Wolf 359: Far From Home, But Close to Danger

Wolf 359
Logo design by Sasha Lamb.

Podcasts are a great modern media for storytelling. I’m actually looking to get into the business myself. But until that day comes, let’s pause and have a moment to enjoy a nice science fiction series about the good folks crewing a space station in Wolf 359.

The story takes place on the space station Hephaestus, set in orbit around a red dwarf star designated Wolf 359. Doug Eiffel, our narrator and protagonist, is the lowly Communications Officer assigned to the station against his will. He attempts to pass his shifts with tons of pop culture references and a constant sweep of the outlying star systems for radio chatter (and possible signs of extraterrestrials). Meanwhile, Eiffel contends with the tough Commander Renee Minkowski and the elusive Dr. Alexander Hilbert, whose lives he sometimes complicates with his lack of professional standards. Eiffel finds solace in his chats with the station’s artificial intelligence, Hera, and occasionally he proves useful whenever a crisis hits the station. Which is often.

It’s easy to see the reusable dynamic between our main cast members. Doug Eiffel plays the snarky, down-on-his-luck protagonist, sometimes by his own schemes and sometimes not. Commander Minkowski is the straight man to Doug’s antics, no-nonsense about each job, but also carrying a heart of gold for everyone on board. Dr. Hilbert varies between eccentric in his mad scientist stereotype (complete with wacky Russian accent!) and downright threatening when the plot kicks in. And Hera, the station’s AI, is ever cheerful and happy to serve… except when she’s not and something is going horribly wrong. Which, again, is often.

I realize that some listeners got tired very quick of this gimmick, and I can see why. I mean, it is a gimmick. In my opinion, it still works for the show. These common roles are good at both comedic and dramatic moments, whether to set up a running gag or to play out the tension of the latest crisis. Much like Welcome to Night Vale, Wolf 359 has several small narrative arcs that serve to deepen the ongoing danger of the environment, without losing too much of the original humor and charm that attracts its audience.

Sure, sometimes the conflicts feel as though they’re setting up for a very obvious resolution. And sometimes they’re not, with plenty of curious twists and upsets. I do think, though, that some of the show’s deeper moments aren’t so much about Doug or Minkowski or Hilbert (the human characters) as they are about Hera (the AI). Her shifts in tone and her evolving personality quirks have yielded some of the most nerve-wracking tension in the entire series, and remember, this is a podcast that features a space station that’s frequently lost orbit and almost fallen into a red dwarf star. Hera’s storylines owe a lot to the writers’ talent and to Michaela Swee’s acting.

I know that Wolf 359 doesn’t have quite the small town horror that a popular podcast like The Black Tapes or Kings Fall AM has, but it does have a charm unto itself. It’s equal parts comedic and tragic, and it never fails to leave me smiling.

New episodes of Wolf 359 are available through their official website, iTunes, and SoundCloud.

Bibliography: Wolf 359 (podcast). Created by Gabriel Urbina. Written by Gabriel Urbina and Sarah Shachat. Produced by Gabriel Urbina and Zach Valenti. Perf. Zach Valenti, Emma Sherr-Ziarko, Michaela Swee, Cecilia Lynn-Jacobs, Zach Libresco, Noah Masur, Michelle Agresti, Scotty Shoemaker, and Ariela Rotenberg. Music by Alan Rodi. Kinda Evil Genius Productions. Broadcast:

Sad Monkeys In Space: “Plus or Minus” by James Patrick Kelly

Cover for December 2010 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Copyright © 2012 by Dell Magazines, A Division of Penny Publications, LLC.

I don’t normally review short stories outside of an anthology series, but in this case I’ll make an exception since I received a very nice comment from the author himself at the end of my Rewired series last year.  So today, we’re looking at “Plus or Minus,” a short story by James Patrick Kelly that was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2010.

Mariska Volochkova is a young crew member on the Shining Legend, a starship undergoing a long voyage in between human-colonized planets.  She’s on this journey because it’s the one place from which her famous mother can’t control her life, but it isn’t much comfort when dealing with the rest of the ship’s crew.  New grudges emerge and a catastrophe with the ship’s oxygen supply only makes matters worse.  In the end, Mariska emerges from the crisis with a few emotional scars, not the least of which includes a new twist on her already-strained relationship with her mother Natalya.

The first thing that caught my eye about this story was the technology.  On the one hand, a lot of the mechanics behind space travel and the Shining Legend are very grounded in reality.  There’s no artificial gravity, the ship has to accelerate and decelerate over a long period of time, and the crew (affectionately nicknamed “monkeys”) are mostly on board to be a fail-safe in the event of the ship’s automated systems breaking down.  On the other hand, immersive virtual reality exists and is frequently used to share dreams with other people, providing a much-needed escape from the cramped and tedious spaceship.  Considering modern trends, it makes sense that our information technology would be far more advanced than our space travel and energy supplies.

