Review of Companions: A Sci-Fi Romance

Artwork for Companions

It’s not quite a romance in space, but writer Bob Koester know how to elicit the same emotions as a Harlequin novel. Interpret that however you want, but personally the milieu of Companions convoluted the romance arc, leaving it watered down and by no means easy to follow.

The story’s setting is hands-down hard science fiction, while the primary drive comes from the two love interests. The main problem with the characters is how they interact and that has nothing to do with the actor’s performances. Koester complicates their method of communication by adding a layer of confusion to an already loaded script, filled with a lot of exposition that doesn’t add much substance. They talk through a virtual simulation and the dialogue during those scenes will make you re-listen at least once, because you don’t know who’s talking: the online avatar or the person controlling it?

One thing which stood out was the non-linear structure of the story that’s combined rather elegantly with a classic victorian-esque frame narrative, though obviously set in the future. In addition to the frame, the story also skips around the lives of the protagonist, dodging the “boring” bits through obvious author sleight of hand.

Whether it’s a romance masquerading as hard science fiction or hard SF pretending to be a romance, Companions is worth a listen or two. Just don’t expect to understand everything even a second time through.

4/5 Stars

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Interview with Companions’ Writer/Director

In a recent interview with Audio Drama Reviews sister site “Audio Drama Digest,” creator Bob Koester sat down with us to explain the behind the scenes of the story. You can find that here.

Interview: Bob Koester, Director of Companions

Interview took place on 01/04/2017. MB=Michael Bergonzi. BK: Bob Koester.

You can check out the review of his audio drama: Companions over at AudioDramaReviews.com shortly after the 200th review celebration on the 29th of January. Check back here to get the link. Also be sure to follow us one Twitter and Facebook. And don’t forget, we have a Patreon.

MB: So, what sparked this story?

BK: The story began with the ending, sort of. I imagined a specific post-apocalyptic scenario basically like the one that Companions ends with, and then decided I wanted to get there by starting from before the apocalyptic event happened.

MB: Interesting. What was the hardest thing about writing this story?

BK: Probably capturing what makes the leads, Harry and Cailyn, fall in love. That’s a pretty big mystery in general, and as I say the original idea was more of a Big Picture Science Fiction thing. I kind of borrowed a trick from Shakespeare by having them already kind of like each other before the story begins, so they just need some incidents to become mutually aware of it.

MB: Yeah, one thing I noticed while listening was that the virus affecting everyone back on Earth sort of took a backseat to the romance. Speaking of that, was the idea of the simulation from the story’s inception or did you think of that later?

BK: Yeah, the love story definitely took over during the course of writing it. As to the simulation, I knew there’d be some sort of long-distance communication from the beginning, with some people far off and isolated in a classic sci-fi way. The simulations came in about halfway through, when I was looking for something that would require the characters to really invest in each other if they wanted to relate.

MB: So you were pretty set on the isolation aspect of the characters and didn’t want Harry and Kay to meet each other in real life. Why make this an audio drama?

BK: Well, it started first as a movie idea (I have a hobby of making short films), then I decided the setting made that too difficult, so I thought of making it a short novel. That’s when I came up with the character of CO, to be the narrator of the novel. But then I decided that the simulation sessions made it all very theatrical. They’re putting on a show for each other, and kind of living their relationship in scenes. It was actually put on as a one-day minimalist stage show. But then I decided as an audio drama I’d have great ability to use background noises and the like to indicate places and events to the audience.

MB: Interesting. I never would’ve pictured a simulation as theatrical. Were the actors in the same room when they recorded or was this all done remotely?

BK: All in one room. For a while it seemed like that wouldn’t be possible, but I’m glad it worked out that way.

MB: Cool. The structure of the narrative is less than traditional. What made you want to tell a story in such a non-linear and unconventional way when so many of the ideas in the story are difficult to grasp? The simulated Harry and Kay vs their real life counterparts and the technical jargon being the two main examples.

