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Science fiction has a rich history in audio. From the early days of radio drama, culminating in event broadcasts like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, to modern audio drama podcasts like Escape Pod and Wolf 359 developing rich fanbases, sci-fi has always been a staple of audio storytelling. The benefits of putting sweeping space odysseys into podcasts versus any other medium are hard to overstate: with no visuals, no special effects are needed; with no visuals, you don’t have to make alien lifeforms look convincing; with no visuals, just a voice right up in your ear, you can make a space station seem believably tiny or massive without having to worry about sets.
But where sci-fi was once one of the most appealing genres in the medium, beaten out only by the consistently popular horror, sci-fi releases have slowed in the last two years. Audio drama has seen an increase in realistic fiction, rom-coms, and fantasy as creators push their work in new directions. Since 2019, new science fiction releases are rarer, but continually impressive. In no specific order, just a collection of works we love, here are some of the best sci-fi audio dramas of the last two years.
Cole Burkhardt’s Null/Void takes the ethos of dark data privacy thrillers like Mr. Robot and brings them closer to home and further into whimsy. Null/Void follows Piper Lee , a mailroom employee at tech giant Void Networks who stumbles into more than she ever expected when she meets Adelaide, a seemingly prophetic woman whose true identity remains hidden. Winona Wyatt’s performance as Piper Lee flits between uncertainty and brazen flirtation effortlessly, keeping Piper’s intentions as a double agent, or triple agent, or just very confused agent always unclear even alongside her running inner monologue. Rising audio star Danyelle Ellet as Adelaide is as charismatic and charming as ever, lacing a sense of tragedy — and often menace — into each line. Null/Void is a podcast about who we trust and why, put into the context of classism, racism, and what it means to be “worthy” of humanization.
BBC Sounds’ Murmurs is the only podcast on this list from a large publisher. While many studio-backed sci-fi podcasts fall flat, relying too much on familiar plots and sound design, Murmurs eschews the expectation to focus on the strange. Murmurs is a semi-serialized set of 10 stories that “bleed into each other,” each written by a different creator in the audio drama industry, like Janina Matthewson of Within the Wires and Beth Crane of We Fix Space Junk. Meticulous sound design and naturalistic dialogue editing keep the show cohesive; in Murmurs, the conversations sound like real conversations, and the soundscapes feel like tangible textures.
Debut audio drama creator Tycho Newman released Black Friday on, of course, Black Friday, 2019, and its second season is set to premiere on Black Friday 2020. The sci-fi elements of this podcast lie in the story’s conceit: what if a bunch of white people woke up to find that they were now Black? The concept is examined through countless lenses as the story develops and scientists try to find a “cure.” One especially memorable episode features the way a tennis player’s techniques are discussed by commentators when she’s white versus when she’s Black. Another features a conversation between a religious public radio host and his listeners about the Black Friday phenomenon. Instead of steeping every aspect of the podcast into high-genre trappings, Black Friday uses a sci-fi setup to examine one concept very closely in a highly realistic setting while still circling around the mysterious sci-fi event.
A World Where is a sci-fi anthology that switches tones between horrific to hilarious, depending on the episode. With inspirations ranging from Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind to Chopped, A World Where keeps listeners on their toes, trying not to stumble as they keep up with the twists and turns in writing. And the sound of the podcast is similarly surprising; it uses binaural sound, meaning different layers of sound play in different locations in your headphones. This can, admittedly, mean that the podcast can be inaccessible for audiences who can only hear in one ear, but transcripts are also available in full on the show’s website. If you happen to have the same sound-to-physical-sensation synesthesia that I do, A World Where will make you feel some genuinely wild things. If you don’t (and I’m guessing you don’t), A World Where might be one of the works that gets you the closest to understanding what synesthesia can feel like.
Prefer your sci-fi goofy and, you know, very gay? (Just kidding. Most of the podcasts on this list are very gay.) Gay Future has you covered. A fiction set in a fiction, Gay Future claims to be an adaptation of a young adult fiction novel by Mike Pence about the only remaining straight on earth, who has to rebel against the gay agenda that has taken over the world. If the setup scares you off, don’t worry — satire doesn’t always land, but Gay Future sticks its landings over and over. Each episode is an adrenaline-fueled sprint through joke after joke, filled with references to queer culture and identity. It doesn’t make light of the very real struggles of queer identities. It just serves to shine a light on everything that makes regressive politics so absurd. There’s a subversive jubilation to how buckwild Gay Future gets, painting a queer utopia as just too delightful and campy to continue.
