Episode 63: Podcast Saga Part 16 - The Science of Chaos


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            If we’re going to go ahead and make this subset of the larger “Podcast Saga” not only about science fiction podcasting but about my relationship with science fiction as a genre and the restoration podcasting was able to offer, then we could always do that, easily and I could keep that going. Or we are already doing that, I guess. The train has left the station, and we’re all along for the ride.

            Then again, there’s no reason to think that way, and there’s no reason to commit at all. Themes aren’t really necessary for a podcast like this, and I can do whatever I want. But I do kind of want to do this theme.

            I don’t know why, though. I guess it’s just the typical response to embarrassment or a recognized mistake. You know what I‘m talking about, right? When you try and explain something dumb you said or did as a way of bulldozing past it simply to alleviate some of the ill-feelings involved. Of course, that never works, and you often just make things worse for yourself. But for some reason, it’s still our default strategy, even if it isn’t a very good one. And that’s probably what I’m doing here.

            Looking back, my distaste for sci-fi was a childish, unfounded thing. It was a way of filling mental space without doing any sort of actual work. Once again, the appeal was in the simplicity not the merit. And I hate that. I hate it when other people shy away from the emotional labor of improving as a person, and I hate that there was a time in my life when I did pretty much the same thing, even though it was in a very specific context. And sure, we all make stupid mistakes in our teenage years, but for someone who is now trying to make a life out of making things and celebrating the stories other people tell, I’m in a little bit of a pickle, aren’t I? Or it feels like it. That the stakes are so much higher than they typically are. Accuracy aside.

            But I will say this. In so far as I did think I had a genuine critique of science fiction in mind, it lay in the sterility of the genre. Or the perception of such. It’s not that the story was pristine and perfect or that all the characters were cut precisely out of perfect molds. It’s more about the technology being overly polished with just one or two critical flaws left in for the sake of the plot.

            But that image makes sense, right? Contamination or cross-contamination is really bad in science. Like one flake of a bad thing in a good thing can ruin an experiment if not make a kaboom in the right circumstances. Rare but possible. Also dangerous. Never mind the fact that wrong conclusions stemming from cross-contamination can cause just as much damage if not more so over a longer period of time than a simple explosion. Hence why the modern ideal for science is that perfect, clean and uncompromised environment. There is a sense in which it genuinely needs to be that way.

            But my brief time in the sciences tells me that this is not always how things work. That while good science usually happens in an environment such as that, sometimes life and the more absurd side of human nature can get in the way, particularly in a nonprofessional, school-specific setting. But I mean, it really could just happen anytime science leaves the lab, right?

            But hey, there’s a podcast for that.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 63.

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            Today, we’re going to have some fun. Largely because we get to observe calamity from a distance. And saying that seems…. Wrong or inappropriate in many ways. There’s something about the event of, let’s say as an example, a bunch of people being liquefied that you’re supposed to only observe with a human-rooted somberness. Out of respect to them. Or out of existential terror for yourself and the concept of humanity.

            But also, this is occurring in a fiction podcast set in the distant future, it’s presented as part of a mystery, and its victims aren’t the most sympathetic. And that last bit works in two ways: we aren’t inclined to be sympathetic to them nor do we think they would necessarily be inclined to muster such sympathy for anyone else. That’s just a matter of presentation, though. The creative choices that made this whole world and the standards set within are leading you to that particular conclusion.

            The short of it, is that clearly our standards aren’t going to carry over to this other world. Clearly, I say again. And that includes the standard of technological development, right? Not quite… It’s more like our perception or the things we easily pretend are true in favor of bracing an otherwise ignored reality aren’t carrying over like you would think.

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            And this is where today’s podcast finds its wings. Oz 9 is a science fiction podcast written and produced by Shannon Perry, and the shortest summary I could possibly come up with goes something like this: Oz 9 is the most accurate description of what could happen if a company suddenly developed the means for space travel and implemented it without any sort of oversight.

            Yeah there’s a lot to unpack there. But the slightly longer summary goes like this: Oz 9 takes the sterility out of applied science and meshes technology with the absurd, random, dark, scary, hahaha, etc, etc that marks human life. And puts it in space. Not that far into space at first because, yeah, life happened. Well, not life. Opposite of life.

            You see, the thing about space travel is that this is a type of science that could never or would never be sequestered off in a very controlled environment like a lab. Space travel just has a spatial element to it, so it ends up hurdling into all the variables therein. Like a ship might fly into the waste cloud left in the wake of another ship. Don’t think too much about what that cloud is.

