Power, Mystery, and the Hammer of the Gods

I stole this blog title from Jimmy Page, who said these three things were what he always sought in art. I couldn’t agree with him more. I have been much entertained of late, so I’m blogging it.

Sigur Ros: ooh, so mysterious

I recently saw the movie “Inni”, which is a filmed version of a Sigur Ros concert, but so much more than that. Even though I referenced Led Zep in my opening line, and have long considered them the best band in the world, I think I’m having to admit now that it’s actually Sigur Ros who should be crowned lords of all rock music. The movie is a brilliant, spare, elegiac showcase of an incredible band at the height of their powers showing that when music is done right, it’s a kind of sorcery. The dynamics, the intensity, the humanity of this band are all beyond description. I was lucky enough to see Jonsi (who is the genius at the centre of Sigur Ros) on tour last year in Melbourne, and I have come to understand that he is some kind of music god, perhaps sent by the Aesir to Iceland in the hopes that Coldplay would just shut the fuck up. If you don’t know who these people are and would like to know, try here, here, here, or even here.

Don't worry, you can (and I do) play a girl.

But I’ve also been deep, deep, and far away in the province of Skyrim. This week, in a brilliant spot of timing, I tore a couple of ligaments in my left ankle while out walking up the mountain. “Can you stay still with your foot elevated for a few days?” my phsyio asked. Why yes, yes I can. I fired up the PS3 and haven’t really moved since. The game is sublime. The landscape and the music are enough to keep me playing it, but add in the rumbling nightmare of a dragon attack, the immersive thrill of lovingly designed dungeons, and the awesome little medieval towns and… well, why bother doing real life, eh? To paraphrase Ralph Wiggum: “Oh boy, Skyrim! That’s where I’m a viking!”

Art is sometimes seen as only encompassing a few, fairly delimited (and uppity) things. Paintings, opera, maybe poetry. I dunno. But to me, this movie and this game are art. They are incredible expressions of human endeavour, pushing right out there on the boundaries of feeling and technology, to make something that is meaningful and valuable to others. It reminds me that art matters; it always matters. And I am so grateful for it, in good times and in bad.

A warrior poet

Quick quiz. Look at the two pictures below. Now tell me which one of the men is medieval poet Dante Alghieri, author of La Divina Commedia?

The answer is, of course, both of them. I have been playing Dante’s Inferno on PS3 and got myself so excited I just have to blog. I’ve been interested in this game since I first saw the trailer, with its fabulous “Go to Hell” shoutline. On reflection, Dante’s Hell seems custom made for adaptation to a video game, what with the nine circles and all. Before proceeding, though, I need to acknowledge all those people who are reading this and thinking “but it’s just a re-skin of God of War“. Yes, I understand it is, and there’s a great review article that deals with that issue here. Now, let it go.

My excitement is more about the fact that popular culture has now given Dante a giant weapon (it’s Death’s scythe, if you must know) and eye-popping muscles, and made him so unbelievably b’dass, so mighty to the power of win, so incredibly l33t and awesomezor. He’s a medieval poet, for chrissake! I love seeing elite culture adapted into popular forms at any time, but to reimagine a lily-skinned, soft-fingered poet as an action hero is just so very cool. But that’s not all. Virgil, the Roman poet, also turns up as Dante’s guide, and he too is ripped (though in ghostly form). What’s next? An RPG about Chopin?

I wrote some stuff...

...then I killed some other stuff.

Really, really angry (be warned: swears)

I am so fucking pissed off right now, and I’ve spent the last couple of days writing polite and considered letters, so here is my chance to say what I really think.

Yesterday, the productivity commission, in its infinite bullheaded ignorance, recommended lifting the restrictions on parallel importation that protect the Australian publishing industry. What does that mean in simple terms? Well, if an edition of one of my books comes out at the same time in the US, and the US copy is a nasty cheap version with no “u”s in the word “colour”, bookstores over here are free to import the nasty cheap version instead of selling the Australian (correctly spelled) version. The profit will leave the country and go to a US publisher, I will be paid less because (1) it’s a cheap version and (2) US publishers offer lower royalty rates.

The Australian publishing industry is a beautiful, yet delicately balanced eco-system. It operates on the slimmest of margins, and once those margins disappear, the whole shebang is put at risk. Where do they get the money to pay the printers, the sales reps, the transport workers, and so on and so on? Who’s going to lose their jobs first? (Hint: it’s the writers, both published and yet-to-be published. Imagine the voices we might never hear). What is now a thriving and wonderful business will become a cottage industry: publishers will become glorified distributors for overseas product. Oh, by the way, the US and the UK are smart enough NOT to have an open market. But they’re going to totally love ours; they will be in here like fucking wolves.

The most vociferous supporters of this unholy mess are, of course, the ugly greedy corporations. Dymocks, for example, who bang on about how it’s going to make books “cheaper for everyone”. Well they are big fat fucking liars, because they could make books “cheaper for everyone” if they immediately stopped the practice of charging more than the recommended retail price for books whenever they fancied. Do not listen to them: they are not interested in promoting literacy, they are interested in putting gold flakes in their water coolers.

