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Friday, June 14, 2019

Reading List: Five Million Watts

Wood, Fenton. Five Million Watts. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2019. ASIN B07R6X973N.
This is the second short novel/novella (123 pages) in the author's Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves (May 2019), as “utterly charming”, and this sequel turns it all the way up to “enchanting”. As with the first book, you're reading along thinking this is a somewhat nerdy young adult story, then something happens or is mentioned in passing and suddenly, “Whoa—I didn't see that coming!”, and you realise the Yankee Republic is a strange and enchanted place, and that, as in the work of Philip K. Dick, there is a lot more going on than you suspected, and much more to be discovered in future adventures.

This tale begins several years after the events of the first book. Philo Hergenschmidt (the only character from Pirates to appear here) has grown up, graduated from Virginia Tech, and after a series of jobs keeping antiquated equipment at rural radio stations on the air, arrives in the Republic's storied metropolis of Iburakon to seek opportunity, adventure, and who knows what else. (If you're curious where the name of the city came from, here's a hint, but be aware it may be a minor spoiler.) Things get weird from the very start when he stops at an information kiosk and encounters a disembodied mechanical head who says it has a message for him. The message is just an address, and when he goes there he meets a very curious character who goes by a variety of names ranging from Viridios to Mr Green, surrounded by a collection of keyboard instruments including electronic synthesisers with strange designs.

Viridios suggests Philo aim for the very top and seek employment at legendary AM station 2XG, a broadcasting pioneer that went on the air in 1921, before broadcasting was regulated, and which in 1936 increased its power to five million watts. When other stations' maximum power was restricted to 50,000 watts, 2XG was grandfathered and allowed to continue to operate at 100 times more, enough to cover the continent far beyond the borders of the Yankee Republic into the mysterious lands of the West.

Not only does 2XG broadcast with enormous power, it was also permitted to retain its original 15 kHz bandwidth, allowing high-fidelity broadcasting and even, since the 1950s, stereo (for compatible receivers). However, in order to retain its rights to the frequency and power, the station was required to stay on the air continuously, with any outage longer than 24 hours forfeiting its rights to hungry competitors.

The engineers who maintained this unique equipment were a breed apart, the pinnacle of broadcast engineering. Philo manages to secure a job as a junior technician, which means he'll never get near the high power RF gear or antenna (all of which are one-off custom), but sets to work on routine maintenance of studio gear and patching up ancient tube gear when it breaks down. Meanwhile, he continues to visit Viridios and imbibe his tales of 2XG and the legendary Zaros the Electromage who designed its transmitter, the operation of which nobody completely understands today.

As he hears tales of the Old Religion, the gods of the spring and grain, and the time of the last ice age, Philo concludes Viridios is either the most magnificent liar he has ever encountered or—something else again.

Climate change is inexorably closing in on Iburakon. Each year is colder than the last, the growing season is shrinking, and it seems inevitable that before long the glaciers will resume their march from the north. Viridios is convinced that the only hope lies in music, performing a work rooted in that (very) Old Time Religion which caused a riot in its only public performance decades before, broadcast with the power of 2XG and performed with breakthrough electronic music instruments of his own devising.

Viridios is very odd, but also persuasive, and he has a history with 2XG. The concert is scheduled, and Philo sets to work restoring long-forgotten equipment from the station's basement and building new instruments to Viridios' specifications. It is a race against time, as the worst winter storm in memory threatens 2XG and forces Philo to confront one of his deepest fears.

Working on a project on the side, Philo discovers what may be the salvation of 2XG, but also as he looks deeper, possibly the door to a new universe. Once again, we have a satisfying, heroic, and imaginative story, suitable for readers of all ages, that leaves you hungry for more.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is inexpensive to buy. Those eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to visit the Yankee Republic will look forward to the publication of volume 3, The Tower of the Bear, in October, 2019.

Posted at June 14, 2019 14:10