Size / / /

Did you know we're in the Age of the Podcast? New York Magazine, The Verge, and other publications certainly seem to think so. It's hard to say what kicked this off: the runaway success of Serial, perhaps, or the advent of the smart car, which can connect commuters to their favorite shows. And if you're not interested in listening to Ira Glass expound on contemporary issues in that really particular way that he has, good news: there are also dramatized, fictional podcasts. More than just stories read straight from the page or screen—which many genre magazines, including Strange Horizons, provide—these podcasts' narratives are native to the audio form, instead of being translated to it.

Distinct from the radio dramas of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, podcasts are given more leeway in their forms and functions. Welcome to Nightvale, arguably one of the most popular podcasts in the world, takes the form of a community radio show. The Truth describes itself as "movies for your ears." And, oddly enough, there seems to be a growing subgenre of "intrepid female journalist uncovers a supernatural conspiracy." Well, if not a subgenre, then at least a trope in the making. The Black Tapes, Limetown, and The Message all share this same basic premise: Serial goes full-on X-Files.

The Black Tapes is the most referential (or maybe deferential?) of the three, though possibly to the point of parody: even the show's theme song is extremely similar to Serial's, with a voicemail in the place of the announcement of a collect call.

The first episode introduces us to our main characters, and sets up their dynamic. Alex Reagan, a host with Pacific Northwest Stories, is interviewing professional ghost hunters for a new series on strange jobs. In the course of her work, she hears tales about Dr. Richard Strand, an avowed atheist and professional debunker of the paranormal. When she finally tracks him down, he demonstrates how he has debunked hundreds of so-called supernatural cases, all of which are stored in a series of white VHS tape cases. The first season starts by investigating into Dr. Strand’s unsolved cases, the so-called Black Tapes. As Strand puts it, "Those are cases we don’t have the resources or technology to disprove. Yet."

"'Yet' being the operative word," Alex answers.

Strand comes off as a charismatic, if occasionally didactic, character. "As soon as you apply scientific method to the paranormal, it vanishes," he says in the first episode, and then repeats variations on it thereafter. However, the scientific method has provided no real answers for the cases that Alex, with Strand’s assistance and guidance, investigates in the first half of the season: a musician’s grisly suicide, exorcism, bilocation; even a version of Slenderman makes an appearance. Alex rarely comes to a satisfying conclusion regarding the paranormal (or totally normal) origins of these cases, though Strand continuously refuses to entertain supernatural explanations. Their back-and-forth forms the emotional core of the show.

Strand, however, proves to be a less than reliable narrator. He’s at the center of another mystery: years before, his wife, Coralee, disappeared while they were traveling together. Though Strand was cleared as a suspect, Coralee was never heard from again. This adds a lot to his and Alex’s dynamic: both are pushing for the truth, and both of them suspect the other’s methods. Alex accuses Strand of being closed-minded; Strand asserts that she’s suffering from apophenia, finding patterns in random events.

Around episode seven, all the different strands of the story start coming together. Alex and Strand return to their earlier investigations as new twists are introduced. The boy being haunted by a Slenderman-like shadow is subsequently kidnapped; the bandmate of the suicidal musician disappears in Russia; the bilocating mental patient is obsessed with the same sacred geometry as a possibly satanic composer. Rather than expanding, the Black Tapes universe contracts, twisting all of these threads together.

It’s not a completely graceful or flawless process. Having so many different story threads meant that the show only spent a few minutes on them per episode, usually ending with a cliff-hanger and a promise to revisit it. In the end, the grand unifying theory of The Black Tapes strains the listener’s credulity more than talk about the Devil’s Door or the UnSound.

The Black Tapes trips up in other ways. The show introduces a number of one-off characters that sound almost indistinguishable from each other, and adds new information that muddies rather than clarifies the story. Certain episodes, such as episode nine, "Name That Tune," dump indigestible chunks of background information; in this case, we’re treated to seven minutes and twenty seconds of musical theory and advanced mathematics. The relevance of these info-dumps is unclear: maybe some writers were too in love with their background research to cut it out of the script, or the producers needed some unnecessary filler to pad out an otherwise anemic episode.

Lastly, and possibly my most petty complaint: the producers steadfastly refuse to admit that the show’s a fiction, which creates for some supremely awkward moments. In particular, during one of the bonus episodes ("Listener Mail #1"), Alex Reagan and some of the show’s producers answer questions from listeners. In answer to a question from Reddit that wonders if a continuity error is part of the plot, producer Terry Mills answers, "There’s no 'plot' or anything going here, I know that."

"It’s not like [a character] is an actor and we can go back and record another take," Alex adds. Maybe I’m projecting the self-consciousness in her laugh, but really, come on. There’s playing with the line between fiction and reality, and then there’s pretending that there’s no man behind the curtain when his feet are totally visible.

Despite taking inspiration from Serial, The Black Tapes podcast never comes together the way that show did. Each episode’s mystery is left unsolved, and the grand unifying conspiracy has no satisfying conclusion. All of the strings are left dangling, and at the end of the first season, we’re left with yet another cliff-hanger and too many open-ended questions. Well, that and a plug for the production company’s new spin-off show, Tanis, which promises more of the same: unanswered mysteries, global conspiracies, and a series of cliff-hangers that lose their edge after a while.

Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In the Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.

Nino Cipri is a queer and genderqueer writer living in Chicago, and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Nino's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in, Fireside Fiction, Betwixt, Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, In the Fray, Autostraddle, and Gozamos. One time, an angry person called Nino a verbal terrorist, which has since made a great T-shirt slogan.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
Issue 23 Jan 2023
Issue 16 Jan 2023
Issue 9 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
Issue 19 Dec 2022
Issue 12 Dec 2022
Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
Load More
%d bloggers like this: