By Skylar Epstein
Earlier this month, I wrote about how audiodramas were carrying the torch of science fiction and telling incredibly diverse stories using an innovative medium. I mentioned a few notable audiodramas in my previous article, so I’ll be expanding on those here and introducing even more recommendations in this article. To give some context for the audiodramas, I’ll be linking the new and the familiar, and comparing the audiodramas that have captured my attention over the years with some science fiction novels and movies you may already know and love. But even if you haven’t read the books I’m comparing them to, these audiodramas are great standalone listens with which to diversify your story library.
If you liked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick, you should listen to The Penumbra Podcast, written by Sophie Takagi Kaner and Kevin Vibert:
Like Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the dramas of The Penumbra Podcast unfold in a classically cyberpunk setting, a dystopian post-industrial urban society where high tech and low life come together. Even if you haven’t read Dick’s book, you may recognize it as the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner (1982). The novel has a gritty, neo-noir beat, as the plot follows a bounty hunter who tracks down androids fleeing their human masters in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. However, unlike Dick’s vision of a fallout-ridden futuristic San Francisco, the humans of The Penumbra Podcast have fled to Mars, and our main characters dwindle their lives away in Hyperion City, the most beautiful city on Mars (as long as you don’t have to live there). The Penumbra Podcast melds film noir and cyberpunk beautifully; the classically sardonic narrations we expect from old detective movies casually reference laser blasters and ancient martian death masks, while the twang of gritty saxophone music rounds out the neo-noir atmosphere. It’s a masterpiece of sound design paired with worldbuilding that stretches even deeper than the sewers of Hyperion City (which, for the record, are ruled by eight feet tall man-eating rabbits).
But although the universe of The Penumbra Podcast is impressive, the strength of the story lies in the roguishly lovable cast. There are devilishly canny mafia business women, alluring “homme fatales,” reality TV stars with a penchant for killer robots, amatuer social justice documentarians—and that’s just in the first episode. What’s more, the majority of the characters are queer (including all of the main characters). The Penumbra Podcast takes the cyberpunk aesthetic that Phillip K. Dick fostered in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and runs with it, breaking down heteronormativity and atmospheric barriers as it goes. The Penumbra Podcast is creative, diverse, fantastically lovable, and definitely worth a listen.
If you liked Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, you should listen to Wolf 359, created by Gabriel Urbina:
You might not have heard it here first, but you’re hearing it now. Wolf 359 is a staple of audio science fiction, and capitulates the genre just like the film Alien did in 1979. In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo is awakened in deep space to answer a distress call from an alien vessel. What happens after will inspire a host of other science fiction movies—to say it without spoilers, there’s alien eggs, an alien mother, and a chest-bursting scene. Gross, but iconic. Now, again, no spoilers—but Wolf 359 creeps down this same path in a masterfully-told slow-burn science fiction audio epic. The story is about the crew of the U.S.S. Hephaestus and their mission to study the star called Wolf 359. The emotional arcs of the later episodes are scaffolded wonderfully by the light tone of the first season, and the later episodes carry a sense of levity, albeit one that is nostalgic for simpler times and easier decisions.
Wolf 359 just plain works—the main narrator, Doug Eiffel, carries the show through his sarcastic, goofy (and occasionally heartfelt and vulnerable) mission logs, but every character gets their chance in the spotlight, as there are interludes and special episodes covering each character’s backstories. The whole show works so well because of how strongly written the dynamics between all of the characters are. The crew cares about each other, and one of the most exciting parts about listening to this show is hearing how their bonds and moral codes are tested as the plot picks up. As for the plot itself, you’ll just have to go and hear for yourself. I’ve talked a lot about the stellar emotional notes that Wolf 359 hits, but I don’t want to understate the pure celebration of science fiction that Wolf 359 embodies. As I mentioned earlier, Wolf 359 has all the classic science fiction tropes; there’s plant monsters, body snatchers, talking aimlessly to stars, surprise when the stars talk back, artificial intelligence, shadowy government agencies, and a suspicious doctor. Wolf 359 is the full package. All in all, it’s one of the best pieces of science fiction I know, and one of the most successful longform narratives I’ve seen, heard, or read.
