Posts Tagged ‘Phonogram’

We start today’s sermon with a reading from the Book of Kowal, volume 1, page 71, where we join two characters mid-conversation:

‘…Would you enjoy a play where you saw the mechanicals exposed? For me, it is much the same. I want the illusion to remain whole. If someone thinks about how it is done, then I have failed in my art.’

At last Jane understood his complaint and how she had transgressed at the ball and then again here, but her own principles were different. ‘I have always thought that an educated audience could more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art.’

‘The effort, yes, but I want to transport the audience to another place; I do not want them to think of effort or technique.’

Jane was silent. She did not agree with him, but knowing now his feelings on the matter, she resolved to avoid offending him in the future. ‘I can enjoy both, Mr Vincent. I assure you, your art is affecting…’

Shades of Milk & Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I read that conversation I almost leapt out of my chair in delight. It’s an echo of a conversation that Laura and I have had a number of times, though we weren’t weaving strands of glamour at the time, and we very seldom attend Regency era balls, on account of being born 200 years too late.

I enjoy picking apart the arts, examining and understanding how an effect is achieved. Whether it’s a book, a film, a painting, a computer game, whatever the medium, looking at how it ticks adds to my enjoyment. It creates extra layers of pleasure to understand how it is affecting me, how the creators achieved their goals.

Laura, like Mr Vincent, prefers the illusion to be maintained. Her most common complaint about proof-reading for me, apart from misused commas, is that it has made her more critical in her reading. Thanks to critiquing me she can now see some of the tricks other authors are using, as well as the weaknesses in their work, and that detracts from her engagement in their stories. Her eyes glaze over when I get excited about camera angles, story arcs or panel layouts. It’s just not her thing.

I loved seeing these contrasting views of art explored in Shades of Milk & Honey, and the way that it became a driver for character conflict. It was a great moment of seeing my own relationship there on the page. Though I am somewhat less sensible than Jane, and Laura is far less brooding than Mr Vincent.

Intriguingly, the other work I mentioned in my previous ramblings about this book also explores perspectives on art. Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram shows the power of music as channelled by listeners and fans, whereas their more recent The Wicked + The Divine puts the power in the hands of the musicians. It’s a different angle, but a related one, in which they’ve shifted focus from the transported audience to the artists putting the pieces into place. The more I think about it, the more common strands I’m finding in these two very different stories, and in the novel ways they use fantasy to cast light on the real world.

How do you prefer to experience art? Do you like to know how it works, or prefer to leaves the mechanicals unexposed? And have you read any other stories that raise this question?

 

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Having got Lies We Will Tell Ourselves out there into the world I’m knuckling back down to concentrate on my freelance ghost writing. The other day I had to check whether a sword really can cut through someone’s arm during a fight. It turns out that the answer is yes, and that the internet is full of videos of people cutting up bones. Make of that what you will.

Science fiction writer W Lawrence, who I interviewed a while back, is running a giveaway in which you could win a free copy of his book Syncing Forward. I can’t get the embedded like to work in the preview of this post, but hopefully after this paragraph you will see a clickable link by which you can go and enter the draw. Because I’m all about the free sci-fi while I ramble about fantasy this week! Giveaway below:

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fantasy novel must feature an action sequence. Except that, as Austen readers will know, a universally acknowledged truth has about as much value as Mr Wickham’s honour, which is to say even less than his pocket-book after a night out in Bath. (For anyone who’s somehow missed out on Pride and Prejudice in its many incarnations, Wickham’s a cad and a bounder, and you can probably work out the rest. Guess I should have said spoilers, but I think 200 years is about the point at which I don’t need to say that, right?)

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action sequence. I grew up watching westerns and war films. I can recite the action sequences from Star Wars almost as well as the lines from the script. When I was nine I drew a whole series of illustrations showing the Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit, and I believe that by restricting myself to a red felt tip pen I truly evoked the bloodthirsty horrors of war. Or was too lazy to go find another colour – these things happen.

But much as I love a bit of action and excitement, I want other things from culture as well. I want The Great Gatsby and Lost in Translation. I want Miles Davis as well as Metallica. And this principle applies to my fantasy and science fiction.

The modern fantasy genre has emerged out of a tradition of mythological adventure and pulp story telling, and those both brought with them a lot of sword swinging and chasing around the place. But that’s the thing about emerging from a tradition – you get to do something more. That’s part of what I’m really enjoying about reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. It takes magic and uses it to tell a story about love, art and social conventions, not about full-blooded adventures full of daring do.

Unless something changes in the last hundred pages. At time of writing I haven’t finished the book yet, and maybe there’s a surprise car chase featuring a Jason Statham-style character before the end. But I doubt it.

Some people might say ‘no action? that doesn’t sound very exciting.’ To which I say ‘action all the time? sounds dull too.’ I crave variety, and having a fantasy story that uses magic to explore art and 19th century social conventions adds variety, adds excitement, adds wonder.

Some fantasy claims to break with tradition because it doesn’t have orcs and elves, or because the hero’s not very nice, or because it’s got gunpowder. And every story to some extent uses and to some extent breaks from tradition. But Shades of Milk & Honey is a far greater and more interesting break from the fantasy tradition than almost anything I’ve read, because it doesn’t just change the details, it changes the fundamentals of what drives a fantasy plot and how conflict is enacted in it.

