I wanted to like Calvin Cobb, Radio Woodworker, I really did. Even the cover art is splendid. Roy Underhill -- yes, the PBS woodworking guy -- is a likeable fellow and handles the language well. The good news is that his book, set in the mid to late 1930s, does a great job getting the technology and architecture right. He starts out with an engaging cast of characters and it grows. There are even plenty of good scenes. But it's got problems. The worst one is that Roy is an uncertain ringmaster -- is he writing about 1930s people and situations as seen from the 21st Century, or from the '30s? And alas, his characters are cardboard. Two-dimensional. They are very good 2D characters, who would be well at home in a ripping pulp yarn...but that's not what this is; there are plenty of 3D issues in the book, not just racism, anti-semitism and 1930s political turmoil (of which the U.S. had plenty) but female soldiers (we had 'em in WW I and some were dreadfully hurt in that dreadful war), the disabled, a hint of homophobia, xenophobia, data processing and the disruptions it can cause, and just offstage, a loudly-rumored gay J. Edgar Hoover. I don't mind if an author's politics and pet issues are different to my own -- I think Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula K. LeGuin are among the best writers around, and we're worlds apart -- but I do mind that he treats his characters as more than mere plot props. Alas, Calvin is callow, his love interest seems to have been trotted in for eye appeal and Red-flag waving, and his villain shows up late with a big ol' sign on his back reading I AM THE BAD GUY. --Which he is, very, and better-drawn than some of the more-sympathetic characters; but we never really meet him, either. The rest of the cast fares no better and it's a pity; they deserved better.
Mr. Underhill gets all the details right -- he really, truly, delightfully does† -- but his big picture just doesn't work. Torn between writing a fast-paced pulp novel and incisive social commentary, between a 1930s period piece and a modern look backwards, he ends up with not enough of either. His story and characters suffer for it, by turns too simple and overly complex, sometimes in the same paragraph. Better luck next time and I do hope there is one.
In contrast, a couple of books set in roughly the same period of time and written long afterward by people who had Been There and Done That hold up very well. Mary Motley's Devils In Waiting relates her time in the French Congo, where her husband served as a military attache. By present-day standards, her attitude towards the locals can seem at times shockingly patronizing; but she does genuinely care. She's even aware of the dreadful death toll* of the then recently-completed railway that remains the country's lifeline, though she never fully connects the dots between the somewhat wrecked and demoralized populace and the forced labor that built the railway.
Canadian writer Thomas H. Raddall has a deft touch, well-shown in The Nymph And The Lamp, set in Nova Scotia and on Marina Island in 1920-21. Something of a romance (but don't worry, fellows, there's no mooning around), one of the main characters is a wireless operator who has served on Marina for many years. It's a much deeper story than first appears and with Raddall's first-hand experience in the merchant marine and early wireless (including the shore station on the real-life counterpart of Marina), there's not a wrong note. He neither shys from nor obsesses over issues of class, race and the social and personal upheaval occasioned by the Great War, all of which you will find in background and foreground. Highly recommended, both to my readers and particularly to Roy Underhill. Thomas H. Raddall should be better-known and and his books more widely available in the States than they are; Amazon.ca lists quite a few that Amazon.com does not.
* Between 30,000 and 15,000 depending on who you trust, and that's only the workers. The toll in families uprooted or torn apart and their casualty rate is unknown. Bypassing the impassible rapids of the lower Congo has had immense benefits but the human cost was horrifying.
† With one exception: unless I missed something, he doesn't quite get the complex issues around the use of transcriptions in early radio. This is about as hair-splitting as geekery gets and it won't bother most readers.
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