Welcome to my new weekly blog post, where I’ll be reviewing short stories. There are thousands and thousands of them available – in magazines, podcasts, online anthologies, with hundreds more dropping every month. Every week, I’ll listen to and/or read one or two so you don’t have to. It won’t just be scifi either; I’m completely genre agnostic, and will go for any story that piques my interest.
This week: superheroes who need therapy…
Sometimes, all you need to tell a story is a really, really good idea.
If it’s compelling enough, it can drive the story on its own. It can spawn an entire universe, thrumming away at the middle of it like an engine, propelling the reader or listener through the story. With a good enough idea, you can do anything.
The most obvious example I can think of is The Martian. Andy Weir’s book has an almost absurdly simple idea at the centre of it: what would happen if an astronaut was abandoned on Mars? Really, that’s all there is to it. A very simple question, that was answered in an absolutely brilliant book which never wavered from its central focus. Obviously, it helped that Weir was a lightning bolt of a writer, one who happened to know a lot about the science that would help said astronaut survive, and learn to hate the disco music that is his only companion. But with an idea that good, even a writer with half of his skill would be able to concoct a compelling story. Getting a good idea is half the battle.
And with The Bright Sessions, Lauren Shippen has hit on one hell of a good idea.
It’s a little different to the things I normally review. Usually, I’ll take on one or perhaps two short stories, or a single episode of a podcast. But really, the core conceit of The Bright Sessions is so good that I ended up listening to the whole of the first season more or less in one gulp, and right now, I’m halfway through the second. I told myself I would hold off writing about it until I actually finished the existing lineup (there are three seasons available, with the fourth one due in October) but I couldn’t do it. I burned to get this review out. The show is that much fun.
And again, it comes down to that one beautiful, burning idea. In this case, it’s the question: what if you had a therapist who exclusively treated superheroes?
In fairness, perhaps that idea should read: what if you had a therapist who exclusively treated people with extraordinary abilities? The people who sit in Dr Bright’s office aren’t heroes. They are damaged, confused, often heartbreaking cases who are struggling to deal with their powers – ones who have had their normal lives ripped apart, and are struggling to put them back together again. If half the battle is having a good idea, then the second half is all about mining that idea for every bit of gold you can, and Shippen digs very, very deep.
She gives us Sam, a woman who can time travel – but can’t control when and where she goes, with the result that her life is a constant set of often horrifying interruptions. She gives us Caleb, a teenager whose adolescence is made all the more chaotic by the fact that he can pick up the emotions of the people around him, even if they are trying to hide it. She gives us Chloe, a wonderfully loopy personality who can read minds, even when she doesn’t intend to. Each episode is a session, with Dr Bright seeing a patient, and each is a little gem in its own right. The writing here is absolutely top-notch, the dialogue utterly natural. Shippen has a real ear – not just for how people talk, but for what they say when they don’t want to talk.
But the real heart of this particular idea is Dr Bright herself. She’s a calm, controlled presence at the centre of each episode, asking probing questions, seemingly entirely professional. But as the episodes go on, you realise that she has her own agenda – one that has nothing to do with just helping her patients get better. And furthermore, it’s an agenda she herself may not be entirely comfortable with…
The writing is helped along by some fantastic performances. As Dr Bright, Julia Morizawa strikes just the right balance of professional and compassionate, so convincing that it’s a genuine surprise when her true motives begin to unveil themselves. Shippen herself is splendid as Sam, and others, like Briggon Snow as the tortured, difficult Caleb, are a joy to listen to. Snow’s character could have made you want to strangle him. Instead, you desperately want him to be OK.
Sound design is minimal, but effective, thanks to work from Mischa Stanton and Evan Cunningham.
It’s not to say the series is perfect. It’s a slow burn, and while the writing and the story are good enough to keep you hooked, there are some missteps along the way. I won’t spoil it, but a fantastic moment at the end of Episode 6 in Season 1 is utterly squandered, with Shippen leaving us until the start of Season 2 to figure out what it means. And while each episode is fantastic, we are never quite sure what’s happening between them, or who Dr Bright’s other patients are, meaning the experience is a little disjointed. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it can sometimes be frustrating to listen to.
But these are minor black marks. For the most part, this is one of the best pieces of audio fiction out there. Find somewhere quiet, put your headphones on, and just immerse yourself in this. Bright is right.
(Oh, and it’s being developed for TV. Don’t wait. Get on this shit NOW.)