Traveling in California, we got acquainted with the artist community of the high desert, home to Slab City, Salvation Mountain and Wonder Valley. The climate is as airid as it gets, yet the community richly effervescent. Following our desert spiritual guides Francene and Mark, also known as sound artists Phog Masheeen, we explore the 45 degrees celsius town of Joshua Tree. Past Bob’s crystal cave: a visionary environment art and the crochet museum we end up at the space cowboy bookshop. Relieved at last from the blaring sun in the cool 38 degree space, Francene tells us of the magic of the swamp cooler (the what?). Although small the shop is filled to the roof with SF, fantasy and conspiracy theories books, some of which written by locals and illustrated by the shopkeeper’s oil paintings.
We exchange an excited glance, “everyone is an artist here”… “the heat does strange things to a mind”.
It is in this feverish warmth that our eyes lay upon an obscure collection of short stories from the year of the atomic bombs.
Within this collection we find the novel that would become the topic of heated discussions during our long car drives : The Waveries by Fredric Brown. There was never a story so opposed to our techo-utopist values, while at the same time describing better than we have seen before the concept of non-human others. But before diving into this, we have to start at the beginning.
The beginning is in fact something quite unique about this story, where the writer chose to use the crucial first sentences to explain his choice of protagonist. For the first and only time in the entire story the narrator smashes through the fourth wall, knocking off the reader in the process, to never return again. It was nice to meet you Fredric.
The story plays in a post second world War USA. One day a strange signal is heard on the radio, overpowering all signals, stopping all broadcasts and communications. Later TV and telephone get infected until finally no electrical devices can be used anymore. Through this plot device, the author brings back society to a time of horses and steam engines for which he seems to nurture an unhealthy nostalgia. In this regression of technology, the protagonists can finally find their purpose in life.
Sorry Fredric, but we spent many miles of straight empty roads in the desert dissecting your lack of objectivity on the matter.
For example, Fredric you explain how the lack of electricity makes the sparkplug of gasoline engines fail, creating a society without cars, at the same time as glossing over the fact that these cars can simply switch to diesel engines. And would coal and horse defecation be more or less polluting than gas fumes?
Would the world be better without electricity? Without internet? Without vehicles? Without fire? We can always go back in time in the never ending quest of finding the Era where the tools dictated people’s happiness. However it is rather our opinion that it is not a matter of tools but a matter of how we use them that defines our lives.
This slight divergence of opinion apart, one mesmerizing part of this story is the plot device itself: what stops technology all together?
And those are the Waveries. A lifeform living in the electromagnetic spectrum. Attracted to earth by the crazy amount of radio waves sent into space since the inception of radio. Now devouring all electromagnetic energy humans create rendering all electric devices useless.
We often think of alien life as humanoid creatures with mouths, of which we can learn the language. Yet how many other species on earth can we communicate with? We might encounter intelligent life, but what if it lives on such another plane of reality that we cannot even observe it and only notice its effects? Here is how Fredric beautifully describes the extraterrestrial life form:
“In effect, they are radio waves(…). They are a form of life dependent in wave motion, as our form of life is dependent on the vibration of matter. (…) The intelligence of such beings, if any, would be in such a completely different plane than ours that there would be no common point from which we could start intercourse. Ants are intelligent, after a fashion (…). Yet we cannot establish communication with ants and it is far less likely that we shall be able to establish communication with these invaders.”
Followed by an interesting take on the meaning of living beings:
“why do you assume that these waves are living things, a life form. Why not just waves?”
“Because just waves as you call them would follow certain laws, just as inanimate matter follows certain laws. An animal can climb uphill, for instance, a stone cannot unless impelled by some outside force. These invaders are life forms because they show volition, because they can change their direction of travel, and most especially because they retain their identity, two signals never conflict on the same radio receiver.”
Although our civilization has not yet encountered extraterrestrial life and maybe never will, this story shows us how we can expand our perspective further than ourselves. Something similar might be happening in the desert that we have now nearly crossed. Individuals looking for solitude, yet being struck by some inspiration few people can describe, something else then just the relentless sun on their heads. Why is it that there are so many alien sightings in the desert?
Marie Caye and Arvid Jense