I am as delighted as I can be to be releasing my new science fiction podcast miniseries Steal the Stars as the inaugural presentation of Tor Labs (via my production company Gideon Media). Tor means a great deal to me. I’ve been reading paperbacks with Tor logos since I was at least nine years old, and it’s an extraordinary honor to join this legacy on its new, experimental storytelling platform.
Steal the Stars is a 14-part science fiction miniseries that follows two former soldiers working at a privatized military base that secretly houses an extraterrestrial spacecraft…and the apparently deceased extraterrestrial inside it. When the pair fall in love and need money to escape from their employers, they need something to sell. Something that’s uniquely valuable, something for which the right people would pay a fortune. And before they can sell it…they have to steal it.
Steal the Stars is the third audio miniseries I’ve written, after The Message and LifeAfter (which some of you may have run across already). The growing popularity of the podcast format has increased interest in audio drama in the United States (as opposed to places like the UK, where radio plays have always appeared on a regular basis). What that means is that in the US, we’ve spent the last few years re-building our audio storytelling tradition…and of necessity, we learn from and are inspired by each other.
I love so many of the fiction podcasts that have come out of this resurgence, like The Bright Sessions, The Black Tapes Podcast, Archive 81, Terms, Alice Isn’t Dead, Ars Paradoxica, Homecoming, and many more. Here are six individual episodes that specifically inspired me in the writing of Steal the Stars:
The Truth: “Commentary Track”—I always get excited for a new episode of The Truth, a superbly well-curated anthology series with a strong emphasis on experimenting with audio techniques. Chris Kipiniak and Louis Kornfeld’s “Commentary Track” spends about 15 minutes with filmmaker Helen Marsh (Burgit Huppuch) as she records DVD-extras commentary for the (fictional) DVD release of the (fictional) short film she made in college. Over the course of two beautifully mixed concurrent soundtracks (the film itself and Helen’s commentary), what emerges is a melancholy love story and a meditation on the maturing of an artist. There’s a key section of overlapping audio in Episode 7 of Steal the Stars that owes a debt to “Commentary Track.”
The No Sleep Podcast: “Borrasca”—For the 24th episode of its seventh season, the astonishingly prolific No Sleep Podcast broke from its usual anthology format to deliver the brutal, feature-length horror epic “Borrasca,” adapted from the novella by C. K. Walker. Following a close-knit group of high school friends, all from damaged families, who are snared in their small town’s dark secret, “Borrasca” managed the rare ñ maybe unique ñ feat of keeping me gripped for more than two hours. Let me be clear: it is not for the faint of heart. As I learned from this episode, if you’re going to keep hinting at a significant secret, you really need to deliver. And boy does “Borrasca” deliver, in ways that definitely leave a mark.
Big Finish Productions: “Doctor Who: Urgent Calls”—Okay, not technically a podcast, but still an innovative modern audio adventure. Since 1999, Big Finish has been releasing Doctor Who stories on CD and download, starring actors from the original series. What Eddie Robson’s lovely “Urgent Calls” (packaged with another story called “I.D.”) achieves is an almost perverse minimalism in a series that can legendarily go anywhere and do anything: it tells an entire Doctor Who story via a series of serendipitous phone calls between Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor and an ordinary woman, Lauren (Kate Brown), who dials the Doctor by mistake. Of course this being Doctor Who, they end up collaborating to defeat an alien virus, but along the way their conversations expand into a beautiful exchange of ideas about luck, life choices, and pushing through regrets. It’s a potent reminder that even though audio is a form where you can make basically anything happen as long as it sounds like it’s happening, the backbone of the radio drama is conversations between nuanced characters that go to surprising places.
Within the Wires: “Cassette 9: Loss, Hands”—Performed by Janina Matthewson and written by Matthewson and Jeffrey Cranor (for the Night Vale Presents podcast label), Within the Wires sneaks up and springs a trap on you, one beautifully calibrated step at a time. What starts off sounding like a meditation-mantra filtered through the Welcome To Night Vale sensibility gradually reveals itself, episode by episode, to be a prison-break thriller set in a dystopian universe. The whole series is so wonderfully rendered that I can’t pick a favorite episode, but I can definitely say that “Cassette 9: Loss, Hands” was enormously inspiring to me in terms of believing that a science fiction heist caper could work on audio. There’s a shocking moment near the end when Matthewson’s gentle affirmations suddenly explode into a physical struggle for freedom. I was walking down the street while I was listening to it, and people stared at me when I stopped and yelled in surprise.
Tumanbay: “A Head Start” and Bronzeville: “Episode 1”—L. P. Hartley legendarily wrote “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” and science fiction has a long tradition of taking its world-building cues from history. John Dryden and Mike Walker’s Tumanbay and AudioHQ/TateMen Entertainment’s Bronzeville tell two very different historical-fiction stories set in very different time periods—and both fearlessly plunge into worlds very different from our own. Crucially, both podcasts move very quickly in their premiere episodes to ground listeners in the contours of their fictional universes—Egypt’s Mamluk Dynasty and Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood in the 1940s—so that by the end of each episode you feel strongly oriented and ready to dive into the plot. Steal the Stars isn’t as big a leap as either of these—it’s more of a five-minutes-into-the-future, semi-dystopia story—but I knew from Bronzeville‘s and Tumanbay‘s pilot episodes that I would need to move quickly to give listeners a tour of this new world I wanted them to spend time in.
Like I said, this list doesn’t make a dent in the sheer volume of cool storytelling podcasts out there (oh hey, did I mention Limetown; Sex, Crimes & Audiotape; Darkest Night; Wooden Overcoats), but I hope it gives a sense of the creative debt that I, as an audio-dramatist, owe to my colleagues. There’s DNA from all of them in Steal the Stars, and I’m honored to share the field with these creators. I hope you’ll consider checking some of them out and that you’ll listen to the first episode of Steal the Stars. Thanks for having me in the Tor family!
This article was originally published on the Tor/Forge blog.