Seeing J. Michael Straczynski

Saturday night we went up to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco to see J. Michael Straczynski speak in promotion of his memoir, Becoming Superman. The talk had been postponed from mid-August because JMS had a freak accident and badly dislocated his shoulder while leaving for the airport.

The museum is in one of the busiest parts of the city, next to Fisherman’s Wharf, so we went up early and got an early dinner so we’d be there on time. We walked past the museum and noticed the talk had been moved from 7 pm to 8 pm. Huh, just a typo? I checked Twitter, and it seemed Straczynski had been stuck at the airport in Burbank for hours due to fog in SF. (The SF airport is actually about 10 miles south of the city, but in an area that arguably gets much more fog than the city itself!) Nonetheless, after killing some time at the Musée Méchanique, we were first in line when the doors opened at 6:30.

Fortunately, Straczynski was able to get a standby seat on an earlier flight and managed to arrive nearly to the original schedule! However, since the event had been announced to have been postponed until 8, he and his interviewer vamped for half an hour. The vamping, however, was just as enjoyable as the talk!

I haven’t yet read the book – I bought a copy as part of my ticket to get it autographed – but I’m quite looking forward to it. Because this event showed that Straczynski is as good at telling stories about himself as he is at telling fiction. (I’m a huge fan of Babylon 5, and have enjoyed many of his comic books as well.) After the “warm up” where he told a few stories of his previous visits to San Francisco, he bantered with the interviewer and related tales of his early life and career, through The Real Ghostbusters and Murder: She Wrote. Unfortunately time ran short for later stories and turned to questions from the audience, but nonetheless it was well worth the trip. He was funny, self-deprecating, and thoughtful. Afterwards he signed books and briefly chatted with attendees. I had him sign Becoming Superman and Midnight Nation, although if I’d thought of it I might have had him sign The Twelve instead – though they both hit me in similar ways, they just take different paths to get there.

Now, here’s the paragraph that I’ve written several times and just can’t get quite right, but I hope my meaning comes through:

I don’t really have “heroes” or “idols” among media figures. Many of them seem like good people, many of them have admirable stories, but it also seems like they often don’t live up to the hopes we vest in them. And, well, they’re only human. That said, I’ve been following Straczynski since the early 90s when he was promoting Babylon 5 online before it aired, and I’ve always thought of him as a good guy, a straight talker, someone who deals with people fairly. These days he’s quite active on Twitter and watching him politely but firmly stare down Twitter trolls can be a sight to see. His writing is fun, engaging, and thoughtful, and he pulls back the curtain to explain where he’s coming from. He owns up to his own failings. He’s not the only person with these traits, but what he writes and who he is speaks to me like few others do. And I was delighted to see that all of that comes through when seeing him in person, too.

Oh, and he was willing to have his photo taken with this guy:

I highly recommend seeing him speak if you have a chance. And I’m very much looking forward to reading his new book.

Audio Dramas by A.R. Olivieri

Last week I did a binge-listen of all of A.R. Olivieri’s audio drama podcasts. I recently started listening to the one that started last spring, Great & Terrible (because I’m about 8 months behind on podcasts these days), and something clicked and made me think I should go listen to them all. This isn’t as big a project as it sounds, because individual episodes top out at about 8 minutes, less credits. I started listening on Sunday and finished up on Thursday.

I casually follow what might be called the “audio drama community”, but mostly I’m a listener. From what I can tell, Olivieri projects an aura of obscurity, doing projects that are notably different from many other audio dramas, and also being personally something of a mysterious figure. His web site is pretty sparse, and the only info about him his this interview podcast, which I listened to after finishing (or catching up on) his series. I have no idea if all of this is intentional on his part, but it’s an interesting image. Many other podcasters are pretty transparent about their personas, at least in broad strokes.

His podcasts, too, are kinda quirky, with a distinctive – though evolving – structure which makes them stand out. For example:

  • Each podcast title & episode title is in ALL CAPS.
  • Every episode is almost exactly a round number of minutes, for example 3:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00. Sometimes they’re a second longer, but that might be a rounding error in my podcast app. While he sometimes pads an episode with music to get to this point, it seems likely that he plans or edits many episodes to fit into a specific amount of time. Does any other audio drama do this?
  • Only his first series, 2298, has introductory music, which comes in almost exactly 1 minute in. All the others have a cold open.
  • Every series except for Limbo has closing credits which are 30, 60 or 90 seconds in length. Most of the credits have a memorable turn of phrase where he says, “<this podcast> is written, directed and produced by… me! A.R. Olivieri.”, followed by some info about his Patreon.
  • His podcasts have music by a variety of performers (none of whom I’m otherwise familiar with), but they all feel somewhat similar – like they’re in a particular style which I infer Olivieri likes.
  • Structurally several of the stories are grouped into “chapters” of 2-to-4 episodes, although except for 2298 there’s no clear indicator in the audio itself of this; you need to look at the show notes.

It’s quirky, but I think a lot of it is cool, appealing to the structure work in me. It’s just… very different compared to other audio drama podcasts.

It took me a while to realize that many – maybe all – of his shows take place in the same world, and that he’s slowly revealing the nature of that world. There’s connective tissue, but where everything fits together is not entirely clear. I find this deeply neat, and it definitely elevated my interest in his shows to another level. I believe in one of his “thank you” shows he alluded to it being a single world.

Olivieri is clearly very respected in the audio drama community, and he gets several top-notch voice actors from other podcasts to appear in them. Some actors appear more than once, and it’s not always clear whether they’re appearing in different roles, in the same role but we don’t know that they’re the same role, or if there’s something else going on. (“There’s something else going on” is a recurring theme in his shows.) For example, Sarah Rhea Werner, who does the great Girl in Space audio drama and who recorded the interview above, shows up several times. She has a really distinctive voice, which which made me wonder, “Wait, is this character also this other character… or not?”