            And a ship needs a crew to work it, right? That crew might not be transplanted from a sterile lab environment if you want to save money or have a nefarious plot or dubious interests that kind of conflict a little bit and need to employ people who won’t notice your shenanigans or be missed. And that crew will have their own quirks, even the AI. I mean, if you build an AI to have a personality, then what do you expect but for it to have a personality?

            Hilarity in this case. That’s what you should be expecting. Entertainment and chuckling all around because you are not the one on the space ship hurdling towards unknown and potentially nonexistent destinations. And that’s a lot more to unpack, which I need to do in order to make you fully understand why you should be listening to Oz 9, especially if you were or are skeptical about science fiction, like I was.

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            This ship whose misadventures we are privy to is called the Oz 9, cue potential confusion that I will try to limit as much as possible. It’s the ninth ship in a series of 400 ships that a company called Gated Galaxies sent out into space to create what will be sovereign planets that their passengers will have full dominion over, but there are a lot of variables hidden in the fine print before that can happen. But it’s not that Gated Galaxies is specifically trying to pull the rug out from underneath anyone, so much as this plan for space travel is somewhat poorly thought out and the house always wins by default in all of these games. That sort of thing.

            Basically, it’s possible that this ship might never find a place to go, and there’s a variety of ways to die between now and then. None of which the crew would be able to fully prevent. They just don’t have the resources to work miracles. Especially when Olivia is programmed to be a bit deceptive. Or easily distracted…. But that might not be her programming exactly. Oh, Olivia is the onboard computer system, by the way, and it’s not her fault. What’s not her fault? Uh… Don’t worry too much about that. I mean, you probably should but also don’t.

            Basically, in the course of planning and building, there were some corners cut: cut to save the oodles of money Gated Galaxies is making by taking billionaires into space to colonizes places that could make them richer but also maybe not and also corners that are cut because why not cut them when it would be very hard to face any sort of consequences for something bad that happened in a distant place that doesn’t have an established government body with an enforcement arm. Ethics? Morals? Nice jokes.

            With that in mind, each ship has a small crew that doesn’t necessarily have the know-how to know how to fix the many problems that could arise within the ship. They don’t know even know too much about the ship. Largely, they are just cheap labor.


            And face it, that’s a pretty believable thing to have happen. The technology exists, a company gets its hands on it, and because they don’t necessarily have to care about implementation, they don’t. They do have to care about their own wellbeing, though. That’s self-interest, specifically self-preservation. That’s a really common and basic impulse that infects all things when exposed to air. Things like science when it leaves the lab.

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            And look, this is not exactly new to science fiction. It’s almost a trope to get tired of, right?

            You’ve probably heard this one before. Evil Corporation gets control of new and fancy thing then uses thing to its own benefit and everyone else’s detriment. Cue conflict. But in those schemes, there’s something very formal about the company’s plan. Think excel spreadsheets, power points, and PDF reports color-coded and printed in triplicate. There’s careful consideration and time taken to spell out all the details. There’s no red yarn and pushpins slapped onto a wall and hastily reassembled when things fall down from someone slamming a door.

            On the other hand, Gated Galaxies is more red yarn and pushpins, or so I think of it. This plan of theirs is a moderately thought out one. The scope is limited to just the essentials they need to know about to carry this money making venture out. Anything else can go to the legal department later. If that. Because hey, maybe they even won’t have to think about any of it. Maybe no one will force them, so why worry about it?

            To be fair, in the cannon of the show, Congress does try to step in… And this is really early on, so it’s not a spoiler. But the thing of it is, what is the real reason for Congress’s involvement? Not just what they say want to do or need to do. And that’s relevant because, let’s say, there’s a way to get out of it. There’s a way to avoid their own responsibilities. What will happen then? What is the meaning of the institutions capable of actually wielding the items or power—this changing set of things—that make up our lives? In reality, maybe nothing. Not even the meaning we put into it per say.

            This is an odd twist on the typical existential dread that science fiction can often invoke. That our meaninglessness isn’t just ours to bear but also on the things we built, even when we look at them from our own perspective. From beneath them. Even to us, they might still mean nothing. Everything we make might not mean anything.

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            Enter Olivia, I guess. The ship’s computer with a fully-fleshed out AI. No pun intended. Olivia has much of the same impulses anyone else would when faced with a situation her programming isn’t quite built to manage. Like an attractive person or a bunch of things that went wrong that could be seen as her fault, but it isn’t. Infatuation and panic, respectively. Or the line between the two of them isn’t that hard. I don’t know.

