About 18 hours after listening to every released episode of Girl in Space in one go, I’m left dumbfounded by the talent and craftsmanship that goes into producing each episode. While there isn’t a full season one for me to properly review, I feel safe in publicly saying “this is some damned good science fiction.” So good, in fact, I’d like to take a few paragraphs to highlight the brutally simplistic world-building tactics producer/writer/editor/star Sarah Rhea Werner uses to paint the world around their characters.
Three lines. That’s all we’re going to talk about. Girl in Space has three lines in episodes 103 and 104 (one apiece) that aren’t necessarily plot-important, they feel like asides more than anything else, but they’re a perfect one-two shot of world-building information that hit so hard I had to pause the podcast and work through what I’d just experienced.
Light spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t listened past episode one of the series (which you should do anyway, this show rocks).
First, brief description of Girl in Space:
GiS is a science-fiction audio-drama about the titular girl who is currently located in space, our protagonist named X (a nickname, actually). They live on a decaying spaceship called the Cavatica with only their science experiments, a glitchy AI named Charlotte, a well-worn digital copy of Jurassic Park, and the warmth of Ra for company. The narrative hook of the series is we, the listener, are hearing entries from X’s data recorder as she records stream-of-consciousness accounts of her thoughts, progress on their science experiments, and daily activities.
No, I won’t explain who/what Ra is. Listen to the show.
X’s content solitude is interrupted by the arrival of a small fleet of unknown ships, an inconvenience only amplified by the fact that they quickly capture X and throw her into a holding cell aboard an armed vessel called Enforcer One. Here we get the first of the two moments that gut-punched me: X’s description of her first “meal” on board.
X: The last time someone came by — yesterday, or maybe the day before — they just dumped a bunch of pellet-things and a pouch of liquid through the slat in the door. The liquid was a dead-tasting variation of water, and I think the pellets are supposed to be some kind of food-substitute. I tried to eat one, to keep up my energy, but when it turned into a chalky, rotten paste in my mouth, I threw up again into the drain in the middle of the floor.
To easily discuss what’s going on here, I’m going to whip out a quick example using a childhood favorite: Star Wars: A New Hope. Characters in the Rebel Alliance primarily wear warm earth tones and use ships with complex shapes, almost as if everything is hand-made or found. Walls are smudged, floors have scuff marks, they’re using lived-in equipment and locations.
Anything associated with the Galactic Empire is mass-produced and only available in shades of black and white. Stormtroopers wear spotless white armor that hides any individuality of the person inside, their ships are mainly right-angles and harsh lines, the only bright colors present are to denote importance (e.g. the buttons on Vader’s chest panel, rank insignia, control panels).
While we do get the occasional description of the ships of GiS, it’s delivered in bits and pieces. One of the hardest things in an audio drama, at least from this amateur writer’s perspective, is conveying the look of something without having a character go into one of those monologues. Exposition is a necessary evil, but it must be used sparingly less the audience be yanked out of the moment in a bad way. A character has to have a reason to describe what they’re looking at. Why would someone who drives a Toyota Celica stop in their tracks one morning and say aloud “Ah, there it is, the light-grey Toyota Celica I’ve driven to work every day for four years, with its smooth lines and reasonable gas mileage” for no good reason?
For the exact same reason Luke Skywalker doesn’t walk up to his X-wing and give a tight five minute spiel on its performance capabilities to nobody in particular: no actual person would do that.
Cavatica is outfitted with a greenhouse (the glasshouse) sporting a robust enough ecosystem the listener can hear birds chirping in the background whenever X records in there, we’re told the water supply doubles as a pond for fish, somewhere there’s a dairy goat named Daisy. The ship itself might be a hulk but the few sections that still have power are described as being full of life.
Enforcer One has dead-tasting water, the food pellets taste rotten. Earlier she mentions the air in the ship smells of decaying garbage. In the moment these descriptors simply feel like good writing. Werner is juxtaposing the vibrant glasshouse X is used to against the cold, synthetic nature of this ship that’s alien to her in every sense of the word.
Even without X’s descriptions of the jail cell she’s currently locked in, we get a sense of what life is like on Enforcer One, things are different here. To these pre-packaged freeze-dried people X is the Other with a capital O. They don’t know how to handle each other and clash because of it.
Then we get to the payoff of this set-up: several days later X is allowed to return to the glasshouse under the supervision of two armed guards. One of them, by the name of Chance, takes issue with X’s dedication to produce goat cheese.
Chance: And I’m not sure I want to eat the solidified remains of a liquid that came out of the internal organs of a goat.
X: Earlier you freaked out about the thought of eating something that had grown on a plant, and then you ate about 900 oranges. Give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.
X’s response opens up a whole new window into how life must be like for everyone who isn’t from the Cavatica. Time in this podcast is measured from an unknown start-date 10,000 days before the “present” that X is living through. There isn’t a prologue giving a long, cliche explanation of what happened to “old Earth” or anything like that. This show could be happening in 2029 as much as it could be in 4039.
Thanks to Chance we do now know something vitally important, and it’s right there in X’s response. He doesn’t take issue with goat cheese because it’s specifically from a goat, he takes issue with it because Chance has only ever had synthetic food. Without discussing anything else that happens after this exact second of GiS I have enough to extrapolate what kind of world these characters live in.
This solider under the employ of a mega-corporation has never, in his entire life, had anything that was made from animal or plant matter. Perhaps Earth is dead by this point, perhaps Chance was born in a colony, perhaps he’s only ever been on spaceships, what’s important here is Chance’s experience is never sold as being unique. Enforcer One smells horrible to X but everyone aboard is used to it. They eat rancid food, they drink dead water, they’re divorced from nature.
I’ve spent as much time talking about these two small bits of dialog as I have spent talking about entire podcasts. There’s so much more content to be found and discussions to be had (especially if caught up to the newest episode!). If you’re somehow still on the fence about trying out this series I implore you to go out and listen to Girl in Space as soon as possible.