Welcome to Mars: electronica/documentary hybrid

Image: Cover of the Welcome to Mars soundtrack CD
Image: Cover of the Welcome to Mars soundtrack CD

One of my favourite things that I have – at least digitally – is a podcast series in twelve parts called Welcome to Mars. A work of pure genius, it combines a series of unscripted monologues by Ken Hollings with some giddying, insanely inspired synth music by Simon James.

It says it is about “the fantasy of science at the beginning of the American Century”. That doesn’t tell the half of it…

Let me list the reasons I love it:

  • American history: First off the history is facinating, and I’m a sucker for 20th century history. It’s a stroll, and then a scamper and lurk in the shadows of the post-World War II period, the beginning of the “Amercian Century” as some call it. We hear about the industrial-military complex’s evolution, the growth of suburbia, paranoia about Sputnik. These are all things I’ve heard about them before, studied at university in fact, but Hollings presents them afresh, in a new, very odd context. He brings alive the uncertainty and fear that charcterised those times, when it is tempting to see the advance of the United States as a confident march into the space age future that never came…
  • Weird coincidences and neo-conspiracies: Hollings throws you off-guard by connecting dates, people, organisations in ways you weren’t expecting. OK, we’re familiar with Levittowns and consumer culture, by what’s Alastair Crowley doing in the mix trying to score acid in the 50s? He never wanders in loonyville conspiracy theorising, but you feel spooked nonetheless. It reminds me of James Ellroy’s last two books American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, which deal with, respectively, the period before and after the Kennedy assassination. Even though there may be some artistic licence at work, the most unsettling facts, and the overall mood, are utterly authentic.
  • Retro Sci Fi: There’s always something delicious – and insightful – about the past’s visions of the future. This is about my Father’s – even my Grandfathers’, though I’m not sure wither of them had a taste for it –  science fiction, the 40s, 50s. The times when, even over here in the UK, there was such a strong confidence in the momentum of the space technology that a Navy officer would predict that the children he was speaking to might one day command star-ships in Her Majesty’s Galactic Fleet.
  • It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard: It’s not a history exactly, but it’s far from fiction. This a compelling piece of musing, provocation, art. I have had it on my iPod since last Autumn and I keep going back to it when I’m in the right mood. I listen to it on my own, often when I’m travelling, as it has a great distracting, cocooning quality to it. It feels like this is a new, hybrid art-form that works peculiarly well as a podcast. And, er, did I mention it was free?
  • Insanely good electronic music: Yeah, Simon James is a genius. The music, evocative of Sci Fi films of the period adds so, so much to the experience. As well as playing as background to Hollings’ monologue, there are interludes that are amazing to listen to in their own right. And, ad fans out there will appreciate the spooky re-mixes of 40s and 50s ads for American consumer products.

So there you go. If you want to try it yourself, it’s free to get the Welcome to Mars podcast. You can also check out The Simonsound Simon James’s website, buy the soundtrack and Ken Hollings‘s blog for more related wonderfulness.

Image: The Simonsound's album cover makes use of retro space age images
Image: The Simonsound's album cover makes use of retro space age images
  • http://www.strangeattractor.co.uk Mark Pilkington

    Ken Hollings’ book ‘Welcome to Mars’, a much expanded and revised version of the radio series, is also available from Strange Attractor Press, with a CD of music by Simon James if you buy it direct from us.