Of the many personal looks back at 2018 I’ve read over the last couple of days, I think the most memorable to read was that of Peter Sagal on Twitter. My year wasn’t that great – I doubt many peoples’ was – but it was still pretty great.
I rarely talk about work here, but a lot of the great was due to work. Over a year ago we had some shuffling on my team after which one of my long-tile colleagues jokingly asked me how it felt to be the senior engineer on the project I was on. That question caused me to realize that this was a point where I could continue cruising along the way I had been – plugging away on my assigned tasks – or I could step up to more of a leadership role. I don’t at this point fully recall how my head worked through it all, but as you can guess I decided to do the latter. (“Up my game” was a phrase that went through my head.) I wrote a little bit about this last year, and this year felt like the payoff of what began back then.
Anyway, the past year-plus has involved shepherding the project through some major milestones, helping to plan and organize them, and also helping to onboard two new hires.
It was a year of learning a bunch of new skills, and a number of lessons too, some of which also opened my mind about, well, working with people and just plain interacting with people. It wasn’t all stuff that was right in my wheelhouse, and it was certainly frazzling and exhausting at times, but I can look back and feel like I – and the whole team – accomplished some great stuff.
One thing I’ve been working on embracing through all of this is the value of being positive: Giving people encouragement and speaking up when people do good stuff. I’m a bit of a cynic at heart so this doesn’t always come naturally to me, but there are so many opportunities in software to be negative – many of them part of the normal flow of the job, because software development means bug fixes, revision, refinement, and critique. I’ve been finding that it helps to balance out dealing with the negative parts by also emphasizing the positive. (At least I think it helps! It helps me when other people do it.) This seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s such a wide-ranging principle that it’s something I’m still working on, and I keep thinking of more nuances to it, things I can improve on or should stop doing.
And as you might imagine it’s only a short hop from thinking about this at work to thinking about it in my personal life, social interactions, and on the Internet.
So anyway, I’ve grown a lot the last year (I think), but there’s always more to learn and new ways to improve. Plenty to keep working on in 2019!
My personal life didn’t have quite the same feeling of accomplishment, but I had a good year there, too. I didn’t take a lot of vacation last year, but we did have a nice two-week trip back east to visit our families and stay at our beach house over the summer. And I went to the World Science Fiction Convention.
I also had a grand old time all summer following my Boston Red Sox, who jumped out to a big lead early in the season and never let it go. I felt like this team’s offense wasn’t close to the level of the 2013 team’s wrecking crew, and beyond Chris Sale I was pretty concerned that the pitching staff wouldn’t carry them deep in the playoffs.
And boy was I wrong.
David Price reinvented himself as a control pitcher, the bullpen went from question mark to exclamation point, and the offense kept coming up with big hits at the best times, especially hometown hero and mid-season acquisition Steve Pearce, who must have found the whole thing an unbelievable experience.
And then there was Andrew Benintendi, who I think provided more sheer fun and enthusiasm than just about every other player in the postseason put together:
All of which added up to a surprising and very satisfying World Series championship, the franchise’s fourth this century, and a lot of great October entertainment for me!
We’ve wrapped up the year in a low-key manner. Unfortunately Debbi came down with a bad cold on Christmas Day and it’s lingered through New Year’s. We did manage a trip up to San Francisco, and also out to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica, as well as having people over for games and to hang out on New Year’s Eve afternoon, but otherwise we’ve been hanging out at home trying to get her well.
Hopefully she’s turning the corner and that 2019 will start looking up shortly.
I recent finished reading John Scalzi‘s recent novel, The Consuming Fire, the second in his Interdependency trilogy. It’s quite good, and I agree with some comments I’ve read that although it starts slow, it ends up being a more satisfying read than the first volume. But what won me over fully to it is not the satisfying ending (which is about as satisfying an ending as the second book in a trilogy can have), but the bits in the middle.
(Spoilers for The Consuming Fire, as well as some other stories discussed below!)
The Interdependency in the series is a collection of worlds connected by wormholes, except that after millennia the wormholes start collapsing. Since most of the “worlds” are actually uninhabited – the population live on artificial satellites in orbit, and only one world is known to itself be habitable – this is a big problem, since the worlds can’t survive on their own. The fact of this collapse is a nascent scientific discovery which is not widely believed, but a major development in this book is that a wormhole which had collapsed centuries before has recently reopened for a limited period of time, and our heroes – in the form of the Emperox – send an expeditionary ship through to see what happened to the settlement there.
They break into the main satellite, which is predictably dead and dormant, and manage to reactivate some of the computer systems, whereupon they discover that they’re not the first ones to do so: The system had been reactivated several times since civilization collapsed, and our heroes figure out that not only is there a remnant of the centuries-dead civilization still hanging on, but that they had been visited from elsewhere during that time.
