Apparently they do still make them like they used to, and the world is a better place for it.
Fenton Wood’s debut novel, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, does so many things right that it’s hard to knowing where to start a proper review. The basic plot, “a small town boy named Philo, on the edge of his teen years starts up a pirate radio station, confounds the authorities, and enchants the local townsfolk” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what the novel contains. It’s actually a narrative device, a central structure on which Woods hangs all sorts of interludes and vignettes that run the gamut from frontier ghost stories, to Old Country goblin tales, to cloak and dagger games of cat and mouse, to diamond hard sci-fi, and along the way, each little morsel provides a broader glimpse into the wider world of a world that might be a long time after the apocalypse, might be a fairy-tale inversion of our world, or might be its own thing altogether.
That might sound a little confusing, but in practice it comes across in much the same manner as modern day classics such as the films A Christmas Story or The Sandlot. Instead of Smalls’ attempts to fit into a new neighborhood gang resulting in lost baseballs, stolen kisses, and connecting with a new step-father, Philo enlists the aid of his classmates to help build, finance, and operate a pirate radio station capable of reaching the entire mountain valley. Philo’s adventure brings him face to face with spooks of the supernatural and governmental varieties, and the need for material to fill airtime on radio station 9X9 allows Fenton Woods the space to intersperse the action with all manner of frontier-style tall tales, the best of which contain germs of truths that reflect the strange world Philo inhabits.
Wood writes with a plain-spun voice that perfectly matches the post-WWII American zeitgeist – at least that of the rural spaces of an America not yet infected with the siren song of modern globalist thought. Imagine a Lake Woebegone written by an author who doesn’t long for the approval of smug city-slickers and turn his nose up at the ignorant rubes he mocks for soft, derisive chuckles, and you’ll get the idea. The boys ride bikes, camp without parental supervision for days on end, and without the distractions of modern technology and the fears of modern crime statistics have the freedom to roam both physically and intellectually. The result is a charming tale at once sweet and smart, and one that unabashedly embraces a young boy’s desire to wander and stoic understanding that a few scraped knees and knocks on the head are the price one pays during the pursuit of one’s dream – quixotic or otherwise.
The story also pauses from time to time to delve into the electrical minutiae of electronics, but does so in a way that reinforces the story rather than detracts from it. Philo engages with the subject of ham radio operation with an infectious enthusiasm, and the explanation of the obstacles he faces to get 9X9 operating serve to illustrate both his intelligence and the necessary conditions for overcoming the challenges. It’s hard sci-fi done with a light touch. Fans of Heinlein’s juveniles will find echoes of his work in these passages, as will fans of the underappreciated The Mad Scientists Club series of short stories. If you’ve been digging through modern works looking for that style of work in modern day novels, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves is the treasure you’ve been seeking.
The best part about the title of Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves might just be the “#1”. August 2019, the projected date of release for the sequel, can’t come soon enough for anyone that has read this novel. It’s short – only 107 pages long – but it’s smart, sweet, and easily accessible. It’s a reminder of a place that never was, but should have been, and recaptures a time we’ve lost, but should not have.