[The following contains spoilers.]
“Hyacinth” and “disaster” are words that must seldom meet within the English language, aside from when careless bulb planting leaves you with clashing colours all around your garden, but the Hyacinth here is actually a spaceship. David E. Carlson’s podcast is set in 2151 and it picks out its eponymous mining vessel from amidst the roving herds of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, where the crew are embroiled in a corporate kidnapping dispute. Ember Roth (Joanna Newton), the captain of a fellow spaceship, is being held hostage by a rival corporation. The MRS Hyacinth’s captain, Conlin Hynes (Carlson), has a plan to identify an asteroid replete enough with mineral riches to pay off the ransom.
As I have written thousands of times before on this website, when reviewing novels, podcasts, and Fringe plays, I still do not feel that I know my way well enough around the genre of sci-fi. The plot device of a dispute between monolithic future corporations is familiar to me from Ken MacLeod’s Corporation Wars series (2016 –). But there could be numerous, far more applicable influences that are not on my thinly detailed map.
Recent audio-dramas such as Mars 2060 and Marsfall have taken scenarios from sci-fi and innovatively enhanced them with the immersiveness of podcasting. The Hyacinth Disaster is on the same tack and, as with the Mars podcasts, there is something very likeable about its ambition of growing so much from a bedroom window box. This is a homely, close-knit production, with the captain’s wife and sister being played by Carlson’s own wife and sister. Carlson admits that he is a small-time writer with a résumé full of uncompleted projects, and yet podcasting has allowed him to design a story that is sprawling, densely plotted and, albeit in the loosest possible sense, cinematic.
The Hyacinth Disaster progresses partly on the understanding that the suspense and terror within Alfonso Cuarón’s thriller Gravity (2013) are due not to its superlative visual effects but to its suspense and terror. In their assault upon the asteroid, the Hyacinth’s vanguard are, on several different layers of meaning, bungling about in the darkness. As one astronaut falls unconscious and another loses his connectivity, the drama deftly taps into the claustrophobia of being alone in space.
Perhaps this podcast also genre-bends itself out of the sci-fi a little. In its story, the Asteroid Belt has the same desolation and lawlessness as the Wild West, as well as a touch of suitable theme music; whilst the drama deploys a stratagem more conventional to screen horror of confirming that all of the characters are going to die and then serving up their deaths in successive courses. That everyone dies is hardly a spoiler – the podcast is cracking open the spaceship’s black box – but in accordance with the classic horror template we keep listening to learn how exactly the characters die and who dies last. There is, needless to say, one standalone season and every soul is spent by the seventh episode.
The perspective that we are given, as listeners, is that of a kind of ghost in the machine. The mining corporations in the story do not care about their employees. They would presumably install a black box, and salvage it, purely to retrieve any commercially sensitive information. Within the world of the story, therefore, a spaceman would listen to this recording only to pick out mining data and they would fast forward through the brunt of the human anguish.
If I was originally worrying that I could not access the sci-fi that might have influenced this podcast, I took heart from reading that Carlson was mostly inspired by trying to replicate the sounds of air traffic control. If you stop concentrating on the show, it indeed assumes the authentic cadences of the exchanges in a control tower. Nonetheless, we might accept the drama’s sci-fi as being perfectly plausible but pause over its dialogue. To begin with, Con sounds like a chairman rather than a captain, and one who is administering over a hectic Skype conference. He has to wheedle to exert his authority and the crew enjoy chaffing him. They breathlessly exchange zingers, and just as frequently failed zingers, like the staff in The West Wing. One could not in the end attribute the failure of Con’s mission to the informality amongst his crew, but you find yourself wondering at whether people in their situation would genuinely speak like this.
After Con’s surprise premature ejaculation from the show, à la Ned Stark, we listen in as his wife and sister continue to banter listlessly. What would grief sound like in these circumstances – how would people really behave? The interest of the drama increasingly lies in our discomfort and the fact that many of us will not know.
Whilst we might be unfamiliar with the futuristic technology that the crew are struggling with, the shoddiness and malaise that is omnipresent within their mining corporation will feel (as they similarly do in Mars 2060) very contemporary. There are no bad characters in The Hyacinth Disaster, only the distant negligence of the corporation, and the common enemy for which the asteroid is clearly an avatar remains incognito. The story ensures that we are being constantly directed towards the immediate – to whatever rocket is next to be launched – whilst the chief impetus for the plot is concealed behind the waves of space debris.
Is the seismic sprightliness of the asteroid due to an automated weapons system which has been planted in it by the rival corporation or, alternatively, by some alien intelligence? The mystery takes on an almost theological emphasis, in casting the characters as limited agents who are at the mercy of a secretive higher power. It is worth noting here that Carlson is openly a Christian writer. The story told by Grimm (Carlson) about a conifer tree inexplicably sprouting in the middle of a Martian outpost sounds like a magical Christmas myth that has itself inexplicably sprouted in a post-Christian world. One can possibly trace the inspiration for the asteroid’s mystery not in sci-fi scenarios but, more subtly, in the lines from Exodus. At the foothills of God, the Israelites were told, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.” Maybe He, or something like Him, is hiding in the asteroid. An out-of-the-way heavenly bolthole that nobody has uncovered until now.