If you liked Kindred by Octavia Butler, you should listen to Adventures in New America, written by Stephen Winters and produced by Nightvale Presents:
Adventures in New America, a 13-episode audiodrama produced by Nightvale Presents in 2018, was actually inspired by the work of Octavia Butler. Well, Octavia Butler and stand-up comedy, that is. Adventures in New America calls back to Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred. Kindred is an afrofuturism story told from the past. The plot follows a young Black woman as she is transported from 1976 to the early 1800’s, juxtaposing the harsh past treatment of African Americans with the present reality of the 1970s where many of the same issues persist. Although Adventures in New America doesn’t use time travel as an explicit mechanic like Butler does, the story balances motifs that are blasts from the near past, like diners, coins, and a Cold War-style American nationalism, while still incorporating ideas that seem anachronistic to the conceivably 1950s setting, like modern guns and Poké Bowl restaurants. So although the latter is less explicit, both Kindred and Adventures in New America use America’s past to invoke an afrofuturist critique of our present moment. Stephen Winters, the creator of the show, says that “Adventures in New America is the first sci-fi, afrofuturistic, political satire, buddy comedy serialized for new Americans in a new and desperate time.” It’s occasionally irreverent, and absurdist in the brilliantly endearing way listeners have come to expect from Nightvale Presents.
In episode five, one of the lead characters, Gerturde, asks, “Why ask for the possible?” and Adventures in New America takes this question and runs with it. The series features Simon, a sociopathic master thief; I.A as the “only Black man in America who can’t get arrested”; Gertrude, whose agenda is almost as confusing as her inexplicable skill as a hypnotist; and Serena, a disgraced heiress to a radical African seperatist organization. Following all that? Good, because there are also vampire zombie terrorists plaguing the citizens of New New York. These aren’t your typical vampires inherent to horror fiction and the Gothic, though. As a Public Service Broadcast kindly informs the audience, “Where your movie vampire will recoil from a crucifix or a Menorah, a vampire zombie knows the creator God is already dead and has no religious-based fears. However, it can’t abide patriotism.” Essentially, “if you’re in mortal danger, fly a flag.” In moments like these, listeners are reminded that Adventures in New America is a political satire in addition to being a deliriously zany afrofuturist audiodrama. Zings about the prison system and institutional disenfranchisement are followed by rapid fire banter about race, biracialism, and what you become when you ooze between different labels too quickly to settle in one particular identity. Overall, Adventures in New America is sometimes scathing and always unique.
If you liked H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, you should listen to King Falls AM, produced by the Make Believe Picture Company:
The War of the Worlds, an adaptation of H.G Wells’ YEAR novel that was narrated by Orson Welles, is one of the most notorious radio broadcasts in history because it interrupted a normal radio program to warn the listeners of an extraterrestrial threat. Welles’s commanding voice had people in New Jersey convinced that there was an ongoing alien invasion just outside of their line of sight. This was all fictitious, of course, but using the public radio format blurred the lines between reality and fiction. Although King Falls AM doesn’t start out with the cataclysmic gravity of The War of the Worlds, many of the same techniques and themes surface as the series progresses. Like The War of the Worlds, King Falls AM is set up as a radio broadcast—except King Falls is set in a lonely mountain town. As a college radio DJ (thanks for all the fish, KVRX), I was scandalized by radio personality Shotgun Sam’s nightly FCC violations. As a science fiction fan on the other hand, I was willing to let it slide. At first, the story is relatively low stakes, but it quickly becomes clear that something weird is going on in King Falls—and it’s not just the lake monster that crashes the yearly fishing competition. There are crop circles, body snatchers, pleather-clad vigilante justice, shadowy government agencies, and the trials and tribulations of trying to secure decent funding for public radio. But wait, there’s also a book that maybe sends people to other dimensions.
The quirky shenanigans and Gravity Falls-style small town eccentricities may seem incongruous with an epic science fiction narrative, but King Falls AM skillfully balances moments of light-heartedness and sweetness between the characters with a plot that is downright harrowing as the seasons progress (there are War of the Worlds-level stakes eventually, the narrative just eases into them). Although the show begins as a slice of lazy, small town life, King Falls AM ramps up into an emotional whirlwind, combining the realism of public radio with science fiction in a way that nods to the historical intersection of the two.
If you liked Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, you should listen to Within the Wires, written by Janina Matthews and Jeffery Cranor and produced by Nightvale Presents:
The world Aldous Huxley created depicts a new kind of dystopic moment in science fiction—a kind of dystopia that looks like a functional, advanced society at first glance, but is actually much more oppressively insidious than it seems. The story opens in a hatchling center, where babies are created in test tubes before being born into strict castes that relate to their mental functioning. Every element of life is regimented and depersonalized, per government rule. The World State has removed human emotions, desires, and connections from society. Children are conditioned to be accustomed with death, and hypnotic phrases and psychological conditioning permeate the lives of Central Londoners. The tension in Brave New World is between a painless life or a meaningful one, but the dramatic backdrop of the domineering institution and technological manipulation were what made Huxley’s Brave New World notorious. While Brave New World opens in the Central London Conditioning and Hatching Center, Within the Wires continues the story of psychological conditioning and eerie utopia in a new reprogramming institute.
