Still Human is a science fiction audio drama by Atro Panda focusing on a minister and colonist, Houston, exploring the planet g159c:
Join the colonists of Port Wallace and the Copernica Corporation as they explore the sweeping landscapes of a far-away planet teeming with towering forests and sentient alien species!
The summary here, as provided from the podcast’s website, is misleading; the tone seems in line with something like EOS 10, but in practice falls closer to something like The Bright Sessions or The Far Meridian. Still Human is a slow-paced, introspective, contemplative audio drama that excels at being tender in a genre that often veers towards harshness.
We’ve talked about the saturation of science fiction and space opera within audio drama before, and how in order to stand out, an audio drama has to so something markedly different from its peers. With Marsfall, we have changing points of view; with Girl in Space, we have a family mystery; with Tides, we have the aquatic focus and Julia Schifini playing the sarcastic, delightfully foul-mouthed protagonist. All of the shows have a sense of darkness to them, and protagonists who are equipped to struggle, but struggle with an air of confidence and charisma.
Still Human‘s protagonist is not a struggling-but-confident protagonist. Houston is a hesitant, anxious, but open-minded protagonist who doesn’t look into his struggles with confidence, but with anxious acceptance. There’s a fragility to him that seems shockingly absent from most other science fiction. As Houston continues discovering more about this planet and the alien race that inhabits it, he embraces everything with a tentative optimism. When communicating with the aliens–which he eventually dubs Clouds–for the first time, there’s a genuine joy to his voice over the undercurrent of fear. One of the first things Houston says is that he’s on this mission to “explore a new perspective of the universe,” and his reverence for it seems like his core characteristic.
And, of course, there’s also an undercurrent of fear of the listener. Houston’s optimism isn’t naive; he’s worked in what seem like dubious jobs before, with the transition to minister being more recent. Still, it seems worrisome, at the least, that the Clouds can communicate with Houston on an emotional level–and Houston feels very much like he is “not a prisoner” even as he’s being convinced to stay in a cave and not return to the other colonists. The podcast balances the two ideas that the aliens could genuinely be as kind as they seem or that they just have such deep sway over Houston. The pacing of the show so far has been calm–I think one could make the complaint that it verges on boring, though I think this would be an impatient and unfair read of the podcast–but there have been plenty of what might be foreshadowing moments placed in the narrative.
While the show does have nice, unobtrusive production work, this tender-but-ominous tone is established most through its loose, realistic dialogue and acting. The dialogue sounds to be scripted, but only just. There’s room for the actors to sound like actual people on a voice recording: plenty of “um”s and “uh”s are present without sounding forced. The dialogue and performances feel authentic, adding a level of immersion that the genre usually isn’t able to quite capture. When the dialogue does get more to-the-book, it isn’t for more intense moments, but for the moments where the writing gets more poetic, adding back to that gentle tone that makes Still Human such a standout.
While the show has some beautiful dialogue writing, there are some construction writing features that seem out of place. There’s a framing device of Houston being interviewed about his presence on the crew that seems unnecessary; it falls away at times and changes mid-season, though it doesn’t seem necessary to begin with. The other colonists are largely set aside–though some have been added back in as the show has been able to call for submissions and expand–which makes the scope of the mission a bit difficult to grasp.
It’s hard to focus on these issues, though, when the listener is too busy falling into the ebb and flow of the narrative and dialogue, while still keeping an eye out for what turns could still be yet to come. Still Human is a unique, refreshing take on the science fiction or space opera genre–one that is contemplative, introspective, and gentle, and one I hope we see more of as the genre continues to grow.
You can find Still Human on any podcatcher or on their website.