OFF-TOPIC (31)

By: Adam McGovern
July 22, 2021

Off-Topic brings you over-the-transom, on-tangent essays, dialogues and subjective scholarship on an occasional, impulsive basis. This cycle, a faithful recording of one possible near future, guided by one of genre fiction’s most reliable witnesses…

WHO RESCUED ANYBODY

The fight for survival turns on the drive to be the voice in someone else’s head. We’ve been disembodied for most of two years, and many would date the drift to far longer ago than that. Beams of bias are cast directly into our brains, cries of the distant or unreachable dispossessed keep us up at night, and perspectives we can share slip precariously farther from us.

In the audio drama Give Me Away, humanity gets a literal crash-course in empathy and argument against its aloneness, when a slab-like alien craft lands uneasily in the Nevada desert. Emitting what seems to be a voluminous chorus of screams, the ship comes to be called “The Ghosthouse,” and examiners eventually figure out (or think they do) that the ship is a vast “penitentiary mainframe” into which some far-off tyrant society has uploaded the consciousnesses of its dissidents. Devising a means of freeing the inmates by transferring their minds into human volunteers, a new experiment in earthly existence begins, as the first to undergo “Acceptance” share their body with a “Second” selected from the ship.

We are carried through this experience alongside Graham, a middle-aged anyman who has come to the end of his world, having gotten divorced, moved into a hotel and grown emotionally elusive to his kids. He’s touched by the ordeal of the alien minds, and ready to cross the biggest distance of his life by pairing with one of them — though even in this supremely altruistic gesture, he hasn’t run out of things that can go wrong.

Writer Mac Rogers has long been using the most humanistic treatments of the most vivid sci-fi settings to remind us that it’s real-life, familiar people who conceive history’s extremes of cruelty and hubris, and other real-life people who survive through them. The believability of the sequence of events that the world, and the cast, tumble forward through renders the unbelievable circumstances as indelible and convincing as your own memories — from the tense, wry, tortured, quietly absurd arguments and truces between Graham and his wife, kids, friends and neighbors; to the disorienting bootcamp where he is conditioned for his new life; to the drab yet terrifying alien ship and the changed world trying to process its new context.

There’s been a galactic exodus from stage to sound, post-COVID, and director Jordana Williams navigates the medium’s restricted sensory palette and the script’s tonal complexities with a sure hand that makes us feel like we’re in a psychic documentary, while sound designer Bart Fasbender creates a sense of space, place and experiential texture as defined as a lucid dream.

It’s always hard to pick standouts in the master-casts that producer Gideon Media assembles, and every listener will attach to different lists of the personas they share heads with over the series’ nine episodes and projected multiple seasons. Sean Williams as Graham is perfectly, shakily poised between opaque and exposed, profoundly committed to convictions he can scarcely express. Nat Cassidy is bravura boorish as Graham’s pathologically unserious (and, in his own ways, haunted) best friend Travis. Lori Elizabeth Parquet conveys titanic composure, moral burden, and serene steely insight as the project’s chief scientist and initial volunteer Brooke, and her Second, Deirdre (though I suspect that even in single roles Parquet shows enough emotional range for two actors). Rebecca Comtois is humanely blunt and darkly exuberant as the irreverent chief technician Liz (who also has a Second of her own), and Ato Essandoh has sinister charisma and subtle conflicted undercurrents as Lieutenant Riley, the military officer overseeing the camp which surrounds the landing site and houses its volunteers.

The series raises as many questions as its characters have to confront, and I posed some of them to Rogers after the first episode debuted. Visuals in this case were hard to come by, but he’s a born storyteller so it pays to listen closely…

HILOBROW: You have a premise that many writers would kill to think of, and would likely build up to as some kind of mid-season reveal, yet it’s established at the very outset of the story. We’re obliged to adapt to new-normals pretty frequently these days, and I guess that adjustment is the real story. Was explaining the alien ship right off a way to foreground the human (and alien) reaction to the circumstances, rather than have the concept drive the story?

ROGERS: Yes, exactly. The thing is, I’m a huge lover of rug-pulling reveals. I grew up on serialized cliffhanger-based entertainment, where every episode ends with either great peril or a shocking realization. So I’m always tempted to hold onto a reveal and drop it in a sensational way later. But as a writer you always have to do that cost-benefit analysis with any reveal: “Is this more valuable as a shocker later on, or as a jumping-off point for exploring ramifications?” With Give Me Away, one of my very first creative decisions was to plow through the premise in Episode 1 so I could get right into what I saw as the meat of the story, namely: why would a person agree to this kind of radical transformation of their lives, abjuring privacy forever? What sorts of people are drawn to making this kind of sacrifice for people they’ve never met? How much is it an altruistic urge versus how much is it self-serving? I could see no benefit to delaying these explorations, which meant the first episode needed to be built around getting us there as efficiently as possible. Once I decided to fast-forward through the 18 months of Brooke’s team figuring out the premise, it made sense to also keep checking in with Graham throughout those 18 months.