Within the Wires is a wandering journey of meditation and institutional manipulation that absorbs the listener into the story completely, using guided breathing instructions and meditation exercises. Within the Wires guides the listener through a set of “relaxation tapes,” led by a smoothly unflappable narrator. Everything about Within the Wires is designed for immersion. From the gentle voice of the narrator to the direct addresses to you, the listener. Even the looping, melodic backing audio seems to cancel out background noise as it lulls you into the narrative. By the time the narrator guides the listener into meditation exercises, it’s like you’re already breathing in time with the rhythm of the audio anyway. You breathe your way into this story—just as you’re instructed to—and the physical sensations and rhythmic breathing reinforce the fiction that the story embedded in the “relaxation tapes” builds. A surreal mystery reveals itself slowly and hypnotically, and listeners have to parse through the physical haze of guided meditation to understand what the oblique references to an institute mean. Like Brave New World before it, Within the Wires calls on the audience to question the strangeness of the world they have joined.
If you liked 11/22/63 by Stephen King, you should listen to ars Paradoxica, produced by The Whisperforge.
If the Eagles are Dad rock, then 11/23/63 is Dad sci-fi. The story follows a time traveler who goes back in time to prevent the Kennedy assasination. Although the premise is simple, the novel dives deep into the consequences of time travel and how even the smallest modifications could dramatically alter American history. The protagonist, Jack Epping, has to reckon with the intricacies of 1960s politics and how they relate to his 2007 present time, quickly realizing that preventing the Kennedy assasination might not be the ticket to a utopian 2007 that he thought it would be. Through 11/23/63, King explores the question of whether the tragedies that had defined this nation produced the best possible version of our present. After all, the challenge to time travel is that you can’t promise you can make things better, but it’s always possible that things could be worse.
ars Paradoxica reopens this same question, as the main character, Dr. Sally Grissom, finds herself faced with the ability to fundamentally alter the course of history by changing a monumental event in the past —the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. ars Paradoxica begins sometime in the 21st century, when Dr. Sally Grissom’s initial test of her time machine goes sideways (and then backwards) and she finds herself transported back to the year 1943 at the height of the Second World War. Dr. Grissom knowshow the war ends, but what she doesn’t know is whether it has to end that way. Like Jack Epping in King’s novel, Dr. Grissom is whisked into the tumultuous politics of the past, navigating through the cultural anxieties and political insecurities of one of the most tense moments in American history—all while parsing through the secret agendas of the higher-ups of the military base where she does her research. She has to balance her ethical qualms about the atrocities that America perpetrated during the war with her fears that changing any part of the timeline would plummet the world into unchecked chaos. As the creators of ars Paradoxica state on the show’s website, the podcast is about science, America, and the deeply human desire to fix our mistakes.
If you liked X-Men, you should listen to The Bright Sessions by Lauren Shippen:
Even though it’s about mutants, X-Men stands out amongst superhero movies because it focuses just as much on the heroes’ internal battles as the fight scenes. . The movies focus on the emotional personal stories of each of the X-Men and explores how people who are different relate to society through the allegory of mutations and superpowers. The Bright Sessions (2017) written by Lauren Shippen also focuses on the individual stories of extraordinary people. The concept of The Bright Sessions is simple: the plot unfolds in the session recordings of Dr. Bright, who works as a therapist for individuals with unexplainable powers. It’s important to note though that her patient’s powers are definitively “mundane” (as in, strictly earthly)—no Twilight vampire telepathy here, although I’m sure Edward Cullen could have benefited from one of Dr. Bright’s gentle therapy sessions. In this way, the characters of the The Bright Sessions are similar to the X-Men, since they all have powers that rely on genetic mutations and scientific explanations rather than myth or magic (sorry Wonder Woman!).
The Bright Sessions is famed for its character development, and the plot unravels the tangle of the patients’ lives, as the “atypical” characters cross paths and interact with each other throughout the course of the series. As one reviewer described it, The Bright Sessions, chronicles what it might have looked like if the X-Men spent some time in therapy instead of running off to become superheroes. This recommendation goes out to anyone out there who wishes they finished Heroes (2006) when it was still popular, for everyone else who likes to make their friends mad by telling them that Avengers: Endgame is the highest grossing science fiction movie, or for anyone who needs to hear a story about becoming comfortable with your own strangeness.