BK: Well let’s see. Telling it all as a story from a future point was a way of making that post-apocalyptic future kind of permeate it. It quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time there, narratively, because the romance became so central, so I wanted a kind of developing sense that the events we were seeing had let to something else later. Even though the audience spends a lot of time not knowing exactly what that future was or exactly what the significance of these future characters could be.

As far as the audience picking up on the simulations vs. real-life people, that is a lot to ask and it was kind of a leap of faith in the audience. I think in a stage play there’d be ways to telegraph some of it, or I could have done the same by having the simulations have some sort of voice effect to differentiate them from the real people, but I decided the potential sense of accomplishment the audience would get from figuring it out themselves could be worth the risk.

In the YouTube version of the story, which has accompanying abstract computer graphics, I put in a hint about who is real and who’s a simulation in each scene, but less than half of people I ask pick up on it, and even they all had figured it out before they noticed the clue.

MB: Well, let me just get on record as being one of those confused listeners. You said this was originally a movie idea. Did you have trouble adapting for a medium without visuals?

BK: Um, I didn’t THINK I had trouble, I guess you’d be a better judge of the result. I did definitely have to make some changes. I drastically altered a scene because the early version had relied on visual cues and just using the way a play stage works. But in my head at least it seemed pretty natural once it changed. If challenging.

I’m sure I lean on a bunch of science fiction stuff that makes sense to me and doesn’t occur to me to explain. And pretty much every version had more and more explanation cut out because it can be kind of dead air if it’s not necessary.

Also some more basic stuff, like Harry telling Cailyn that she “sounds worried” rather than “looks worried”. Which is almost counter-intuitive but I liked the idea that the audience could judge for itself whether he was reading her rightly, rather than having to imagine what expression she had that was worrying him.

MB: I get that. I’m the same way with my own writing, never sure of how little information I’m actually giving the reader until someone actually experiences it. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Are there any social media channels readers/listeners can find you at?

BK: You’re very welcome! I’m @hamletseries on twitter. Companions is on Facebook at facebook.com/playcompanions, and I have a blog at hamletseries.wordpress.com that is currently dominated by Companions-related stuff, including ways to listen to or download it.

Caalo Xan Season One

Caalo Xan is as science fiction as one can get, having a hound as the leading character, a team of swashbucklers travelling through the Galaxy, and meeting a weird and alien cast of friends and foes along the way.

Multiple things about the audio drama can hook the audience. It has an excellent original song playing at the beginning and end of every episode, which can draw anyone into the atmosphere and tone, very much like how an audio drama should. Another excellent thing are the sound designs. Actions scenes are given a boost on life due to the laser sound effects, the soft, creeping footsteps of enemies, and the speed of the spaceships. The characterization is extremely well done, as the dialogue flows naturally and their topics of discussion really humanize them into something more than a ragteam of misfits.

However, there are some technical problems with the audio drama that might make it hard for people to listen to. First, some of the voice acting could’ve been better, as they are often monotone or just feel like an actor reading off a script. There is little believability when it happens.  Another problem I noticed was the inconsistent volume levels, ranging from extremely low to intolerably high. As such, immersion is almost immediately broken when this occurs.

It’s shocking to learn that over forty people have given their voices for this project, so it’s obviously a collaborated effort to mimic the 1940’s radio drama style, which succeeds splendidly. While science fiction isn’t my favorite genre, the compelling stories and memorable cast of characters overshadows the technical problems the show has.

3.5/5 Stars

ISS Forlorn Hope

ISS Forlorn Hope feels like the beginning of a series, but offers the self-contained nature of a television pilot. The story starts off strong. Bits of humorous dialogue make the characters likable and place the reader gently into the opening scene. Not much set up is required and you get the gist of what’s at stake early on.