Olivieri also does voice acting, appearing in a few of his own podcasts as well as others. I first heard him as one of the two main characters in the SF horror drama Janus Descending, which is maybe the best performance I’ve heard by him. In his own dramas he plays an everyman sort of character, observing, commenting on and questioning the world around him, while in Janus he’s a scientist who gets thrown in way over his head and is by turns frustrated, panicked, annoyed, terrified, and angry. It’s quite a range.

At time of writing, Olivieri has 5 audio dramas of his own, 4 complete and one still ongoing. Here are some of my thoughts about them. Also, while I didn’t listen to them in this order, I think this is the best order to listen to them in, as least as of the time of writing:

2298: A dystopian story taking place in the titular year. Number 24 is a “profile” in the remnant of humanity, somewhere on Earth in an enclosed environment after civilization’s collapse led to an invasion and a new society being set up run by a computer system called the Network. 24 – voiced by Olivieri – is a happy young cog in the machine until a bird and some strange dreams lead him down a path outside the one the Network has assigned him. The story contrasts a totalitarian society to a free one through the eyes of someone who’s happy with the system he lives in. The ending hints at where some of the other shows are going, although I imagine that wasn’t very clear when it first aired in 2018.

Magic King Dom: This was the first show I listened to; it grabbed my interest because of its conceit of a girl who grows up in Walt Disney World after the end of the world destroys everyone else. Dom (voiced by Lysette Alvarez of Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services, whose performance is great) survives for 6 years by herself before she encounters other survivors in the park, who need her to escape. There have been two seasons so far, with the third and final one coming soon. The writing is pretty strong as far as it goes, but there’s an awkward discontinuity between the first two seasons and there are several bits I found hard-to-follow, so I’m glad I re-listened to it. I think the story takes place about a century from now. The second season is where the hint of the tie-in to 2298 appears, but it’s still not clear how it fits together.

Limbo: David (Olivieri) is a thirtysomething (?) man who dies and finds himself in a house her grew up in, alone, except that he receives one visitor each month. Only 6 episodes, but to be continued in the future. It’s the lightest on plot of all the stories, and if you prefer stories which focus on the background, foibles and anxieties of the main character, then this is the one for you. It’s not quite my thing, though, as I am more plot-oriented, and I felt this was basically a collection of settings and moods without a sense of moving forward. I’m also not sure what more there is to do with what’s here if it does continue as the final episode seems, well, pretty final.

Great and Terrible: This one is the story of a woman who was gifted and cursed with immortality (and maybe other powers?), but who has to kill someone every new moon or her life is forfeit. (No spoilers – it’s right there in the podcast description!) This is the slowest of slow burns: While it’s self-narrated from – it seems – centuries in the future, the whole story so far takes place in 1988, when the main character of Jane (Leslie Gideon) is in high school and acquires the curse. It’s weekly 4-minute (less credits) episodes, and after 8 months we’ve just gotten to the curse, but it is nonetheless quite good and at times arresting, and it’s the sort of story that could go on for many years at this pace, so I wonder if that’s what Olivieri plans for it – I hope so. The high school dialogue is perhaps just a bit too precious (TBF I wouldn’t want to write high school dialogue from that era, and Jane is only 3 years younger than I am!), but Gideon’s performance sells just about everything else. This is in my opinion Olivieri’s best series to date.

The Easiest of All the Hard Things: Kelsey (Lucille Valentine, who gave perhaps the most memorable performance in the first season of The Six Disappearances of Ella McCray) is stranded on an island with only a turtle for company when they find a cell phone, and work to charge it to hopefully get off the island. How did they get there? How do they expect to get a cell signal? Who left the phone? I found the last episode of the season pretty baffling, and the story overall felt slight compared to the others, although with more of a plot than Limbo. But overall I wasn’t sure what I should have taken away from it.

I definitely enjoyed the binge-listen, and found myself much better able to engage with the stories than I was when I’d just listened to Magic King Dom and Limbo, which are at the more surreal end of the spectrum. It looks like he has at least a couple more series planned, and I’m definitely curious whether the pieces across the stories will start to knit together more closely as time goes on. I hope so!

Wolf 359: The First Half

I’ve listened to a lot of audio drama podcasts, but none of them has impressed me as much as Wolf 359. Created, co-written and co-produced by Gabriel Urbina, the science fiction adventure-comedy ran for 61 episodes (plus a number of mostly-shorter bonus episodes) between 2014 and 2017 and is – as far as I can tell – one of the most acclaimed audio dramas around. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any other audio dramas as old as this, but it feels as fresh and new and polished as any of the new releases in 2018 and 2019.

I enjoyed the first 25 episodes so much that I stopped there, and went back and started listening again with my wife, who has also been enjoying them. Conveniently, episodes 31 is the halfway point in the show and is also a great point to pause and reflect on the series up to that point, and speculate on where it’s going. And maybe this will encourage a few more people to listen, and perhaps amuse people who have already listened to the whole thing and can chuckle at some of my observations.

I’m going to talk in general terms about the series and its story, and will have a few spoilers from the first season which I think are useful to know since the first season is regarded by some as “something you have to get through to get to the good stuff”. Then I’ll have some more spoilery discussion later a cut.