One of the things that pisses me off the most is the way that authors are being frowned upon for talking about how the changes will affect their incomes. That hoary old romantic chestnut about real art not concerning itself with commerce gets an airing. “Artists aren’t supposed to want money!” (blanches). Well, you can’t buy your groceries at Coles with artistic integrity. Doesn’t fucking work. Tried it. Why shouldn’t I care if I lose money? Should everybody who likes their job be happy just to do it for free?

Yesterday The Australian hauled me out of my office to take my photo looking cranky in an independent bookshop and interviewed me about what I thought, for today’s paper. I’m not in today’s paper, and nor is my photo. There is a photo of a teenager with gigantic tits (in a Dymocks: they’re getting shitloads of free advertising this week) who is happy that she will be able to buy cheap books now. She can’t even vote. Why did I waste my fucking time and breath?  The media likes the issue because it has two very clearly opposed sides and they’re getting top page-filling mileage out of it. They don’t give a fuck who wins (tits may win), cos they’re still going to have jobs when the publishing industry shrivels up.

And plenty of journos are bitter, scorned, unpublished novelists anyway. Just saying.

So the productivity commission suggests to offset any loss of income for writers (note: by saying this they show that they do believe writers will lose income) the government should look at increasing funding for writers. I’m sorry, but that’s just a leeetle too vague for my liking. Does that mean the government, rather than the readers, are going to decide what constitutes suitable Australian literature? Am I the only person who can see the looming disaster here? “We asked around at some universities and have decided on more contemporaryrealistliteraryfiction for everyone!” “Excuse me, Mr Government, can I have some money for my book with dragons in it?” “Dragons!” (blanches AND faints).

If you want to do something, write to Peter Garrett. Write to the PM. Write to your local member. It still has to get through parliament. Write them letters, not emails. And shop at independent bookstores. Give Dymocks a big swerve. Google the issue. Mark Seymour did a great article on it, comparing it to the nightmare that was the deregulation of the music industry.

And bring on the digital revolution.

Don’t fear the future of art

Okay, this is more about music and gaming than writing, but by now you’ve figured out that I’m really interested in the way that technology is changing our relationship to art (most interesting fact so far this year: the #1 Amazon.com CD for this year was also available free as a digital download… explain that one, naysayers).

This BBC article provoked some anxious responses on a music forum, about the possibility that gaming was overtaking music in popularity as an art form and so on with various doomsday scenarios in which we all become soulless bots. Ambient musician Deepspace (aka Mr My Husband) posted this considered and very clever response, so he is, in fact, my guest blog for today.

This is a vastly fascinating issue to me- I don’t really see it as negative either, especially in regards to music. I’ve played games since I was a kid, and my family plays games now, and I’ve noticed the massive change in society’s perception of games very recently, as recent as a couple of years ago, mainly through some pivotal games, such as the mmo’s, GTA, guitar hero and the emergence of the wii. They’re going to loom large on our cultural horizon for a while folks.

If you’re concerned for music’s sake though, you should probably stop now.
Music is one of the most cherished parts of any game designer’s ideology and, just for an example, music plays a massive part in those games I mentioned. We have new classical music, being written for a massive audience, and being played by massive ‘game soundtrack’ orchestras around the world. The fact that kids playing a game like Oblivion (to pluck one game out of the void) while listening to Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack music, is brilliant. They’re hearing something that is usually distinctly out of the listening habits of young people. Or take EVE online, which uses hundreds of ambient pieces by Jon Hallur. Since when have young kids gone bonkers over music that sounds like non-top 40, and sounds more like Debussy, Vaughan Williams or the Bladerunner soundtrack? Never. Also, the Grand Theft Auto series brings stacks of music (including Steve Roach) to a massive audience. Spore features Brian Eno and Saul Stokes. Music for games has come a long, long way from the bleeps of pac-man (as cool as those bleeps were). And this music is going into their heads. The fact that they’re creating wonderful associations to the music is a bonus.

The fact that some bands are now releasing albums on Guitar Hero (as much as I despise that game) shows that people want to be more active in their response to music: so they are merely pressing buttons to the rhythm, and trying to get a score- but they are still enjoying the music… When people dance to music, they’re just shaking their butt, so why is this worse? But why are they doing it? I think people stay indoors a lot more these days, and where in the past they would go out and nod their head (or their butt) to a live band in a club, (let’s hope they don’t stop completely) now they’re doing it in their living room. While I cringe at the thought of doing this, Gen Y’s seem perfectly comfortable in doing this.

I see gaming as the ultimate form of opera. This may seem like a whacko observation, but opera came along in the 17th century and brought together music, staging, literature, costumes etc into a cohesive whole. Gaming is bring together graphic art, music, literature, lifestyle, movies, sport, interactivity (i’ve probably left out some others) into something amazing. It kind of had to happen- it’s the next step beyond the linear delivery of the movie or the book. Not that it will replace those, as people don’t want all of their senses to be engaged all the time. As for music disappearing….there’s not a chance it ever will. Music is something we will always do, and it actually prospers in the face of adversity.

I’m not saying we should all become game music designers either, but I think the palette of acceptable sounds, for the new audience, has increased massively, and is bigger than ever.

Hmm. Makes me want to go out and write for games. Anybody understand that particular career path?