Podcasts for Smart People – Welcome to Mars

Between 1947 and 1959, the future was written about, discussed and analysed with such confidence that it became a tangible presence. This is a story of weird science, strange events and even stranger beliefs, set in an age when the possibilities for human development seemed almost limitless. (Link)

I first discovered Ken Hollings’ Welcome to Mars on Boing Boing and can’t recommend this show enough to anyone who is curious about the intersections of science, popular culture, science fiction, and the nooks and crannies of American history from 1947 – 1959. From government agencies setting up brothels in San Francisco to test various combinations of psychedelic drugs, to UFOs, to the creation of suburbia, Hollings takes you on a ride through the kind of history that you won’t find in textbooks or in a Ken Burns documentary. Subtitled “On the Fantasy of Science in the American Half-century,” the series begins with an examination of Levittown, the very first of the modern suburbs and weaves a narrative that is both compelling and somewhat disturbing. Hollings’ narrative is also underscored by the electronic music of Simon James; music that alternates between haunting and jarring. On first listen, the music may seem extraneous, intrusive, or just plain annoying. In part, because Hollings’ story is so damn intriguing that whenever the music pulls focus, you think to yourself “get back to the real part of the podcast, I want to hear what’s next.” On second listen, however, the music and sounds of Simon James, these odd and jangling, ethereal and robotic sounds become a part of the narrative. James provides a non-verbal commentary that weaves together the various fantasies of science and culture that Hollings reveals.

This show tapped into my personal reservoir of interest in UFOs, science fiction and science fact. From fantasies of government conspiracy to conspiracies of government fantasy to the desperate desire for alien actuality, I have—since childhood and my reading about Betty and Barney Frank, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and the Bermuda Triangle—been intrigued and excited by questions of the paranormal, cryptozoology, and the possibilities of aliens among us. What sets Hollings’ discussion apart from the typical kooky claims, is that he approaches these subjects as a web of cultural and socio-political inferences. For Hollings, the question isn’t “do UFOs exist?” but rather “what does it mean for a culture to believe, disbelieve, and variously represent the existence of UFOs?” As an erstwhile academic influenced by performance studies and feminism, I believe that the connections between government policies, movies, television, architecture, music, and popular representations of science are tremendously important in the attempt to understand ourselves. Hollings offers a snapshot of culture that reveals a number of aspects of the American consciousness that, on the surface of things, may seems trivial, but are, in fact, the very warp and woof of our national identity.

Welcome to Mars is a twelve part series, with each show about thirty minutes in length. If you are anything like me, you’ll probably devour the series in only two or three sittings as you fall down a rabbit hole and find yourself in a strange world that is our own but that is refracted and off-kilter. Like how, when you put your finger underwater, your vision doesn’t quite match up with your physicality. A world of interconnections that rebuild your perceptions about American history and our cultural relationship to science fiction and science fact.

iTunes Link

Website Link

Hollings also published a book version of the podcast that is available on Amazon, Powells, or through Strange Attractor Press.

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