It's natural to take for granted the world we inhabit. But we're surrounded
by wonders that were inconceivable not so long ago. The world from
whence ours came, that would view ours as a science-fiction novel
filled with miracles and horrors wrought by humans and the technologies
we've created, is just as foreign and surreal to us as our world
would be to the past. There are two worlds then, the past and present
or the present and the future, depending on your vantage point. To
inhabit both fully, to live in both, to have memories of the past
that views our present as the future, is a chance to understand our
present more fully and perhaps provide a glimpse of our future.
'Thunderstruck' by Erik Larson builds that past world for us. We're assured
that every detail is true; forty pages of notes provide the references.
But Larson's achievement is more than a simple reconstruction of the
past. Larson has found compelling characters and a story arc that carries
the reader as if it were created for a novel. The combination of the
three elements; a carefully-built world, great characters, and a page-turning
plot, provide all the thrills of reading a great novel, and something
more. Reading 'Thunderstruck', we live in the past, but we cannot escape
thinking about the present and the future.
The plot, so to speak, is very simple; reality is rarely this clear.
Guglielmo Marconi was driven to invent radio. But he was not a scientist.
He was a tinkerer, an engineer, who believed that he could achieve what
others thought impossible. He was also a self-made man, a tireless self-promoter,
who founded a business based on his vision. He made the radio work when
those around him told him what he was doing was scientifically impossible.
He succeeded in spite of his opposition and in spite of himself. But
his company constantly teetered on the edge, even though Marconi himself
kept a high profile. Edward Crippen, on the other hand, kept a very low
profile. He was a milquetoast worked in the shady world patent medicine
but found himself married to a vivacious oversized woman with an oversized
personality who flaunted her infidelity. Crippen eventually fell for
his secretary, but his wife was a problem. His solution to this problem
caused his path to intersect with Marconi's in a manner that exemplified
the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Larson's work reads almost exactly as if it were a novel. He introduces
and creates characters within the context of the times, and keeps the
focus on those times. Marconi is a fascinating mix of smaller and bigger
than life. We meet a very young Marconi, and watch as he becomes more
and more obsessed and increasingly competent at creating a technology
his contemporaries tell him is impossible. Through stubbornness and showmanship
he succeeds not only at invention, but at the more important task of
manufacturing selling his technology. This places him in competition
with the likes of Edison and in particular Oliver Lodge, a leading physicist
and lecturer. Larson's portrayal of not only Marconi, but all the players
on the scene is complex and crystal-clear. Marconi's drive takes him
to the top, but his personality doesn't help matters. He's great on stage
but behind the scenes, he displays a blindness to the needs of those
who support. For those who know Marconi only as an inventor, it’s
great to see him play the part of an entrepreneur with serious shortcomings
as a manager and manipulator of those who work for him.
Hawley Crippen is not a figure who is well known in America, but Larson's
portrayal of him is equally rich. He's not brilliant, but he is smart
enough to get on the right side of the early years of medicine. He allows
himself to be swept away by Cora a plus-size girl with a double-plus
size personality. She sees herself as talented, but it is a vision that
nobody else shares, and soon she has reset her sights from opera to vaudeville,
but event here finds only failure. Still, she flaunts her huge personality
and the accompanying needs in every direction other than that of her
husband, and Crippen, who becomes smitten with his young, slim secretary
cannot help but seek for a solution. Larson's vision of Crippen's life
is charming and sad and not a little frightening.
How all this comes together may be known to historians, but Larson turns
it into the stuff of page-turning mania. Even though you pretty much
know what’s happened and even why as the book begins, Larson will
keep you glued to the pages. His visions of Marconi's development of
the radio is stunningly visual. You'll find yourself on rain-swept cliffs,
surrounded by humming pylons and creaking masts oozing electricity. The
best way to understand the appeal of this book is to imagine a great
steampunk Jules Verne romp through the turn of the last century. It's
a story in which a murderer on the run is caught by the application of
a novel, advanced technology that many suspect to be nothing more than
But there's more than just page turning, though that in itself is enough.
It's impossible to read about Marconi without thinking of his equivalents
in the dot-com days. Larson's vision of the past informs not just his
readers' vision of the past, but also our vision of the present and future.
After all, we are once again caught in wireless wars, and the cell phone
has complicated the commission of crime as much as it has aided it. Moreover,
we live in a world that is one precisely because of Marconi's invention.
As we read about the before and after that occurred nearly a century
ago, we cannot help but understand that we might at this moment be on
the verge of a new before and after moment. Larson's book easily unlocks
a sense of wonder not at some future moment, but of the here-and-now
by showing us the wonder of the there-and-then.