Within the Wires: Season 5: Voicemail, Jeffrey Cranor & Janina Matthewson; Amiera Darwish, narrator (Night Vale Presents, ten episodes, 3.5 hrs.) <www.nightvalepresents.com/withinthewires> August-December 2020.
The events of 2020 made it difficult for me to establish and hold the focus I needed to listen to audiobooks and write about them. (The super-long column in the January 2021 Locus suggests that I’ve maybe started to get my mojo back.) When I began going on long walks in my neighborhood—mostly to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which overlooks Brooklyn Bridge Park and where many film and TV characters go to sit on benches and contemplate their lives—and taking photos of local greenery and scenery (some of which got retweeted on the @LocusChat feed), I mostly relied on podcasts to keep me company. It’s a lot easier to pay attention on short audio pieces. Most of what I listened to wouldn’t be suitable for review here, although they were pretty trippy; there’s probably a nearby universe where Woody Harrelson’s dad definitely was involved in the JFK assassination, and the CIA absolutely did write a Scorpions song that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
However, season five of the podcast Within the Wires ended on December 29, 2020 (yesterday, as of this writing), and I was moved to once again recommend the show, which is some of the best audio-only SF out there. As you may recall in my reviews of previous seasons, the podcast is set in an alternate timeline in which a precipitating calamity prior to what would have been WWII led to the establishment of the Society, a global government that basically outlaws all nationalistic, tribalistic, and family affiliations, believing them to be the root cause of violence and conflict. I was not crazy about season four, which concerned the gradual crumbling of a forest-dwelling commune that was secretly and illegally raising their own children, but season five raises the bar of the show again.
Every season offers a new story of a dysfunctional relationship in the Society, told in a different type of found-audio format. This one is recounted via answering machine messages, played in reverse order. We travel backwards from 2008, years after two lovers, Indra and Nan, experienced a tumultuous breakup, to the heady beginning of their relationship in 1997. Most of the story is told through the rambling messages left by Indra, the director of a grant-funded, very small theater company, whose poorly attended productions verge vaguely on the subversive. Her friends and colleagues are hostile towards her girlfriend Nan, who has some role in the government that she won’t disclose. Indra waves such objections away, until she comes to believe that Nan has actually been spying on them all, and that their relationship was possibly some kind of deep cover operation. Every episode begins with a series of emotionally expressive messages from Indra, followed by a single brisk message from Gwen Nettles, an agent with the IID (the Society’s equivalent of the secret police), generally regarding a slightly sinister-sounding bureaucratic matter. The listener will figure out Gwen’s connection to Indra fairly quickly, but the final episode’s confirmations both of her identity and Nan’s mission still felt devastating to me.
The Society, having successfully suppressed the potential for war for several decades, should theoretically be a utopia, and perhaps it is, for some. Multiple seasons have demonstrated both the brutal and subtle ways that it crushes all opposition, censors artistic expression, and distorts relationships (while at the same time allowing greater freedom for some; same-sex marriage clearly gained social acceptance in this universe decades before our own). People are people, and their tendencies will out, despite our best intentions to channel them in a positive direction (positive according to whom; that’s the question).
Indra, voiced by Amiera Darwish, is apparently an open book, seemingly unable not to share how she feels about her friends, about Nan, about Nan’s perceived betrayal, and so on, even as she begins to wonder if her messages are also shared with the IID. But the listener soon realizes that Indra might not understand herself and her situation as well as she thinks she does. We also never hear Nan’s direct perspective on how she viewed Indra and her relationship with her. Indra’s messages portray her girlfriend as an opaque, obsessively organized, and possibly a bit snotty woman. But I relistened to the entire podcast right after I finished it for the first time, and a careful review of Gwen Nettles’s messages (voiced by Norma Butikofer) allowed me to pick out a bit about how Nan sees herself, the genuine pain she might have been feeling when her relationship with Indra fell apart, and how difficult it must have been to juggle her career and personal life. Every season is just this sort of puzzle, offering the reader audio fragments that they must assemble into a complete story and picture of two characters. Every time I think that writers Jeffrey Cranor & Janina Matthewson cannot come up with another fresh take on their format, and yet, somehow, they do. I look forward to them and other authors carrying that positive story energy forward into 2021.
This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.
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