Wolf 359 takes place aboard the U.S.S. Hephaestus research station, which orbits the red dwarf star of the same name. Said star is 7.9 light-years from Earth, and might be best known on pop culture for being the site of an off-screen space battle in one of the most disappointing stories in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The show’s protagonist is Communications Officer Doug Eiffel (voiced by Zach Valente, who also co-produces), a lazy, ne’er-do-well who nominally is checking for unusual transmissions from deep space, but who spends a lot of his time trying to smoke cigerettes and avoid work. The station’s commander is Renée Minkowski (Emma Sherr-Ziarko), a by-the-book military officer who is constantly locked in battle trying to get Eiffel to do his job. The station’s science and medical officer is Dr. Alexander Hilbert (also Valente), a Russion mad scientist whose bumbling experiments also threaten everyone’s lives on a regular basis. The station is overseen by an artificial intelligence, Hera (Michaela Swee), who is a little sensitive whenever anything goes wrong around the place.

The show opens about a year and a half into the crew’s 2-year mission, and the first ten episodes are a collection of mostly-humorous vignettes about the crew’s mishaps: Eiffel getting cigarettes from Hilbert, Eiffel staging a revolt to hoard the last tube of toothpaste on the station, the terrifying annual physical exam, and so forth. But there is also real danger, as the station gets rocked by solar radiation, the power goes out and Hera goes down, and a mysterious extra room is found bolted onto the side of the station.

I feel like Wolf 359 has a lot in common with Babylon 5. While it’s common (and sometimes frustrating) for audio dramas to have a slow burn, Wolf 359‘s arc is a lot like B5’s: The first season provides background into how things on the station work (or, often, don’t work), raises several interesting questions and suggests several others, and lets the listener get the lay of the land before things get rolling. While the characters are not without depth, they start out as caricatures, with just a few glimpses of what’s beneath the surface. And that’s the point, because it makes what comes later that much more powerful.

And again like B5, the end of the first season shakes up the status quo and raises a whole bunch of new questions. More crucially, it takes the story from a light comedy to a serious drama with a heavy dollop of suspense and significant character development. Eiffel and Hilbert both turn out to be much more capable than you would have guessed, while Minkowski and Hera are both a lot more fallible than they’d appeared. And the story becomes a series of crises and developments, each time bringing us back to a slightly different status quo than we had before.

Most importantly, the show becomes one of understanding motivations and teasing out background. Eiffel is the perfect character for this, because he’s a big loudmouth and not a very deep thinker by nature, but he also has a sharp sarcastic streak which makes him seem profound when he does figure out what’s going on. As the second season progresses, a number of key questions are suggested:

  • What exactly is the Hephaestus’ mission? It’s pretty clearly more than “sit around and see if anything happens”.
  • Why was the station staffed with this collection of buffoons?
  • Why does the station seem so unreliable?
  • What else are their superiors hiding?

There’s one other point, which might turn out to be nothing, or it might not. Let me get into it this way:

It’s been said that restrictions breed creativity, and the audio medium has its own peculiar set of restrictions. First, there are no images, so the story has to be conveyed through audio. Unlike prose, however, there are sounds as well as words. But there’s a lot less space for words than in prose, so economy of words is valuable. (Consequently, I tend to find most audio dramas which substantial narration to be tedious.) Wolf 359 is outstanding at conveying the action without having long bits of exposition, and even when it does have exposition it feels meaningful and dramatic. But the show also has a terrific array of sound effects, with a very distinct style: They’re generally overly dramatic, and very retro: Mechanical keyboards, bells and whistles, a communications system that signals with a loud buzz, and so forth. It’s wacky.

Or, I thought it was wacky, but there’s something missing from the setting: When exactly does this show take place? The station is 7.9 light years from Earth, but they are able to travel between the two in a few months. And there are loads os pop culture references, but they’re all… contemporary. Entirely from the 20th and early 21st century. Lastly, while I couldn’t easily find the quote, there’s a suggestion at some point that some of the music they listen to is from within the past century by the crew’s time.

Does Wolf 359 take place… in the 2010s? Is this a parallel universe to ours? And does that matter?

Maybe it’s just part of the show’s wacky background, but so much of the story seems carefully assembled, with many deliberate set-ups and payoffs, that it feels like this could be something.

I hope it is.

Anyway, if you enjoy audio dramas, science fiction, comedy, character development, suspense, surprises, or people showing they’re capable of more than you thought they were, I highly recommend Wolf 359. If the second half is as good as the first half, then it’s gonna be fantastic.

A few more comments spoiling season 2 and the beginning of season 3 after the cut:

Continue reading “Wolf 359: The First Half”

Doctor Who, Season 11

After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).

For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):

Continue reading “Doctor Who, Season 11”

Smoke in the Valley

As has been widely reported, California is sorely beset by wildfires, with two of the largest in history ongoing right now. Southern California is contending with the Woolsey Fire, which for a while looked like it would be the better-known of the two as it encroached on populated areas outside of Los Angeles, evicting several celebrities from their homes, and even destroying some. That was until the Camp Fire, over an hour’s drive north fo the state capitol of Sacramento, became the deadliest fire in the history of California. Over 50 people have been reported dead, and hundreds are missing. Friends of people we know have lost their homes, and the whole town of Paradise has been effectively destroyed.

It’s ghastly, and it’s probably the new normal in California due to climate change reducing annual rainfall. Moreover, much of California is hilly or mountainous wilderness, making it difficult and expensive to manage the foliage which fuels these fires, as well as to fight the fires when they break out.

The Camp Fire erupted a week ago now, and the prevailing winds have blown a large amount of the smoke down here to the San Francisco Bay Area – over 200 miles away. Last Friday was the worst, with smoke clogging the air and everything smelling burned. Outdoor kids’ activities over the weekend – including the soccer games of our friends’ kids – were cancelled. We mostly stayed indoors. By Monday the smell had mostly abated, and the sky looked clearer, and there seemed to be hope that a change in the winds would clear things up later in the week.

