Episode 60: Among the Stars and Bones (and other Pieces)


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            So let’s get back to the basics or to the roots, or to something that maybe I should have talked about a long time ago. Maybe not, but if I had, we would have covered very different ground, and maybe that’s ground you would have preferred. I can’t say because I don’t know, but I do know that I’m the one who’s making this show, and while I don’t like all my choices, I’ve enjoyed going down this route.

            But that’s not the point. And I am trying to get to it. If you’re inclined to think back to the beginning of this second season also known as “The Podcast Saga” or if you’ve heard that episode lately because you’re going back and binging it all, you’ll known that this entire thing was initiated by the first episode of a particular audio fiction podcast that I think does everything right. It was the best example of everything podcasting could be, and I wanted to tell you about it. But then I had way too much to say and seemingly not enough time in a single episode to say all of it. And I needed to clarify some terms and go into the history…. So… Hence “The Podcast Saga” with a bunch of different topics and subjects within it.

            But now, we get to come full circle. Even if I have other topics I want to discuss after the fact, so we’re also going to be over shooting the circle. Just leave the metaphor alone for now. Because we’re going to go back to audio fiction show today. Partially because—as yet another gift—it serves as a great transition point between found-audio-type shows and science fiction podcasts.

            Both staples in my podcasting experience, if you were wondering. And yes, I need to get to the sci-fi world of podcasting already. There are some amazing examples in this particularly subsection of audio fiction that are also only possible in audio fiction. Particularly podcasting.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 60.

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            If you don’t remember, Among the Stars and Bones was the spark that started all of this. It’s an audio fiction podcast under the creative direction of Chris Magilton. And the first season is running right now. In it, a group of xenoarchaeologists are investigating a site of ruins on an alien planet. Rather than just investigating the site, they’re investigating literally every aspect of this site and probably the whole world. And what we are listening to are the audio logs of their research expedition sent back to the corporation that sponsors their work. Each crew head of the various research fields (and I’m saying that a little loosely) has to report for each of the logs or infocasts.

            And it’s these various pieces that come together to make the expertly crafted audio fiction what it is. To that end, this is what I want to talk about today. I want to go over the various pieces of the audio fiction Among the Stars and Bones and the way these pieces fit both together and with the traits of the chosen media to create the incredible story that it is.

            Now, I’ve said this before, but whenever I discuss a topic on this show, there is some sense in which I recommending it to you all. But I cannot stress enough this week how much I love this particular podcast and how much I think you should listen to it. Yes, there might be some reasons why this won’t be for you or that you should not be listening to it, but in terms of those triggers, they’re incredibly on top of trigger warnings in a way I can’t help but aspire to implement. So if you just pull it up in your podcast player of choice, everything you need to know will be in the show notes, and then you can make an informed choice.

            But for now, I want to talk about the way Chris Magilton’s stylistic choices end up with masterful reveals of the inner-workings of the characters, the world, and the plot. What we end up experiencing as the audience is a story that dances with the potential and limitations of the medium to perfect the story the creator initiated.

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            As previously mentioned, the audio files we are listening to in the context of the narrative are report logs made by researchers with different specialties presenting their projects or progress to the company that is funding the expedition with the expectation that this company will benefits in ways beyond the acquired knowledge being harvested on behalf of all humanity. You know, common good is great, but there’s more out there than that.

            And you also get the sense that—because of the distance or other technological limitations—this is the only way these two groups can communicate with each other.

            And that might be well and good, but the thing is: the only method of communication the two of them have is also meant to serve as the definitive record to be referred to as a sort of “final authority” in the case of disputes. Or law suits. Or in other situations where blame matters a lot.

            Now, the importance of this detail might go over your head if you’ve never worked at a law firm or a place where audits were a common occurrence. I’ve work in both, so I can speak not quite as a person of authority but something close. Basically, there are situations in which you need to prove that your office did something or reacted in some way that was completely justifiable years after this thing happened. For example, did you tell a client about a certain regulation, policy, or law that they then ignore? Did you ask for a particular document that could have changed the outcome of the case but were just never given it by the client?

On the other hand and as more likely real-world example of this phenomenon, you need to be able to explain months or years after the fact, why it is you spent money the way that you did. Justifying various purchases, you could also call it. What was the event? Did you get multiple quotes from various vendors? Did this get approve by somebody higher up on the food chain? And if not, why did you make that judgment call?

            I haven’t necessarily been burned by this before, but all the same, I learned pretty quickly that every little bit you can keep or submit when challenged can carry you a long way. Especially if you think somebody in the next department over has it out for you.

            And that’s a pretty relevant point. The people who make up both the research team and the home base team aren’t strangers. They’ve met. They’ve had a history. And maybe that history actually is relevant. Maybe that’s influencing people’s decisions.

