From Frankenstein to Firefly, science fiction has taken many forms and encompassed all different kinds of stories. This means that there is boundless potential for creativity under a very broad umbrella, but it does make it hard to pin down exactly what someone means when they talk about science fiction. As a previous Hothouse article explores, “science fiction is expanding rapidly, but still remains largely unmapped and misunderstood.” As new methods and techniques of storytelling gain traction, the face of what science fiction can be is changing. One medium of storytelling in particular is rising to the challenge of what it means to engage with science fiction: the audiodrama. For some people, an audiodrama, or an episodic audio narrative, might be an unexpected contender for a science fiction story – especially when television series like Star Trek seem to dominate the science fiction conversation.
Star Trek envisioned a very specific future, one filled with optimism, celebration of diversity, and marvelous scientific achievements.
It’s easy to see Star Trek, which rocketed science fiction into unprecedented cultural notoriety in 1966, as a prime example of the genre because of the futuristic setting. There are aliens, faster-than-light travel, humanoid androids; in short, all the things we’ve come to expect from science fiction. It’s important to note however, that all of the bells and whistles that I just mentioned were nothing more than set dressing for the intended message behind Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, had a vision for Star Trek with a decidedly political bent: to tell stories about current social ills and injustices, redressing them in a way that would appear innocuous to 1960s network censors.
Star Trek envisioned a very specific future, one filled with optimism, celebration of diversity, and marvelous scientific achievements. Roddenberry was very clear about how that vision came to be, saying in a 1976 LP that the whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. It’s like the Vulcans say: “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.” Obviously, Star Trek isn’t the only example of forward-thinking science fiction. Every science fiction story has vastly different settings and themes, from the damning anti-war message of Orson Scott-Card’s Ender’s Game to the playful absurdism of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but the common thread connecting each one is a diligent speculation of who we are as people, and what we could be if things were different. Science fiction is a genre that looks to the future, so while the categorical traits of science fiction are hard to define, the values inherent in the genre aren’t. The “quietly revolutionary” diversity and laser-focused social commentary that Star Trek was famed for actually drives the entire science fiction genre.
But what’s really interesting is that we’re experiencing an audiodrama renaissance right alongside the sci-fi revival. And unlike Marty McFly befriending a disgraced nuclear physicist, I don’t think it’s an unexplainable coincidence.
Science fiction has always been about speculation – whether the speculation concerns things like human nature, dystopias, or the future as an instrument to explore contemporary problems, like Star Trek does. Science fiction encourages readers (or viewers) to ask questions, and stories like Star Trek posit that we can solve the problems that are holding humanity back. In a world so overwhelmed with dark, gritty fiction, watching Star Trek in 2021 feels like a breath of fresh air – and a momentary portal into a world where we are encouraged to believe that we could fix things for each other. It’s clear that I’m not the only one who was drawn into science fiction in the past few years. The sales of science fiction and fantasy books have doubled since 2010, and science fiction movies have recently dominated the highest grossing movies at the Box Office, with 8 out of the top 10 highest grossing movies of all time falling under the science fiction umbrella. With all that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that we’re experiencing somewhat of a science fiction cultural renaissance.
But what’s really interesting is that we’re experiencing an audiodrama renaissance right alongside the sci-fi revival. And unlike Marty McFly befriending a disgraced nuclear physicist, I don’t think it’s an unexplainable coincidence. An audiodrama is exactly what it sounds like – a dramatic narrative told through an audio medium. If this sounds similar to a podcast, that’s because it is – audiodramas are actually a type of podcast. Calling an audiodrama a podcast is by no means incorrect, it’s just not as descriptive or as indicative of the content a listener can expect. As opposed to podcasts, which can encompass many different genres, like news updates, advice shows, and investigative journalism, audiodramas typically unwrap fictional narratives and are closer to the radio shows of olde (think: soap opera broadcasts like Our Gal Sunday). Radio shows were wildly popular during the Golden Age of radio, with around 28 million people in the 1930’s tuning into their favorite shows every week. But as visual technology advanced, the audiodrama fell out of vogue and radio reoriented to the news and music functionality we hear on the waves today. Although contemporary audiodramas are rarely aired over the radio these days, we’re seeing a huge upsurge in how many are being made. As I’ve said, audiodramas aren’t newcomers to the storytelling scene, but it’s important to note that they also aren’t newcomers to the science fiction genre. Orson Welles released his notorious narration of H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds over the radio in 1938 and the 1974 BBC Radio production of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was voted one of the 20 most influential podcasts of the last 50 years. But podcasts in the past 10 years have taken on a new face, and the next generation of audiodramas is distinct from the science fiction broadcasts of the 70’s and 80’s. First, they aren’t audio retellings of books. Generally, modern audiodramas are serializations that rely on cult-like internet fan followings for publicity and support. The zombie-horror audiodrama, We’re Alive, kicked off the trend in 2009, but the 2012 Welcome to Nightvale podcast propelled the concept of the audiodrama into stardom, and is commonly credited with kickstarting the audiodrama industry, which has continued to grow explosively since Welcome to Nightvale’s release in 2012. More and more audiodramas are being created, and a significant amount of them engage with science fiction.
Audiodrama creators rely on the same knowledge that early science fiction authors did—that the imaginations of their audiences can produce more lurid and strange images than any images or visual effects can.