HILOBROW: We hear the term “world-building” often, though that to me signifies expanding outward. What I find rare about your work is the world-detailing — the way that even tiny mannerisms would show how the world these characters live in really works. One of many here is when someone with a Second is speaking, they tend to refer to both beings in the third person (not “Dierdre and I” but “Dierdre and Brooke”). Do you start with a Big Concept and then figure out what people inhabiting it “would do,” or is it more about imagining the “everyday” of alternate histories and bizarre scenarios?

ROGERS: I’m pretty terrible with the kind of expanding-outward worldbuilding you referenced at the outset of your question. All through development and rehearsal of The Honeycomb Trilogy Jordana and the actors would pepper me with really important questions about what was happening in the world outside the onstage drama, and quite often they caught me out not knowing. As you correctly discern, my comfort-zone is far more in how a paradigm-shifting event affects moment-to-moment behavior and language.

Every big social change forces us to talk in a new way about things. We see that the advancement of social justice, on many fronts, involves an evolution of language, which younger people are often more comfortable with because they grow up with it. I’m old enough now to find myself struggling a bit when language changes, so I built that into the story. We get to watch him learn why Brooke/Deirdre says “Brooke and Deirdre” rather than “Deirdre and I” because it’s very important to them to establish equality within the body, to not treat Brooke like the default.

HILOBROW: Pacing has a lot to do with our, ahem, acceptance of this drama’s reality too — your work always feels true-to-life but this simulates the sense of real-time as well. Is that a strength of serial drama, or do you feel that all your stories could be folded up or out depending on the aperture of two-hour theatre or multi-season audio?

ROGERS: I very much try to fit the drama to both the medium and the format from the very outset. Give Me Away was originally going to be a play, a real-time long-night family drama about Graham spending his last evening with his estranged family before accepting his Second. There was very little worldbuilding, just barely enough to understand the concept before focusing entirely on behavior for 90 minutes or so. But I only got a little ways into that play before we decided to do it as an audio drama, at which point I entirely rethought the storytelling structure. You can see a little bit of what the play would’ve been in Episode 4, but otherwise I re-conceived it as a thriller. What had originally been almost a pure character piece now would have the busy, driving plot of serial entertainment. So I guess my answer is a qualified “yes” that many of my stories can be folded up or out in that way, but the process does require some fundamental reinvention of how the stories will work at every level.

HILOBROW: Also on the subject of medium-specificity, did the idea for Give Me Away start with considering what lent itself specifically or even exclusively to audio? This story literally centers on a sound…and allusively addresses the voices in our head (while of course functioning as one!).

ROGERS: Oh for sure: every audio drama has got to have a “why is this radio?” interrogation at the earliest stage of conception. I definitely noticed on my previous podcast Life/After that a person carrying on a tumultuous relationship with a voice inside their head that others can’t hear works like gangbusters in audio drama. The Limetown folks did some great work with this device recently in their show Shipworm. It’s a great way to plug an audience into a character: if we can hear the voice they hear — the voice that others can’t — that shared intimacy tends to fast-track listener identification. It’s also a great way to ramp up tension in every scene, with your hero quite often contending with two problems competing for their attention at once.

Your question also alludes to the screaming which instigates the story. Graham’s journey is triggered by a sound he can’t unhear, whose implications he finds he cannot disregard. While others hear creepy or amazing screams from space, Graham finds himself focusing on what they’re screaming for: help, liberation. So in this way a sound starts him down his path.

HILOBROW: It’s almost unique in sci-fi the way that you create allegories without sidestepping their models — of course the alien refugees are a “metaphor” for asylum-seekers America has tried to turn its back on, but at one point the Lieutenant literally compares his own skepticism to the way he would vet people defecting from North Korea “who we know anything about”; in effect, telling us how unlike the situation in the play is from our world. Do we need fantasies to cast light on what we’ve been doing to each other, or to prepare for what we might do wrong next?

ROGERS: This is something I struggle with a lot, given that I write a lot of genre material that seeks metaphorical resonance. There’s a temptation to leave the metaphor alone, let it speak for itself. Certainly that’s more elegant. But there’s a part of me that, as you note, wants to poke at the metaphors as well, to look for their imperfections. I remember a Twitter thread (and I’ve forgotten who wrote it) where the writer was quite angry at the idea that the X-Men could serve as some sort of metaphor for various marginalized groups of people, since after all in real life people in these groups don’t have magic powers with which to protect themselves and strike back at their oppressors. The aliens in Give Me Away are on one level immigrants, and are treated with similar suspicion. But real-life immigrants (documented or otherwise) wouldn’t be lavished with the facilities and resources that the prisoners of the Ghosthouse get because they wouldn’t engender the same fascination extraterrestrials would theoretically get.

