Steal the Stars: Lacks cohesion and internal logic

Steal the Stars Kindle Edition by Nat Cassidy (Author)Steal the Stars by Nat Cassidy based on a podcast by Mac Rogers

Steal the Stars is a 2017 podcast (created by Mac Rogers) and subsequent novelization (written by Nat Cassidy) which centres around forbidden love between coworkers. In a world where the United States is controlled by a vague and sinister corporation, an alien has crash landed off the Pacific coast, and scientists are running out of funding to unlock the secrets of an extraterrestrial; the central plot may be the least interesting aspect. Frustratingly, we don’t get much else — the world lacks depth and the plot wears thin. In the end, the potential for an interesting multi-media experience was sullied by an unimaginative and thin story.

At some point in a military-industrialized United States’ future, a secret military base is hidden deep underground the innocuous-sounding Quill Marine facility. Dakota “Dak” Prentiss is in charge of keeping the base secret, at the cost of her life, because the scientists and military personnel are studying actual, literal proof of alien life: a being that crash-landed in its ship on Earth eleven years prior, is covered in a strange moss-like substance, and who seems to be in some kind of permanent catatonic state. Inter-personal relationships are strictly forbidden, as per a specific fraternization clause in the employee guidebook, which reads as follows:

Relationships of the same and opposite genders are prohibited if they compromise or appear to compromise supervisory authority or the chain of command, are or are perceived to be exploitative or coercive in nature, involve or appear to involve the improper use of rank or position for personal gain, or create an actual or clearly predictable adverse impact on discipline, authority, morale, or the ability of command to implement its mission. Such relationships are frequently sexual in nature, but this is not always the case, and is not necessary for this prohibition to apply. 

Steal the Stars by Nat Cassidy based on a podcast by Mac RogersJana: Dak is good at her job, but it isn’t fulfilling, and Matt Salem’s first day on her security team is the day Dak decides that she’s going to throw the rulebook out the window and hop on the “forbidden love” train for reasons which are murky at best (and infuriating most of the time). Apparently love at first sight is capable of bringing out the absolute worst in people, both personality- and behavior-wise, but Steal the Stars can’t decide between being a horror/sci-fi novel and a romance novel, so all of Dak and Matt’s terrible ideas are played off as the most reasonable courses of action. It’s very strange.

Steal the Stars by Nat Cassidy based on a podcast by Mac RogersSkye: I think it’s important that you point out their reasons as ‘murky at best’. No matter where the story was going, it was built on that shaky foundation. It was baffling to me, in both the podcast and the book, that the creators went to so much trouble to centre the story around a forbidden love trope. Most frustratingly for me was that there was a clear, ironclad loophole in the contract (quoted above). That contract explicitly stipulates that relationships of any kind are strictly prohibited if they affect the chain of command. Based on the wording of the contract, there shouldn’t be much of an issue. The creators therefore made a paradigm for relationships to be taboo, but then that paradigm — when read to the letter — is situational. In the various scenes where this contract comes up, it’s treated as ironclad — none of the characters notice the ‘if’ statement. Which, frankly, given how much time is given to the contract, is incredibly convenient at best, and sloppy at worst.

Additionally, if any relationship that might threaten the chain of command is taboo, then friendships would be watched just as closely as sexual relationships. Dak’s second-in-command, Patty, states multiple times that she would follow Dak anywhere. To me, that clearly threatens the chain of command. Patty is devoted to Dak. How could she be trusted with orders from higher up the command chain that might contradict Dak? Isn’t that more of a problem than Dak having the hots for the new guy? Overall, I think there could have been a much more interesting story between Patty and Dak.

Jana: I couldn’t agree more. I don’t understand throwing away your entire life and literally ruining dozens of other peoples’ lives just because you want to keep screwing a coworker and the rules forbid it in certain scenarios. (But only certain scenarios.) And Patty would have been a way more interesting complication to that contract! How could she possibly obey orders that would put Dak, her close friend, in danger? It’s like Rogers (and Cassidy when adapting his podcast) didn’t even take into account the possibility that friendship could just as easily cause a problem until the very end, when Patty shows up out of nowhere for no reason. No one ever seems to think that friendship can be just as messy and problem-causing as sex, unfortunately.

Skye: Absolutely agree. That could have been a new and interesting angle. For me, the relationship Dak and Matt were building became more frustrating as time went on: they sometimes reflected on how ridiculous the situation they were putting themselves in was, but never took it further than idle confusion. Again, I was often reminded that Dak and Matt are given very little reason to love each other, nor to be willing to die for each other. The love at first sight (or, in this case, kiss) did not cut it for me. I found myself continuously mystified by their ongoing willingness to follow each other into the uncertain future. Moreover, they take concrete risks that, based on what they know about themselves and the company they work for, make very little sense.

Jana: I hated how Matt had no choice in anything Dak was doing to get them out of what I can only describe as a mostly awesome and cushy job. Maybe some chapters from Matt’s perspective would have helped understand why it’s important that these two people should be together. But without that, Dak just came across as possessive and combative.

