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You Should Be Listening: Wolf 359

Supernova SN1987A

In a departure from The Independent’s usual high-caliber analysis of music, film, and literature, we break from tradition this month to bring you our first-ever podcast review, beginning with the recently concluded sci-fi online radio serial, Wolf 359.

You are seven-point-eight miles from anything even resembling home, orbiting a red dwarf named Wolf 359 in a claustrophobic spaceship built by the lowest bidder, which alternates between insistently springing leaks and threatening to drift right into the star’s molten corona. The crew of the ship is composed of three misanthropic shut-ins, plus a computer so unreliable that you might as well hand over your oxygen production to Siri. Your boss is cheerfully sociopathic regarding your continued existence, your mission is the most desperate in human history short of being reassigned to Hell itself, and there’s a plant monster living in the air vents.

Your mission: make contact with alien life. Or – as it is heavily implied – die trying.

The podcast begins by following Doug Eiffel, a snarky communications officer reluctantly press-ganged into this venture on the mistaken belief that this post was preferable to prison, who spends his time rationing his remaining cigarettes and beaming signals into the void. His co-worker is Doctor Hilbert, a morally ambiguous, plausibly Russian Doctor Frankenstein, who takes full advantage of the fact that science in space does not require a consent form. Their superior officer is Lieutenant Minkowski, so desperate for promotion that she accepted a command position less glamorous than exile to Siberia. Their ship is flown by the AI Hera, who is simultaneously malfunctioning, and yet the most functional person on board.

And for some strange reason, the radio equipment keeps picking up classical music, way out in the boondocks of space…

As the cast expands, “dead” members of the previous expedition begin to turn up, and insidious “help” arrives from central command back on Earth, distrust simmers. The crew has no reason to trust each other, and many reasons to kill each other, but everyone needs everyone else to survive – for now. Much of the show’s conflict centers on the shifting web of motivations and alliances that form, and the way in which the characters gamble with their lives merely by trusting one another.

If Wolf 359 has a recurring theme, it must be hope. From the very beginning, the characters are trapped on a speck of dust in cosmic whirlwind, and the situation somehow manages to deteriorate from there. Resources are depleted, characters are acutely paranoid of being stabbed in the back by their crewmates, and, as the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that a successful mission will render some of them unnecessary in the eyes of mission control. To say that the crew is holding out for a miracle would be an understatement – yet, in defiance of the universe, they hang on. The single most motivating success of Wolf 359 is its ability to make the listener truly invest in characters who cling to the edge of oblivion.

Despite comparisons to Night Vale – as the curse of any mildly successful fiction podcast is to be compared to Night Vale – the show is less focused on the bizarrity or the mystery element than on the contentious relationships between the characters. If an episode of The X-Files were trapped on a submarine orbiting a distant star, it would bear some resemblance to Wolf 359. The subject matter of the podcast is incredibly dark; if Wolf 359 excels at anything it is sheer bleakness. In fact, it is unrivaled in that domain. However, actual violence or gore is rare enough to be flagged by the creators. As far as settings go, few are less forgiving than the devouring void of space. And yet, it is not hopeless; the moral of the show is that the universe truly does not care if you die – so it falls to you, and only you, to hang on as long as you can.

In production values, Wolf 359 is expertly voice-acted, with a minimal soundtrack but immersive sound design and loving use of ambient noise to make the ship feel claustrophobic. The ambiance of being trapped on a space-submarine is ever-present. The dialogue does a wonderful job showcasing craft without coming off as stilted or pretentious. The series is fairly lengthy, but nowhere near the length of some more ambitious podcasts, and the story never feels stale, the tension strained, nor the arc artificially drawn out.

Wolf 359 series concluded on Dec. 25, 2017, and, at 61 short-to-medium-length episodes, is perfect for the ambitious sci-fi listener.

PC: nasacommons / Flickr

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