As a lifelong science fiction devotee raised on Ray Bradbury, Star Trek, John Wyndham, Doctor Who, and Douglas Adams, if I wasn’t this podcast’s target audience, no one was. I listened to most of the forty-nine episodes of Flash Forward on a three-day road trip through the moonlike terrain of the Southwest, and was entertained and educated the whole time.
Flash Forward is written, produced, edited, and presented by Rose Eveleth. The podcast investigates possible futures, ranging from the fantastical to the inevitable. Using various broadcast modes, from old-school radio dramatization to interviews with real-world experts on the likelihood of these occurrences, the program speculates how the situations would affect society. The undertone of the show is lighthearted, even when the examined futures are foreboding. Eveleth’s interviews with the specialists are engaging and informative, if somewhat oddly effervescent. The futures, often dark, are juxtaposed with light and conversational interviews, making the science accessible.
Flash forward is now in its third season. The first season, originally known as Meanwhile in The Future, featured shorter and less-developed episodes, with most coming in under fifteen minutes. The show has matured away from whimsy, towards serious and more critical concerns and their latent dystopias.
Most episodes deal with a near-future scenario in which a small aspect of everyday life is extrapolated to its inevitable societal changes. One such episode, “Revenge of the Retweet,” ponders the possibility of politicians in the 2046 election having their social media history used against them. This episode, broadcast in July 2016, is prescient of our current situation, but also warns that what a teen tweets today will be accessible during a hypothetical political campaign a generation away. Another recent episode, set in the year 2020, is “Greetings from Paradice(sic),” which explores the possibility of cruise ships venturing into the Arctic Circle now that the ice floes are melting.
Science fiction relies on a conceptual “what if” in combination with a constant. Change one factor about the known world, interpolate it, and allow the situation to evolve. In the most interesting versions, this one shift radiates, and leaves us with a radical change. Eveleth is successful, in that she keeps to the rules of our current world and human behavior, allowing us to imagine ourselves living these possible and impossible futures.
Some of the speculations could very well happen, and other are pure fiction (as far as we know). For example, the development of reliable universal translator technology, in “Omnibot,” examines a world without language barriers, a sort of reverse Tower of Babel. While universality might seem desirable, consider language without nuance, a feature lost with literal translation.
The development of external wombs in “A Womb away from Home,” envisions a society where pregnancy could be optional for those who can afford the service. This pseudo-surrogacy reminds me of human hydroponics for rich people. Other episodes are pure fanciful speculation, such as “Expiration Date,” which asks what would happen if we knew when we were going to die. “The Second Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” considers what a second moon would mean for life on Earth. Chaos in terms of the tides and weather, for starters.
At the beginning of each episode, Eveleth states the year that we are “visiting” and then offers dramatized sound bites of future newscasts, ads, or conversations pertaining to that week’s subject. She then discusses the proposal with real-life experts (and sometimes, no-so-experts). The interviewees aren’t always as directly related to the subject as one might first expect. In “Kaboom” we visit a world where all Earth’s active volcanoes erupt simultaneously. One of the interviewees is a volcanologist and the other is a survivalist or “prepper” who has a cache of food and weapons squirreled away in case of societal collapse.
Some of the concepts are from published science fiction works and Eveleth interviews the authors about their inspirations, following up with scientists to expand on the concepts, often contradicting with the authors’ premises. Several episodes extrapolate news items of today, for example, imagining a world where schools stop having football teams because of the health risks, eventually leading to the end of contact sports (“The Most Dangerous Games”). “The Ultimate Swatting” considers mosquito-borne Zika virus, and has us visit a future where all mosquitoes are eliminated, where among other horrors, we run out of bats.
As would be expected, with each season the stories and interviews get stronger. Curiously, the topics have recently swung towards current concerns. The only misstep, in my opinion was the episode “The Witch Who Came from Mars,” when Eveleth used artificial intelligence to write a short story, which was then interpreted by different specialists. This piece went in a very different direction than the regular premise of the show and, in my opinion, was a failed experiment.
The series would be a good companion to the British television series Black Mirror with its near-future technology scenarios. It could be interesting for Eveleth to use concepts from classic science fiction books and movies and have experts discuss simulated worlds, alien invasion, or time travel (see my favorite author list, above).
My one critique would be that the editing could be tightened up a little as in some episodes there are four or five seconds of silence between segments.
Listen up: https://www.flashforwardpod.com/
Dan Cassidy is a visual artist, curator, DJ, and sci-fi geek. He lives in Northern California and is looking forward to the future.
Find him at: dancassidyimages.format.com and instagram @taosbritdan