First Impressions: “The Phenomenon” a Testament to Books as Podcasts

The Phenomenon is a new audio drama based on the novel of the same name by R. K. Katic, which began as a series of continuing vignettes on Reddit:

Inspired by serialized science-fiction radio shows of the past, The Phenomenon is a fictional podcast with an international cast and rich sound design that follows people from around the world during a catastrophic extraterrestrial invasion.

When a supernatural threat drives mankind to the point of extinction, survivors around the globe struggle to endure in a world with just three rules:

Do not go outside. Do not look at the sky. Do not make noise.

I’ve always thought it strange that Audible is one of the most prolific sponsors of podcasts. This might be a controversial opinion, but I can’t stand audio books; why would I want to listen to a single person tell me one story and pay money for it when I could listen to a full-cast production of a story with full sound design work for free? The two worlds seem like the could easily borrow from each other, but other than a few standouts (maybe The Once and Future Nerd‘s fantasy inspiration complete with narrator or the full-cast recording of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or his other works with BBC adaptation) the two worlds have been strangely separate.

The Phenomenon is the first book-turned-podcast that feels like a genuine success. The plot lends itself to quick episodes from different perspectives, and the writing trusts its audience enough to not over-explain. Instead of taking a book, reading it out loud, and delivering it via podcast, The Phenomenon feels as comfortable over audio as it likely does on the page (for full disclosure, I haven’t read the novel itself).

So far as of writing this review on 1/23/2018, The Phenomenon has only released five episodes, each under twenty minutes. These episodes have been driven mostly by the plot’s momentum, beginning the moment the first alert for the eponymous Phenomenon is sent out. Some threat, whether it be something more science fiction or magical realism, has just wiped out about 80% of the population via instant exsanguination. The moments audiences can take a breath are the moments they’re faced with tragic character moments or dire choices. Each episode is driven forward almost frantically in the wake of the event, taking moments to pause only to get to the real crux of the story: its characters and the moral dilemmas they face in response to catastrophe. The intense pacing feels similar to another new favorite, Marsfall, which works just as well in The Phenomenon. The pacing keeps the exposition from bogging down a story that starts with cataclysm.

It helps too that the exposition is minimal. So far, The Phenomenon is told through a set of characters who are only information-adjacent. The protagonists are all characters who either know someone who has the information of what’s happened or are only going to give exactly as much information as needed. The Phenomenon seems like a mystery to almost everyone involved, but it’s clear to see which characters will start finding the breadcrumbs to more behind the scenes. This exposition model requires a good amount of trust from the audience: because the POV characters know so little and there’s no narrator to help explain, the listener is kept just as in the dark as the characters. So far, though, those POV characters function easily as mouthpieces for a confused audience without the need of length info-dumping. The Phenomenon toes the line between over-explaining and under-explaining effortlessly.

My worries regarding The Phenomenon are the same worries I have for any media in this supernatural mystery genre: I worry that the focus is going to be too much on what the Phenomenon is versus what it stands for. I also worry that while the short episode runtimes work right now for the pacing, they’re going to eventually detract from the listeners’ abilities to invest in the characters. Given podcasts aren’t tied to any specific format, though, I’m sure The Phenomenon will adjust its episodes lengths as needed, if it’s needed at all.

For now, The Phenomenon is a mysterious, intriguing new listen with a great combination of character, plot, and pacing. The show proves how books can be adapted to the podcast platform well, and how the gap between podcasts and audio dramas should be bridged.

You can find The Phenomenon on their website or any major podcatcher. You can find the novel the podcast is based on here.

7 thoughts on “First Impressions: “The Phenomenon” a Testament to Books as Podcasts

  1. “This might be a controversial opinion, but I can’t stand audio books; why would I want to listen to a single person tell me one story and pay money for it when I could listen to a full-cast production of a story with full sound design work for free?” THIS IS SUCH A HUGE MOOD


  2. Okay, so now I’ve had time to actually listen to the show. It reminded me a lot of We’re Alive: A Story of (Zombie) Survival in its world building and general tone. However, I personally find We’re Alive to be more effective at communicating characters due to the smaller number of them initially. That podcast starts with one POV character before expanding out into more storylines, but it never feels overwhelming because of how slowly these stories are added in. We’re Alive also feels a lot more tension filled than the Phenomenon does. This may have to do with the use of music and pacing (the Phenomenon sometimes has long silence filled breaks that made me question my internet access). Both We’re re Alive and The Phenomenon struggle with introducing new threats without much preamble, with the ice monster in ep 6 of the Phenomenon and the latter half of We’re Alive. The advantage that Phenomenon has over We’re Alive with the multiple narrative lines is that it has a variety of stories that it can explore, which is really fun. This can be detrimental, however, because jumping around can make it so that some storylines aren’t as developed as I might like them to be. I’m also a little dubious about the way Japan is portrayed in this podcast. The strongest bits for me: the interactions between the Russian guy (George?) and the ISS, the southern conspiracy theorist (I wanna see him and Burt from We’re Alive have dinner sometime), the diplomat and his daughter (the most We’re Alive feeling plot in the show), and the stuff with the submarine crew. I am excited to see where this podcast goes in the future, as I intend to keep listening.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed the first season of The Phenomenon, and your review does it a lot of justice. I especially thought the sound design during my first time listening to the podcast is startling and intriguing at the same time. I really enjoyed your article and writing style!


  4. I listened to the first season and a few of the second batch. In the long run, the cumulative effect is really depressing. There are too few victories against overwhelming odds and the characters tend to show as much of the worst of humanity as the best. Anyone who suffers from mild depression should stay well away from this show.


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