Wednesday, December 8, 2021

One Little Detail

Everyone who creates historical fiction faces a wave of critique from people who know details about technical aspects of the subject. Whether it's the kinds of phones, cars, or typefaces shown in movies, something will be wrong. 

It's no different in books. In writing an alternate history like The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal can get away with a few more things, but it's still not anything goes. She has a thorough set of acknowledgements and historical notes at the end, explaining who helped her with the jargon of pilots and astronauts, why she chose to change certain aspects of history, and so on.

There's one minor incorrect detail that caught my attention particularly. It's the kind of thing only someone with insider knowledge would catch, but that anyone from that insider world would likely have flagged.

The premise of the book is that on March 3, 1952, a large meteorite wiped out Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area. Almost the entire federal government was destroyed, since Congress was in session, and both the president and vice president were in residence.

Each chapter starts with a brief news clip providing context. The one from chapter 7, two full weeks after the disaster, reads as follows:


PHILADELPHIA, PA, March 17, 1952—To coordinate relief efforts after the Meteor strike, civil defense agencies are using various types of emergency communications equipment to transmit messages in the disaster area. In addition to the customary telephone, officials are employing portable radio transmitting sets, "walkie-talkies," Army field telephone equipment, and amateur "ham" radio sets. These will be carried in cars manned by volunteer operators who will set up a secondary means of communication. (p. 69)

In 1952, ham radio operators were well-versed in planning for civil defense emergency operation. They went out on "field days" on a regular basis to practice on weekends, powering their rigs with stationary bikes or the batteries of their cars. I know this because my parents did it around this time when they were first dating.

(This photo is not my parents. It's from 1946 and is one of the ones I could find from an image search, but you get the idea.)

Now, I suppose it's possible the implication is that the novel's fictional press coverage is intentionally written partially in the future tense to show the press can be loose with the facts, when the hams would have been helping with communication from day 1 of the emergency. Could be. There are certainly examples of loose press coverage in other clips throughout the book, but they're usually done to show the press's sexism.

All I know is, the early 1950s were a time when the network of amateur radio operators was probably at its peak of readiness to provide communication in a disaster. Hams would have swung into action immediately without waiting to be asked by anyone official. 


But otherwise... fun book! Of course the culturally accepted sexism and racism will make you mad/sad/annoyed (intentionally). I'm champing at the bit to get the sequel (The Fated Sky), and just realized there's a third book, The Relentless Moon. A fourth book is due in 2022.

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