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I'm in the process of writing a story (just for fun with my son) that takes place somewhere around 80-100 years after an end-of-the-world event. Right now, that event is some type of plague, but that part will be secondary to the story. The story is set around 2100 or so, with very few survivors. Villages have formed throughout the US, but for the most part, people are not entirely sure of what exists outside of their own village. For most people, each day consists of farming, foraging, and just trying to stay alive.

The story focuses on a twelve-year-old boy who decides to leave his village for one of two reasons, and I'm stuck on which one (if either) is more plausible, given the time that has passed since the plague/virus/disease.

  1. The boy has spent the last year or so building a radio (after scavenging for parts, books, etc.). One day, he hears someone (or maybe a recording) on the radio. He wants to tell the others, but he knows they will not believe him. The boy's father went missing a few years prior (on a scavenging expedition), and although the boy does not think the two events-the radio transmission and his father disappearing-are connected, he decides to leave the village to at least find some answers.

  2. The boy, while looking at the sky one night, (he's very interested in astronomy) is positive he saw some type of blinking lights in the distance. He does not yet know it, but those blinking lights were from a helicopter (or airplane). He again does not think that the lights have anything to do with his father, but he decides to leave to find out.

In terms of world building, I'm wondering if either of these would work. I've done some preliminary research on HAM radio, but I'm still not sure if such a scenario with the radio would he possible or likely. Likewise, with most (I'm thinking close to 99 percent) of the world's population gone, how long would it take for something like an airplane or helicopter to become functional again?

Thanks for any feedback!

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    $\begingroup$ The airplane one requires a different worldbuilding environment, but less ingenuity of a boy with no reasonable right to specialized knowledge and parts. Is there someplace in your world still building/maintaining working aircraft and using them near where this kid's village is? That's a fair amount of tech tree. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 19 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a justification for an incredibly high level of this boy's education? If your event kills the majority of people, in 100 years most of the knowledge will be lost and the technological level will also plummet due to the lack of people. Technology and universal education require a surplus of food and people. People who barely survive cannot afford education for their children. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Apr 19 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ For your further reading, it gives a pretty decent steam-punk attempt at radio sets, and tells you why you shouldn't bother with "real" crystals. $\endgroup$ Apr 19 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ A crystal radio is the simplest radio, it does not require power is basically is always on, so much easier to catch as stray signal. Plus fairly easy to build from scavenged parts all you need is a picture or diagram. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 19 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin it is reasonable to assume that technology rebounces rather quickly even if the majority of humanity dies. There are many mediums through which technology but more importantly concepts will survive. The hardest part of invention is to have an idea of a new thing that does not yet exist in the first place. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Dzink
    Apr 20 at 0:50
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It would be very plausible that a clever 12 year old might be able to construct a crystal radio receiver (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_radio) from electronics scrap given some simple instructions he may have found in old books or magazines. Especially if he was looking at ones targeting young readers since there was a time when they were quite common projects for teaching kids basic electronics.

It would then make sense that someone else with a decent transmitter and a bit more advanced knowledge may then actively target AM bands that would be easily received by simple radios like crystal sets if that individual's goal was to reach others by radio. In a world that's no longer impeded by government radio spectrum enforcement and thus transmission power is no longer regulated such a transmitter could have quite a large footprint around the world.

73s, KI4PUT

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    $\begingroup$ Yes. Read about crystal radio sets. $\endgroup$
    – dhinson919
    Apr 19 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ this youtube video suggests that only a few components are needed. Specifically one diode and one resister and a bunch of wire. Although 100 year old components may have deteriorated significantly, perhaps a few might survive. Your young protagonist would probably spend his nights trying parts taken from different dead electronics, hoping that some would work. When he finally finds the right combination, it might only work for a few minutes before some ambient electricity or lightning overloads it. So he couldn't then prove what he heard. $\endgroup$ Apr 19 at 2:52
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    $\begingroup$ @GrumpyYoungMan A pencil lead will do in a pinch. Learn about foxhole radios. $\endgroup$
    – dhinson919
    Apr 19 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ Surely electronics stored away from the elements don't all just spontaneously self-destruct? Not in such a short timespan! I have a 1973 fm radio that still works fine (although yes the plastic casing is brittle), and a 1981 Walkman that plays(drive bands have been replaced, twice), if you can find a music tape that works. And my grandfather's pre-WW2 multimeter still works, its just mis-registering the voltage (calibration rheostat only goes so far, not enough to correct) $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Apr 19 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind it is entirely possible for a small town to have been using radio communication for quite a long time after such a disaster, so radios may still be common knowledge. the real kicker, children often have more sensitive hearing than adults so the child could very well hear something adults might miss. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 19 at 14:52
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What fits the World?

I think you need to decide what your world looks like before you decide which way to go. With the increasing complexity of technology, the parts and equipment to either build a radio from leftover parts OR for someone to have an aircraft will require some real worldbuilding choices.