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            Maybe not and somebody’s just paranoid or hurt. But when it comes to these official logs, it might still be worth it to vent your frustrations or anger. Entering it into the official record might be ill-advised at face value, but it’s also the only way you could protect yourself if it actually turns out to be relevant later.

            Even then, it’s not great protection. It’s just better than doing nothing. And for the sake of the audience, it’s a way of doing an exposition dump without actually doing the atmosphere-breaking-exposition dump. This is all going to happen while the story is unfolding. The characters are going to be frustrated when their decisions are undermined, and if they think they know why it happened—and it wasn’t a valid, profession reason—that frustration and the need to pad out the record that could later protect them if their actions are challenged. Like let’s say researcher knows that he needs to do X, but corporate command is forbidding his from doing so. The researcher could disobey, but that could also come back to bite them. Just like not doing the thing he knows he needs to do. It’s somewhat of  a Catch 22, and maybe that destruction is the corporate contact’s end game. Better make sure there’s evidence to that theory! Even if that evidence is a little… personal or embarrassing…

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            To add to that, audio logs in this context just make a great deal of sense. It doesn’t just leave the immersion untouched and therefore not broken; it actually is a critical part of building it up in the first place. It’s not only reasonable to think that audio recordings would be all the crew of researchers could send back; it’s from the technical standpoint, the only possibility. Space or not, audio is easier to transmit than video just because there’s less of it. I mean, if you made a video log, there would still be an audio component to that log. Or you would need one. It’s easier to convey nuance through the pitch of one’s voice than it is through any sort of visual. That’s just the way our language and communication norms have developed.

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            The other type of revelation we can do with audio logs is that of the world. And this is where the sci-fi component comes in. It’s very clear from what we hear that the research team have stumbled upon a major discovery. There’s a lot of literally everything to comb through. And while they have to report back to command, because this is an auditory medium, we aren’t going to see any of it. On one hand, that’s what makes this story possible. After all, visuals are expensive to produce both in terms of the material and labor necessary to do so. And these expenses can limit the creators who end up entering that space. They serve as a very real gate keeper of sorts. But when you strip that requirement away, by switching to a medium that doesn’t have visuals, then suddenly there’s more space available for new creators to come in.

            On the other hand, and the thing I was thinking about, this may seem to go against conventional story-telling wisdom. Or I think it’s (quote) “conventional wisdom.” It’s something I heard a lot when I was in high school, which included lessons how to be a writer. Remember Stephanie Meyer had gone to that school, and they were kind of banking on having some other famous alumni in case of trouble. It’s not that I studied creative writing in school like in college or in graduate school. There was something off-putting about that idea….

            But back to the point. In conventionally story-telling, a writer has to build their story in a very specific way. Or they have to describe events and atmospheres in a very specific way. Namely, that you should show not tell what is or what is happening. But in podcasting, there’s no show only tell, you’d be tempted to say.

            But that is temptation that only comes from taking those words at face value. It’s not meant to be literal advice, but advice to stir you away from repetition in your writing and towards a more flowing, poetic creation. But still, there is this sense that what you end up hearing in Among the Stars and Bones isn’t done (quote) “properly” when considering that particular piece of advice or that writing standard. And yet, or because of it, the story works very well.

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            And I would say that it works because of where the audience is present relative to the events of the story. This is where the found footage or eavesdropping interloper aspect of the story comes into play.

            These tapes are being made for the sponsoring company who cannot see what is going on. They cannot—as of yet—see the sight of the site (ha), but they will eventually. As long as they continue to financially support the expedition, that is. And there is a sense that the researchers have to convince them to do that. But even if that isn’t the case, they still have to fill the spaces visuals normally would.

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            I never liked getting writing advice when I was growing up. I also wasn’t a great person growing up. I like being the contrarian, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

            But as I saw, there’s an infinite nature to creation, to storytelling, or at least to the way I told stories. (Pause) You couldn’t put me in a box without fundamentally changing what I was trying to do. And look, I’m not saying those stories were any good. I’m just pointing out that my relationship with writing was a very personal one. It was a way of expression myself, and I tended to not fit into boxes easily. Or when someone had tried to put me in a box it was usually to my detriment. So obviously I was afraid of boxes, and I’m not good with metaphors.

            Sometimes, while their advice did not feel like attacks or attempts at displacement, it felt like people were trying to get me to do things I didn’t want to do. And I never have respond well to that. So I shelved that advice until it was apparently time for me to feel incredibly insecure about a thing I was making. And then it came out. That’s never a fun time, by the way. And that probably went without saying.

            And then enter Among the Stars and Bones an amazing story that pushed that creative boundary because of and for the sake of the story.