You can see something similar in the way the story intersects with gender issues. Now, I am very much not attempting some sort of allegorical trans narrative with Give Me Away; I’m likely not the one for that job. That said, there are moments in the story that resonate with gender-based issues, including the use of they/them pronouns. So I’ve attempted to address this by simply having the characters notice these resonances and discuss the ways they are apt and the ways they are not.

I should say that the metaphor that most interests me in Give Me Away is that of accepting a Second as a manifestation of radical contribution to the point of great self-sacrifice, of irreversible commitment to collaborative, consensus-based solutions.

HILOBROW: Just one geek-out speculation question: I’ve had like four dreams about this series already. In the one I can remember most clearly, two people are having an argument in a hotel room and they gradually remember that they are in the same brain, but visualizing each other as separate physical forms. It made me think of the “bicameral mind” theory, that, say, humans a few thousand years ago didn’t have as distinctly developed a right-brain/left-brain partition, and would “see” personal apprehensions as fantastic beings “warning” them off a particular course. Is that how the subjective sensorium of an Earthling and a Second works?

ROGERS: Ha, that’s interesting! I hadn’t thought about how the hybrid-people visualize their conversations. Obviously when they’re around other people there’s already an external visual dynamic happening that they’re having to balance with their own internal, principally auditory one. But when they’re “alone” (i.e. just the two of them in the one body)? How do they envision one another then? I don’t know yet, but I hope to explore this in future seasons. There’s an interesting additional layer to the thought experiment in that Give Me Away is an audio drama. For a listener, an extended scene between a human host and their Second (as we’ll have a lot of in the back half of the season) is indistinguishable from a scene between two human characters living in discrete bodies. I’ll be interested to know what those listeners are picturing.

HILOBROW: The last episode I had access to (No. 4) ended on quite the metaphysical cliffhanger. One of the draws of this series is the way that the listener can well imagine multiple pathways of promise and dread at many points. How far ahead do you surprise/scare yourself with the turns it takes, and are you caught up with what will happen or still following behind it yourself?

ROGERS: I’m a big outliner. I really need to know the plot and emotional arc of a script or a season of scripts in advance; that’s the light I steer by. I do end up diverting from the outline in certain ways as I go along, but if I didn’t have it as a rough guide at the outset I’d be lost. So I always know roughly as far ahead as the end of the current season I’m working on (though again, changes happen along the way).

With Give Me Away I knew early on that I wanted a big mid-season cliffhanger at the end of Episode 4. I decided quite late in the pre-production phase that I needed nine episodes to tell the Season 1 story rather than eight, so I wanted to build in a way for my colleagues at Gideon Media to have more time to complete work on the now-expanded back-half. Which meant I needed a cliffhanger that would really make folks want to come back, even after a break of several weeks. Let’s see if it works!

[Listen in on Give Me Away at Gideon Media’s show page (which also lists the many podcast systems it can be subscribed on). Episodes are archived there, and initially air on these dates in 2021: Season One, Part 1: July 16, 23, & 30 and August 6; Season One, Part 2: September 17 & 24, and October 1, 8 & 15.]

Series graphic by Katie Kosma

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MORE POSTS by ADAM McGOVERN: OFF-TOPIC (2019–2021 monthly) | textshow (2018 quarterly) | PANEL ZERO (comics-related Q&As, 2018 monthly) | THIS: (2016–2017 weekly) | PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HELL, a 5-part series about characters in McGovern’s and Paolo Leandri’s comic Nightworld | Two IDORU JONES comics by McGovern and Paolo Leandri | BOWIEOLOGY: Celebrating 50 years of Bowie | ODD ABSURDUM: How Felix invented the 21st century self | SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRO and THE LEON SUITES | FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JULIA | FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: KIMBA THE WHITE LION | CARBONA YOUR ENTHUSIASM: WASHINGTON BULLETS | KLAATU YOU: SILENT RUNNING | CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: QUINTET | TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: HIGHWAY PATROL | #SQUADGOALS: KAMANDI’S FAMILY | QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: LUCKY NUMBER | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JIREL OF JOIRY | KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Data 70 | HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM: “Freedom” | KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Captain Camelot | KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Full Fathom Five | A 5-part series on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos | Reviews of Annie Nocenti’s comics Katana, Catwoman, Klarion, and Green Arrow | The curated series FANCHILD | To see all of Adam’s posts, including HiLo Hero items on Lilli Carré, Judy Garland, Wally Wood, and others: CLICK HERE

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