We are in an audio-drama renaissance, and some of the best stories are science-fiction.
We’re not being spooked by War of the Worlds as we gather around hefty, wooden radio consoles, but we are, more and more, pulling up podcasts about dystopian futures on our phones.
While listeners are mostly flocking to non-fiction podcasts, according to audience industry rankings compiled by PodTrac, fiction fans have plenty of podcast options. Even more so if you’re a fan of Black Mirror or are nostalgic for The X-Files.
Sci-fi, or sci-fi adjacent, stories (looking at you: thriller/horror/dark humor genre blenders) are crowding the fictional podcast realm. Here are some quality options to keep you distracted from our own robot uprising.
Like Black Mirror, The Big Loop is an anthology series; each episode is self-contained so you can hop around. And like Black Mirror, the episodes will keep your mind churning long after they’re over.
The characters in The Big Loop tell their stories — of ghostly encounters, human survival, an assassin and his prey — as if they’re answering questions from a far-off interviewer. At points it feels a bit like StoryCorps, an NPR program that shares stories and confessions from everyday people, as told in their own voices. But in The Big Loop, the stories are eerie, and the subjects are not so everyday. The roughly hour-long episodes reel you in slowly, and then bop you on the head with the paranormal.
The Big Loop‘s creator, Paul Bae, also co-wrote The Black Tapes, a fictional podcast that follows a journalist as she digs into ghost stories and a mysterious institute.
You’ve got Catherine Keener from Get Out playing Heidi, a therapist for returning soldiers with PTSD, and Star Wars’ Oscar Isaac as Walter, one of her patients at a secret rehab center. And this two-season podcast (so far) is being adapted by Amazon Studios with Sam Esmail, who created Mr. Robot, directing, and Julia Roberts taking over as Heidi.
That’s a lot of star power.
But all the big names aren’t why you should listen. If you like government conspiracy theories and eavesdropping on therapy sessions, this is for you. Season 1 outshines Season 2, but both are worth your time. A novella called The Lost Coast parallels Season 2, shedding light on Walter’s whereabouts. (I wanted more Walter in Season 2 and the novella scratches that itch.)
More good stuff for conspiracy theory lovers! Limetown follows a reporter for APR (ahem, sound familiar?) as she uncovers the mysterious disappearance of an entire town. The town, a Mayberry-like setting, was built by a mega-corporation who populated it with scientists and their families for an unspecified reason, stoking the conspiracy theory flames. Each episode is designed to mimic a radio broadcast. The reporter, Lia Haddock, goes deep in her investigation, witnessing some harrowing events as she tries to get answers.
There’s even a prequel novel, which publishes in November.
In LifeAfter, the most popular social media platform isn’t Facebook or Twitter, it’s Voice Tree. Rather than typing your social media posts, you record voice messages for all your network to hear. And then a mysterious source commodifies those voices and sells them to vulnerable, grieving loved ones after the users die.
LifeAfter follows a low-level FBI employee after his wife dies and tosses us into a world where social media companies selling your data seems quaint.
LifeAfter is made by GE Podcast Theater and Panoply. Yes, GE the makers of smart fridges and plane engines. The writer of LifeAfter used GE engineers as a resource when he was researching digital twin technology, which is an important part of the story. And that’s not scary at all …
More aliens! If you liked the humor of The Martian, you’ll enjoy Girl in Space. Our main character is stuck on a dying ship floating in space. It’s just her and Charlotte, the ship’s AI.
The podcast feels like diary entries. One moment she’s philosophizing about cheese and the next strangers want to take over her ship. They have big guns and, well, she doesn’t. According to its Patreon page, if the show reaches its crowdfunding goal of $2000 (It’s at just over $700), there’ll be a second season.
You become a fly on the wall during very peculiar therapy sessions while listening to Bright Sessions. Dr. Bright’s patients are … bizarre.
There’s a time traveler who’s fed up with being tossed into the past and future when she least expects it, a woman who thinks angels are talking to her, but it means something more, a teen struggling in school because he’s an empath (he’s more grounded in reality than Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy), and a man who can get people to do whatever he wants.
With four seasons, there’s lots of content to binge through. Bright Sessions also has a TV adaption in play.
Steal the Stars follows Dakota Prentiss, a grizzled ex-Army Ranger who’s the strong-willed security chief at a secret government lab. Lots of ex-military, like Dakota, work in said lab, deep underground, protecting an important secret. But a new recruit, Matt Salem, turns the hard-edged Dakota into love-mush and the two have to make a big choice when their relationship, which is against the lab’s fraternization policy, goes too far.
At first I rolled my eyes at how quickly these two fall for each other and listening to people swap saliva while driving to work wasn’t my favorite. But, I liked Dakota’s character so much, and I hated the villain so much, I let those criticisms slide.
The Outlander fan in me took to Steal the Stars.
This one’s similar to Limetown in that it tells the story from the perspective of a reporter looking to solve a mystery. Only this time, rather than a missing town, our intrepid narrator Carly is trying to crack a case involving her best friend, avid gamer and fellow journalist Yumiko.
You see, Yumiko disappeared and Carly’s case has gone cold. The police aren’t looking for her — there is no Amber Alert for adults, after all, as Carly says. Carly thinks Yumiko was involved in a secret society of sorts, one that played an “alternate reality game” called Rabbits that makes contestants go insane. When I first heard “alternate reality game,” I thought ‘Please don’t let this be a cheesy Jumanji knockoff.’ It’s not. Even Neil Patrick Harris called it “addictive.”
Welcome to Night Vale has been around since 2012. It’s kind of the granddaddy of this new crop of creepy fictional podcasts.
Each episode acts as a news broadcast of sorts from a small desert town named Night Vale, and they’re more horror/dark humor than sci-fi, really. The broadcasts are spooky, absurd, and, well, funny. That’s a hard tightrope to walk.
One of the creators, Jeffrey Cranor told NPR that the show is deeply rooted in his obsession with conspiracy theories and the Southwest Desert.
“So I came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real, and we would just go from there with that understood.”
Welcome to Night Vale is also headed for the small screen. In December, Sony Pictures Television announced a deal to develop the podcast for FX. The creators have already published two spinoff books, New York Times bestseller Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours!
OK, this one isn’t science-fiction, but it’s fantasy, it’s weird, and it’s fun. Mix Douglas Adams-like narration with Wes Anderson whimsy, and a constant state of confusion and voila, you have The Orbiting Human Circus (Of the Air)!
The podcast chronicles a bizarre variety show, which takes place at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and the life of the lonely janitor (named Julian like the creator, Julian Koster of indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel) who wishes he could join the cast. It’s under the Night Vale Presents umbrella, so it has that going for it, too. WNYC and Night Vale have released a deluxe edition of the first season, which includes an inside look at the writing and producing process. A second season is also in the works. If you’re tired of all the dystopian dread, let The Orbiting Human Circus serve as a wacky palate cleanser.