Short Reviews – Reverse English, by John S. Carroll

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Reverse English by John S. Carroll appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Reverse English is the first (or closest thing to a) Big Men with Screw Drivers story that I’ve come across in this issue of Thrilling.

A guy who builds radios and other electronic devices for a living has a friend who regularly hires him to build stuff based on the schematics he draws up. The friend has just sent him a new schema that, given the specs, seems like it won’t do anything – the frequency amplifications are all wrong; you’re picking up and putting out sounds that no one can actually hear! The friend insists that everything is right and just build the device he’s paying for.

Turns out, the guy is using the device to talk with animals, who conveniently speak and understand English (‘it’s the language that they hear all of the time, so why shouldn’t they know it’ logic), just at frequencies beyond the range of normal human hearing.

Being ambitious sorts, they take this new gadget down to the race track, use it to talk to race horses and fix bets.

Enter a crooked mob boss who wants the machine and the guy who designed it to help him make bank on the ponies. The electrical engineer assumes the worst and tries to get the police to help him save his friend. Eventually, they’re able to track down the mob boss using triangulation, and the engineer stuns him with an ultrasonic blast… because for whatever reason, the mob boss was one of the few people who could hear at that frequency range, which also explains that ‘heard the horses talking but couldn’t understand what they were saying, hence he needed the guy and his machine’.

As for the friend, he didn’t see himself as being kidnapped, because he was making plenty of money on his own from the horse racing bets on top of the mob guy’s cut.

When people talk about the whole “Hard Campbellian SF has inspired me to do technical stuff” thing, I can sort of see where they’re coming from with this one.

  • The pulps are full of ads for kits and books that teach simple electrical engineering.
  • The hero of the story is an electrical engineer who builds and repairs radios and stuff.
  • Buy the kits and learn how to build your own radios, you can be like the hero of this story (and cheat your bookie).

I’ll even admit that there were moments it made me kinda wish I weren’t lazy and easily distracted, because as an industrial musician, I could use those skills to come up with exciting new sounds to make people want to kill themselves.

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