Wolf 359 is lightyears ahead of its time


Irish Times

Staff Reporter Grace Myers gives her take on the 61 short-episode podcast, Wolf 359.

Grace Myers, Staff Reporter

Aboard the U.S.S. Hephaestus station, communications officer Douglas Eiffel and his crew of three orbits the star Wolf 359, 8,000 lightyears away from Earth. With his friends, Renee Minkowski, Dr. Alexander Hilbert, and the sentient A.I. HERA, at his side, Eiffel spends three years away from home in search of contact with alien life. Along the way, he faces hardship after hardship alongside people whose trustworthiness is under constant scrutiny. How many allies does he truly have on this ship so far removed from the safety of the rest of the world? How long can he last against threats far greater than himself?

Wolf 359 is a science-fiction comedy podcast written by Gabriel Urbina that explores themes of what it means to be human, the strengths and weaknesses of trauma-induced friendships, and holding true to one’s beliefs in moral dilemmas. It is 61 episodes long with hours of special episodes and bonus content, and it is packed with the most action I’ve ever experienced in such a short podcast. The writing is fantastic, the sound editing makes the show deeply immersive, and every episode leaves you on the edge of your seat.

I could list the strengths that make Wolf 359 truly great for a long time, but the main thing that made me fall in love with it was the character HERA and her representation of the essence of humanity and recovering from trauma. 

One of HERA’s biggest struggles throughout the series is an inferiority complex based on the fact that she’s the only non-human on the Hephaestus station. While she is arguably the most important piece of the mission with her duties of keeping the station running and in livable condition, she is still made to feel inferior on the basis of being a root, particularly by Dr. Hilbert.

Dr. Hilbert is a pragmatic and straightforward man. He only has his personal goals in mind, and he sees the world as exclusively black and white. This way of thinking extends to his treatment of HERA as a computer unit rather than a sentient being with feelings and thoughts. It causes conflict on numerous occasions, including one time when he unplugs her during a bout of glitching and system failures. On Hilbert’s end, he was simply solving the problem of a faulty machine by giving it a hard reboot. On HERA’s end, Hilbert had effectively murdered her for the duration of her offline period.

It is aggressions like this as well as smaller yet constant ones like Hilbert refusing to call her by her name and speaking to her only in commands that cause HERA to build up an incredible amount of anger, most of which gets directed at herself. In moments of vulnerability with Eiffel, she reveals that she feels intrinsically less valuable than her human teammates, and struggles with the fact that she feels human but can never be perceived as such.

Her constant questioning of “what does it mean to be human” is raised to the audience multiple times throughout the show, and it’s one of my favorite things to ponder in this context. HERA isn’t human, but the only thing that differentiates her from anyone else is her lack of a physical body and the fact that she was programmed. She is sentient, capable of making deep friendships, strongly opinionated, and has her own set of moral values. By all definitions, she is human, and deserves to be treated as such. In one episode, Eiffel makes the claim that because she has memories and a subjective lived perspective, she is no longer an object but a subject. With this definition of humanity in mind, it is obvious that she is at her core human. I like to extend the definition further, especially when paralleling HERA with Dr. Hilbert and eventually Eiffel. What if humanity is defined by morality? What if it is defined by compassion and empathy?

With these constraints, Dr. Hilbert starts to lose his humanity pretty early into the show. Throughout the series, he driven by one goal; to continue his experimentation no matter the cost. We come to find out that he has killed people for his goal. We come to find out that he would kill again for his goal. There is no remorse for his actions, no compassion, no innate sense of morality behind his motivations. Just the need for answers and lab results.

In the very last episode of the show, episode 61 “Brave New World”, (major spoilers ahead) all of Doug Eiffel’s memories get wiped. While I think this was a terrible ending and poor writing on Urbina’s part, I do think it plays an interesting role in the show’s overarching theme of humanity. By Eiffel’s definition, he is no longer human at this point. He no longer has memories or a lived subjective experience. He is a shell of the person he used to be. HERA becomes one of the few characters to still maintain her humanity by the show’s ending, and I think that’s fascinating considering the fact that she’s never lived a day in a human body.

There is also an interesting connection to be made in the way HERA is written as an artificial intelligence. She glitches constantly, her systems fail when she feels overwhelmed, and of course, she was programmed to function as an A.I.. These flaws, while distinctly unique to robots, tie into her human experiences at times as well. HERA’s systems going into overdrive during times of stress parallel panic attacks and the way human bodies struggle to process anxiety. Vocal glitches parallel anxious stutters. She’s not human, but her experiences are, and I love the way Urbina used a machine as an allegory to deal with issues of the physical effects of mental health issues.

This mechanical metaphor allows for a particularly compelling method of storytelling and handling the topic of recovering from trauma. Episode 41, “Memoria” is my favorite episode of the show for this reason.

In it, A.I. technician and specialist Alana Maxwell takes a literal dive into HERA’s mind in order to find the cause of her memory corruption and system failures. She enters her headspace in a fascinating and well-edited mindscape setting, which allows the audience to fully grasp the thoughts that go on in HERA’s head, and allows Alana to head-on confront some of the insecurities HERA reveals. Alana sorts through old memories of HERA’s, playing scenes in which HERA glitched or failed to perform. Together, they find that the common thread between them is her deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. Each failure of hers is driven by insecurity and perceived incompetence and disappointment from her crewmates. The episode teaches a lesson that in order to function at your highest capacity, you must first have full confidence in yourself.

It is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had with media, and part of it comes from the fact that there are no visuals. At times, I imagine HERA as a scared little girl curled up in a ball, afraid and insecure as she talks about her deepest secrets. At other times, I see her as a headstrong, opinionated teenager combatting intrusions of her privacy. It is the visual ambiguity that creates such an intense and immersive experience for me, and the episode’s creative portrayal of HERA’s character is a work of genius. The message is powerful and made more impactful by the unique format of the episode.

Wolf 359 is a podcast I recommend to practically everyone. It can be found on Spotify, iTunes, Podbay, Google Play, and the Wolf 359 website. There is something in it for any person to enjoy, from its mature discussion of deep themes, to its snarky comedic-relief protagonist, to its action-packed and slightly absurd science-fiction plot, the show is guaranteed to entertain and leave a lasting impact on its dear listeners.