A man is on trial for the murder of his best friend. As his retelling unfolds, we learn about his friend and how the two of them got sucked into a space opera world, full of evil overlords and technological marvels. And what better way to start this off than at a science fiction convention. A mysterious couple of aliens wants a box the two characters–Rob and Keith–have come into possession of. How a box as powerful as it was described happened to land on earth is a mystery. Then again, this is a comedy and thinking that in depth about the story doesn’t bode well for anyone. Rob and Keith are forced onto the ship, but Keith doesn’t survive. In fact, we learn the incompetent ship’s doctor “Improved him” to the point that he’s no longer human.

This a comedy and stupid humor occurs from time to time, but overall the story is consistent with itself and not over the top with its cheap jokes. Honestly there are so many space opera comedies out there, it’s hard to differentiate them. Most of these types of stories feel rehashed and overdone. Once you’ve experienced one of them, you basically how it’s going to end, and the journey isn’t that impressive either.

Overall this a solid introduction to a larger world with the compactness of an hour long television pilot. The credit read was a delight, but there’s nothing fresh and new here to warrant anything other than a standard rating.

4/5 Stars

Edict Zero FIS: Season One

Part sci-fi, part cop drama–Edict Zero FIS excels in both engaging storytelling and tremendous acting. The one downside is that the medium level details are lost in translation. There were many times where you don’t know what’s going on, but on a micro and macro level, you understand everything you need to know. Perhaps a better word would be the specifics of the information.

The plot revolves around a team of federal operatives who are tasked with solving the mystery of who the illustrious Mr. Cook is and the reason behind him blowing up a building on New Years Eve. From there things get complicated.

The sci-fi may be prevalent in the technology and SFX of the show, but at its heart this is a cop drama. Albeit with less of an episodic-feel, where one episode equals one crime. There’s an overarching plot, which seems simple, but the more that’s uncovered, the more intriguing it gets.

The characters are great. Each one had a distinct voice, both on paper and the microphone. By far the most interesting reoccurring one is Agent Garrett, who has all the trappings of a sociopathic character, but is a federal agent. My favorite character in the first season, who disappears after his usefulness to the agents is fulfilled, is Socrates. Creator of the show, Jack Kincaid gives a performance that is mind blowing. The best I’ve heard in a long time when it comes to audio drama podcasts.

Around episode five of the nine episode first season is where the season reaches it’s peak. There’s so much going on, it demands a second listen as you’re bound to miss something minor. However, you can follow the story just fine without going through it again. Needless to say, this on my re-listen list and that’s an honor not many audio dramas have received.

4.5/5 stars

Earbud Theater: Shift

A story with an ending that doesn’t wow, but made me go “how?”  The premise is much like the one Dan Wells used in The Hollow City. A schizophrenic sees faceless people and thinks there is some conspiracy out to get him. In “Shift,” the story starts off with the protagonist in a session with his psychiatrist. They chat a bit about their previous sessions and then the story gets underway.

What makes this story different from the traditional psychological horror is its ability to make you wonder, while at the same time, ground you in reality. After all, how would you react if you found out that you could “shift” between dimensions? In The Hollow City, there is a supernatural element much like in the John Cleaver Trilogy (also by Dan Wells). However it’s not revealed until the end and that whole aspect is what takes the book from a good book to a great one. Shift has essentially the same exact plot structure, but the ending is more open-ended and has a sense of wonder that The Hollow City trades-off by making the revelation more scientific than fantastical.

Those are the two extremes and both have their merits. As for myself, I prefer concrete reality over magic or science without much of an explanation. It’s why magic systems and their rules are interesting to me. However if one looks at early Fantasy, there’s no consistency. The Lord of the Rings is an obvious example. You have to be a wizard to do magic and that’s about it. “Shift” is somewhere in between a Lord of the Rings magic system and The Hollow City.

Shift is a wonderful short audio drama that certainly packs somewhat of a punch with its ending. However, the story overall just didn’t wow me.