In the future, aboard Typhon, the security of your new home is taken very seriously.
6th October 2018
Interview with Adam Bash
Good afternoon, Mr Bash. Could you tell us about your podcast, SAYER?
SAYER is a dark comedy sci-fi audio fiction set on Earth’s man-made second moon Typhon. The lead character, SAYER, is an AI developed by a shady scientific research corporation to on-board and guide residents through their new lives among the stars.
I’ve always thought that SAYER seemed passionately dedicated to the survival of humanity but indifferent to the survival of individual humans. How do you think that SAYER compares to other depictions of AIs like HAL 9000 from 2001: A ‘Space Odyssey’ and VIKI from ‘I, Robot’?
SAYER is passionately dedicated to the ideals of a company, and that company just happens to value humanity - or to a degree transhumanism - above individual humans. There’s a certain thread through most of AI fiction in that we use it to be the ultimate devil’s advocate. Here’s a thing that follows our rules, but thinks in a way we do not and that makes it find solutions that feel so alien to us. I didn’t want to tell a “evils of AI” type story, because SAYER doesn’t actively take a lot of steps to harm or imperil anyone. It is just the messenger, and it does its job really well.
The end of Season 4 sees SAYER contemplating a ‘hostile takeover’ of its parent company (carefully avoiding spoilers), effectively becoming much more its own person and setting its own direction. As a character, it evolves a richer range of emotions as time progresses. Will that continue once you return to this point in the story?
Yes, and I think it changes the dynamic in interesting ways. SAYER has changed, but in capabilities and intentions. I wanted to step back for Season 5 and tell more traditional stories, but I expect if I'm fortunate enough to fund a Season 6 we'll pick right up where we left off at the end of Season 4.
You’re a prolific podcaster with an involvement in many other shows. What do you like about the medium?
Podcasts fill a unique entertainment niche that feels like it’s not going anywhere. People are going to continue to have work commutes, or jobs that are improved by listening to something interesting. Lawns need to be mowed. So there’s this ever-beckoning space to fill in the ears of hundreds of millions of people.
Plus the barrier to entry is so very low. We’re at a stage where it costs absolutely nothing to create a basic podcast outside of a recording device and the bandwidth to send it out. That’s so exciting because it allows anyone with a talent to put that talent on display for the world.
I’ve noticed the influence of authors like HP Lovecraft in episodes with the Anomaly in Stairwell F - ‘the Stairwell of Leng’ - and Stephen King in episodes like the terrifying ‘A Dreamless Sleep’. What other authors have had an influence on the writing of SAYER?
People have told me about that Stephen King short story, but it wasn’t one I ever caught growing up. I remember reading one where toy soldiers come to life and declare war on a guy in his apartment, but I don’t know that would make a great episode.
Asimov, of course, has had a profound impact on the themes I try to play around with on SAYER. I think anyone who writes anything about artificial life would say that. Phillip K Dick, in some obvious ways and some subtler ways. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves was incredibly formative in making me think about architectural horror as well as ways to make the mundane discomforting.
But then there were influences outside of the realm of literature. In 2007, Erik Wolpow and Chet Faliszek wrote Portal, and if they hadn’t I can’t say for certain I’d have written SAYER. There’s a level of comedic disdain for humanity in the writing for GLaDOS that I can only hope to attain. There’s something hilarious to me about that concept of being totally reliant on a thing that is actively annoyed by you.
Referring to architectural horror has just given me a really unpleasant flashback to the claustrophobic nightmare that was ‘Pressure’. Do you have a particular favourite author out of the ones you’ve just mentioned?
That first season we spent a lot of time just thinking through the various big things people are scared of, and throwing the listener into that situation. So we did claustrophobia pretty early, and even I have a hard time listening to that one with the lights off. It’s pretty oppressive.
Of those authors, I’d probably say I enjoy reading Phillip K Dick the most. Through A Scanner Darkly presented this world where slowly, over the course of the novel, you begin to lose faith in the narrator’s ability to interpret reality. That slow dawning realization that you might have missed so much taking everything on face value is such a fun trick, and I probably over-use the trope in my own writing.
