Ayla Taylor, Emily Wang, Extraterrestrials, Fantasy, James Oliva, Jesse Schuschu, Jordan Higgs, Julia Schifini, Podcast Review, Podcasting, Realism, Science Fiction, Tides by Jesse Schuschu, Zach Libresco
Tides is a sci-fi audiodrama from 2018 that is written by Jesse Schuschu. Dr. Winifred Eurus (Julia Schifini) has crashed her flying saucer on Fons, a faraway moon that is covered by water and constantly caressed by the tides of the title. When trekking across the intertidal zone, Dr Eurus is soon regaled with a cornucopia of fauna. Every living thing in this story – aside from the humans, that is – is made-up. Tides is rather like a sheet of paper that a biro hovers over at complete liberty, whimsically doodling new life forms. This is a venerable subgenre of fantasy, of course:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Did you ever have a feeling there’s a wasket in your basket?
Or a nureau in your bureau? Or a woset in your closet?
Tides is always in such tension, however, because it mixes the constitutional freedoms of a Lewis Carroll or a Dr Seuss with an otherwise faultless realism. Scientists now reckon that the number of habitable exoplanets in the universe may run well into the billions. There will be really a globe out there like Fons, whose name is the Latin for “fountain,” and its gush of zany creatures will be not as incompatible as one might think with the kind of no-nonsense realism that typifies, say, a Ken Loach movie.
Crucial to the tension within Tides is that there are no easy rules. Whatever life that Dr Eurus finds on Fons will be determined by the local pressures on that particular moon and by how the life forms there have interacted with each other over millennia. That we have teeth and eyelashes and a tendency to yawn is due purely to chance incidents on the road of our evolutionary history. Every other creature on our planet has emerged from the same chaos and we are indeed an eclectic bunch. Flamingos and octopuses and Björk have been all created in the same atmosphere and from the same elements. Imagine this creativity extended over billions more planets with wildly different forces and conditions in play.
Tides commences with the format of the classic adventure novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). There is the same concern with the bare practicalities of survival. There is also the problem of the narrative’s potential monotony, or its proneness to tire quickly, but the show successfully re-energises itself by alternating between Dr Eurus’ wonderment at the wildlife around her and her consciousness of the danger that she is always in. Yet Dr Eurus is never wholly stuck on a desert island. Her mothership is circling Fons and beaming down food supplies. It is a decidedly umbilical relationship:
One might say that we start our lives in the ocean. A little ocean, a private ocean, one our mothers carry for us. But it’s salty just like the one our ancestors swam in, if not exact in its concentrations. Perhaps knowing this we clutch tight to it, the warmth and the water, cloaking ourselves in it, absorbing it. When we leave that ocean we take a piece of it with us – just as salty, just as wet. And we hold onto that internal ocean that courses through darkened passages and channels, wrapping it around our solid bones and binding it with walls of skin.
When Dr Eurus muses thus, she is contained within a sealed Tellus suit that is hiding in a gigantic shell that is being wrapped in an incoming tide. This is the majestic existential isolation of Robinson Crusoe, with possibly a tentacled mollusc who Dr Eurus names Bob as her man Friday. There is also a little of St Anthony in the wilderness, being assailed by outlandish Grünewaldian monsters. Whereas, though, Crusoe and St Anthony were fortified and made more resilient by their experiences, Dr Eurus remains a fretful, marginalised adventurer. She at one point implodes with paranoia when assuming that her shipmates have left her on Fons for good. Whether she can forge any connection with the life on the moon is the big question that Tides has decided to ask itself.
Tides come in but they also go out. Schuschu’s podcast would have functioned ably enough as a solo performance, with Dr Eurus facing the fauna alone, but in its later stages a new tide of human characters washes problematically into the story. It is hard to fathom what Schuschu’s exact intention is here. Dr Eurus’ shipmates are dubiously likeable but they are never explicitly satirised. Only in a written direction (i.e. in the show’s transcript) is the wackily dorky Dr. Robert Montague (James Oliva) described as being “obnoxious.”
These people sound extremely contemporary and you will recognise the way that they talk from any knot of friends on a modern university research campus. They converse in geekspeak, or they bump up against each other in a nervously jokey, bratty, smug, and emotionally evasive fashion that is, whether it knows it or not, ultimately a species of camp:
Montague: Oh? Feelings? Winny I think it’s great you’re immersing yourself in your work down there, but if you’re getting any Captain Kirk ideas, I really don’t recommend . . .
Eurus: Okay, nope nope. Ha ha, really funny! I’m more a Picard fan.
Montague: Uh, I guess if that’s what you like, but he’s a little dry for me, you know.
Eurus: Of course he is.
Stevens: I’m more Sisko myself. DS9’s my jam.
Eurus: Oh my god.
Montague: Stevens, Stevens, oh dear boy. Who hurt you?
Stevens: Hey, it’s a VASTLY underrated series, with the most cohesive storyline of any of –
Montague: But to compare it to the original series, is like, fucking insane, no one in their right might would do that –
Eurus: OKAY ANYWAY NERDS, the feeling I’m getting is more one of, you know, impending doom.
Christopher Columbus didn’t speak like this and nor could he have afforded to. Captain Kirk didn’t and couldn’t have either. We are doubtless meant to compare this geekspeak with the smoothly sophisticated vibratory communications between the shellfish on Fons. But Dr Eurus and her friends don’t sound linguistically equipped to discover a new world or to even share a basic, emotionally normal conversation. With this, we realise that the humans, with their stale, trivial language, are the least original thing in this story and the fauna on Fons is correspondingly rendered more marvellous and lovely. In the crassness of these humans, the gulf between Crusoe and the virgin beauty of his island is unnervingly preserved.