There was a moment earlier this week, during writer Mac Rogers’ Reddit AMA, when someone asked why he built his sci-fi podcast Steal the Stars around a hardened veteran instead of the “new kid on the block.” Director Jordana Williams jumped in to talk about Rogers’ subverting of noir tropes, how Dakota Prentiss—whose brain and heart listeners spend equal time in—has the more hardboiled perspective, so we’re inclined to trust her. Her lover Matt Salem, by contrast, “is alluring, but his background and perspective are fuzzier, so his motivations are the ones we question.”
Suddenly, something clicked after seven weeks of listening, and it was all I could do to keep from grabbing someone and shouting, or tweeting, Matt is the femme fatale! MATT IS THE FEMME FATALE! And I’m not even a noir fan. That’s just the fun of taking in Rogers’ work: he writes on so many layers that there’s something for everyone. You just have to tune the dial until you hit upon the frequency perfect for you.
While this piece discusses only light spoilers related to the podcast, feel free to discuss larger spoilers in the comments.
Steal the Stars contains multitudes in its description alone: it’s a sci-fi noir heist love story (say that three times fast) about two soldiers guarding Moss, the seven-foot-tall (and maybe-alive, maybe-dead) alien at Roswell-like institution Quill Marine, who fall in love and plot to steal the secret of said alien’s existence in order to flee their situation and pursue their love out in the real world. But halfway through the series’ 14-episode run, we’re only just getting to the heist. You may be wondering, then, what the hell has this series covered in three and a half hours of content?
- Plenty of noir tropes that invoked the genre without the need for saxophone music or clichéd narration, instead engaging with characters who grapple with the moral dilemma of what is owed to them and when it’s time to get out.
- A whole side discussion of clickbait news and how easy it is to fabricate supposed truths on the internet that hit me, as a pop culture writer, especially hard.
- A number of not exactly plot twists but plot reversals—subversions, sneaky little devastating moments that as a writer, after the fact, I thought oh, of course, but as a listener, during, I had the breath knocked out of me.
- Sex scenes that were never extraneous to the plot and were, dare I say, so hot that I felt as if I should have been listening to them in a steamy bath with a glass of wine instead of standing on the subway during rush hour. (The podcast equivalent of the Saga or Sex Criminals effect.)
- A curious alien artifact and the very ominous human intentions for it.
- Chilling deaths and the constant reminder of the culture of violence these characters exist in.
- New characters halfway through the series who I want to follow into their own side podcasts.
- Single conversations that are worth listening to the entire series for, from talented actors who are New York independent theatre mainstays and should be in every audio drama going forward. (Listen to Patty when her Achilles heel is struck, or Grant when he finally speaks up, or Lloyd confessing how he identifies with Moss, and tell me you aren’t moved by a single one of those moments.)
- A half dozen moments of doubt that Dak and Matt’s love is something real, inhabiting Dak’s anxiety over why this beautiful, mysterious man would choose her, someone older and hardened by violence and not the typical romantic heroine of these stories.
So engrossing are these side plots, from parent company Sierra experimenting with the Harp in Moss’ ship to the exact consequences of fraternization at Quill Marine, that never did I impatiently wonder Where’s the heist? It helps that the previous episodes have laid the groundwork for Dak and Matt’s impossible scheme; but instead of jumping straight to the theatrics like in Ocean’s Eleven, Rogers has teased out bits of the plan, stops and starts, obstacles both trivial and devastating.
No two podcasts in my library are the same in terms of style or content, from the hour-and-a-half retellings and riffings on My Favorite Murder and Gilmore Guys to the taut episodic fictional podcasts like Homecoming, or Welcome to Night Vale lurking somewhere in between. Listening to Steal the Stars is more a blend of watching and reading: the weekly half-hour installments train your brain to consume them like appointment television, though each episode feels twice as long, it covers so much ground; but at the same time, the slow burn of the story evokes the feeling of sinking into a really dense novel that doesn’t rush in its setup.
The former is due in large part to the excellent audio quality, something that I and likely others have taken for granted. As Ars Technica points out in its review of Steal the Stars, a lot of modern podcast fiction has molded their stories around the constraints of the simplest recording setup possible; it’s how we got Cecil narrating the bulk of Night Vale, and all of his successors in (mostly) single-narrator or single-location podcasts like The Bright Sessions and Alice Isn’t Dead. But Gideon Media, the team behind Steal the Stars, actually recorded their scenes in a basement, with the actors utilizing the entire space and multiple mics to incorporate movement, to expand the feel of a huge hangar or the hushed intimacy of pillow talk. The final product hearkens more to traditional radio drama than to anything else—and Gideon Media would know, as they have the decade-plus of experience putting on Rogers’ alien invasion plays and more as Gideon Productions.
If you won’t take my word for it, how about recommendations from Cassandra Khaw, Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone? Sometimes a piece of fiction is just as good as everyone is telling you it is. Sometimes you fall in love and you really shouldn’t question how it came about or if it’s going to last—and look, I have some theories about the Harp’s involvement in all of this—and just accept it.
I’ve been writing about Rogers’ sci-fi plays on Tor.com for five years, and every time we get the same comments: Can’t you tell us more about what happens, since we don’t live in New York City and are never going to see them? For one, I would direct you to go buy The Honeycomb Trilogy from Samuel French; and in the case of Steal the Stars, I’m not going to spoil any more, because you get to listen to it, free, anywhere you want. If an alien crash-landed in your backyard, you wouldn’t have a better find.
Steal the Stars will be serialized in 14 installments; listen to the first seven episodes on Tor Labs.
Natalie Zutter is treating Steal the Stars like a free master class in writing audio drama. Talk fiction podcasts, sci-fi and otherwise, with her on Twitter! Not Your (Final) Girl, her My Favorite Murder-inspired radio play, will be broadcast by dtc radio this fall.