I discovered SAYER just after the Season 5 Kickstarter closed. I started listening to a few episodes and got to ‘A Dreamless Sleep’ after a few days. The conclusion to it got a gasp and jaw drop from me in the middle of the supermarket, which got a few strange looks! Do you have a favourite episode?
It might be that one. That was an idea I had crystallize before I even really started writing episodes, so I felt I needed to get a few “here’s how the world works” episodes in place before dropping that one. I am also partial to episode 43 - ‘This Fear’ - because it was one of the first times I really dug into emotional dialogue. I have both of those episodes on vinyl on the shelf behind my desk, so by that threshold I suppose I’m pretty proud of both.
‘This Fear’ is tied into the closing arc of Season 3; if you were to pick an episode to introduce someone to SAYER, would you pick ‘A Dreamless Sleep’?
I do usually suggest, if people are just giving me one episode to prove myself, that they listen to A Dreamless Sleep. It doesn't have the same humor as most of the later episodes, but it nails that creeping dread in a way I don't know I've done better.
I think I’ve also really enjoyed ‘A Drastic Impact’, ‘Judgement Day’ and ‘Chunks Happen’ - all standalone episodes where it only becomes gradually apparent exactly how much danger the residents are in. Do you have a preference between standalone and arc episodes?
Doing 5 standalone episodes is dramatically more difficult than doing a 5 episode arc so, from that perspective, I do kind of prefer the arc format. You can’t go as deep with one specific idea, you instead have to do a sort of superficial approach to several ideas. But it’s not too dissimilar to writing a short story vs. a novel. Both can be very great, it just really depends on what story you’re trying to tell.
How long does it take you to go from the first word on the page to a finished episode?
That's, honestly, the easy part. Recording takes maybe 90 minutes, depending on if it's single voiced or a dialogue. Editing takes a couple hours, again depending on whether I have dialogue or how often I get fancy with sound effects. I breathe, but SAYER doesn't. That results in a lot of cutting and silencing and relistened for things that are identifiably human sounds.
Once I have a script, I'm looking at anywhere from 3 to 5 hours to have a product I'm happy with. It's just that pesky writing part that eats so much time.
SAYER is an AI directing residents on Typhon; SPEAKER is its equivalent on Earth directing recruitment; FUTURE is a psychopathic games-playing AI; OCEAN is a rogue AI and SAYER’s nemesis. Which one is your favourite to write for or voice?
SPEAKER is the most fun to voice. It is upbeat and cheery, which is a huge shift from the others. But SAYER is still the best to write. I feel it's the most well rounded of the characters. FUTURE is fun too, but certainly more one-note. SAYER has a tendency to make the listener think “Ok I know this is going to go poorly for me, but maybe it won't be THAT bad,” right up until the minute it gets THAT bad.
You once concluded the SAYER storyline at the end of Season 3, wrapping it up very neatly with a devastating little bow. What eventually made you want to continue and create Season 4 and 5?
It was a difficult decision. There’s something special about having a final product set loose on the world that can be opened up, enjoyed, and put back in a box to take out some other time. But as neat as it was, there were questions that still lingered with me. And the more I thought about the capabilities and motivations of the characters, the more I saw outs for the corner I’d written myself into.
At a certain point, I just kind of missed it. We’d spent the majority of those first 40 episodes bouncing from resident to resident, not really creating arcs that tied together more than a few episodes. I really wanted the opportunity to try to tell a longer form story, which resulted in a single 15 episode arc for Season 4.
I like to tell myself the first 3 seasons are out there and still in a neat package for anyone who wants to experience it that way. Nothing I’ve done since changes that.
I think for me hearing how desperate the nigh-omniscient SAYER had become - how much of a corner it had been backed into by another rebellious AI - was shocking. It was fascinating following that idea into Season 4 as SAYER tried to regain supremacy. Do you see the current seasons forming another complete product in the same way?
The current season is a jump back to before even the first season. So it allows me to do more one-off episodes in a time where SAYER was still installed and actively managing the day-to-day details of residents’ lives. They’re fun to do, but if someone wanted to explain the narrative of SAYER with the “can’t miss episodes”, I don’t imagine many from this season would be in there. It’s backstory, it’s fun, and it’s classic SAYER. I hope some of them will rank among listeners’ favorites when it’s all said and done. But it’s not critical to a bigger story.
