Aba Woodruff, Anya Zicer, Artificial Intelligence, Brian Goodheart and Owen Shearer, Dan Lovley, Erik Saras, James Fouhey, Mars, Mars Colony, Mars Mission, Marsfall Podcast, Merissa Morin, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Sam Boase-Miller, Science Fiction, Shannon Lovley, Stephanie Hsu
[The following contains spoilers.]
So we are once again on Mars and the moon be still as bright, courtesy of Erik Saras, Sam Boase-Miller, and Dan Lovley’s excellent audiodrama Marsfall. I always giggle at the opening credits, where listeners are advised that they might find this podcast’s events to be “triggering.” As if somebody could ever experience flashbacks of a rape or a violent assault from listening to this jaunty, comic-book adventure.
Mars is obviously a setting but lately this planet has faded even further into the background. The second season of Marsfall has felt at times more like a spin-off series. The colony is overrun by an artificial intelligence called Faye (Merissa Morin), a supreme being that desires to devour the colonists’ consciousnesses and meld them into its own. Between Mars’ bleakness and this new technological infestation, humanity is in peril of being squeezed into acute irrelevance.
The following story becomes quite a chew. Marsfall has to rely upon all the mango flavouring of its eccentricity – its gutsy characters and frolicsome, marvellous music – in order to keep us chewing on such a tough plotline. The trouble is that Faye remains a machine and through all the cycles of the drama we are simply waiting for it to at some point malfunction.
There is actually an uneasy double-consciousness going on here, because the story’s A.I.s are, at least at a surface level, anthropomorphised. Faye’s voice is always tinkling with villainy and replete with bureaucratic smarminess – indeed, she sounds generally as evil as the Wicked Witch of the West. ANDI (Dan Lovley), the other A.I., is always friendly and likeable, an inferior, faithful assistant to the humans. Down on this dubious level, Marsfall also acquires an anthropomorphised dog, which can apparently understand what the humans are saying and chime comically into their conversations. If we go along with this sort of thing, and credit ANDI as being an honorary human, we might feel that we have failed a strict test that has been set for us. But there is little that has been planted into this story to help us pass.
ANDI has seduced us. You can tell yourself a thousand times that it is a computer programme, and he still sounds cute and charming. You are seduced into believing in his character development and that he has a mental world. Afterwards, you feel guilty and unclean. This ambiguity is potentially worthwhile but Marsfall often seems too shallow to encompass a full or even an adequate understanding of ANDI. Or rather, some of the qualms about this A.I. that had made the first season so interesting are thinned to the point of translucency in the second. The show’s creators clearly love their character too much – they have been seduced as well – and they are not yet ready to bring the boudoir crashing down around our ears. With ANDI, it feels like an important, unsentimental discussion about his precise status is being continually postponed.
Surely the most frightening thing about being ever on the surface of Mars is the memory of how tiny and elusive Mars appears when you are on the surface of Earth. From Faye’s perspective, humanity is similarly a distant, dead world – an inconsequential dot. Now that Faye has been pulled up by the roots, Marsfall can resume lighter and fresher. We are back in the happy company of the humans.
One day, when there are forty seasons of this show, it might be possible to advise people to flick straight from one to three. Or maybe Faye is indispensable to the contention that Marsfall is making. The A.I. is a haunting character but, as a source of both existential terror and cheap villainy, the challenge that it lays down for us is always confusingly easy. A Faye who was as personable as ANDI would rip a hole in this world that could never be repaired. Perhaps Faye was formed, rather as Eve was from Adam, out of the digital equivalent of one of ANDI’s ribs. In my more conspiratorial moments, I fancy that Faye’s role in the story was once meant to be performed by ANDI and that the podcastmakers couldn’t ultimately marshal the necessary ruthlessness.
Sam Boase-Miller‘s music is just as intrinsic to the success of Marsfall as showtunes are to a musical. Somebody who has no interest in sci-fi or the morality of A.I. can listen to this story just to admire the music. You sometimes slip into following the wrong thread, so that you are listening to the music and the dialogue becomes a complementary burbling. The music is often like a vampire’s shadow, in that it has an alarmingly independent life of its own. It can be frisky and capricious – it can be exhilaratingly jarring – it can sound shinily retro or kitschily futuristic.
With such an innovative deployment of music, Marsfall has undeniably moved podcasting on and into a new sophistication. It might have also moved Mars on. The soundscaping is in itself a kind of terraforming and it zanily clothes Mars like the purple jungle that the plot has spread over the planet. One might struggle to now imagine Mars naked again, back to its dreary, powdery self and without this music.