It hasn’t happened: Today is nearly as bad as last Friday, and my nasal passage can feel the smoke even inside the house. I could get a filter, but I’d probably have to wear it all the time, and those filters are not really things you can sleep in. The hills – about ten miles away – are completely blocked out by the smoke. The sun is breaking through, but the sky is still quite hazy.

Imagine what it’s like for animals, especially ones whose owners have to put them outside during the day. The alternative is to, what, lock them in a small room for 8+ hours? And even then it might not help with the smoke all that much.

Meanwhile, fall weather has arrived with lows in the 30s overnight (but highs still around 70°F, thus I’m still wearing shorts during the day). But the temperature and the smoke don’t seem to affect each other at all – unless the smoke is blocking out enough sunlight to cool it down more than usual. I’m not sure. I haven’t gone running since last Wednesday, and I’ve been curtailing my outdoor walks after lunch, too. It’s bad. We’re starting to go stir crazy from being inside all the time.

The Camp Fire is still less than 50% contained, and even if it were fully contained it might keep burning for days or longer – containment just means it’s not growing any larger, but there’s still probably plenty of fuel inside the containment area to continue burning.

Our moronic President tweeted the following last weekend:

Donald Trump just doesn't get it, but what else is new?

So this awful environment is our new normal for probably the next week or more. The long-range forecast is predicting rain coming on Thanksgiving Day, and that would help a lot, but that’s also a full week away.

Climate change is already here for California. It’s coming for you too, whether in the form of heat, or winds, or storms, or food shortages. The Earth is going to be a very different place for humanity to live in a few decades. If we make it that long.

Yet More Audio Dramas

Today I’m concluding my survey of podcasts I’ve been listening to. Here are the audio dramas which don’t easily fit into any of the categories from the last few entries.

Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • Within the Wires: A Night Vale Presents offering, I wasn’t thrilled with the first episode of this when I listened to it, as the first season is presented as a series of relaxation tapes for a resident at a clinic. I went back to listen later and it turns out there’s a lot more going on here, starting with it taking place in an alternate history which diverged sometime before World War II. The second season is presented as a series of tape narrations of a renowned painter’s artwork by her friend, from throughout the 70s and 80s. WtW doesn’t have a “story” as such, but is heavy on atmosphere. Although not the sort of thing I’m naturally attracted to, it’s one I look forward to. Season 3 started a few weeks ago.
  • The Bright Sessions: One of several highly-regarded podcasts I’m catching up on, this one finished its run recently. It’s is about a psychologist who counsels people with superpowers. It’s skillfully written and it certainly fits in with the many comic books which have worked in the “normal people with superpowers” territory. At six episodes in, I expect that the story will start developing its themes further soon, as I think the current characters and structure will soon lose its novelty.
  • WHEN in Rhapsody: I’ve only listened to the first two episodes of this so far, but I’m intrigued: Most of it surrounds production of a radio show in a small town in the 1930s, featuring concern about the coming war and a science fiction audio drama. But there’s also a brief injection of the same radio station from the 1960s, so there’s the promise of something crunchier going on here.
  • Victoriocity: A whimsical crime drama taking place in Even Greater London of the 19th century, it’s full of steampunk and silliness, and is much funnier than Welcome to Night Vale while having a similar sense of humor. The first episode didn’t grab me very strongly, but it’s gotten steadily better. Season 1 is complete and season 2 is forthcoming.
  • It Makes a Sound: Another Night Vale Presents show, this one about a woman who discovers an audiotape from an early 90s local concert by a musician of whom she has fond memories. As a journey of self-discovery for the woman and those around her it’s quite moving, but you have to suspend your disbelief about a lot of the plot (for example, her inability to get hold of a cassette player, or to do any research about the musician). There’s nothing fantastical in the story, it’s all down-to-earth. I wish the ending had had some more surprise to it – there were a couple places I thought it might be going which were just not relevant, and it didn’t really go somewhere else instead. Not sure if there will be a second season, but I’d listen if there is.
  • The Amelia Project: A very stylish series about a secret group which specializes in staging peoples’ deaths at their request and setting them up with a new life. The basic format is an interview with the client working through how they’re going to accomplish the feat, so it’s largely about the audacity of the nonsense they come up with. But as the first season goes on it emerges that there’s a little more going on, which presumably will drive the second season. I found it somewhat repetitive at first, but it grew on me.
  • The Far Meridian: A podcast from The Whisperforge, which produced ars Paradoxica. Peri is a young woman who lives in a lighthouse, and one day when the lighthouse starts moving to a new location each day. The narrative leaves a lot of the basic plot to be filled in by the listener; for example, it seems Peri is supposed to be agoraphobic, and she’s searching for her missing brother in a haphazard way. She makes connections to other people, but mostly off-screen. It seems like some of the narrative takes place in the past, but it’s difficult to tell. It’s strangely interesting in a dreamlike way, but the ongoing story is too fragmented for my tastes, and the sometimes-lengthy digressions about life and existence don’t interest me. I’m hoping there’s a big payoff at the end of the first season. The second season started recently.
  • Fireside: Alex takes over a radio station in the town of Hamilton, and is later joined by Angie. Alex is fully bought-in to the narrative of the town council and basically shills for them, while Angie is much more critical of the shady goings-on, which involve kow-towing to a couple of large corporations. I’m not sure where this is going as it’s mostly the two of them arguing and reporting on the ongoing events in town, but there doesn’t seem to be much real progress. I feel like the narrative is a little too oblique to the actual events going on in the town. It’s been on hiatus for a while.
  • What’s the Frequency: A 1940s story of a private investigator/thief, his ward, some gruesome murders, and a bizarre radio drama. You’d think I’d have included it in my entry on suspense podcasts, but there’s not a lot of suspense; instead it’s more of a surrealist – maybe postmodern – style (the web site describes it as “psychedelic noir”), with a lot of odd sounds and transitions and storytelling choices. Very little of it works for me, other than the two main characters who are amusingly quirky, but otherwise it seems like more flash than substance. The first season recently wrapped up, but at 3 episodes in I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end. Presumably the title comes from the famous attack on Dan Rather.
  • The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air): One more Night Vale Presents production, this one about an entertainment troupe which broadcasts a popular radio show from the top of the Eiffel Tower (!), and the tower’s janitor (played by creator Julian Koster) who is enamored with them and keeps getting in their way. The stories are an endearing sort of nonsense, and one feels for the poor janitor. Reminds me a bit of the comic book Terminal City.

