The crystal city glistens in the moonlight. Three of the six moons of Summa Nulla are shining down, casting weird shadows in this abandoned city. Yeah, yeah — not totally abandoned. This was once an automated city; now the rusted slidewalks no longer move. The winds blow through the broken city.
Oh yeah, slimies — biogenetically engineered assassins out for the hunt. I can feel their mind nets sweeping the city.
So begins Ruby: The Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe, the very first cyberpunk radio drama — and still, to this day, by far the coolest. This bit of hard-boiled yet slightly goofy dialogue, tonally representative of the entire series, occurs between Ruby, the detective protagonist heavily armed with "subtle feminine charms and other, less subtle, persuasions" (and, oh, the power to slow down time at will) and what now sounds like an awfully Siri-esque digital assistant.
But at every moment, Ruby offers so much more than dialogue. Just listening to this clip of the opening, in which our heroine introduces herself while gunning down a slimy in pursuit of a frankie (local parlance for a highly artificial human) who appears to be her doppelgänger, will give you a sense of the series' richly layered and constantly stimulating soundscape.
An ever-shifting electronic score underlies almost the entirety of Ruby's three hours, interwoven with narration from Ruby herself, her conversations with a host of colorful secondary characters (human, alien, mechanical, and otherwise), and a wealth of evocative effects (I always thought Ruby's gun, the "Smith-Hitachi Godzilla Blaster," sounded particularly neat) to craft, in sound, the richest possible futuristic world. The whole production plays as if composed as one long piece of music; we might call it (apologies to Billy Idol) the finest cyberpunk album ever made.
William Gibson defined cyberpunk most succinctly as the intersection of "high tech and low life," something that happens in all of Ruby's 65 episodes. As a detective in the true Chandlerian tradition, Ruby deals with lowlives almost exclusively, not least the mustachioed, smoking jacket-clad tentacle monster The Tookah; Toots Mutant, part-human-part-"reptoid" leader of the "techno-punks"; and Rodant Kapoor, the pointy-nosed, beading-eyed, protruding-incisored humanoid who gets this adventure going by hiring her to investigate media manipulation on the planet of Summa Nulla, "the crossroads of the galaxy."
As for the high tech, Ruby also offers plenty of it, from those "plastiflesh"-covered frankies to automatic mind translators to personal "solar wings" to "air cars" and "slither trucks" (available at every rental agency). But true to the cyberpunk vision of future, a lot of this gear rarely functions perfectly, from juddery holographic communication devices to weather-controlling apparatus that doesn't work like it used to.
Ruby originally aired on the radio in 1982: the year, for those playing the cyberpunk history home game, of Blade Runner. And the former holds up sonically just as astonishingly well as the latter holds up visually. Now, for one week only, you can experience its aesthetically intricate, vastly imaginative, and even mythic and philosophical vision (or, rather, the sonic equivalent of a vision) yourself by downloading the whole series free at the web site of its producer, the ZBS Foundation.
I reached out to ZBS to make Ruby freely available to Boing Boing readers, and not only did they generously agree to do so, they provided the recently issued Ruby Refreshed, wherein composer Tim Clark has enhanced the original 21st century-evoking score with genuine 21st-century musical technology.
But even in un-refreshed form, Ruby sounds much more like it was recorded yesterday than 33 years ago. ZBS, founded in 1970 as a consciousness-raising media commune in upstate New York (abbreviation breakdown: "Zero Bull Shit"), had already logged well over a decade of radio drama production by that point. I discovered their work about twenty years ago when, as an elementary schooler, I happened upon a copy of Dreams of the Amazon at the library.
I soon found out that constituted but one of the many adventures of Jack Flanders, a hapless metaphysical explorer and, alongside Ruby, one of the twin icons of ZBS' universe. His own adventures have taken him not just through countless mental realms but countless physical ones: the Amazon, sure, but Bali, India, Sumatra, Belize, and Morocco — all filled with ambient sounds recorded in those very locations.
Ruby, too, stars in more than one show. Once you get done with Ruby, you can chase it with Ruby 2: The Further Adventures, Ruby 3, Ruby 4, Ruby 5: The Land of the Zoots, Ruby 6: The Illusionati, Ruby 6.5: Far Flung Farouk, Ruby 7: Dream Weaver, Dream Deceiver, Ruby 7.5: The Tookah's Tales, and Ruby 8: The Good King Kapoor.
You can hear Ruby's latest adventure, Ruby 9, at the ZBS Foundation's Vimeo page. Once you've caught up on all their hundreds upon hundreds of hours of radio drama from the last 45 years, feel free to have a listen to a radio interview I recorded with ZBS president and chief creative mastermind Thomas Lopez back in 2009. I've stayed tuned into ZBS' unusual frequency ever since I first heard their stuff, and I hope, as soon as you hear Ruby, you'll do the same.