A year ago, science fiction publisher Tor Books announced that it was launching a new imprint: Tor Labs, dedicated to experimental storytelling. Its first project was a serialized podcast called Steal the Stars, a pulpy audio drama about the employees of a secretive government contractor that is studying a crashed UFO.
Across 14 episodes, Steal the Stars follows Dak (voiced by Ashlie Atkinson), the chief of security for a defense contractor called Quill Marine that in possession of an alien spacecraft buried deep underground. It’s Dak’s job to make sure that the ship and the alien contained within is kept secret, enforcing the company’s stringent security measures. But when she falls for a new hire, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Salem (voiced by Neimah Djourabchi), her life is turned upside down. Interpersonal romances are expressly forbidden, and the two go to great lengths to hide their newfound relationship as their corporate overlords demand more from the research team at the facility.
Last year, Tor Labs aired the entire series through weekly episodes, and later released with a commercial-free compilation of the audio drama on Audible. But it also decided to do something… novel: it published a print adaptation of the series written by Nat Cassidy, one of the show’s voice actors.
The book isn’t like other high-profile print editions of plays like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which was just the screenplay in book form. Instead, it illuminates the world of the audio drama through prose, and even adds new material. “Because [Cassidy] was in it and there every day he got to see things going on in real time, got to see nuances,” Tor Labs editor Jen Gunnels says, “I think that that gave him a level of insight into the entire process and into various characters that really ended up showing up in the book.”
Gunnels and senior editor Marco Palmieri told The Verge last year that the project came out of their observation that while audiobooks and podcasts have become more popular than ever, few traditional book publishers were creating audio dramas. It expanded into conversation with people they knew in the theater industry — Gunnels is a former theater critic — and soon playwright and audio dramatist Mac Rogers signed on to write the series. From there, the project came together quickly, with Rogers completing most of the script in about a month.
The relationship between Dak and Matt becomes central to the story, particularly as they both risk their jobs to keep it a secret, and Gunnels says that one of the biggest surprises was “how well the sex scenes worked” despite an audio-only format that could have made them seem cheesy or embarrassing.
“The other thing that really surprised us was Dak,” she says. The tough-as-nails security officer is responsible for overseeing the facility’s security — and trying to make sure that her own people discover her illicit romance. Atkinson’s performance also created some interesting ambiguity for listeners, some of whom couldn’t tell if Dak was male or female after the first episode. “[Atkinson] really brought an interesting nuance, just because the way her voice sounds.”
Gunnels describes Dak as a very forceful and strong-willed character. “She’s used to being in control and you don’t really get a lot of female characters like that.” She notes that listener observed that the series flipped the gender script on a familiar noir trope as the romance unfolds: “The femme fatale is a male in this story.” In addition to playing with the form of the story, Tor Labs has played around with the underlying tropes of the genre that it’s presented.
Steal the Stars ended up being a big success, with over a million downloads throughout the course of its run. Gunnel notes that eventually, the podcast will be removed from its various free locations online, but that listeners will still be able to download the audiobook from Audible or pick up the novel from a bookstore. In the meantime, they’re already brainstorming ideas for their next audio drama project.