Thursday, August 13, 2009

For Your Ears Only: Ruby: the Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe

Ruby CD cover and Amazon link
A week’s vacation in Colorado was the perfect opportunity to catch up on some of my audio drama. I’d bought RUBY: THE ADVENTURES OF A GALACTIC GUMSHOE a couple of years ago, but only recently had the chance to listen to it. One of ZBS’s older productions, it’s outwardly your standard mix of sci-fi and film noir, but it throws in a hefty dose of postmodern reality-bending and off-kilter comedy. It’s the better of the two ZBS productions I’ve reviewed, more absorbing in its atmosphere and creative in its story, and while the actual plot can get kind of scattered, strong characterizations hold it together.

Laura Esterman plays Ruby, who is, as the title suggests, a galactic gumshoe (a good one, she is often inclined to say.) On the distant alien world of Summa Nulla, Ruby’s on an assignment trying to uncover what her employers believe is a conspiracy to manipulate the media. She’s sidetracked, however, when she runs across an android dressed like her and being chased by genetically engineered assassins called “Slimeys”. The android, Angel Lips (Robin Karfo), is a pleasure model who once belonged to lonely and crusty archaeologist T. J. Teru (Bill Raymond) , who has discovered a lost city beneath the planet’s jungle. Angel Lips, programmed with a degree of independence and inquisitiveness, goes off for repairs and ends up making a Digital Circus techie named And/Or (Tom Stewart) go completely crazy for her. The Slimeys are still on Ruby’s tail, and she decides to make rooting them out her priority, but there’s the question of mysterious signals being sent from somewhere, signals that may or may not have anything to do with the conspiracy she’s trying to hunt down. Ruby’s got her hands full, but she’s still got time to visit Casino City and head underground to play cosmic pinball with the pun-happy mole people.

As far as I can tell, people have been trying to mix film noir with sci-fi ever since the former was invented. To be sure, we’ve got the everpresent narration, which Esterman is quite good at delivering; the writing itself isn’t overdone, but is just vivid enough to evoke some powerful images. In fact I’d say the blend of sci-fi and detective conventions is just about right overall; you’ve got your set-ups, double crosses, and conspiracies, but also some genuinely interesting science fiction concepts and imagery. There’s a lot of light humor to ease things along, and it definitely helps the play’s metaphysical and philosophical discourses go down. As with the Jack Flanders play I reviewed, RUBY invokes the theme of consciousness altering reality at many points, along with other related ideas of mental expansion, questioning social paradigms, etc. It sounds dry, but it’s quite well integrated into the actual story; the closest it gets to just stating these ideas is in a number of segments featuring media darlings the Android Sisters (Ruth Maleczech and Valeria Vasilevski), but it feels nuanced and kind of tricky since we don’t know what their agenda is.

Ruby herself is what ties the whole surreal shebang together; as mentioned before, Esterman has the right voice and personality for the character, and she comes across strong from the start. The character has a good bit of texture; she sometimes makes wrong decisions, but she grows on the listener, and when she disappears from the story for a spell, she is sorely missed, as boldly as Teru tries to take up the slack.

RUBY has an odd structure, as it was originally aired as a series of three-minute drive-time radio segments. Listened to as a whole, it has a lot of overlapping exposition but still manages to pull forward substantially each time. The sound effects are strong throughout; the narration covers the bulk of the action, but the technicians never fail to convey a strong otherworldly atmosphere.

As mentioned above, there’s a part where the series drags a little, and it ends with a few things in the air, partly in accordance with its postmodernist bent but still slightly frustrating. Fortunately, RUBY was a success and there are currently 8 separate series featuring the stellar detective. It’s well worth listening to, delivering more than you’d expect and confounding expectations in a very pleasurable way.

Grade: A-

(I tried to get the name of the writer, but for the life of me couldn't make it out. Something Fulton, I think. If anyone wants to give me that info, I'd be grateful.)

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