Monday, August 31, 2020

Phreaks, by Matthew Derby (author), Ben McKenzie (narrator), Carrie Coon (narrator), Christian Slater (narrator), Justice Smith (narrator), Bree Klauser (narrator), full cast

Audible Originals, August 2020

Emma Gable is a teenager, blind, and living in a small town in upstate New York. Her mother works in the laundry of a nuclear power plant, and her father is a handyman.

Emma is lonely and isolated, and dials random phone numbers, to see what happens, to make prank calls, to just hear the sounds of the phone system. And then one day, one of those random calls, to a phone number based on the date of the Treaty of Versailles, connects her to a group of phone phreaks.

Phone phreaks were people, anywhere from teenagers to experienced engineers, who learned how to hack the phone system to make free phone calls. Except that both understates what they were doing, and misrepresents the motivation of most of them. It wasn't about free phone calls, mostly. It was about the excitement of gaining control of the phone system, and beating Ma Bell at her own game.
Most phone phreaks in the time of this audiobook used "blue boxes" that reproduced the tones that controlled the phone system. Emma can go one better; once she knows the tones needed, she can whistle them herself. No blue box needed. (Yes, some phone phreakers really were able to do that.)

It's at this point that the phone phreakers, Emma, her mother's job, and a frustrated AT&T toll fraud (i.e., tampering the phone company equipment and stealing calls and other services) agent start to collide. Emma's random calling, and the group calls with her new phone phreak friends using various companies' conference lines, get noticed, and Agent Connolly is determined to shut them down. The phone phreaks are mainly about having fun--and so is Emma, at first.

Then she realizes that her mother's progressively worsening illness is due to her job at the nuclear power plant. And no one in town wants to rock the boat because the plant is a major source of employment, economic activity, and tax revenue in a town that was in dire trouble before the plant was built. Emma decides she needs to do something real, and finally make a difference. And that her friends are going to help her.

This is a fascinating look at an era I remember as a kid just a little younger than Emma. 


I got this audiobook as part of Audible's Audible Originals program, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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