Back to theÉ
By Velvet Belle Tree
ŌThe WaveriesĶ is a very well-known short story by Frederic Brown. It was written in 1945 and takes place in 1957. The basic premise is that an alien species, in the form of radio waves, invades the Earth and its atmosphere. The result is a complete interference with any radio waves. They also consume all forms of electricity (AC, DC, sparks from a carÕs ignition), a phenomenon first discovered by the absence of lightning. The aliens are given names such as vaders (short for invaders) and waveries. In essence, the world must go back to the time before the telegraph.
The story is told from the point of view of George Bailey, who writes commercials for radio. He hates radio and has, on principle, never owned a television.
Brown describes the transition from mid-twentieth century America to mid-nineteenth century. There is unemployment and economic dislocation, but not as bad as the Great Depression. This, he says, is because the cause was known. Measures are taken, such as a crash program in horse breeding (oh, those lucky stallions!). Factories are converted to use steam power as are the trains, since diesel engines wonÕt work without electricity. The unemployed city workers are sent to the country where laborers are needed.
And then the story picks up a couple of years later. George has married and is living in bucolic bliss in Connecticut. HeÕs now the editor of the local newspaper. He goes to the train station one day to see if anyone interesting gets off, and thereÕs his old friend Pete. He takes Pete to his home for dinner. Pete tells him that New York City is down to one million people. Everybody is happy riding around on their bikes or horses.
Pete asks him what they do. George tells him how busy they are. Everyone is involved in clubs, like chess and checkers and everyone plays an instrument. He couldnÕt be happier.
I found many problems with this story. First, the transition back to mid-nineteenth century goes much too smoothly. Remember that communications has gone back to before the telegraph; back to letters delivered by horse and train. It would take a while to produce enough steam engines and horses. Gestation for a horse is eleven months and I donÕt think a horse would be fit for any real work before itÕs at least one year old. Converting factories to steam power would be no easy task. And you canÕt just take an out-of-work city dweller and instantly turn him into a farm hand.
Then there are the city dwellers. Even mid-twentieth century, there were people living in high-rises. Imagine what happens to them when thereÕs no electricity — not for a day or so, but permanently. Even for those who donÕt rely on elevators, it takes time for a large-scale manufacture of candles. Pete tells George that the city has converted to gas. Well, that might work fine, but what happened during the conversion?
Now we come to the part about how happy everyone is. George talks about how busy they are. You can bet that his wife is busy. ItÕs only fair to criticize the story in the context of the time it was written, 1945. Although many of the household appliances we now take for granted, such as microwave ovens, hadnÕt been invented yet, at least there were things like electric vacuum cleaners and washing machines and refrigerators. So itÕs back to brooms and hand washing (OK, wringers donÕt need electricity but do take hard work) and ice boxes.
Although many people would agree that most things on the radio and television and movies are not worth much, it is not all junk. There is good music on the radio, and there was more of that in 1945, when radio stations had their own orchestras. Although the very old phonographs didnÕt use electricity (they were hand cranked) the sound wasnÕt very good. And radio wasnÕt just for entertainment; before radio there was no communications with ships at sea.
George says that everyone goes to events in town in the evening. But how far can you go after dinner in your horse and buggy? And how much energy do you have after a hard days work? He imagines people all going to clubs and participating in amateur bands and theatricals. Yes, it is conceivable that some people in town would do these things. But he says that almost everyone now plays a musical instrument. How likely is that? Not everyone has musical ability or interest. Where did all these instruments and music teachers come from?
The story ends with his lament that he does miss lightning. I think that if he was in an accident, he would miss x-rays. I know that in 1945 they didnÕt have anywhere near the medical instrumentation that we have now or even had in the 1960s. But they did have x-ray and fluoroscope machines and other medical instruments that used electricity.
Frederic Brown imagines a nineteenth century that never existed. IÕm not saying that people werenÕt happy before the invention of electricity; you canÕt miss something that you donÕt know could exist. But he envisions everyone doing their work and then having time to pursue leisure activities.
Pete tells George about the great business opportunities in gas. Yes, there would be people who got rich from this. When they were in their town houses for Ōthe season,Ķ they would go to the opera in their horse drawn carriages. But there would be servants to drive the carriages.
I believe it was Isaac Asimov who said that the people who want to return to an earlier era donÕt realize that they would probably be servants. The servant class didnÕt participate in amateur theatricals or bands after a dayÕs work.