THE RADIO MAN trilogy, by Massachusetts-born author Ralph Milne Farley, was a series that I discovered quite by accident. I had heard of neither the three novels nor their author before finding the first book, The Radio Man (1924), in a highly collectible 1950 Avon paperback edition, at the Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair a few years back. This first novel introduced readers to radio engineer Myles Cabot, who had accidentally transported himself to the planet Venus and helped the winged and antenna-sporting Cupian humanoids there to overthrow their antlike Formian oppressors. I’d enjoyed this first installment so much that I later expressed a desire to read Book 2, a wish that was granted by a kindly FanLit reader here who actually sent me a copy of The Radio Beasts (1925) in the mail; the 1964 Ace edition. In that second installment, Cabot had again led the Cupians against those 10-foot-tall Formians, but the book had ended in a cliff-hanger fashion, with Doggo (Myles’ only Formian friend) missing in action, Prince Yuri (Myles’ archenemy, and a Cupian traitor, renegade, and ally of the Formians) flying across Venus’ Boiling Sea with the surviving Formians to a fate unknown, and Myles’ bride, Princess Lilla, sending Cabot a desperate SOS to where he was visiting: Ralph Farley’s house on Chappaquiddick Island, MA! Who could possibly resist proceeding on to the culmination of this now-classic trilogy? And so, a quick Interwebs search on my part resulted in the acquisition of Book 3, 1926’s The Radio Planet.
This novel, I should mention, originally appeared, as had the first two, in the pages of the 10-cent Argosy All-Story Weekly, but whereas those first two had appeared as four-part serials, this one was a six-parter (yes, it is the longest of the three), stretched over the June 26-July 31, 1926 issues, that first issue featuring beautiful cover artwork for the story by Modest Stein. Flash forward another 16 years, and The Radio Planet was reprinted complete in the pages of the 15-cent April ’42 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (strangely retitled as Radio Planet and the Ant Men) and featuring stunning, albeit misleading, cover artwork by the great Virgil Finlay. Another 22 years would pass before my copy, the 40-cent 1964 Ace edition, would resurrect the tale for a new generation. This edition features cover artwork by John Schoenherr that makes the bipedal Formians look like something out of the 1954 film classic Them!, but no matter. It’s the book that counts, and this conclusion to the trilogy finds Farley’s imagination working on overdrive and delivering still another rip-roaring thrill ride to his readers.
This final installment picks up scant moments after Myles had used his matter-transmitting gizmo to shoot himself back to Venus (or Poros, as it is known there) at the end of Book 2. But a freak lightning strike had resulted in a transmitter misfire, causing Myles to appear on a wholly different continent than the one his adopted Cupians reside on. He fetches up on the side of a lake, and, in the most extreme of coincidences, is promptly found by Doggo and some other Formians, in a scenario precisely like his advent at the beginning of Book 1. Doggo informs him that Yuri and his antlike allies, after having fled across the Boiling Sea, had gone far in conquering the inhabitants of this newly discovered land, and then Farley’s tale proceeds in three fairly discrete sections. In the first and longest of these, Myles helps Doggo incite a rebellion against Prince Yuri and in defense of Doggo’s daughter, the current ant queen Formis. After this fiasco, Myles escapes but is soon captured by that continent’s dominant life-form, the Vairkings, a humanoid race that communicates vocally, unlike the Cupians and Formians (who use their antennae to both send and receive radio waves), and that looks very much like Earthlings, despite being covered in thick pelts of fur. While in the capital city of Vairkingi, Cabot becomes embroiled in a war between his new Vairking friends and their primitive foes, the Roies, who themselves are divided into two warring factions. Myles is kept busy during this period with his attempt to construct a radio utilizing no previously manufactured tools or parts — an almost superhuman feat — in order to communicate with Cupia and his beloved Lilla. He is also kept busy by the amorous attentions of competing princess sisters Arkilu and Quivven, and is especially preoccupied when a new alliance of Formians and Roies attacks the capital city.
In the book’s second and briefest section, Cabot, Doggo and stowaway Quivven get their hands on a Formian airship and manage to fly across the Boiling Sea, landing in what they believe to be Cupia. Alas, they are now on a previously unsuspected third continent on the planet Poros, this one occupied by a multi-life-formed race known as the Whoomangs. The three are kindly treated there by the pterosaur king, Boomalayla, and his 30-foot-long, two-armed, two-legged snake prime minister, Queekle Mukki (!), until their ulterior motives become clear; namely, placing the larvae of a certain Whoomangian moth into our heroes’ brains and turning them into controlled automatons! Cabot narrowly escapes this fate, unlike his two unfortunate companions, and continues on across the Boiling Sea to Cupia. And so, in the novel’s third and final section, we see Cabot return to his abandoned country estate at Luno Castle, organize a resistance force, and then march on the capital city of Kuana, to do battle with the archvillain Yuri and his new allies the Hymernians (enormous bumblebees capable of dropping bombs), and to rescue his bride Lilla and his baby son, King Kew XIII.