The Great Chameleon War is hypnotic. A lyrical, surreal audio drama about a mysterious war with alien super-powered chameleons in a strange paleolithic world with other megafauna, this podcast pulls inspiration from sci-fi greats like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. This is a single narrator podcast versus a full cast, meaning the narrator’s unique reedy croaky voice will either hook you immediately or become an acquired taste. The sound design, likewise, might be distracting for some, while absolutely entrancing for others. What The Great Chameleon War excels at best is knowing its strange identity and committing fully. It is creatively ambitious, unwilling to sacrifice its undulating, organic sensibility for a more typical sci-fi aesthetic. This is a podcast for people who prefer Annihilation to Gravity, Sunshine to The Martian. If your taste in sci-fi skews more interpretive and impressionistic than hard science, The Great Chameleon War is a journey you’re sure to enjoy.
Fun City is a Shadowrun actual play podcast that incorporates audio drama-inspired sound design and storytelling into its campaign. The show blends sci-fi and fantasy in classic Shadowrun fashion, with magic and races like elves and orcs alongside hyper-futuristic tech and Bladerunner aesthetics. The podcast’s campaign is run half by Mike Rugnetta of PBS Idea Channel (rest in peace) fame, but it’s also half run by an innovation in actual play: a second GM for “the bad boys,” a role fulfilled by Taylor Moore. The two semi-competing GMs make for mysteries and quests that don’t just keep the players in the dark, but Rugnetta in the dark as well, meaning there are fewer hints and more complex, wild hurdles at every corner. Fun City has the staples of any great actual play podcast between its memorable characters, hilarious table talk, and high stakes left largely to chance. But it also feels squarely at home in audio fiction as a medium, building a world that sounds as real as the social commentary it doles out in each episode.
The newest podcast on this list, Dreambound follows streamer Jesse Piñero as he plays the eponymous Dreambound, a new, expensive VR game with state-of-the-art tech. When Jesse finds that he has to play the game with a female avatar, what could be a typical body swap story turns into a complex interrogation of gender. At the urging of a friend, Jesse decides to not just appear female in the game, but essentially go undercover as a woman, never revealing that he’s a man. Dreambound’s 40-minute prequel and first episode two-for-one touches on misogyny, but also gender dysphoria, as Jesse deals with his discomfort being so directly tied to a body that doesn’t feel like it aligns with his gender. But Dreambound is also a fantastic audio depiction of playing a massive, fantastical game, almost like audio drama’s own .hack//Sign. Were you let down by Black Mirror’s “Striking Vipers”? This podcast might help fulfill what that episode set out to do.
Paired is the story of a smart speaker, or in the words of creator Liz Anderson, “If Alexa were fun and good [. . .] a friend instead of a robot cop.” The podcast releases weekly with 10-ish minute episodes, more episodic slice-of-life ruminations than relying on a high-stakes plot. It’s a great fit for people who want to get invested in a relatable, funny narrator and a concept that asks questions about tech dependency, but don’t necessarily want to add more stress to their lives. As the device, “Pairy,” pairs with different devices, the audience gets insights into the owners of each device and how they use it. From playlists to alarms to calendar events to push notifications, there’s so much the audience can glean about characters just from how they use their devices in their day to day lives.
The Rest Is Electric takes the fear of automation taking over the job market and flips it on its head. When Jordan Mede gets transferred from the marketing department to the manufacturing department of their workplace, Somnotech, they find that they are the department’s first human employee. The rest of the work is done by robots. This podcast has a creepingly sinister plot and a small cast of delightful main characters in Jordan and their coworkers, the human Fiona and Decker, an AI, from back in marketing. The Rest Is Electric is part unnerving science fiction, part workplace hijinks, and more and more intriguing as the story unfolds in each episode. With a first season that just completed its run on Sept. 29, now is a great time to marathon the episodes and catch up on before the podcast returns.
Correction: A previous version of this story used the incorrect pronouns for the The Rest Is Electric character Jordan Mede, and described the character Decker as human, instead of AI. The story has been updated for accuracy.