And that’s the lot – quite a bit more writing than I’d expected when I started this project. But it’s been fun diving into all these podcasts, and discovering more and more as I keep listening.

Did I say “the lot”? Well, unless you count podcasts of which I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes, like Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magical Services, Greater BostonSuperstition, Magic King Dom, or Midnight Radio. Or podcasts I haven’t even heard the first episode of yet, like Hit the Bricks, The 200 Year OldMythosMirrorsZooPalimpsestProject NovaThe Magnus ArchivesProject OzmaWho Killed Julie?, or Arden.

Uh… I may have a problem.

Suspense Audio Dramas

I’m not naturally attracted to suspense stories, though I appreciate some forms of horror (the world-building and inventive dread of Lovecraft and his ilk), and the craft that goes into top-flight suspense yarns (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock). But by-and-large I don’t get a huge rise out of being kept on the edge of my seat, and the longer it goes on, the larger the payoff has to be to work for me. Since I think this puts me at odds with what writers of suspense stories are trying to do, that means this genre is not generally for me.

That said, I’ve accumulated a number of suspense and horror podcasts that I listen to regularly, each with a rather different flavor. Not all of them are suspense in the sense I describe above, but I think they’re adjacent, at least.

Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • I Am In Eskew: A horror series (with occasional Lovecraftian overtones) about a man who lives in the city of Eskew, location undetermined. Strange things happen to him and other people in the city, and there’s a dreamlike – often nightmarish – quality to the story, with the constant sound of rain in the background. Genuinely creepy. I’m several episodes behind, but the story is starting to branch out to the world beyond Eskew, and I’m very curious to see where it goes.
  • Six Minutes: An adventure serial about a girl who isn’t what she seems. Holiday is found in floating the water during a boating trip, and, amnesiac, is adopted by the family who found her. But her new parents seem to know things about her, and her new brother and sister help her try to find answers. As the title says, each episode is about six minutes long, and typically ends on a cliffhanger. The production values are very high, though I find the teenage hijinks of Holiday and her siblings to get a bit tiresome and I wish they’d get on with the story. I infer that Six Minutes is aimed at an all-ages audience which is why some parts of it drag for me. But overall I’m curious where it’s going – I just with it would go there faster.
  • Moya: A one-man podcast about an inspector in the fictional nation of Moya who is sent to an outer district during the winter to investigate a homicide. Moya feels like a sort of alternate England, perhaps set around the 1950s, with undertones of 1984. The narrator has a strong – but not thick – English accent, which gives the story an unusual feel. Fundamentally the story is a police procedural set in a remote and uncaring land. I found the ending of the first season a little abrupt, but I’m curious to see what happens next.
  • Blackwater Falls: A young man goes to the town of Blackwater Falls, Vermont to look for his missing sister, and finds that there are a number of strange disappearances in town, as well as other problems. I’m not very far in, but it’s intriguing. There’s not very much about it online that I can find, so the audio must speak for itself.
  • Welcome to Night Vale: This is seemingly the most successful audio drama out there, and it spawned the Night Vale Presents network. I jumped in without catching up shortly before episode #100, and I found it… okay. The town of Night Vale is a place where all sorts of fantastic things happen, as told (mostly) by the local radio host voiced by Cecil Baldwin (who is great). The stories are dark and often nonsensical, and it’s heavy on humor and wordplay, but frankly I don’t find that a lot of those elements work – it’s not nearly as smart or clever as it thinks it is. Certainly I’ve never felt the urge to catch up on earlier episodes.
  • Alice Isn’t Dead: I’m partway through its third and final season, and I think this is the best of the Night Vale Presents offerings. Keisha becomes a trucker to take her away from memories of her wife, Alice, who disappeared, but who Keisha suspects is still alive. Keisha uncovers a broad conspiracy involving manlike monsters and sinister organizations, but at its heart the story is a travelogue of the eerie bywaters of the United States. Jasika Nicole is great as Keisha. Might appeal to fans of Tim Powers, or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
  • Station Blue: A young man is hired by a company to staff a station in Antarctica for 6 weeks. I had expected this was going to end up being some sort of cosmic horror story, but it’s mostly been about the anxieties of this guy living alone in the middlest of the middle of nowhere. I’ve been waiting for more information about the company he works for, what’s happened in the past at the station, and so on, but that doesn’t seem to be what the podcast is doing. So it seems the podcast is not a great match for me.
  • The Archivist: A story about the end of the world, told through audiocassette recordings made by a young man named Cash during the event, and played by an artificial intelligence sometime in the future. It’s fundamentally a suspense/survivalist story, and though the precipitating events are fantastic, the story by and large is pretty straightforward. I recently finished the first season and despite a little bit of timey-wimey stuff, I’m not sure there’s enough going on to bring me back for a second season.

