When I was a little kid I fell in love with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The iteration that hooked me first was the original radio-play (and is to this day still my favourite version of this classic). It was a revelation to me—the sound effects, the cast—as though I were watching a TV show inside my head. The words floating through the speakers created a visual marvel in my brain, a fantastical universe complete with sound that nothing on TV could emulate. Since then I’ve mourned the loss the radio-play as a form. More recently I have been delighted by the rise of the audiobook and the podcast (having developed a serious addiction to both). Then Steal the Stars snuck up on me.
It’s a performance podcast, and I am hooked. Steal the Stars is a straight-out sci-fi story, complete with aliens and an evil military corporation. If you aren’t a fan of this genre then this might not be the story for you but, sci-fi fan or not, you would be hard-pressed to criticise the impressive production and immersive experience of this podcast. Tor-labs’ excellent production treats you to all the pleasure of the long-form novel, with the added sensory experience of a live performance. Be warned, it is seriously addictive.
The story, by Mac Rogers, is set on a secret, privatised military base which houses an alien spacecraft inside of which is the warm, unresponsive body of “Moss”—the proverbial big-eyed, grey-skinned man from outer space. The base is manned by ex-US military personnel who understand the harsh and indelible safety and fraternisation protocols of their employer, Quill Marine. Told from the perspective of the facilities chief security offer, “Dak” (Dakota Prentiss), we are pulled into the intrigue of the secret base and the mystery of “Moss” and the “harp” that appears to power the space craft. When “Matt Salem” starts working at the facility Dak’s previously unwavering allegiance to Quill Marine is questioned as she begins an illicit relationship (the consequences for which are potentially catastrophic). This story rolls together, thriller, sci-fi, romance and a healthy dose of social commentary into one.
I don’t want to say anything more for risk of spoilers, so let me get back to gushing about how much fun I have had binge-listening to this story. I started this on Tuesday afternoon and finished on Wednesday morning. I would have finished quicker but I had to, you know, live (feed my kids, pick them up from school, talk to them). The acting in this podcast is impeccable and Tor labs have created a universe that is completely believable, from the hollow, echoing sounds in the hanger where Moss is kept, to the creaking of the bed when Dak and Salem are whispering to each other in the night (spoiler), as well as other more horrifying elements of Quill Marine’s operations.
And the ending? Did I pick it? Sort of, almost, not really, which is the sign of good writing. At some point you have to let your reader/listener figure it out at least some of the big finale. If they don’t, if your ending is a complete, out of the blue shock, then you’ve let them down somewhere. You’ve led them up the garden path and deliberately left them lost in a paddock. Writing is a delicate balance between delivering the reader that sense of satisfaction—when they say “Huh! I knew it!”—and carefully misdirecting and obscuring the ending in a way that feels organic but doesn’t confound and anger them. In other words, the twist at the end needs to be twisty, but not random or disconnected from all the work you have made the reader do over the many hours they have invested in your story. Steal the Stars nailed it.
If you aren’t already loving everything the podcast and audiobook world has to offer, all I can say is you are missing out. Whether you’re driving in your car, folding the laundry (groan), cooking, walking, watching your kids at sport, on the train, or buying groceries, podcasts and audiobooks bring stories into previously inaccessible parts of your day. And we all need more stories in our day. I’m excited about productions like Steal the Stars (and am on the hunt for more), and hope this signals a renaissance of radio-plays across all genres.
This podcast had been adapted into a novel of the same name by Nat Cassidy.