I’m not saying I want all fantasy to be like this. I like my orcs and thinly disguised orc substitutes. I like seeing Sean Bean die over and over again. But please, let there be more fantasy out there like Shades of Milk & Honey, as well as more that’s nothing like it but nothing like Tolkien either. Let there be real variety. Let there be fantasy slacker stories, and fantasy medical dramas, and fantasies in which cops and criminals embody the social problems facing modern society. Because we all want to see a fantasy version of The Wire right? What, no? You think that’s a terrible idea? Damn, there goes my pitch letter to HBO.

So, after all of this you probably think that I’m going to recommend that you read Shades of Milk & Honey, right?

Wrong. By now you know enough to decide that for yourself. And if you’ve read this far, odds are you’re already on board for this beautiful magical take on Jane Austen’s world. So instead I’m going to throw another recommendation your way. Read Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club, a comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It’s another great example of fantasy used to explore a different facet of life. Like Shade of Milk & Honey it’s something you should love, and even if you don’t then it’ll add some variety to your life.

But read Shades of Milk & Honey too. Because I lied about not recommending it. And that Jason Statham car chase chapter is awesome.

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Postscript, Monday morning:

I finished reading Shades of Milk & Honey last night. There actually is an action sequence of sorts near the end, and by the time it arrives any halfway smart reader will be expecting it. It doesn’t detract from my general point – in fact it’s so at odds with the tone of what enchanted me about this book that I may write another post about it – but I thought I should mention that it’s there.

No Jason Statham though. Not unless they make some strange casting choices when this become a movie.

 

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I wrote this post in the middle of Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep. That may explain a lot. Expect more about this book later in the week, because I’m all enthused.

If you want to see how I write both full-blooded action adventure and fantasy that’s about art and whimsy, then please check out By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories.

I’m currently more excited about comics than I’ve been in months, and it all comes down to one release – Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine. It’s everything you’d expect from this talented team – beautiful illustrations, characterful dialogue, an intriguing mix of modern culture and fantasy. It’s the second best comic I’ve ever read about pop music as magic.

So naturally I’m going to talk about another comic – Phonogram.

Phonogram

Memories of music past

The first volume of Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie’s previous collaboration, came out in 2006. Collected as Rue Britannia, this was the story of phonomancer David Kohl, a man with the power to make magic through music. Not playing his own tunes, but channeling the power of other people’s records. Ten years on from the phenomenon of Britpop, Kohl took a stroll down musical memory lane, digging into that era’s music, a mixture of daring and disappointment, in an attempt to solve a curse falling on him in the present.

Rue Britannia was unique and fascinating, and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. You didn’t have to have listened to a Shed Seven record to enjoy it, but if you remembered Menswear or had leapt around a nightclub to the sound of Elastica then it was going to be much more personal for you.

I don’t remember when I discovered Rue Britannia, but I was fascinated by its flawed and daring mishmash of subjects, as well as nostalgic for a musical era I’d experienced slightly differently from Kohl. It was enough for me to buy the second collected volume, The Singles Club, and…

Best. Comic. Ever.

There are comic series that I love as much as Phonogram, if not more. The jagged science fiction poetry of Transmetropolitan. The surreal humour and world building of Chew. The noire grandeur of 100 Bullets. But for a single impeccable volume, consisting of seven spectacular individual issues, nothing beats The Singles Club.

The Singles Club consists of seven short character studies, all set around the same night out in the same club. Each one contains a complete character and story arc, intersecting with the others to add depth to the whole. Each one grounds its fantasy and character elements in a passion for pop music that connects the story to familiar early adult lives. The art and writing are both clearer and more characterful than the previous volume. It is a thing of beauty that should appeal to anyone who enjoys both music and comics, or anyone looking for an offbeat approach to fantasy and magic, or frankly anyone with good taste (OK, maybe I’m getting a bit subjective there, is it still subjective when I’m clearly right?).

This is literature as a presentation of character, of growth, of the joys and challenges of life.

The Singles Club is the only book in my house that I read several times a year. I love it.

A magic about empowerment

The Wicked + The Divine is about musicians as people with magical power. Their ability to craft songs is clearly central to their ability to do something more potent. That’s all well and good, but it restricts power to the hands of those who can strike up a tune. There’s an implied message here – ‘if you’re creative then you’re special’. It’s a familiar message, and not a bad one, but it has a certain elitism to it.

Phonogram carries a message that is more egalitarian. For all the snide elitism of characters like David Kohl, the underlying message is that culture isn’t just about creativity, it’s about appreciating and being empowered by what others have created. It’s fandom as empowerment. It says that your love of music, or any other cultural form, is as valid and as powerful an act of empowerment and self-creation as anything else. And I think that that is a fabulous message.

Listening to music, loving music, discussing music, sharing your passion, these are actually incredible things. The same applies to the fandom of TV, of books, of films, of any other form. Being an engaged audience makes us come alive. It creates bonds between us. It is as vital to a thriving culture as the acts of creation that it revolves around. Appreciating that, making it central to a story, that’s a great thing.

Go forth and listen

The Wicked + The Divine is currently coming out month by month via Comixology and comic shops. If you’re into comics you should give it a go – the first issue certainly promises good things.

But Phonogram, and The Singles Club in particular, that is a truly great thing.

And in the spirit of that book I give you a mission today. Go forth and find a song that you loved in your formative years. Or if you’re still in those formative years then just a song you loved recently. Sit down and listen to it, doing nothing else with the time (OK, you can dance, though personally I’ll be leaning against a wall trying to look nonchalant, because that’s how sixteen-year-old Andrew rolled). Then come back here and tell us all why that song is so damn awesome, or why it seemed that way to you at the time.

Share that passion.