Contact Sport by J.K. George

Synopsis:

26113411In the woods of Massachusetts, pairs of contestants huddle in tents filled with communications equipment. Their voices soar through the air, riding waves into the atmosphere, as they comb through static and noise for a response from the other side of the world. They’re searching for loot—in the form of other voices in the sky. The rarer their contact, the more valuable their treasure.

Joining them in their quest is author J. K. George, an experienced radio operator himself, who guides the reader through the exciting world of amateur radio competition and the intriguing characters of the 2014 World Radiosport Team Championship. The competitors hail from across the planet—from youthful challengers to veterans with decades of radiosporting experience.

They battle computer malfunctions, getting lost, and staying at the top of their game for 24 hours in a hot, stuffy tent. The final scores bring surprises, disappointments, even a recount, and decades-long friendships will be damaged in the fight for the crown of amateur radio—the ultimate “contact” sport.

Review:

I’m a sucker for championships. If you gather the world’s elite in almost anything I’ll tune in, from soccer and the Olympics to competitive crossword puzzle solving and Starcraft. I figure it gives each sport (define as you will) a fair shot – if I don’t like watching the best of the best it’s obviously not for me.

So I jumped on this book when I saw it – radiosport! Who knew there’s such a thing? And complete with a World Championship, where teams have 24 hours to contact as many people in as many different locations as possible via shortwave radio. To do so they set up low-power radio stations with standard equipment at assigned sites like a state forest, an abandoned mental hospital, or next to a military runway. Generators set up in the woods, what could go wrong?

A lot, of course, making things interesting. After introducing the cast of characters (more on that in a moment) George eases the reader into the terminology, technology, and allure of radiosport. An amateur operator himself, George’s enthusiasm for the competition is contagious. I ended up cheering for one of the German teams (the only women in the competition, ever) and fretting over little things like antenna direction and lost multipliers.

That being said, the writing strikes me as unsure. George relies on punctuation and italics to get his meaning across instead of trusting words to do the job. From a section about computer-generated Morse code:

In addition, the electronic circuit allowed the dits and dahs to vary (ditzy dahs… I just couldn’t resist) in relation to each other – it’s called weighting – so there was personality possible, even with this new-fangled mechanism.

Clunk.

This is George’s first foray into non-fiction as far as I can tell and he took it upon himself to be a reporter. It’s good to be thorough, but I wish he did more work distilling the information instead of repeating facts by rote. The lottery to determine sites read more like a list than an introduction of the key competitors. Likewise a chapter about the Ham Widows’ Ball lets details interfere with the mood of the event, making it seem frivolous and scathing in turns when instead it was a way for partners of contestants to vent and cut loose.

There are some fun sections, don’t get me wrong. George driving a team out to one of the most remote sites reads like a Bill Bryson mishap:

[The ranger] whipped out a forest service map and proceeded in rapid-fire proper Bostonian to rattle off names. “This road” – he motioned over his shoulder – “is Fearing Pond Road, but the bridge over there” – he nodded to the right beyond some trees – “is out…. Just take Lower College Pond Road.” Now he nodded to the left. “Go up that hill and keep to the right. Just keep turning right. You’ll end up back on Fearing Pond Road.” At this point, he swiveled his head and nodded back toward the right, to the bridge that was closed somewhere over there.

I also enjoyed the technical asides explaining the finer points of radio operation and quirky anecdotes.

Whether you like this book or not will depend on your reaction to the writing – if you can get past the clunkiness there’s a fun story about a world you’ve likely never heard of. I was tempted to pull out a red pen now and then but I still enjoyed the ride.

Thanks to Greenleaf Book Group and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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