And I love this stuff. Stories about finding long-forgotten and long-dead remnants of past civilizations or even people whose stories ended tragically long before they were uncovered thrills me more than almost anything else in science fiction.
I was trying to think when my fascination with this sort of story started, and the earliest instance I can think of is the Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain”. Five years earlier, a probe to the recently-discovered tenth planet of the solar system ended in tragedy when it discovered a graveyard of alien ships. On docking with one of them, three of the four crew members are killed by a mysterious creature, and the fourth barely escapes and makes it back to Earth. In the present, he senses that the creature is nearby, and the Alphans find the same graveyard, many light years from Earth, and have a final showdown with the creature. As with most things in the series, the story doesn’t make much sense, but when I was six years old when it first aired in 1975, it made an indelible impression on me, enough that when I had the opportunity to buy a few episodes in the 90s, it was one of the two that I bought. (Yes, I was disappointed when I watched it.) It’s not even very satisfying in exploring the ships they find – we never get to see inside any of them – but somehow it was just enough to stimulate some part of my brain.
Somehow many Space: 1999 episodes are available in their entirety on YouTube, and I watched it before writing this post:
(I could write at some length about Space: 1999, basically that I think there is some good stuff in there that could have been used as the springboard for an actually good series, but it’s buried under so much nonsense and terrible writing that any good series would have been substantially different from what actually aired. But I digress.)
Another episode which tickled a similar part of my brain was “Another Time, Another Place”, in which the Alphans meet their doppelgängers from another universe who had recolonized the Earth, with mixed results. I haven’t re-watched that one, but I recall the exploration of the doppelgänger Alpha was pretty powerful. Again, to my six-year-old self.
Star Trek also had a little of this, though the memorable episodes involved finding derelict starships. “Space Seed”, “The Tholian Web”, and my all-time favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine”, all feature these small-scale discoveries and piecing together what happened, although the main thrust of each episode heads in a somewhat different direction; the space relics are primarily part of the episodes’ color. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode actually entitled “Relics” features an ancient Dyson sphere, but it’s really about Scotty coming to the 24th century. And the Star Trek: Enterprise story “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, but it’s really a love letter to original series fans.
The movie Alien starts off with the characters exploring a derelict alien hulk, and although the film is overall excellent (and I am not a fan of horror films generally), plumbing the depths of the hulk is not the point of the film.
So with all of these TV shows and movies teasing me with glimpses of old relics that don’t really get explored, what really got me hooked on this stuff? Well, it was a book titled Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which was part of a series of art books from the late 70s about the fictional Terran Trade Authority. Set over the next thousand years or so, the book is a collection of short stories with corresponding illustration (I inferred that the illustration was done first and the story written to more-or-less match it, but I really have no idea) about spaceships which had been lost and later found abandoned, or maybe just found without anyone knowing where they came from (e.g., alien ships). Mary Celeste-type stuff. It was not great literature, but I read through it several times as a teenager, fascinated by the stories with their sometimes-oblique tragedies of years long past, buried more by obscurity than by intent.
I think that’s part of what appeals to me about such stories: Unlike typical mysteries, in which there’s a perpetrator who is deliberately trying to conceal the truth, in these stories the truth has been lost due to the ravages of time, or due to something simply dropping out of sight, or becoming inaccessible. There may have been some corresponding or causal tragedy to the mystery – that’s sometimes where the story comes from – but I find the peeling back of the layers, and the revelation of what happened to the long-dead people to be the part of the tale that grabs my imagination.
And that brings me to what, to my knowledge, is the preeminent example of this sort of story: Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict series.
Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who inherited money from his anthropologist uncle after he was lost in space, and set up his own business. In the first book, A Talent For War (1989) – which is one of my favorite novels – he investigates the disappearance of a crew of heroes who helped end the war against the only known alien species in the galaxy. As a group of legendary officers, the crew lightly evokes the crew of the original Star Trek, but all of them are two centuries dead. The story has some good twists and turns, and a solid ending. It was probably the most satisfying story of its sort I’d read up to this point – it might still be at the top.
To my delight, McDevitt turned this novel into a series, with 9 millennia of backstory for his characters to explore:
Polaris (2004): An auction of relics from a ship whose crew disappeared under impossible circumstances unfolds the mystery of what really happened to them.
Seeker (2005): A lone cup unlocks the mystery to the location of one of the earliest colony ships from Earth, nearly 9,000 years earlier. This one won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
The Devil’s Eye (2008): A mind-wiped friend of Alex’s is the clue to a government cover-up and a lost colony. The series’ nadir in my opinion.