As you can well see, Farley packs quite a bit of colorful and imaginative incident into this third book of the trilogy, along with more in the way of exotic alien life-forms. We are also given a much greater look at Poros in this final installment, and the wide assortment of different fauna on display is truly a testament to Farley’s great imagination. Cabot’s adventures here can almost be likened to those of Ulysses’ epic journey while returning home to Ithaca and wife Penelope, as recounted in Homer’s Odyssey, although Myles’ travels don’t take anywhere near the 10 years that the 8th century B.C. hero endured. It should be added that the book’s range of literary reference is an extensive one, featuring as it does quotes from such disparate sources as British poets Thomas Babington Macaulay and Edward FitzGerald, Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott, Jamaican journalist Marcus Garvey, and, inevitably, the Bible. This final installment is a perfect finale to the trilogy, actually, giving fans just what they expected going in and even a good deal more. Unfortunately, the book also comes burdened with any number of problems, the foremost one for this reader being its pacing, which is an aspect that’s rarely an issue with me. And that problem with pacing is largely centered around the plot’s detailing of Myles’ lengthy campaign to construct a radio out of virtually nothing. Of all the author’s many “Radio” titles (and there are a whole bunch of them; more on this in a moment), The Radio Planet most likely allows its author’s fascination with such gadgets the greatest amount of play. In the author’s intro, he poses the question:
Could you make a radio set … note that we did not ask whether you could assemble a set from parts already manufactured by others, but rather whether you could build the entire set yourself — from the ground up. That means making every part you require, including the vacuum tubes, the acid in the batteries, the wires, the insulation…
For those who are interested in just how it can be done, this might just prove of invaluable merit; for others, these passages — running to around 16 intermittent passages — have a tendency of bringing Farley’s otherwise fast-moving story to repeated screeching halts.
And so, breaking up the action flow fitfully here and there, we see Myles mining for pyrites and quartz, limestone and zincspar; thinking of how to make cement, wire-drawing dies, glass, firebricks, fireclay, sulphuric acid, a smelting furnace, bellows, a Bessemer converter, potash, sal ammoniac and on and on; figuring out a way to exhaust the air from his wannabe vacuum tube, and extract magnesium from carnallite ore … I think you get the idea. Don’t know what a leaf switch, hand hole cover, cold tube or packing plate might be? You may be in for some trouble here. For many folks, again, these bits of hard science will prove fascinating; others (such as myself, admittedly) will quickly grow restive, and begin wishing that our narrator would simply get on with it! These passages of hard science, one might have thought, would have been a better fit for John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction magazine more than a decade later. They serve as a reminder that Farley, besides being a sci-fi author, and a Massachusetts state senator and assistant attorney general, and a campaigner for women’s suffrage, and an author of books on patents, tariffs and law, was also a teacher of both mathematics and engineering at Harvard University. And that background in science surely does show in these exhaustive — and exhausting — passages.
And the book has other problems, as well, besides problematic, stop-and-start pacing. Several of the battle sequences here are remarkably poorly described (I am thinking in particular of that attack on Vairkingi), with a dearth of detail to allow the reader a lucid mental visualization. Farley had a fertile imagination but nobody would ever call him a prose stylist, and many of his sentences could surely have been more elegantly recast. Thus, we have a clunker such as this: “ … the arsenal was in a flood of light which emanated from large floodlights … ” It often strikes one that Farley never even bothered to give his work a second look, so as to “nicen” things up a bit for the reader. Points off also for Farley’s referring to a Japanese person as a “Jap” (I know, I know … different times, but still, a jarring element for the modern reader), for the fact that Myles is able to learn the Vairkings’ language way too easily (he’d had a realistically difficult time learning Cupian in Book 1, although that language is, again, a nonvocal one), and for the fact that the color of the Kew dynasty’s flag is said to be blue on page 211, and red just nine pages later! And then there are all those many inaccuracies regarding the planet Venus itself, putting the RADIO MAN trilogy more in the realm of fantasy, as opposed to science fiction. Perhaps Farley’s trilogy might have been more “realistic” had Cabot transported himself to a planet in Alpha Centauri instead. But at least this third installment is very much in keeping with the original two, and its furtherance of the world building an impressive one. And oh, while I’m nitpicking, how odd it is to see the Whoomangs’ national symbol depicted as a crimson triangle with a swastika emblazoned on it! Of course, in 1926, the swastika did not have the same associations that it has for people today, but again, it does strike the modern-day reader with a disagreeably jarring effect.
Anyway, I suppose the bottom line is that The Radio Planet is a must-read for all those readers who have taken in the series’ first two books and need to know how things wind up. It is no great literature, that’s for sure, but is pretty much fun throughout … especially after Myles & Co. get away from the continent of the Vairkings. I’m certainly not sorry that I sought this one out and read it. All of which leaves me wondering: Do I proceed on for more? There seems to be a book out there called The Radio Minds (1955), featuring Myles Cabot in two novellas, “The Radio Man Returns” and “The Radio Minds of Mars.” And for those of us who can’t help wondering what ever became of Doggo and Quivven after they had their minds taken over by those Whoomanian moth larvae, there is 1930’s The Radio Menace, in which the two help the Whoomangs attack Earth! Honestly, who could possibly resist that? Of no relation whatsoever to the Cabot tales are such Farley novels as The Radio Flyers (1929), its sequel The Radio Gun-Runners (1930), The Radio Pirates (1931) and The Radio War (1932). For some reason, Farley had a “thang” about those radio titles! I’m not sure about those latter four, but those first two mentioned are already exerting their siren call on yours truly. As any good radio man might say, stay tuned!