Skye: It was all just so sudden, and I never felt like it really added up. The motivations just weren’t satisfying to me. Beyond the unsatisfactory motivations of the main characters, I had a tough time with how it all wrapped up. Without spoiling too much, there is a twist ending. To me, it felt more like a secret trump card than an interesting plot development. It could have been that by the end of the book and podcast I was over the story as a whole, so the ending didn’t pack much of a punch for me.

Jana: You know what I think would have worked better? If there were hints peppered throughout the book, from the beginning, that something else was going on behind the scenes. I kept wondering if that’s the direction the story was going in when the moss-like substance was first mentioned — especially because people keep poking the maybe-dead alien, and breathing the air it’s in without any kind of protection, which seems inexplicably stupid — but it went nowhere until the very last minute. Then it’s not something the authors are building toward, it’s just a secret trump card, like you said.

Also, I wanted to like the hidden alien and the attempts to figure out who he was and how his technology worked. I wanted something more interesting than a standard grey alien with a big head and thin limbs. I wanted more insight into how these corporations were basically taking over elements of the American government, and I wanted to know if that was just localized to America or if other countries were experiencing the same political turmoil. What kind of a world are these people living in? But so much of the story was about this woman and her utter disregard for everyone but herself that there didn’t seem to be any room for anything else. And I couldn’t get a good idea for how far in the future this was all supposed to be happening — there are still Home Depot hardware stores, but journalists don’t have free expression any more, but also high-tech semi-magical handcuffs exist?

Skye: I think you have it spot on. The aspects I found fascinating were minimized, and more space was given to the most predictable, unoriginal aspects.

I both read the book and listened to the podcast. After consuming both media of this story I think the Steal the Stars novelization was better than the Steal the Stars podcast. The voice actors for the podcast were solid, but there wasn’t a lot they could do to improve the written material. There were more than a few plot holes and confusing motivations in the podcast. Now, the novelization seemed at least somewhat aware of some of the flaws in the original writing of the podcast and did address them by adding content which closed some of the minor plot inconsistencies and added a bit more depth overall to the cast of characters. The podcast, especially in contrast with the novelization, was shallow in places (like the goals of the central company and organizational structure of the world [Post-singularity? Post-apocalypse? Post- something?] overall) which made it difficult to suspend disbelief, on top of some of the thematic and characterization issues I also had.

Jana: As far as the podcast goes, I tried listening to it, but I had a hard time differentiating the various actors, and the dialogue sounded so clunky. Far too much exposition and explaining feelings/thoughts aloud. I couldn’t figure out when Dak was talking to people and when she was just thinking to herself. I think they were going for a “radio drama” kind of presentation, but none of that worked for me. And I thought it was really weird that the podcast has Dak talking about Matt in all of this, where the book has her talking to him.

Skye: Although the novelization filled in frustrating spots it was still dealing with the same overall story, which had a myriad of flaws we have been exploring. The novelization, though being written by a different person than the podcast, is very nearly a direct word-for-word transcript of the podcast except in those spaces where the author chose to clarify problems or add sentences to smooth over rough spots. Something that, quite frankly, should have happened before any of the material saw the light of day.

Jana: Agreed. Steal the Stars needed a lot more polish before being offered up to the masses.

Overall, our Steal the Stars takeaway isn’t a positive one. If you’re a speculative fiction reader interested in podcasts with similar themes and genre-leanings, Skye and I both heavily recommend Welcome to Night Vale, which has become a media giant offering various podcast options under the Night Vale umbrella, and there are plenty of other choices out there for listeners to explore.

Published November 7, 2017. Steal the Stars, a debut novel by Nat Cassidy, is based on the science fiction podcast from Tor Labs, written by Mac Rogers. Dakota “Dak” Prentiss guards the biggest secret in the world. They call it “Moss.” It’s your standard grey alien from innumerable abduction stories. It still sits at the controls of the spaceship it crash-landed eleven years ago. A secret military base was built around the crash site to study both Moss and the dangerous technology it brought to Earth. The day Matt Salem joins her security team, Dak’s whole world changes. It’s love at first sight—which is a problem, since they both signed ironclad contracts vowing not to fraternize with other military personnel. If they run, they’ll be hunted for what they know. Dak and Matt have only way to be together: do the impossible. Steal Moss and sell the secret of its existence. And they can’t afford a single mistake.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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2 comments

  1. I’m so glad you guys did this, although I’m sorry the work didn’t please you more, because I’ve been wondering if we want to start reviewing podcasts. There is a lot of good stuff out there, and we already offer reviews on audio books.

    I’m sad this outing wasn’t more enjoyable, but thanks to both of you for presenting it.

    • I think it would be great to start reviewing podcasts, but I wouldn’t have any idea where to even start! Skye’s much more familiar with what’s available (and what’s worth listening to) than I am.

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