Your relationship to podcasts may be different now than it was a year ago. As 2020 draws to a close, you might feel stuck in place—but podcasts are still there to transport you.
If you’re struggling with what to listen to, here’s a short list to get you started: a mix of fiction and nonfiction podcasts, some unmistakably SFF and others a degree separated from the genre yet still connected by your favorite writers and poets lending their voices as well as their words. One was created for this particular moment, while others take on new meaning in our current context. Plug in, close your eyes, and let these SFF creators speak, read, and/or sing to you. We’re in this together.
I led with the one podcast that’s specifically about this point in time so that if that’s not your jam, you can scroll right past. But if anyone were to guide us through our period of self-isolation, wouldn’t you want it to be the folks behind Welcome to Night Vale?
Joseph Fink carves out a space with Our Plague Year, a new podcast that he admits is a bit of an experiment. But even if he doesn’t yet know its complete form, its intent is clear: “It’s a scary time right now, for so many reasons, but it doesn’t have to be scary alone,” he says in the first episode. “This is the show where we live this terrifying year together, and together get to the other side.” Joining him are authors like Nisi Shawl and Cory Doctorow, reading essays as candid and vulnerable as Fink’s poetic, emotional narration. There are far worse ways to count the number of weeks we’ll spend like this, and this way we’ll all be counting together.
“OK, so what are you going to do next time you get upset? I ask my son. ‘I’m going to use my words.’ And what else can you do? ‘I can breathe.’”
Tracy K. Smith, our favorite SFF poet, hosts a weekly podcast in which she reads poems from Walt Whitman to Wang Xiaoni, framing each piece with her own brief commentary. These bite-sized episodes (all less than 6 minutes) are a gift from a writer whose words already convey us into the stratosphere, whose voice helps recenter us back on terra firma.
What’s more escapist than faking one’s own death? The Amelia Project is a secret agency that definitely doesn’t exist, and certainly doesn’t devote its James Bond-level resources to helping desperate callers disappear from their lives. While the Interviewer, with his penchant for cocoa and non-sequiturs, seems like he’s come straight from a Monty Python sketch, he nonetheless gets to the heart of why cult leaders, influencers, sentient AIs, and even Santa would want to start over fresh.
The soothingly episodic first season is like a comforting mug of cocoa to curl your hands around over and over… then things get a little spicy. Like if you threw some cinnamon or even pepper into that hot chocolate, because after a few weeks you want to change things up. The series begins to subvert and invert its own formula, while still providing surprising insights into the human condition.
“The one thing that we can be certain of in these very uncertain times is that change is indeed upon us,” Burton says in the opening to his latest episode, and like some Pavlovian response you will already feel just a little bit better. “Not just what we do, but how we do it. So my message is, be kind. To yourselves, and to each other.” One surefire bit of self-care is listening to Burton continue to read SFF stories; this season includes works by N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Genevieve Valentine, Max Gladstone, and more. “The only thing these stories have in common,” he says, “is I love them, and I hope you do too.”
Shouting out a personal favorite because the crew of the Rumor are basically in lockdown with one another for weeks at a time and manage to thrive despite the isolation of space. (Bringing on a surprise new crew member and fleeing an intergalactic conspiracy probably help keep things exciting.) In particular, the audio drama’s use of music, from Irish folk songs like “Whiskey in the Jar” to original pieces written by creator Jessica Best, really cements the space pirate feel. Having the crew sing to one another, in times of despair and hope, provides a small manner of comfort.
Like its serialized audio drama Moonbase Theta, Out, this new anthology series from Monkeyman Productions is unabashedly hopepunk. But instead of one narrative doled out in lunar communications, the MonkeyTales are standalone SFF/speculative shorts featuring one or two voices: nonbinary lovers from parallel universes whispering sweet nothings over the phone; a sidewalk Superman struggling to connect with his alter ego; and more stories of impossible connection. Hopefully they’ll make you feel less alone.
What are your podcast comfort listens?
Originally published in April 2020.