“It’s been eight months, Ross, don’t you think it’s time to take off the ring?” Ross’ friends have been supportive since the loss, but they are running short on options. They’ve said all the nice things, walked on all the eggshells, yet nothing seems to be helping Ross come out of mourning. This experience is similar to anyone who loses a loved one: we hurt deeply, then we are afforded brief moments to forget, and those moments eventually get longer until it hurts less. Even in our relatively enlightened society death remains one of the last absolute uncertainties.
For some the pain lingers longer, especially for Ross, who obsessively listens to his late wife Charlie’s voice recordings on a social media platform called Voicetree. Think of this site as Twitter for soundbytes instead of text. His earbuds stay glued whether he’s working or at home, clinging to Charlie’s enshrined voice posts for dear life. There is no delusion about their relationship either, as Ross relishes even the posts where she is ranting about his shortcomings.
Ross is coincidentally a social media analyst for the FBI, a job that he and Charlie hoped would give him more time at home. Now it’s just one more thing to remind him of what he does not have. However, one day as he was typing his usual reports and going through his usual cycle of Charlie’s Voicetree posts, the sound stops. Like a man possessed he tries to find the closed account to no avail. Then out of nowhere the account is back online, except now Charlie is talking back. “Whats the news, Rosso?” The voice continues to talk and Ross is discombobulated. His disbelief is dismissed by his desperation, and he treats Charlie’s voice as her own likeness. The voice he hears is not perfect, he discovers, it glitches with some words and seems to have a faulty memory. This plants small seeds of uncertainty in Ross’ mind, which leads to the unfolding of the story.
On the surface, LifeAfter is a story experimenting with the emerging capabilities of artificial intelligence. Deeper down, it is about how we process and treasure the lives of those we survive. We are drawn into the Ross’ life as he explores the nature of Charlie’s voice coming through his phone, and the inner turmoil he faces as the story unfolds. We question whether or not the technological prognostications of the story are ultimately good. These conditions are when science fiction is at its best. Consider the films Signs and Super 8, which are similarly stories about a lost loved one except told through an alien invasion. Sci-fi lends itself to tackling hard questions because it allows us to formulate them in abstract and futuristic ways which “realism” cannot fathom.
The podcast is also polished. Each setting comes with its own ambience, whether it’s the echo of a subway, chatter on the street, or drinks clinking in a bar. The music helps build moments of tension and triumph. Each aspect of character motion and dialogue are captured in the sound mixing, so be sure to listen in stereo. With the audio-only restriction to the format, these details made the difference between an immersive story and an audiobook narration.
It is worth noting that LifeAfter is the second story published by the GE Podcast Theater and PANOPLY joint productions. The first story, The Message, takes place in the same universe as LifeAfter, although there are no overt connections between the characters or events (except for some Easter Eggs that a discerning listener might connect). The Message follows a blogger as she investigates an extraterrestrial sound that reached Earth long ago. I tried contacting the writer of each show, Mac Rogers, to see what future stories this universe might entail, but he was unavailable for comment. Whether the universe is continually serialized into different stories or eventually all tied together, LifeAfter can currently be enjoyed without first listening to The Message, although both are solid stories that deserve a listen. They may be found on most podcast platforms, for example here on Soundcloud and here on iTunes. For questions or more discussion on these podcasts, I may be reached on the Imperium News Discord Server.