Always Available

It occurs to me that a central theme in many of my stories is communication. Some of my stories are set in the past, well before the advent of modern communication, or they’re set in the distant future, when communication becomes a technical challenge again because of the constraints imposed both by the speed of light and signal degradation over distance. This proves to be an interesting time to write about these challenges, because most of us have some form or another of this device.

Most of us are available to get a call or receive a text 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We might be inconvenienced by the occasional dead time during a flight where we’re instructed to turn off our phones to avoid interfering with navigation equipment, but that’s about it.

That said, I work in a world where I’m not so easily available. I work at an observatory with radio telescopes and the spread spectrum signals from cell phones interfere with their observing. So, I’m required to turn off my phone while at work. Because my work shifts require me to be on the mountain for up to six days at a time, I can be out of cell phone contact that whole time. Even observatories without radio telescopes are often in remote mountain areas, out of range of cell service. Because of this, the whole lack of cell service became a plot point in my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. This is a nice feature for a horror novel where you don’t want help to arrive at a moment’s notice.

In my novel The Solar Sea, a valiant crew of explorers take a solar sail to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even on relatively short distances like within the solar system, communication can be a challenge. On average, it takes about 15 minutes for a signal traveling at the speed of light to reach Mars, about 30 minutes for a signal to reach Jupiter, and almost an hour and a half to reach Saturn. This assumes the planets are aligned on the same side of the sun as Earth. Still, imagine having a conversation where you speak and wait 15 minutes for your voice to get to Earth, then wait 15 minutes for a reply. Your messages would be more like voice mails. Or you might resort to something like email or texts for communication, which is what they do in my novel.

Back in the nineteenth century, inventors were working on ways to use electromagnetism to speed up communication. The upshot was the development of the telegraph and then the telephone. I have long found it interesting how delays in news affected events before these inventions, and even before these inventions became widely available. This allows for some fun what-if games when writing steampunk. What if instant communication was available to some? How would people view it in the 19th century. In Lightning Wolves, bounty hunter Larissa Crimson asks Professor Maravilla to devise a way for her lightning wolf corps to communicate as they spread out across San Francisco. He devises something he calls a clacker, essentially a portable, wireless telegraph that acts like a messaging device. Eight years later, in Owl Riders, clackers are much more widespread to Ramon Morales’s chagrin. At one point, he hands his clacker to his wife and pretends he didn’t get a message, an action perhaps not unlike what some of us are tempted to do today when certain texts come in.

Remember, all of these books make great last-minute holiday gifts. You can find these and more at

4 comments on “Always Available

  1. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    Huge point, and one I’ve often struggled with. In my steampunk stuff, instacomm doesn’t exist at all, and I find myself trying to remember my childhood, and what it was like to be away from a landline phone that your friends and family know how to call. In Nexus, the people work out of a dimensional bubble where they have today’s modern conveniences and more, but they leave them behind by policy when they visit 1920s earth, because, “Imagine the chaos that might ensue if you were killed or stranded there, and unscrupulous people got their hands on your equipment!” I didn’t realize this was such a common problem for writers. The time-lag over astronomical distance has to be the hardest, though; it must really be a struggle to fill that interim between contacts with interesting action. I can see two sides to your “clackers,” though. On the one hand, it puts your people into quicker communication, but on the other, it robs them of the handicap of not having that very thing, and the tension that can engender.

    A fine post, good sir, and gave me quite a bit to think upon. See you soon.

    • Hey Jack. Great to hear from you. The big epiphany for me for space travel was realizing how much I rely on email at work because I not only don’t have cell phones, I work outside hours when my bosses usually work, so often we can only communicate via email. In some ways, email would be the ideal way for space vessels to communicate. There will be a lag, but people are used to lags in email communication.

      As far as the clackers are concerned, they do have two handicaps compared to modern cell phones — you have to understand the code (basically Morse code, though I don’t define it explicitly) and they are relatively short range devices. If you leave the city, you’re out of touch. However, people are working on longer range wireless communication. In essence, they become more like cell phones in the 1990s. They exist, but only the elite had them and they were only marginally useful. There’s also a certain tension engendered when you get a message on a device like that you don’t want to get!

  2. Many important events do hinge in ability it inability to get news. The marathon race is based on a messenger completing a grueling run in order to deliver an urgent report.

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