Next time I’ll wrap up with a few more audio dramas which don’t really fit into any of these categories.

Science Fiction Audio Dramas

These science fiction audio dramas include some of (what I imagine are) the most complicated podcasts in their writing, acting, and production. This genre also includes what are my two (maybe three) favorite audio dramas, so I, at least, appreciate all the hard work.

One of the pitfalls of such production is that the warts can be more evident and more disruptive than in simpler podcasts. Audio quality is really important, especially in maintaining a comparable audio volume and clarity among all the actors. I suspect this is a lot easier to say than to do, as there are some clearly-very-high-production podcasts which don’t quite get this right. I try to cut them some slack, but it does take me out of the experience. One actor being noticeably quieter than the others, or a slight hiss in the audio for one voice, can be very distracting unless there’s an in-story explanation for it. And when it’s two people who are supposed to be in the same room having a conversation, it jars. While this isn’t likely to make me drop a podcast I’m otherwise enjoying, it might keep me from sticking with a new one I’m having trouble getting into.

Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • Girl in Space: If you asked me to pick the single best audio drama in production now, it might just be this one. (And if it’s not, then it’s the next one.) The main character, X, is a young woman raised by her scientist parents on a decaying research ship orbiting a peculiar star. Her parents disappeared years ago, but she continued their work. Then a corporate fleet shows up to claim her ship and work for their own. The first-person-present narration works brilliantly, and X’s musings on existence and her peculiar situation – as well as the jerktastic behavior of many other humans she meets – is human and insightful. There’s an ongoing mystery which gets revealed in little bits over several episodes, and it all adds up to the most engaging audio drama out there. If it has a flaw it’s that the supporting characters are a little too stereotypical, but I suspect that’s actually the effect they’re going for (you can hear the sneer of the lead heavy whenever he speaks, for example); it’s just a bit odd next to the humanity of X.
  • The Strange Case of Starship Iris: After the war against the aliens, a revolution leaves humanity governed by an oppressive Republic. Violet Liu is the last survivor of the research ship Iris when she’s rescued by a group of smugglers. Their adventures take them around the edges of human civilization, as well as encounters with some interesting aliens, as they try to figure out what was going on aboard the Iris and to what extent Violet was (knowingly or not) involved. The cast and dialog is first-rate, and there’s clearly something going on behind it all. I feel like the newer episodes have lost focus a bit (perhaps the long hiatus after the first five episodes had an impact on the creator’s plans or approach), but I still look forward to each one.
  • ars Paradoxica: A 21st century scientist’s project goes wrong and throws her back to the Philadelphia Experiment in 1943. She starts a new life as part of a secret war project, trying to replicate her discovery and figure out how it works, and maybe get back home. I’m only a few episodes in – up to the end of World War II – and each episode has been clever and engaging, with a strong period feel and fun cast of characters. And of course time travel and other high-tech hijinks. I believe the show recently concluded, to rave reviews, so I’m really looking forward to making my way through it. I’m enjoying it at least as much as the two above.
  • Wolf 359: Another heralded series which recently ended, about the hijinks aboard a space station orbiting the star of the series’ name, presumably no relation to the Star Trek battle around the star. Communications officer Doug Eiffel narrates the events; he’s a hedonistic slacker who butts heads with the commander and the chief scientist, and the stories so far slot right in alongside other comical SF series. But there’s a hint that the first contact with aliens is coming, and I imagine that will concern much of the series once it happens. Each episode so far is basically a set-piece for the quirks of one of the three characters on the station, which makes it lightly amusing but not (yet) remarkable.
  • Startripper!!: The web site’s summary reads, “Follow Feston Pyxis, a former file clerk who left it all behind in search of the best times the galaxy has to offer, on a road trip through the cosmos!” And that just about covers it: The exuberant Feston flies from place to place to sample the many experiences the universe has to offer. Three episodes in, it’s difficult to figure out if Feston is naïve and lucky, or secretly up to something. The high-energy tone of the series – which feels like a more optimistic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – suggests the former. Lightweight but fun.
  • All’s Fair: A 6-episode series about a Victorian woman who invents a time machine and travels to humanity’s future, where she repeatedly encounters a man in increasing positions of importance in government. Things don’t go well. Smart and to-the-point.
  • Tides: One of the most-lauded audio dramas currently running, about a scientist who gets stranded on a planet with an unusual and massive tidal cycle, exploring the local ecology and trying to stay alive until her crewmates on the ship orbiting the planet can rescue her. Julia Schifini as Dr. Winifred Eurus might be the single best acting talent I’ve yet heard in the audio drama universe, with a tremendous range of emotion and amazingly clear enunciation. And the podcast needs her because the story is very uneven. The suspense of her trying to stay alive is engaging and suspenseful, but the long asides of her describing the local fauna does not hold my interest at all. Maybe it’s a matter of what kind of science-fictional nuts-and-bolts interests you, as the brief description of the local cosmology around the planet was way more interesting to me than all of the biology bits put together. Your mileage may vary. I presume the status quo will get shaken up sometime soon since I can’t see Dr. Eurus remaining alone and wandering around like this for much longer, as the set-up is getting repetitive.
  • Marsfall: Another current audio drama which has gotten rave reviews, but which I’ve struggled to embrace. Certainly it shows a tremendous amount of technical ability in its production, and the acting is generally strong, but I’ve found the story to be pretty shaky. It’s about one of several commercial missions to colonize Mars later this century, with a commander who has an art background (that’s an early plot point), and an AI supporting the colony which is less frightening than HAL, but more suspicious than Data. Things go wrong as soon as the colony arrives on Mars, with several waves of mayhem over the first seven episodes. But I’ve been frustrated with the frequently-unprofessional behavior of these supposedly professional colonists. I also guessed one of the big surprises in the first season very early on, which made me wonder why none of the characters figured it out, since the evidence seemed to be screaming it at them. It feels like it’s aimed at casual fans of SF television shows as opposed to serious readers of SF (basically the opposite audience from Tides). Hopefully the second season will have a tighter story with characters acting less erratically.
  • Athena: An “audio journal” about a young woman growing up on a starship who decided to steal a shuttle and head to Earth. Episodes are short, so with me being 5 episodes in there’s not much backstory so far (for example, how can Athena and her people be human given their background?). Athena’s voice – which I assume is the podcast’s creator – has unusual vocal mannerisms which gives Athena an unusual feel. I’m hoping this will be more than a coming-of-age story, as it sounds like it will be a fairly short story when it’s finished, it might not be.