Echo (2010): A deceased scientist known for searching for other intelligent life beyond humans and the one other species we’ve encountered found something. But if he found aliens, why did he bury the news?
Firebird (2011): Another deceased scientist who was known for researching parallel universes also found something. What he found is very different from the story in Echo, and is perhaps the most arresting storyline of the series, and very much on-theme for this article – but I won’t reveal it here because I definitely recommend reading it yourself. It’s concluded in the next novel…
Coming Home (2014): In addition to the continued story from Firebird, Alex is presented with a relic from the earliest days of humanity’s space age, and he heads to Earth in search of its origin.
Coming Home seemed like a perfect ending to the series, and it was hard to see how McDevitt would top it, but apparently there will be a new volume, Octavia Gone, published next year.
Despite my fondness for the series, I do caution readers to temper their expectations: McDevitt is clearly influenced by the SF Golden Age grandmasters such as Asimov and Clarke, which means his writing can be a bit dry. He also has a decidedly clumsy approach to writing women, which is doubly unfortunate since after Talent – narrated by Alex – the remaining books are narrated by his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath. Chase is a pretty capable figure, but there are many cringeworthy turns of phrase involving her gender. So I’d expect some people would find the writing would cancel out the good qualities of the story, but if you can get past its limitations perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately in such a limited niche, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.
By the way, an earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996), has some moments that resonated for me in this way – humanity discovers an abandoned network of portals to other worlds – although the main thrust of the story lies elsewhere. I suggest skipping the disappointing sequel, Thunderbird (2015), however.
I’m sure there are other stories I’m forgetting about, but those are the major ones. I wish more writers would play in this space (though I’m not so willing to sit through dozens of episodes of bad television for the occasional story of this sort), but I take what I can get.
Are there any notable stories in this vein that I should check out?
A friend’s comment on Facebook reminded me that I wanted to mention a couple of similar tropes which I see as different from the trope that interests me here:
First are Big Dumb Objects, unfathomable artifacts from ancient civilizations. Stories around these tend to fall into two camps: Either people trying to figure out what they’re used for and eventually reactivating them (usually to disappointing effect, since the payoff is rarely satisfying after the build-up), or as something which trigger the story but isn’t central to how it plays out (for example in Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs). While I can enjoy these stories, they different from the trope I’m discussing here because they’re fundamentally more impersonal; there’s little speculation in or resolution of what happened to the specific characters who left behind the BDO, it’s just a driver for the main characters’ story.
Second are ancient and dead civilizations, which again tend to be impersonal, the discovery of vast swaths of culture and/or technology rather than the story of a specific relic left behind. Star Trek worked this territory a lot, usually encountering the degenerate remnants of such civilizations, though occasionally they found completely dead ones, such as in “Contagion”. “The Inner Light” is a more personal take on a dead civilization, although it contains more of what I enjoy, but it subverts it by throwing Picard into the middle of events (and is shamelessly manipulative and maudlin to boot).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
I’m breaking up the “nonfiction” podcasts I listen to into two entries: Gaming podcasts, and everything else. As I said in my intro, a few Magic: The Gathering podcasts have been key in keeping me motivated in running. I also listen to a couple of poker podcasts. I’ve listened to several others of each, some of which have ended, some of which I’ve dropped, but the ones included below I’ve been listening to for quite a while.
One common thread in these podcasts is that the hosts clearly put a lot of work into planning out their episodes and staying on topic (presumably through skillful use of editing and post production in some cases), so you know what you’re going to get: A consistent product, and a clear indication when an individual episode is going to be different. I’ve listened to a few podcasts in each category which don’t exhibit this discipline, and they often end up running 90-120 minutes per episode, and/or spend a lot of time in rambling digressions which don’t hold my interest.
So, these really are the cream of the crop that I’ve found for each game, at least as far as what I’m looking for in these podcasts goes. YMMV.
Limited Resources: Probably the podcast I look forward to the most each week, LR covers the limited (draft & sealed) forms of playing Magic, which are the formats I mostly play these days. Besides being a clinic in playing, LR is also a clinic in producing a professional-grade weekly podcast on its topic, with insight, humor and depth. I discovered LR back in 2012 because I figured there must be a podcast on Magic drafting out there, and this was honestly the only one I could find at the time. It had already been around about 3 years by then, and it was already very solid. Host Marshall Sutcliffe also does commentary on the Magic pro tour. Co-host Luis-Scott Vargas is in the pro tour hall of fame, also does coverage, and brings great analysis and usually-great humor to the show. Both of them show their enthusiasm for and expertise at the game in every episode.
