IN 2004, police in Tennessee received an unusual 911 call from Limetown, a town out in the desert created almost entirely by one man and populated by the most brilliant scientists of the age, with the goal of conducting research into neuroscience and psychology, of “uncovering the full potential of the human mind”. When the police reach Limetown, they are prevented from entering by private security. This state of affairs continues over a number of days, as the police are slowly joined by journalists and photographers hoping to get the first news of what is going on inside the town. After four days, the private security personnel simply leave their posts, allowing the police and journalists to enter the town. Inside they find the streets empty, houses eerily silent, leaving no indication of what happened except for the remains of a massive bonfire in the town centre. Ten years later, despite a number of attempts by journalists to uncover what happened, and a congressional inquiry, no one has been able to find out what happened in Limetown during those four days in 2004.
This is the premise of Limetown, a new sci-fi podcast which began on July 27th 2015, and has now aired four of its six episodes. The show follows reporter Lia Haddock, as she investigates the events surrounding Limetown and the disappearance of the town’s population.
Like many fictional podcasts, Limetown blends reality and fiction by telling the story of its own production. Episodes two and three both include events which occur due to the broadcast of the first episode, and there is a sub-episode entitled “A Quick Apology” between episodes 2 and 3 which “apologises” for something broadcast at the end of episode two, a move seemingly inspired by This American Life, which once broadcast an entire show dealing with the retraction of one of their earlier stories and occasionally includes commentary and apologies from host Ira Glass when he feels that the show has overstepped the line.
The use of this technique in Limetown is particularly interesting, because while the technique is used in other shows, in each case the result is slightly different. While in The Black Tapes the blurring of fiction and reality serves the over-arching theme of ambiguity and makes the events in the show feel even creepier than they otherwise would, this is not the case in Limetown. There isn’t really much ambiguity after the first episode; instead the show functions more like a traditional thriller, drawing the audience in through their desire to discover the weird and fantastic events and people surrounding Limetown. Because of the fantastic nature of whatever happened, the blurring of reality doesn’t really make Limetown feel frightening or creepy. What it does do is make it feel impactful. The events of the second and third episodes feel more real because of it and, due to the close mimicry of the audio-documentary style of shows like Radiolab and This American Life, complimented by some excellent writing and well-crafted characters, the interviews feel surprisingly real, as do the struggles of the characters we meet.
This brings us neatly to what may be the biggest theme of Limetown; damage. As more information gets revealed to the audience, we become acutely aware that whatever happened at Limetown was distinctly unnatural and should not have happened, and left everyone who was involved deeply damaged and flawed. Rather than going the more Jurassic Park route of “There are some things mankind was not meant to meddle in”, Limetown opts to focus on human pain and struggles, rather than to talk broadly about hubris. It is less about the horrible consequences of science gone wrong, and more about living with the fallout.
The damage the show addresses isn’t merely passive though; we actively see it happening. As Lia Haddock explores the events surrounding Limetown in greater depth, it becomes progressively more apparent that the damage isn’t over, that things are still happening to hurt anyone who gets involved and that she may well not come out unscathed. Because of this, Limetown can be seen as dealing not only with damage, but with a more specific theme of damage limitation. Many characters we meet are trying to limit the damage caused to them by changing how they live their lives, Lia is trying to limit the damage caused by the incident by bringing it to light, while simultaneously trying to limit any harm that may come to her in the course of her investigation. This gives everything a great deal of impact, as the human cost of every action is made abundantly clear, making it one of the most human pieces of sci-fi I have encountered in a long time.
This is normally the part where I would place some criticism, but honestly there isn’t much to criticise. This may be because the show is still young; four episodes isn’t a lot to go on. However, something worth pointing out is the update schedule, in that there doesn’t appear to be one. Episodes come out seemingly at random, presumably when they are finished. This may or may not be a problem for you, depending on how you tend to consume podcasts.
Limetown is an excellent piece of sci-fi, exploring the consequences of technology in a gripping and eminently human way. The episodes available are well worth a listen, and can be found on Podbay, iTunes, Soundcloud and at http://www.limetownstories.com/