There’s no doubt about it: science fiction audiodramas are out there and thriving. As listeners (and maybe amatuer scientists at this point, after all of our studies concerning the nature of science fiction) we might want to think about why so many science fiction audiodramas were created, and how they’ve remained a consistent cultural force for over a decade.
The obvious answer is the content and creation. Like the pulp anthologies that characterized science fiction in the 30’s, most podcasts begin as DIY passion projects made by small teams of creatives. It’s not until recently that audiodramas started being adapted into television series and movies, a trend which parallels the waiting game that science fiction played as a fringe genre before cultural catalysts like Star Trek rocketed science fiction onto the screen. As for the creation, audiodramas work well with typical science fiction settings because of the relative simplicity of the audio medium. Much like traditional prose, audiodramas work solely in narration. Audiodrama creators rely on the same knowledge that early science fiction authors did—that the imaginations of their audiences can produce more lurid and strange images than any images or visual effects can. All an audiodrama needs to create vastly complex and intricate worlds are some stock sounds, basic editing software, and trust in the imagination of the listener.
The “spark” of the modern science fiction audiodrama is the same philosophical element that makes Star Trek a cultural force to this day—a commitment to diversity and representation.
And, in an endearing celebration of the campiness prevalent in science fiction, many of these new audiodramas are also using tried and true sci-fi tropes to tell deeply evocative stories across the expanse of space, time, and species. They’re okay with being a little bit ridiculous in the process of telling sincere stories about the human condition, embodying the idea that just because something is a little bit zany, or is involved with dubious standards of legitimacy doesn’t mean you don’t take it seriously. To note another standout, Wolf 359, created in 2014 by Gabriel Urbina, delivers gut punches of episodes and absolutely heart wrenching emotional arcs over its four-season run, even though an early episode features the crew members of a spaceship going to war against a plant monster with only a single harpoon to arm themselves with. Although Wolf 359 actually references the Golden Age tradition of radio dramas in its show bio, Wolf 359 and its contemporary compatriots have an important quality that the radio dramas of the Golden Age generally lacked—a quality that I believe accounts for the staying power of the modern audiodrama. The “spark” of the modern science fiction audiodrama is the same philosophical element that makes Star Trek a cultural force to this day—a commitment to diversity and representation. The new wave of science fiction audiodramas are fulfilling the legacy of diversity and representation that early science fiction began, and are expanding diversity far beyond what Star Trek envisioned in the 60s.
The importance of representation is well-trodden ground, especially when it comes to marginalized communities. Dr. Martin Luther King recognized representation as an integral reflection of what civil rights activism was trying to achieve, as he convinced Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, to continue acting on the show, stating that “for the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.” In the specific context of science fiction though, representation becomes especially charged, since a science fiction narrative without a marginalized group sends a message that there’s no place for them in the future. As I’ve mentioned before, Gene Roddenberry’s goal for Star Trek was to portray a humanity that was perfectible through diversity. But crucially, Roddenberry’s vision of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations didn’t include queer characters until 2016, with Star Trek Discovery. So although Star Trek was groundbreaking in terms of racial diversity, and science fiction as a broader genre has made great strides recently, queer representation is still largely absent in mainstream science fiction. This isn’t to discount the (many) excellent and inclusive science fiction releases, but when we look towards the mainstream, we still see a very heteronormative silver screen and it’s still too easy for queer people to feel alone in a genre that’s meant to be expansive and inclusive.
Kaner and Vetiner offer validation and community for their queer listeners, and although the futuristic Martian landscape is still rife with government corruption and the small tragedies, it unapologetically shows a future where it’s normal to be queer.
There have been some very public (and very recent) examples of how science fiction in novels and movies has dropped the ball with queer representation. What makes me hopeful about the future of the genre though, is the way that audiodramas have picked it back up. For example, the creators of The Penumbra Podcast, Sophie Kaner and Kevin Vibert, are both queer themselves and have applied Roddenberry’s earlier pursuit for racial diversity to queer representation in The Penumbra Podcast in a mission to write characters that are missing – or misrepresented – in other media. Kaner and Vetiner offer validation and community for their queer listeners, and although the futuristic Martian landscape that The Penumbra Podcast is set in is still rife with government corruption and the small tragedies, it unapologetically shows a future where it’s normal to be queer. Kaner and Vitner’s creative philosophy walks the same path for queer listeners that Star Trek did for its BIPOC viewers, asserting that their listeners deserve to see themselves in stories (in the audiodrama, of course, the “seeing” part is less literal, but just as meaningful).
The overwhelming amount of queer content in audiodramas echoes this, and there’s lists and lists of queer audiodramas made by queer creators that show just how tangible and personal this message is. We see it here with audiodramas just as clearly as we did when Whoopi Goldberg was inspired to participate in Star Trek: The Next Generation by her predecessor, Nichelle Nichols. Representation and inclusivity generates a legacy of participation that is vital to the future of media – and audiodramas are carrying the torch for queer representation . This isn’t to say that audiodramas are all utopic bastions of pitch perfect representation – they’re made by small teams of people who still misstep sometimes, despite their good intentions. Creating a racially diverse narrative in an audiodrama presents an especially unique challenge since it relies completely on auditory components. But, the challenge to reflect a diverse world still needs to be met, and podcast creators are enthusiastically rising to the occasion to explore another frontier.