            You see, there’s a better lesson there. That when it comes to art or to a story, specifically, it’s your creation to make as you see fit. You have to keep it engaging, but that can mean a few different things. It’s essentially permission to create as I see fit.

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            Creative choices are great, and they can take on a variety of forms. And in editing, there was another one made that laid out what could be a critical clue or conflict. Not going to go into spoilers and also, Season 1 is still ongoing. So there’s plenty of time to prove me wrong. It’s supposed to be ten episodes, and I’ve only got six in my player as of recording this.

            But by the end of the second episode, it’s very clear something is happening with the equipment. Specifically the equipment the team is using to communicate with the outside world.

            In some ways, you could argue that the background noise in the first episode and beyond is also indicative of there being so much more going on, but having done some production work myself, I can say, it’s better to fill the space behind the voice than it is to leave it blank, so that’s never going to be a compelling argument to me.

            There are some things I can’t ignore, though. They are some deliberate choices the creative team have made, and—not to spoil the experience—but it includes a very obvious audio glitch.

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            And look, it might not mean anything, you know? They are sending audio files across great distances, and machines are prone to breaking. But even if that was easy to believe that, it’s just as easy to believe that something sinister is happening. Because clearly something bad happened there before. The crew is investigating a tragedy of some kind. And this past mystery does suggest that there’s a threat that could return to these new inhabitants—to use the term loosely. Add to that, there’s the alien technology that is being examined, potentially intermingled with the equipment the team is using.

            The story is laid out so that you know that things could be going wrong. Also not. It’s a mystery. Or literary momentum. Then again, you might be saying the story is about the discovery, right?

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            Because, to reiterate, it all might be nothing. Or it might be the beginning of something big. It’s the uncertainty that gives the choice power. And it’s an uncertain that also draws strength from the medium has a whole.

            Because there are real world explanations for what you’re hearing. Look, when it first started happening to me, I thought it was my podcast player glitching or that there was a problem with the internet connection that I needed to use to stream the episode as opposed to downloading it. Pro tip, downloading is always better than streaming. More reliable. And uses less data.

            But then I figured out that this wasn’t the case. And even then, there were still real world explanations for what I was hearing. Editing mistakes happen. Microphones and recording software can glitch. Anything can have problems, true. But with podcasting, because most of the creators are operating under a severe financial constraints, breakdowns are more likely to happen, their effects are more likely to linger because replacing things like sound files or equipment can be hard to do. And to compound on that problem, equipment that is struggling to hang on can’t be replaced until its final death knell finishes its chime. And-or you opt for a free or cheap alternative that’s going to limit what you can do or fix.

            So when the problems start happening. You might just think that it’s par for the course. And then you realize how polished the rest of the episode has been, you—or in this case I, let’s be fair… couldn’t believe it was a mistake. So if it wasn’t my internet connection. Which I proved it wasn’t. Then what was causing this? It had to be in the universe of the story. But maybe not. Or maybe it’s not anything significant.  

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            The human brain is wired to avoid uncertainty. And that makes sense when you consider that uncertainty can mean death in certain circumstances. We want to know if something is a threat or what a clear threat actually is and where its weakness is because then we can save ourselves, right? Think horror stories, but the kind where there are set rules in place and the characters then have to discern and navigate the rules. At our core, human beings are creatures that rely on our minds as our greatest tool or only defense. So what happen when this weapon is missing a piece or two?

            In the case of this story, we’re missing a piece. We have numerous alternatives that we could fit into this space, but alas, they do fit well. And we can see that. So our intellect is working against us as well as with us. We are pulled into the story by being pulled into a dialogue both with what we are hearing and what we are.

            Without the mystery, this tale of xenoarcheologists isn’t going to have the same appeal. It goes from being a narrative with momentum to being fictionalized records we can use to lull ourselves to sleep at night, which would be a huge waste of the creative talents behind the show and not as engaging.

            And really, this is all from a small creative trick or choice, but this escalation early on in the narrative engages the audience. It instigates the narrative arc that—I will remind you again—is still ongoing. So, yeah, you could totally jump in right now.

            And you should. Like seriously. There’s so much more I could praise, but those are also things you could discover for yourself. So you should get to that.

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            But looking back, I think maybe I’ve seen too many slam piece about podcasting, sometimes including audio fiction podcasts and sometimes not. Usually it’s a matter of convenience. Because these articles are never about podcasting so much as they seem to be about fear of change, a fear of there being a media space without any regulator beyond the content consumers. Despite that not exactly being the case…  

            Ultimately, this show is also a great example of where my cynicism comes from when it comes to these articles. Because it is an amazing show, and pretending it doesn’t exist is only doing humanity a disservice.

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