Hamming It Up

It seems like there's a month for everything, and among other things, hundreds of thousands of people are celebrating International Amateur Radio Month in April.

Yes, this is really a thing, and in fact, on April 18, amateur radio operators, or "hams," will observe World Amateur Radio Day. Now I'm sure you're thinking, "Ham radios are old. Does anyone still use them, aside from old people? Also, that doesn't sound very science fictional."

It's true that amateur radio is old. It goes back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the word "ham" was originally meant as negatively as it sounds. (I know! I was also disappointed when I found out it has nothing to do with hamsters or sandwiches.) But like the term "geek," amateur radio operators took "ham" and owned it. Today, there are still plenty of hobbyists licensed to use ham radios — more than 700,000 in the U.S. alone. And as with any prop, ham radios aren't necessarily considered science fiction until you use them  in a SF story. I mean, consider all the futuristic, post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories that revere the remnants of today's technology. Not to mention the mere existence of steampunk!

See, one of the things I liked doing in my books was juxtaposing new technology and old: for instance, a highly advanced dimensional transporter that resembles an old-fashioned flip cell phone and an ordinary quarter. One character has piles of video cassette tapes and is genetically predisposed towards classic television made long before she was born. And of course, mountains of dead tree books still hold their own against the flashiest eBook reader from 25 years in our future — especially when some of those books don't even exist in our own world, like Jane Austen's unfinished novel, Sanditon.

A long time ago, I had an idea for a short story about a man who accidentally contacts other versions of himself in parallel universes through an old ham radio, allowing him to hear all the different ways his life could have turned out. I never wrote that story, but when I was writing Quantum Coin, it seemed like a perfect way for characters to communicate with each other in different universes, even in other timelines. (And yes, I've seen the film Frequency...) But there's a hitch: They can only communicate with different versions of the same radio, because of quantum entanglement, which in a sense makes them interchangeable. It was even more perfect when in the course of my research, a friend told me about the so-called "magic band," a particular frequency that allows communication over unusually long distances and all sorts of weird things... like maybe snippets of conversations from other universes? Given that I also like mashing up fantasy and science fiction, I couldn't resist using that.

I don't have an amateur radio of my own, but I became so interested in the hobby that I'd like to pick it up one day. I figure ham radio is a little like a low-tech version of Twitter, only with voices... And how much longer before they'll add that feature to social media anyway? Everything old becomes new again.

So how about you? Are there any bits of old technology that still fascinate you?


S.P. Bowers said...

I'm a ham, though honestly I haven't used my radio in years. It's a family thing. My mom and dad both have licenses and several of my brothers.

E.C. Myers said...

That's very cool, S.P.! I wonder if that's how it is with many families, with one generation passing it on to the next. Maybe some even use the radio to stay in touch? Though I suppose there are more convenient and less public ways to do that...