Amy Goldschlager Reviews Ninth Step Station

Ninth Step Station, Season 1, Episodes 1-8 (of 11), Malka Older, Fran Wilde, Jacqueline Koyanagi & Curtis C. Chen; Emily Woo Zeller, narrator (Serial Box, 1.99 per episode/$13.99 per season, digital download, aprox. 1.5 hr. per episode, unabridged) January–March 2019.

A devastating earthquake, followed by war with both North Korea and China, have left Japan in general, and Tokyo in particular, partially controlled by the Chinese as well as partially occupied by the US, leav­ing a sliver of authority with the Japanese. Miyako Koreda, a former Olympic competitor turned prickly police inspector in what is still a boys’ club of a pre­cinct, is reluctantly teamed up with Emma Higashi, a somewhat brash Japanese-American lieutenant in the US peacekeeping forces. Episode by episode, this odd couple investigates crimes that are both commit­ted and solved with technology (drones, cybernetic implants, etc.), while a Japanese resistance against foreign intervention slowly grows in influence and Emma vainly attempts to track US weapons and other equipment that have gone missing.

While other productions from Serial Box come across as novels delivered as weekly chapters (e.g., Tremontaine), Ninth Step Station‘s episodes (which incidentally, are subdivided into “Acts,” in the way that TV shows do to accommodate commercial breaks) are more discrete within the wider story arc. Essentially, it’s a near-future, buddy-cop show that feels like a cross between Rizzoli & Isles and Alien Nation the TV series (I never realized how much I’ve missed the sci-fi cop shows of the 1990s).

The resemblance to a show, rather than a book, is enhanced by the audio production’s complete sound­scape: the theme song, ringing phones in the police station, shattering glass, footsteps in a stairwell, an echo when someone speaks over amplification, and other kinds of background noise essentially turn the production into an audioplay. As Serial Box has matured as a publisher, this aspect of their produc­tions has only become richer. There isn’t a full cast, true, but single narrator Emily Woo Zeller expertly evokes a multiplicity of distinct characters.

The crimes portrayed don’t lend themselves to any sort of complex puzzle solving. The perpetrator is usually fairly obvious, after a while, even if the reasoning behind some of the plot remains murky. The story is about the milieu (which, given Older’s academic background in international relations, eco­nomics, and humanitarian relief, I feel confident has a solid foundation), the interplay between the char­acters, and the thrill of the chase. I was particularly taken with Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Episode 8, “The Clawed Limb”, in which a criminal electronically hijacks cybernetic limbs and forces their wearers to attack one another – a cautionary tale as we enter an age where the Internet of Things is becoming more ubiquitous.

Fun, with some meaty political and technology issues to ponder sprinkled in.

This review and more like it in the April 2019 issue of Locus.

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