Sumeria Wants To Make Black People The Voice of Science Fiction
Mark Luckie came to prominence by being a leading voice for the tech industry to reckon with when it came to its lack of diversity—most notably when he left his position as a Strategic Partner Manager at Facebook last November citing the company’s “black people problem” in an open letter.
His departure left the journalist-turned-tech executive with some tough decisions to make. Specifically, if he was going to return to the tech industry at all and what his next project would be. Luckily for him, he never works on one project at a time and he already had something in the works, far away from Atlanta, where he’s based: Sumeria.
Sumeria is a narrative fiction podcast that follows a group of humans as they travel through space searching for a suitable home as unrest is beginning to make Earth a harder place to live for Black people. The all-Black crew left Earth for various reasons, but when they arrive on Sumeria–a colony on a planet far from Earth–what they find mirrors the unrest they fled on Earth.
The show is currently halfway through its first season and has 40 cast members — most of them black — playing characters inspired by some of the world’s biggest cultural movements. Luckie spoke to AfroTech about the future of the podcast, how he went about creating it, and his career.
What pushed you to really start to take this project seriously?
When I was in undergrad we did a radio drama as one of our class assignments. We had to take an old school radio script and turn it into something and we had classmates do the voices, and did some rudimentary special effects and things like that, and I always wanted to do something like that again.
I wanted to do something that combined my two loves of journalism and tech. I wanted to do something more innovative. So I decided to write a screenplay, or whatever you call a screenplay for a podcast.
How long did it take to produce the series?
I’m still working on it, but I started recording the characters in April of 2018 and at the same time I was building up the sound effects library. Each episode can take anywhere between three and five weeks to produce. Most people won’t realize how many sound effects go into it, but literally there’s thousands.
So what kind of team are you working with?
I have a crew of people helping me do the recording, in the field helping me get the right sounds, people wrangling actors and getting the audio together, but as far as the editing and writing, that’s all me.
What was on your mind when you were casting for the roles?
I was really looking for Black voice actors, which took a little bit of digging in the circle of voice actors out there.
Why was that so important?
I am a big sci-fi, action nut, but there are very few movies or stories that have Black characters, and even fewer that have Black leads. So I scroll through Netflix or video libraries, and think “Oh, this is great, but I’d like to see someone that looks like me. I want to see a story that I can relate to.”
So it was important for me to tell this story, not only to have a Black cast, but the plot itself is a parable for gentrification. And some other issues like women’s rights, and race relations. I just wanted to tell a very current story through a conventional story structure.
What did you most enjoy about the production process?
I’m really interested in binaural audio recording. There’s a scene in the podcast, one of the first outdoor scenes that we did, in a market. I actually went to a street fair in Atlanta and had on these binaural headphones and just walked down the street and recorded people talking, so when you listen to the podcast it sounds like you’re actually walking through a market. I want to create more immersive experiences like that, and figure out how to use that in more fiction work and nonfiction as well.
Were you thinking of the show as some sort of commentary?
A lot of sci-fi stories directly relate to what is going on in the time. In the ‘50s it was all about the atomic bomb, and then you get into the space race and aliens. This story was inspired by watching the Black Lives Matter organizations. And some of the characters are inspired by real-life people. For example, the female lead is inspired by one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The villain is inspired by a big gentrifying property developer down in Miami. I kind of studied him to understand what his motivations were, and then turned that into a script.
Where do you hope to see the show go?
I just want to see how people respond to this. I’ve been getting really, really good feedback for the story and from a technical perspective so far. If it’s something that people want to see more of, I definitely want to keep it going.
I have some thoughts on other series as well. I’m a multitasker. I want to be creating multiple pieces of content at the same time.
I think this will be formatted similar to TV where this is the first season, and I hope to produce a second season and so on. I’m already thinking about what happens to the characters after the finale of this season and it’s written so that the story can continue.
Would you ever go back into tech?
I don’t plan to go back into tech. I’m really taking some time now to figure out what it is that I want to do. My career path has taken so many turns. I’ve done things I didn’t even know I was going to do. God has put me on an incredible path.