Next time I’ll run through some suspense and horror audio dramas.

Conspiracy Fiction Audio Dramas

After several years of Magic, poker and science podcasts, I dipped my toes into fiction podcasts – or, as most of their creators prefer to call them, audio dramas – with Welcome to Night Vale and a couple of other podcasts from the Night Vale Presents network (which I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post). But it was just a sideline to the nonfiction podcasts until…

I don’t remember where I heard about The Polybius Conspiracy, a 7-episode documentary about an urban legend surrounding an early-80s video game, which seemed like a great piece of niche investigative journalism. Or at least, I thought it was a documentary, but it turns out it was mostly fiction. Something about it seemed too good to be true, but it was so well done it fooled me. Which left me pretty mad.  But there was a silver lining:

In the form of Wil Williams and her blog. I found her review by searching for information about the Polybius show. Exploring her site and following her Twitter, I found – well, I honestly don’t know which shows I found first through her, but a year(ish) later most of my podcast subscriptions are audio dramas, including several completed ones and some long-running ones I’m catching up on.

So I’m going to survey the ones I’ve listened to in groups, starting with what I think of as “conspiracy fiction” audio dramas: Podcasts which present a conspiracy or urban legend as if it were real. But they’re a lot more enjoyable when you know that they’re fiction.

The biggest risk with podcasts of this genre is that they’ll dance around the edges of the story and not get to a satisfying payoff. That basically happened with Polybius, which kind of petered out at the end. I think of this as “X-Files syndrome”, where an unwillingness or inability to take the story to (or at least towards) a satisfying ending drove me away from that show in its third season. (The fact that The X-Files was running opposite Babylon 5 – while B5 was smoking all the other genre shows with its deliberate storytelling – probably didn’t help.) The journey is enjoyable up to a point, but the payoff is a critical part of stories like this. I don’t think everyone agrees with me on that (evidence: the persistent and baffling popularity of The X-Files), but to me it’s make-or-break: If the writers just want to do weird stuff and don’t have a fairly concrete payoff in mind from the beginning, then I’m probably going to find it more frustrating than enjoyable.

Note that since I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas and catching up on some older ones, some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • TANIS: It seems it’s just about impossible to get into this genre of podcasts and not eventually end up listening to TANIS, from the Public Radio Alliance. Host Nic Silver (an alias of writer/producer Terry Miles) explores the lost city (?) of Tanis starting from a few hazy clues, but quickly going down the rabbit hole of deaths, disappearances, shadowy figures, and corporate espionage. He’s aided by his new friend, the hacker MeerKatnip (MK). The show is in its fourth season, and I’m nearing the end of the first. I definitely worry about X-Files syndrome with TANIS, but so far the ride is enjoyable. The interactions between the out-of-his-depth Silver and the snarky MK are the highlights of the show so far.
  • Rabbits: Another PRA production, which ran for one season (a Kickstarter for a second season failed), and arguably it’s even better than TANIS. Host Carly Parker is searching for her missing friend, and ends up being dragged into the latest iteration of a centuries-old game called Rabbits, which has mostly avoided appearing on the Internet. While the last episode is a little less than I’d hoped for, it does have a satisfying conclusion, and there are a lot of neat cultural Easter eggs along the way to read about on Wikipedia. If they do somehow do a second season, I hope they delve into the mechanics and outcomes of the game some more (even though I’m sure they haven’t really thought about those, but I think they have to in order to keep interest).
  • The Last Movie: Another PRA creation from Nic Silver, this one dropped all six of its episodes at once earlier this year. Nic and MK investigate the rumored “Last Movie” of the 1970s, which supposedly kills everyone who sees it. A pretty good introduction to the PRA style, but it’s not as good as TANIS or Rabbits.
  • Limetown: The first season (back in 2015) concerned a fictional corporate town in Tennessee, all of whose inhabitants disappeared ten years ago. Reporter Lia Haddock investigates what happened to them. I’m not as high on this story as some people are, as I wasn’t wild about the revelations or the conclusion, find them all a bit pedestrian for fantastic fiction. But I enjoyed it well enough to see if they develop it in a more satisfying manner in the upcoming season two. From what I’ve read that this was one of the first of the modern wave of podcasts, so with several years since the first season ended, simply assimilating what others have done in the form in the meantime might make for a more satisfying story.
  • Mermaids of Merrow’s Cove: A public radio reporter goes home to her town in New England to investigate apparent kidnappings and murders of young women who appear on the beach and which locals suspect are mermaids. I’m 3 episodes into this 6-episode series, and it’s pretty good, though I find it not as polished as PRA’s offerings; in particular I find the story and acting to feel a bit contrived. The high points so far have been the reading of the journal by an early inhabitant of the town.