But what’s really important are the relationships in this story, especially in regard to the protagonist Mariska.  Much is made about her mother Natalya, whose fame shadows her everywhere and whose ideas give Mariska something to fight against in her own life choices.  But there’s also her evolving relationships with crewmembers like Beep and Richard FiveFord.  Friends fall under suspicion and rivals become surprising mentors.  The crew has to work together, but living together provides its own problems, leaving Mariska to feel even more isolated.

I was surprised at how tragic the story could get, though it’s a well-done tragedy.  The characters feel human and aren’t just caricatures, and it helps that most of Mariska’s assumptions or preconceptions at the beginning are all neatly overturned by the end.  You feel as if you’re there on the Shining Legend, taking your own slow, dark journey.

“Plus or Minus” can be read online or downloaded for free from the Official James Patrick Kelly Web Site.

Bibliography: Kelly, James Patrick.  “Plus or Minus.”  Asimov’s Science Fiction.  December 2010 issue.

Clearing Out A Little Space: “Planetes”

Copyright © 2003 by Makoto Yukimura.

Any in-depth sci-fi fan can tell you that there are two unofficial categories of the science fiction genre: “hard” and “soft.”  Most people are familiar with soft science fiction, where the actual science is less accurate or logically-derived, and more emphasis goes to plots and characters.  Hard science fiction is fiction that tells a story within the boundaries of accurate science, mathematics, and technology, while also acknowledging those limits and how one might logically move beyond them.

And since most writers abhor doing research (and I include myself in that category), you’re more likely to see soft sci-fi than hard sci-fi.  But every so often, we get a story that’s not afraid to use good science along with good storytelling.

Case in point: Planetes, the anime series.

The Story: Love, Ambition, And Debris

The year is 2043 and mankind has taken several major steps into space.  However, more interstellar transit means a lot more debris floating around the Earth, putting other spaceships at risk.  Thus, the Debris Section of ISPV-7 (known by the derogative nickname “Half Section”) is responsible for helping make space safe to travel.  But besides all the risks their job involves, the crew of Half Section have to contend with a more serious threat: a terrorist group called the Space Defense Front, who will stop at nothing to sabotage further space exploration in the name of the ever-oppressed Third World countries.

In the middle of all this comes our protagonist, Ai Tanabe, a Japanese office girl who finds herself assigned to Debris Section.  Besides having to learn the ins and outs of debris hauling, she must also contend with her contentious relationship with her “senpai” (read: mentor) Hachimaki, whose cynical misanthropy clashes with her deep-rooted faith in the power of love.

The Cast: Multicultural They May Be, But Some Things Never Change

Tanabe and Hachimaki (whose proper name is Hachirota Hoshino) are not only the two main characters, but also–appropriately enough–Japanese.  And to the show’s credit, the entire cast is impressively multicultural, featuring Americans like Fee Carmichael (voiced by the great Wendee Lee), Russians like Yuri Mihairokov, South Americans like Claire Rondo, and Middle Easterners like Hakim Ashmead.

Not only does this allow for different stories to be told over the course of the show, but it also drives home a major theme: that individual nations can’t be seen from space, and thus all men are brothers.  Believe it or not, this feeling has actually been classified as the “overview effect.”

Toward the end of the series, while I found the plight of Tanabe and Hachi to be no less engaging, I was more interested in the characters Fee and Edel.  Fee is the main pilot of “Toybox,” a chronic smoker in an almost smoke-free environment whose casual attitude covers a deep-rooted inner strength and resourcefulness that made me wish she had her own spin-off series.  And there’s Edel (properly known as Edelgard Rivera), a deadpan temp worker at Debris Section who rarely says more than two words per episode.  That is, until Episode 15, where we learn about her shady past and just how important having a temp job is to her.  It made her more human and really made me appreciate everything she said and did afterwards, which is exactly what a good story should do.

The Setting: As Close To Space As Some Of Us May Get

Most of the show takes place in or around Earth’s orbit, either on the space station ISPV-7 or in the debris hauler ship DS-12 (also known as “The Toybox”).  The animation during space sequences is really quite something, as the show doesn’t use any sound (apart from dialogue and the soundtrack) and a lot of effort goes into the accurate depiction of the effects of zero-gravity.

The show also looks at legitimate issues about space exploration, such as the “space monopoly” by First World nations, the condition of human beings born in space, and the danger of debris escalating into the Kessler Syndrome.  It helps that the creators consulted with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) when developing the manga and anime series, the result being a thought-provoking and creative story.

Final Verdict: A Nice Little Gem In A Black Void

I should point out that, for all the serious political and personal issues that this show tackles, it’s still very light-hearted and idealistic.  Granted, there are times when Tanabe’s speeches about love and salvation can be a little grating, but in a way, that’s supposed to happen.  This show is all about hope and what challenges we as a species can overcome.

I should also point out that this was the show I watched in order to get Neon Genesis Evangelion out of my system (that and re-watching FLCL).  It’s happier by light-years and will leave you wanting to do some good for the world.

Bibliography: Planetes (TV series).  Directed by Goro Taniguchi.  Written by Ichiro Okouchi.  Sunrise.  NHK.  October 4, 2003 –April 17, 2004.