            She’s not composed of lines of if-this-then-that programming, and that’s the important the actual point. She’s not as simple as an AI would be or what you might think artificial intelligence will someday limited to. Rather, she’s more like a multi-faceted or flawed human being. In fact, personally speaking, I think I see way too much of myself in Olivia from time to time, but that’s not important.

            Regardless, what I like about this artistic choice is that—one—it turns Olivia into a character not a prop, which gives the story a lot more room to grow and an entire wing of the story (which feel like a pun but isn’t) to explore. But on the other hand, I’ve always wondered what AI would actually be like if anything was possible. Would we put limits on what these specific types of computers are or can become? Or would we default more to our chaotic nature and the limitless nature of that and put it in our work? Would we create copies of ourselves in our computers or would we deliberately avoid doing so?

            Okay, yes, people aren’t great. I mean, this chaotic nature we have can and has caused a great deal of problems and will likely continue to do so, but there’s another side of this coin. In that, we’re still capable of doing amazing things in part because of that boundlessness.

            In some ways, making an AI that replicates human nature is a bit of a gamble and a gateway into an intense metaphysical debate about what is to be human and the nature of mankind. But those are conversation a corporation wouldn’t worry too much about. It’s more about efficiency to them. Which would mean that making Olivia like that might have made her development easier. Of course it made other things they did in fact do easier to hide. Things latent in her programming that wouldn’t make sense if she was the stereotypical, sterile and dry AI.

            And those are things we know about because of the narrator…

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            Oh yeah, there’s a narrator too. One whose purpose and performance call back to old school radio fiction, a bit. It’s a great way to build off of the tradition that Oz 9 has inherited. But more than that, the narrator’s a great tool to insert a sense of suspense into the show that the show can then play with.

            You see, what often makes good suspense is when the audience knows something the characters don’t. As the audience, we might know a situation has certain stakes or that the cards are stacked in a certain way that disadvantages our heroes. But obviously, our heroes don’t know anything about this. So we get to watch them—or listen to them—go about their business with no knowledge of the looming threat in the room. This threat gives an additional weight and consequence to everything they do, and it gives us the inclination to think that everything they do that does not address the problem is automatically wrong or at least the wrong move.

            This sense of suspense compels us to engage with what we know about the world or lack thereof in order to understand what the characters should be doing. Because on the other side of (quote) “that’s the wrong thing to do” is the question (quote) “what is the right thing to do. Or, more specifically, what can our motley team of heroes do to anyway further their cause?” The crew is stuck in space, albeit not that far into space but with limited resources and the main one being the computer that was programmed to create some the hurdles they are facing in the first place. Yeah, they’re kind of stuck. Kind of but also not. At the end of the day, if they need something to make a plan work—like an advanced degree in computer programming—they aren’t going to be able to get it. What they can do is make the most of what they have in terms of resources and resourcefulness.

            This leads to an interesting scenario. As an audience member, you know the crew have these challenges, you know that they are facing limitation, but you don’t know exactly what they have at their disposal because this isn’t a traditional crew arrangement by any stretch of the imagination. I mean the designated IT expert isn’t even that great with the letters I and T.

            There’s a subversion in all of this. And yes, I know, “subversion” can feel like a dirty word in the post finale that will not be named from HBO age, but hang in there for a second. Suspense works when you know something the crew doesn’t. On the other hand, there’s a lot we don’t know about the crew that the crew likely does, logically speaking.

            Joe who works as the janitor seems to be the most put together from the beginning, and those cards are safely in his jacket. There are things we don’t expect him to know, but he clearly does. So does our information even matter? He might have it already. We actually don’t have that much compared to what’s out there. In this new world. A lot more can happen in a world with space travel in the hands of a company with a lot of money than in a world with very limited space travel like ours.

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            The thing about science fiction audio is that it is based in a world that has already established that it is not strictly bound to the rules and expectations of our own. We think this is limited to space travel because a great deal of the first episode is unsettlingly believable, but ultimately, Oz 9 can have a completely different world. It doesn’t have to have any limitations, does it? Science fiction and fantasy are essentially blank checks to do anything logically consistent. And we don’t know too much of the logic at first.

            Maybe it’s just a matter of time and listening to all the episodes, I would say. But that only works if there’s a substantial bridge for you to walk upon. And congratulation, Oz 9, you may not have windshield wipers, but you have that.

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            This has been a production of Miscellany Media Studios. And we have more of them coming. Including a science fiction audio drama. If you want updates on that, you’ll need to follow us on Twitter @miscellanymedia for all of those updates. And maybe an imminent logo reveal or two. Who know?

            Well, we do.

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