Next time I’ll cover the science fiction genre, which include some of my very favorite audio dramas I’ve discovered to date.

Nonfiction Podcasts

Last time I ran through the gaming-related podcasts I listen to, so here are the other “nonfiction” podcasts in my feed.

Public radio podcasts

Many shows from public radio outlets are also released as podcasts. Some of these include bonus material, but they also come with reruns which may or may not be of interest. This is a great way to listen to shows that aren’t available in your area, or which are broadcast on a schedule that doesn’t match your own.

  • Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!: NPR’s weekly news quiz show, which has been running for over 20 years, hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, with a rotating panel and a weekly guest. Always entertaining, often informative, I probably started listening not long after it started and I’ve never stopped. I still hold out hope that Charlie Pierce will come back someday.
  • Ask Me Another: Hosted by Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, this is a trivia quiz show with one or more weekly guests. Not the laugh-fest that Wait! Wait! is, but a fun diversion.
  • Says You: A long-running panel game show revolving around language and wordplay, I often forgot to catch it because it airs here Sundays at 4 pm, and for a long time you had to pay to get the podcast feed. Now it’s freely available, and it’s very funny. Sometimes the games are fiendishly clever.
  • Serial: A podcast from This American Life which focuses on a single topic each season. I listened to season 2, on Bowe Bergdahl, which I found a bit overlong for its topic. The season 3 teaser just dropped a week or two ago.
  • S-Town: A spin-off from Serial, about a man in a small Alabama town who invites a reporter down to investigate a suspicious death, and then things take a disturbing turn. This 7-episode podcast is complete, and while there is some extraneous material, there’s also a lot going on, and since it’s reporting on true events, not everything gets tied up in a bow. However, I think the central mystery was given a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the end. Atmospheric, creepy, tragic, I found S-Town very compelling, and superior overall to Serial. (For a different opinion, see Wil Williams’ review.)

Scientific American podcasts

I listen to a couple of podcasts from Scientific American, which – along with Wait! Wait! – might be the ones I’ve been listening to the longest:

  • 60-Second Science: Despite the title, these are 2-to-4 minute reports on recent developments in science. Releases every weekday.
  • Science Talk: A longer-form usually-weekly podcast usually focusing on a single topic – an interview, a book, etc. – with special episodes each year when the science Nobel Prizes are announced. Both of these podcasts cover the full range of science, so unless you’re interested in everything in science there are bound to be some that won’t grab you. Nonetheless both are informative and engaging.

Political & legal podcasts

I’m not a big political wonk (my occasional Twitter rant aside), but in the last year I’ve added a couple of new podcasts in this area to my subscriptions:

  • Congress, Two Beers In: From the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. One of the hosts is Matt Glassman, who I discovered through Thinking Poker. What appealed to me about him is that he talks less about politics per se, but about government – how it works, how politics affects it, etc. – which is an angle not often reported on in the mainstream press. This is in this vein, and I find it very informative, especially given the current governmental clusterfuck we’re living with. Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Make No Law: By Ken White of Popehat, who is a popular figure on Twitter. This podcast focuses on developments in first amendment law throughout U.S. history, including Supreme Court rulings and the national scenario and individual actions which led to them. Releases approximately monthly.

Progressive rock podcasts

As you may know, I’m a big fan of progressive rock music. There are several streaming radio stations I’ve listened to, but not many podcasts that I’ve found – or at least not ones that hit my particular style that strongly. But I do listen to two:

  • Progtopia: A bi-weekly podcast that when I discovered it typically had a single interview with an artist or band each episode, including playing a few of their songs. Now it includes one or more shorter interviews, a roundtable with the main host and some other people involved in or covering prog, and an opinion essay. I think I liked the old format better as the newer content doesn’t add much for me.
  • NewEARS Prog Show: This is a radio show by the New England Art Rock Society which airs on WEMF in Boston. Each episode is 2 hours, and it seems to run in seasons, with season 4 having finished earlier this summer. As a radio show it plays a bunch of music and then has two or three interviews. I’ve discovered a few bands through it already, and I only found this show earlier this year. Plus, you can’t beat the Boston accents!

Others

  • The Geekbox: A weekly podcast about geek hobbies. This used to be a roundtable with several people who worked in or around the videogame industry, plus the guy who owns the comic shop I go to. Life developments have recently reduced it to just two hosts, which has not grabbed me as much. Plus, the non-videogame content has been reduced, and since I don’t play many videogames – and no console games – that limits its appeal for me. So after listening to it for almost 8 years, I’ve recently dropped it.
  • Retropod: A short several-times-per-week podcast about historical events, especially ones which have been in the news recently, e.g. because some new information about them has come to light. I just started listening recently.
  • Fiat Lex: All about dictionaries and how they work, by two people who have each worked in the business for years. (Did you know dictionaries are a business? They are!) Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Query: A bi-weekly podcast answering tech questions from listeners, with an emphasis on Apple products. Some useful stuff in here that you might not easily find out about unless you obsessively follow the tech press (and really, who has time for that?). Recently had a co-host switch as one of the original hosts was hired by Apple.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber are both hilarious on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, and this is their second stab at a podcast after last year’s Live From the Poundstone Institute. Both shows have struggled a bit to make their conceit feel natural, with the new show being based around interviewing experts in a couple of subjects and then having Paula offer (humorous) advice on what they’ve learned. The first two episodes were really rough, and although it seems they have an audience, it’s not as evident as in the last show. It’s gotten better since then, but it feels like it could use some editing to get down to the best stuff. Releases weekly.

Next time I’ll dive into my latest hobby: Audio dramas.