Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 59: Post-Apocalyptic Radio

Science Fiction Round 59: Post-Apocalyptic Radio


I recently read the novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which won several awards in 2014.  It describes, among other things, a post-apocalyptic future in which well upwards of 99% of humanity is killed by an abrupt pandemic of influenza-of-doom and the subsequent collapse of current social structures.  The “viruses don’t work that way” aside, there was something about the story that bothered me which also applies to a bunch of other post-apocalyptic stories: no one remembers to salvage a radio.

That I jump to this as a world-building problem immediately is perhaps due to my being a radio and radar astronomer.  But I think it’s an important difference from one of the common conventions of post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Apocalypse, No Matter How

Imagine a post-apocalyptic Earth.  Maybe global thermonuclear war turned most cities into radioactive glass and shut down agriculture almost everywhere.  Maybe a disease of doom spread everywhere.  Maybe somebody created a zombie-vectored bioweapon.  Maybe someone broke all of the rules for spaceflight and made a large rockpile impact Earth.  Maybe a star went kaboom.  Maybe more than one of those at once.  Whatever the method, almost everyone is dead.  What do you do next?

Many post-apocalyptic stories rely on the characters having little or no knowledge about what is going on elsewhere in the world, either to drive plot (“find the green place“) or to limit the scope of the story (“caste-driven dystopia in a post-apocalyptic Chicago“).  But even fairly simple radio technology allows communication across large distances.  This makes many plots not work.

Cover of "Station Eleven". There are many people in the story living in tents, but not in the particular layout depicted here. Note also that the details of world-building were not Emily St. John Mandel's focus in the story. And she had a good choice of motto for one of her main characters: "Because survival is insufficient".

Cover of “Station Eleven”. There are many people in the story living in tents, but not in the particular layout depicted here.  Note also that the details of world-building were not Emily St. John Mandel’s focus in her story. And she had a good choice of motto for one of her main characters: “Because survival is insufficient“.

Station Eleven as an Example of Problems With Worldbuilding

In Station Eleven, a group of several hundred people finds refuge at a regional airport in Michigan.  They landed there because they were on passenger jets in flight when air traffic was shut down.  It’s essential to a large part of the plot of the novel that the survivors spend twenty years knowing nothing of anywhere more than a few hundred miles away from their base.

Because they have the airplanes and the airport control tower, the survivors have the pieces for several sets of equipment that is able to send low-bandwidth signals to at least half of the planet either by ionospheric reflection at lower frequencies or, with more work, by moon bounce at higher frequencies.  To be picked up with normal ham radio gear 10,000 km away with a bandwidth suitable for conversation, a transmitter does require a few hundred watts of electricity.  But there are devices that can provide far more power than that all over the landscape; from solar panels and wind turbines to alternators in cars.  It does take some skill to wire up a power supply and connect it to a transmitter, but even if a survivor doesn’t have that skill initially they can learn from abundant hard-copy manuals or by practice.

This all makes the conceit of Station Eleven implausible.  The group at the airport would be able to talk to and tune into signals from places as far away from one another as Goldstone and Owens Valley here in California, the Canadian archipelago and Greenland, Chile and islands in the Eastern Pacific, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Western Sahara – at a minimum.  More likely, they could talk at intervals to anywhere on Earth people with working transmitters might be.  And there would be such people in this scenario.  A pandemic flu that kills within days isn’t going to make it to places like Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.

The number and distribution of survivors expected in any given post-apocalypse setting is left as an exercise to the reader.

It’s true that a radio transmitter can mark your location to anyone with a direction-finding survey detector, but there are ways around that if you are worried about someone finding you.  And simply knowing that you’re not alone would be extremely important in a post-apocalypse.  Once people have started talking to one another, all of the other advantages of long-distance communication come in: warnings of danger, weather forecasts, arranging trade, exchanges of recovered knowledge and media, planning larger projects, and so on.

And so the stories of a post-apocalyptic world would be much different than how they’re often constructed.

Music For The Post-Apocalypse

All of this raises the question of what you might transmit in a post-apocalyptic setting to get attention – assuming that you didn’t want to be talking all of the time.  Here’s a few possibilities; given that you had copies stored on a player, could keep the player powered, and wanted to work in English:

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  1. michaelbusch
    2016/03/25 at 10:55 pm

    Bonus post-apocalyptic worldbuilding question, since I linked both “Beyond Thunderdome” and “Fury Road” above:

    Why does no one remember to salvage a mountain bike?

    • 2016/03/28 at 10:49 pm

      I think that, like for amateur radios, it’s artistic licence: people being able to go around even in very difficult terrain without fuel would break many plots built around gas scarcity just as throughly as people being able to communicate long-distance with the usual communication infrastructure down break plots based on total isolation. Either that or it’s an expression of the conceit that “urban men aren’t real men because they need cars to move around” or whatever, but I don’t remember that applying to Mad Max or its sequels.

      • michaelbusch
        2016/03/29 at 1:03 am

        I understand the shortage of mountain bikes as a narrative device. There’s just no Watsonian reason for it. As you wrote, it’s the same as for the shortage of radios.

        And now I’m thinking of a movie developed as a hybrid of “Fury Road” and “Premium Rush”, with a cadre of long-distance bicycle couriers relaying an essential package across a hostile post-apocalyptic landscape while evading capture and getting threatening messages from an unseen antagonist on their radio…

      • 2016/03/30 at 8:55 pm

        It would be an interesting idea but I’m not sure I wouldn’t mix “The Postman” in: that the people’s hope be not the military or militias but the post office would I think mesh well with the premises.

        Now that I think about it, another thing that people routinely fail to take are things like bike trailers: a “common” objection I get to breaking fuel scarcity-based plots through bikes is that bikes aren’t any good at hauling goods, while cars are. A trailer solves that neatly for the most part.

      • michaelbusch
        2016/03/31 at 8:27 pm

        Adding in “the mail must go through” could work well.

        Re. bicycle trailers:

        Many current commercial models can carry up to ~140 kg or so, although they’re mostly designed for road work. There are some trailers for single bicycles that go up to a few hundred kilos.

        Not so much as you can load up a truck with, but quite a bit better than a pack horse.

  2. The_L
    2016/03/29 at 9:55 am

    At least the Emberverse had the conceit of “these particular laws of physics changed” as a way to handwave the lack of radios.

    • michaelbusch
      2016/03/29 at 2:26 pm

      I’m not sure if I’d count the Emberverse as science fiction or as fantasy. The Event doesn’t follow any consistent rules. But at least Sterling has acknowledged that.

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