats. Every time an author takes you into the Mad Scientist's laboratory or a spaceship control room it's a hundred to one there'll be some character there madly twiddling a rheostat. Now a rheostat happens to be a big ignorant-looking wirewound variable resistance that was last used to control the filaments of valves when they still had directly-heated filaments and looked rather like drunken electric light bulbs.

Of course the trouble is that rheostats and big glass valves ... or, as the Americans call them, toobs ... were all the rage back in the 'Twenties when sf started, and most of the writers learned what they know about radio,which isn't much, from sf stories crammed in between articles describing How to Astound Your Friends by Building This Loudspeaker Radio Apparatus Guaranteed to Play. All the authors aren't like this of course—George O. Smith knows nearly as much about electronics as the characters in his stories—but most of them fall output over input when they try to be authentic. What they need is an Electronics Consultant. As an old ham from way back (I once built a piece of apparatus so like a mass of spaghetti that it might have been designed by Signor Macaroni himself) I'm willing to offer my services for a moderate fee, in the interests of scientific truth, the integrity of science fiction, and me. I could even advise the film industry on such points as that modern radio and TV sets don't leap into life the moment the heroine switches them on: even if it's Marilyn Monroe, they still need a little time to warm up. Take the B.B.C. too, and "Journey Into Space."

Now I haven't been listening to this programme much recently—I chop the firewood at a different time these days—but from what I remember a sample five minutes used to go something like this.

Our intrepid spacemen are about 50 million miles from Earth, three in one ship and one in another . . .

"Freighter No. 1 to Discovery, Freighter No. 1 to Discovery. Over."

"Discovery to Freighter No. 1. Discovery to Freighter No. 1. Over."

"Freighter No. 1 to Discovery. Are you receiving me? Over."

"Discovery to Freighter No. 1. Receiving you loud and clear, strength QSFL5. Are you receiving me? Over."

"Freighter No. 1 to Discovery. Receiving you loud and clear, strength N3F. I have an Important Message. Over."

"Discovery to Freighter No. 1. What is your Important Message? Over."

"Freighter No. 1 to Discovery. Stand by to receive Important Message. Over."

"Discovery to Freighter No. 1. Standing by to receive Important Message. Over."

"Freighter No. 1 to Discovery. Here is Important Message. Important Message begins. The     Mars Invasion Fleet————aaaaaagggghhhh!"

"Jet, I think there's something wrong."

"Discovery to Freighter No. 1. Important Message not received. Repeat Important Message. Over."

"Jet, he doesn't answer."

"Discovery to Freighter No. 1. Am not receiving you loud and clear. Are you receiving me loud and clear? What is your Important Message. Over."

"Freighter No. 1 to Discovery. Receiving you loud and clear. Here is Important Message. Orders must be obeyed without question at all times. That is all. Over and out."

"I don't care, Jet. I've still got a feeling there's something wrong."

Now visualise this situation.Here we have two Earth spaceships, the only ones in the entire Universe. Is it really necessary for them to proclaim their identity every time they open their transmitters, or indeed at all? One would think that space was packed with spaceships like sardines all the way from Mercury to Uranus, all blaring away at one another like commercial radio stations.

Of course science fiction people aren't the only ones who do this. Take the climax of the average aeroplane film .. .

"Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger calling Control. Over."

"Control to Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger. Receiving you loud and clear. What is your report? Over."

"Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger to Control. Wing has dropped off, fusilage is on fire and dashboard clock has stopped. Instructions requested. Over."

"Control to Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger. Stand by for instructions. . . . Hello, Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger. Try winding it up. Over."

"Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger calling Control. Too late. Other wing has fallen off. Tell them I died for good old BOAC and give my love to Sir Miles—" CRUNCH. Screams. Ambulance noises.

"Control to Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger. No longer receiving you loud and clear. Come in, Able Baker 69 Roger Lodger. Over."

Now if these people hadn't been so fond of the sound of their own names that brave young test pilot would have had a less untimely death, and the Important Message would have come through so we could all have switched back to the Third Programme.

from Nebula No. 16, March 1956

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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