If I return to do another season next year, which I can’t really imagine not doing at this point, we would definitely pick up where Season 4 left off. The dynamic there is dramatically different than what I’m writing now, so there are plenty of opportunities to play with new ideas and see where they take me. But eventually I’m going to reach another ending point for the story, and I look forward to moving on to whatever’s next when I get there.
Could you see SAYER working as a TV series or a film?
I have had some very preliminary discussions about it as a TV series, and while it's fun to think about, it would certainly require someone with screenwriting experience to handle that adaptation. I've tried shifting this world into the visual medium with the two SAYER comics, and each time I struggled with the process. Podcasting, as purely an audio medium, places the writer into a very specific sandbox. I don't know the skills I've gained convert seamlessly to other media forms.
That being said, I think the world is rich enough to allow for it. There's a deep enough bank of episodes at this point that it makes for a potentially good fit.
By the end of the Season 4, it’s developed a real ‘clash of the gods’ vibe. I’m fascinated to see how you’re going to pick up that thread again, although saddened by any thought of it coming to an end! All good things, though!
On the technical side, what do you know now about creating a podcast that you wish you’d known at the start?
SAYER was not my first podcast, so at least I wasn’t coming in blind. But I have the same complaints with audio quality as I think any podcaster has. You get better at doing your show over time, and that means it can be jarring to go back and listen to that first handful of episodes.
If I had one thing I’d change it’s that I would have been more organized with my project files. Upgrading the audio quality on the first episodes would be so much easier if I had an external hard drive with every piece of audio, every music track, every sound effect, and all of the multitrack projects from each episode. Without that stuff, you’re forced to start from square one.
What was your first podcast?
I started a video game podcast called Fall Damage with a few friends back in 2009 I think? We did 150 episodes but I don’t imagine it’s something people can find anymore. It followed the same formula as every other video game podcast before or since.
But I learned a lot from that experience. Primarily I learned the technical aspects of editing and producing a podcast and the dedication to consistency that it takes. But more so I learned that podcasting with other people is pretty similar to starting a band together. You’re going to get closer and jam with these people for a very long time, and if things pick up and you’re lucky enough to find an audience you’d better hope you all work well together. I lucked out in finding good people to work with, but it had plenty of complicated moments.
Now I go into new projects looking more at who I’ll be working with than the big “hook” of the podcast itself.
That’s an interesting analogy - not one I’ve heard before. Before you started producing Seasons 4 and 5 of SAYER, you put the projects on Kickstarter. How did you find that experience?
When I started podcasting, there was really no easy way to make it even a self-funded venture. Now there are so many different revenue stream possibilities, but they aren't one size fits all. I'd done Patreon before and still use it for my other podcast, but there's more day to day management of rewards than I like. Since the end of Season 3, I've been a one-man shop on SAYER, so it gets to be a struggle when you have to add reward fulfilment to writing, recording, editing, etc.
Kickstarter streamlines that to certain extent. Yes, reward fulfilment is still a lot of work, but it's work all at once. You can plan it better. You're not ordering rewards hoping that enough people pledge so you can send the last one out, you know what you're sending to whom before rewards are ever ordered. For a season-by-season podcast like SAYER, it's a perfect fit.
Outside of podcasting, what are your other passions in life?
I’m a dad and a full-time teacher, so I surprisingly don’t have much hobby time past that I spend on my podcasting projects. I do enjoy tabletop gaming, which is what drew me to start my actual play podcast, Brute Force. My son and I like to go hiking and camping when we can, because getting away from civilization for a while is always a welcome distraction.
As a full-time teacher and as a father (of three preschool girls), I entirely sympathise! If people want to interact with you online, what’s the best way of doing that?
I'm easiest to reach via Twitter (@theadambash). I constantly post show-related news and teasers there first, because I habitually forget other social media sites exist.
Thanks for your time. SAYER can be found in many places, but here's one to start!