Alliances: A Trick of Light is the last project that the legendary Stan Lee worked on before his passing, and it is less of an audiobook and more of a fully immersive, imagination-bending sci-fi aural experience, available for listening right now as an Audible original. Though it is high on themes of technological advancement, the story is really based on a mysterious character named Nia, as well as Cameron, an aspiring YouTube legend. Their paths end up coming together, and they endeavor to create something of a more righteous internet. Chaos, adventure, and moral quandaries ensue for the both of them ... all under the auspices of imagination unleashed.
Though Lee was central to the project's genesis, the creation of it was not a one-man enterprise. Lee was assisted in the creation of the audiobook by co-creators Luke Lieberman and Ryan Silbert, as well as co-writer Kat Rosenfield. SYFY WIRE caught up with Lieberman, Silbert, and Rosenfeld on release day to talk about collaborating with a legend, writing for an audiobook format, Hank Pym vs. Scott Lang, and everything in between. Open your imaginations and get a taste of the aural wonder with this exclusive audio clip before diving in:
The initial ideas of the story can be traced back to the year 2000, when Lee first took Lieberman under his wing. As Lieberman says, Lee was very curious about the emerging internet.
"He was very enthusiastic, and very optimistic about what the internet would mean for people," Lieberman recalls. "He said, 'You put an idea out there on the internet and everyone in the world can see it instantaneously, there's never been anything like it.' He was stoked."
Cut to about a decade and a half later, and Lieberman and Lee were still on that subject, though the tone had darkened. "We're having conversations that are starting to circle around the beginning of this project, and he was much more keenly aware of how these tools, the potential of the internet, were being misused — the way it was dehumanizing us and disconnecting us, and allowing us to kind of live in these warped reality bubbles," Lieberman says, adding, "That was kind of the impetus around which we started thinking about characters and stories."
Once the ideas took further shape, Lieberman sought out Silbert to join the "bullpen," and received what he refers to as "an easy yes." Eventually, it was far enough along that Rosenfield, an author and journalist, was also sought out.
"They worked to develop this concept based on 'what if' questions focused on the internet — what is it doing to our connections with each other, what is it doing to our sense of self?" Rosenfield says. With four creators on board, it could have turned into a "too many cooks" situation, but apparently it was anything but.
As Rosenfield says, "This was like 'storytelling as a team sport.' Everybody on the team had different backgrounds and came from different places, and of course we had the greatest star superhero storyteller of all time as our captain."
The team sport approach worked, to the point where the synthesis of ideas, character, and story merged and took on a life of their own.
"Ideas start blending together," Silbert says. "I do believe that the experience as you listen to it has a singular voice. For us it's a little bit 'Where did the idea come from, where did this come from?'" As to the guiding force driving all of them, it naturally came from Lee.
"I think with Stan, he's somebody who finds curiosity in all of life. With A Trick of Light, the question was what is more real, the world we're born into, or the world we create for ourselves? That, specifically, I can point to as a guiding principle. That question bore the fruits, it bore the story A Trick of Light, the Alliances universe, and everything that you've experienced," he says.
"Stan was a very spontaneously creative person, and everybody had a lot of ideas, but at the same time we were working with the most experienced storyteller in the world," Lieberman adds. "His ability to cut through the noise when things were getting overcomplicated ... he would just focus on the heart of the story, which to him was just characters and their relationship to one another. He kept bringing us back there."
According to Rosenfield, Lee was heavily involved in the whole process and was with them "every step of the way."
"We were lucky to complete the manuscript while he was still with us, and to see how excited he was about it in its completed form," she says.
Lee was also able to thankfully record a prologue for the story, which can be heard here:
Rosenfield also spoke about the process of actually working with Lee, which is something that almost any genre fan would likely flip out over.
"You find yourself in a position to collaborate with this man who is the cosmic matter from which all things superhero spring, and you're at the table with him. It's like, pinch me. It's amazing."
The experience was a bit different for Lieberman. "I'd always been kind of a mentee, but I hadn't collaborated with him in any kind of co-creator process," he says. "The difference for me was the difference between hearing someone tell you about how this is done, and just kind of of picking up little pearls of wisdom which just kind of fell off him all the time, and actually seeing it in action, actually going on a journey. It's the difference between reading Bilbo's book and traveling to go see Smaug with him."
Silbert said that he was "raised on Stan's literature," not just his fiction, but his nonfiction as well. "His fandom, specifically, I found to be contagious. How much he drew from pop culture himself, and his own love of old radio serials, how he drew from The Adventures of Captain Blood, or the dichotomy between Holmes and Moriarty, these all come from a different corner of pop culture because he was a fan."
It turned out that Lee's love of old radio serials was something that played a part in the form that this story ultimately took — it wasn't necessarily always going to be an audiobook experience.
According to Lieberman, when it was just himself, Lee, and Silbert "having initial conversations" in the early days, it could have taken a number of forms. "Stan had worked in every medium there was under the sun ... once Audible came into play and once the idea of doing this as an immersive audio experience became a potential, Stan just kind of grabbed on to it," Lieberman says. "I think in part because he hadn't done it a million times before. It was an opportunity to innovate, it was an opportunity to do something new and different, which I think got him excited."
What ended up getting Lee most excited of all was the notion that listeners would become collaborators with him on the story— taking the form, in a way, of some of the equally legendary artists that Lee had worked with in days of Marvel's past.
"He loved the idea that the listener is visualizing the story, that they become kind of the Ditko or the Kirby, they become his collaborator," Lieberman says. "He brings them into the creative process, because they're creating their own versions of the story that they're listening to."
Silbert adds to this, saying, "He could see that if we went back to the most simple, intimate way of telling a story, that you could achieve tremendous things in that."
Was there a big difference in writing something that would end up as an immersive audio experience, as opposed to something more akin to a regular novel?
"In the creative process it was just us telling a story," Rosenfield says. "Literally the process of having it brought to life by Yara Shahidi [the audiobook's narrator], who is wonderful and one of a kind, that's kind of where the story transforms. To have it packaged in this way where you're a captive audience listening to someone tell a story, that's what makes it immersive. The process of writing wasn't particularly different than creating any other novel."
Does the group have any favorite Stan Lee creations? Of course they do.
"I love Ant-Man. Is that silly? I love him," Rosenfield says, liking that the famous Stan Lee title didn't take itself too seriously, but also noting that casting Paul Rudd as Scott Lang created some issues in terms of whether she preferred Lang to Hank Pym.
For Silbert, it's all about Silver Surfer, a character he referred to as "formative" for him. Lieberman may have grown up on X-Men, but he cites a different title as sticking out when he went back and pored through Lee's creations.
"I really like the early Doctor Strange stuff he did with Ditko," he says. "You saw he felt unburdened by a lot, he was just going out there, in kind of a pure imagination exercise."
Now that this imaginative aural experience has been unleashed, might we expect more stories to come from it? The trio were as diplomatic as possible, but a few hints were dropped.
"I guess what I would tell you is that we engaged in a kind of world-building exercise with Stan, and not all of those characters and stories made it into this first story," Lieberman says. Silbert echoes his statements, and talked about Lee creating the Fantastic Four — he didn't have them go off to space, gain their powers, return, and then end everything right there.
Rosenfield sheds some additional light, and confirms that a hardcover book edition of the tale will be coming in September. "In the meantime, like Stan says in his fantastic introduction, we are entering a new universe, so the possibilities are pretty limitless. The thing that universes do is they expand, so it would be pretty weird if this one didn't."
Stan Lee's Alliances: A Trick of Light is available on Audible right now.