Good Luck High Five (formerly Magic the Amateuring): The GLHF hosts have backgrounds in improv comedy and so they’re the rare podcast which is able to dive into off-the-cuff humor and make it work – but I think it’s because they have the discipline to not let it get away from them. They cover all forms of Magic in a friendly and upbeat way, and have both played competitive magic and worked in coverage of competitive events. They’ve recently picked up the proverbial baton of keeping their listeners apprised of developments in the MtG world, which I enjoy even though I’m not strongly plugged in to that side of the scene.
Drive to Work: By Mark Rosewater, the head designer of Magic, who records it while – you guessed it – driving to work. He releases 2 episodes each Friday. Rosewater has a great mind for game design and his podcast is worth listening to if you’re interested in Magic design, game design, and to some extent any sort of design.
Kitchen Table Magic: An interview podcast about the personalities and histories of the game. Host Sam Tang does a great job bringing out his subjects’ love of the game, and in the cases of long-time players their historical perspectives on the game. For anyone who’s watched the Enter the Battlefield video series, KTM is a more in-depth and regular feature with many similarities. Organized by “seasons”, it comes out weekly with some gaps in the middle and end of each season.
Allied Strategies: As a rule I’m not a fan of podcasts in a “friends hanging out” format, but this one makes it work, and I think it’s because they’re very good at knowing when to ad lib and when to rein it in. Two of the friends have been professional Magic players, and all three are entertaining and insightful. Not every episode is deeply interesting to me, as they rotate through a variety of Magic topics, but I listen to most of them. They usually end the episode with an amusing story from a recent event.
Thinking Poker: Much like Limited Resources, this is a fine example of producing a focused podcast. Co-hosts Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis open with a usually-short intro (a bit longer when they themselves have been playing in major tournaments), then launch into a strategy segment analyzing one or more hands. The rest of the episode is usually an interview with someone from the poker world. Some of the most interesting interviews have been with people who are only tangentially part of the poker world, and the hosts are excellent interviewers. Episode 200 is a good sampler of interviews with several of their best guests.
Just Hands: This podcast started off as what its name implies, individual episodes analyzing poker hands and that’s it. It’s been extending a bit into interviews, especially as one of the original hosts has recently left and the other is having a different guest each week. It’s a good listen, though I think their strength is in hand analysis.
Next time I’ll cover the rest of the nonfiction podcasts.
A few years ago I started running again, and I’m still going. I’ve tried it before and haven’t stuck with it, but what’s kept me going this time, in no small part, is that I listen to podcasts while I do it. They keep my mind occupied by something other than how much running sucks. 😃 And I’ve used my OCD to keep myself going, because if I miss days then I fall behind on my podcasts!
My podcast app of choice is Overcast on my iPhone, using AirPods for listening. I was initially skeptical of AirPods, but their connectivity and convenience has been great; I think I’ve only ever once had one fall out of my ear, and never while running. I understand that they don’t fit all ears naturally, but they work great for me.
I listen to most podcasts at 1.3x-1.5x speed since I’m more interested in consuming the content than the ambience the podcasts provide – although I’m more likely to listen to audio dramas at a slower speed than nonfiction podcasts, since in those the ambience is more important. Some podcasts can be listened to at higher speeds, depending largely on how fast people talk. Once a podcaster I listen to at 1.3x guested on a podcast I listen to at 1.5x, and it was… interesting.
While running I almost exclusively listen to podcasts about Magic: The Gathering. But I listen to lots of other podcasts at other times: While driving by myself or with Debbi, while walking after lunch or in the evening. I don’t often listen to podcasts while doing other things (working, reading, writing), though I have a couple of music-oriented podcasts for which I sometimes make an exception. I’ve listened to some other nonfiction podcasts since about 2010, as well as some “infotainment” shows such as NPR’s Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!
Last year I dove headlong into listening to audio dramas (having previously listened to only a few Night Vale Presents shows), and now they make up the bulk of my listening in the car. I’m only about two months behind in listening to them! There are podcasts I have in my feed whose first episode I haven’t even gotten to yet! Heck, the total running time of podcasts I’m trying to catch up on (at a rate of about 1 episode per week) might be longer than the running time of podcasts actually released during the week. But I should catch up – eventually. Assuming no other great podcasts get started in the next, oh, eight months or so. That’s totally possible, right?
Over the next few posts I’m going to survey many of the podcasts I’ve listened to. Mainly podcasts that I’m still listening to (even if they’ve completed their runs), and ones that I enjoy, although I’ll also touch on some that haven’t worked for me. There are a few “big name” podcasts that haven’t worked for me – but there are also some that hit me just right. Maybe you’ll find a few that appeal to you.