  1. Radio: To build a radio in the reasonable near future will require a fair amount of specific knowledge your kid is unlikely to have if people in the village don't believe a transmission is possible. The nearest equivalent is if the kid were practicing witchcraft requiring a wizarding school. He wouldn't have the basic knowledge, would be unlikely to be able to read, have no real motive to build such a thing, and be viewed as wasting time or possibly doing something sinful in pursuing such a project to begin with. The parts available would be getting LESS amateur-friendly, not more as electronics becomes increasingly integrated and hostile to repair. If anyone has noticed, a lot of old electronics last longer and are easier to fix than new ones, and I'm guessing that trend will continue. As simple as this option seems, it's a stretch (unless dad left some pretty sweet parts behind for his son).

One more possibility for the radio is that people start building very durable products in the near future, and the radio requires little to make it work. That would require companies or governments to have a very different approach to products going into the future than the current trends suggest. But if engineers today started anticipating a catastrophe in the future (say, an endless series of COVID variants that might collapse society) then I could see a trend to build products that might reasonably last a REALLY long time (but be more expensive) on the premise that there might not be replacement units. This would probably mean the radio wouldn't require much more from the kid than a power source.

  1. Aircraft: If an aircraft is flying where the kid can see it at night, then they have decent navigation. It's flying high up enough that no one heard it (I live near an airport) so that implies a decently high-flyer. The flyers don't care if others know they have tech (or they'd be sneakier) suggesting there needs to be at least a reasonable city-state somewhere with good parts supplies and decent tech/engineering to build/repair & maintain a plane this long after the industry supporting aircraft had collapsed. If you have or add such a place into your world, this is highly plausible. If you don't have areas rebuilding advanced tech, then this totally doesn't work and you need to come up with an excuse to have a radio.
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  • $\begingroup$ as the other answer pointed out, you can build a crystal radio with a guide and some parts, and it was once a common "home science experiment" to do. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Apr 19 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ @user253751 It is true that you CAN do that, but people used to know how to shoe horses. Do you know how to, and without the internet, would you have a reasonable expectation of doing it correctly? That's simpler. Books are disappearing, libraries are fading, and radio equipment is getting more integrated and impossible for ordinary people to fix/build. Of course it's possible, but how likely is it? Which is more likely, a 12yr old building a radio in a world without knowledge and parts, or a pocket of civilization still flying planes? It's a question for the OP. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 19 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ we're talking about the protagonist of a story, of course all the right lucky things happen to him or else the story would be about someone else. Yes he happens to find a crystal radio kit from before the apocalypse and makes an antenna out of coathangers. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Apr 19 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ @user253751 That's why I suggested Dad leaving him radio equipment. You'd need at least that much handwavium. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 19 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus all he needs in one recovered book or magazine with a diagram or even a picture of a one. people did build things before the internet. If he knows what radio IS chances are he could build one with just that. The parts needed could reasonably be recovered from scrap. 100years is only one step away from living memory. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 19 at 14:44
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TLDR: I feel both can work, depending on your preferred setting (clever/lucky boy with radio vs miracle with light), but I feel you should rather change some details:

Radio is more difficult to make for the boy, but not too implausible - the easiest and most likely approach I see is finding an old radio that is now supplied by lemon battery or something to make it work. It is not implausible that some other villages/nations/... have reinvented the radio (or never forgotten about it in the first place).

Here you have the problem that at least SOME will believe his story and try searching for signal on their own. So, the kid needs to have other reasons to not show his "invention". One suitable option is fear of an old radio being taken away - unlike crystal radio, this radio would be the only one in the village and harder to reproduce. Another option (that works for crystal radio too) is that he simply doesn't want to tell about the radio because he believes others were responsible for his father's disappearance and wants to leave in silence - while if he started babbling about a mysterious signal, he would be surely under constant supervision.

Aircraft is trivial for the boy, but requires functional world elsewhere. So, those villages could be simply abandoned to medieval-like life, like how there are still tribes living stone-age life. If you want the whole world to be ruined, you might imagine to jump in a plane in a hangar and fly around. This is not all that likely as I doubt anything will be in working condition after a century, even preserved in a hangar. I can imagine future tech that doesn't have moving parts like "ionic wind" demonstrated few years ago could survive for a century if we are very optimistic. They have no idea how to make this, but it might fly again.

But there are simpler alternatives that would produce lights in a non-functional world - leds would still work to some degree even after decades in ruin, and you can easily make enough electricity for them with essentially iron-age tech if not even earlier. Maybe lemon battery again.

I also find it quite likely people wouldn't believe him if he told them about the flash, especially with a color laser pointer - because they would be used to just white sunlight and yellowish candles or similar. Also, if someone else was looking in the same direction yet the laser flash didn't hit his eyes, it is nearly impossible anyone would believe him: "Boy, I have been guarding these gates all my life and never fell asleep. There was no flash from this direction you speak of, nor any other." Everyone would trust the old guard here.

If you prefer to have something up in the air, put this pointer stuff on a glider, hot air balloon or similar, this is easy to imagine a post-apocalyptic world will manage to (re)produce.

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