Books: Phonogram (vols. 1 & 2), Stuff Matters
Phonogram (vols. 1 & 2) by Kieron Gillen (writing) and Jamie McKelvie (art)
These are the first two collected trade-paperback volumes (Rue Brittania and The Singles Club) that depict a world of 'phonomancers' in early-2000s London clubs. Phonomancers, in this world, are magicians who derive their powers from the use of songs, typically pop songs.
It took me a long, long time to frame that last sentence. It might be helpful to imagine me wincing, shrugging, and uptalking through the whole thing, just to properly convey the "I'm not exactly sure what was going on?" of it all.
It feels like a pair of books that I need to either read through three more times or reread with accompanying Cliff's Notes, though the latter would feel like cheating. I give the books a lot of credit for not overexplaining -- it hits The Wire-like levels of just dropping you into a foreign world and trusting you to sink or swim -- but that meant that I was lost a lot of the time. I didn't have enough experience with urban fantasy to sort out what the rules of magic were. I didn't have enough experience with 90s Britpop to fully grok the deep and broad musical references. (Still trying to figure out who the 'king of the dreamworld' figure was -- Ray Davies, maybe?) And being out of my depth in those fields meant that I was also lagging behind on understanding the characters. If this had been a movie, I would have been the annoying friend in the next seat who kept asking, "Wait, *who* was Brittania, again?" until the Drafthouse threw me out for violating their noise policy.
None of this is to say it's a bad pair of books. I'd rather read a book that overshoots and goes too obscure than a book that just sits there, blandly showing me two white dudes in a kitchen. And I'd much prefer a book with a clear point of view that puts me at a distance to a book that's more shrugging and innocuous. And even when I don't quite get what they're talking about, the *characters* clearly do -- there's a big difference between a detailed world that I don't quite get and a lazily-written one that doesn't quite gel.
And the feel of the stories was exciting. It's a story about young people, and specifically the sort of young people that I was *never like*. I was never dangerous, or hedonistic, or wildly devoted to some or other artistic cause. So it's exhilirating to vicariously experience a world that, while it's informed by this meticulous speculative-fiction world-building, feels like it's *about* this sort of exuberant, self-destructive passion. On some level I can't help thinking that, oh, this is what the cool kids were up to, way back when.
So I'm not exactly sure what I read, but I'm glad that I read it.
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
This is a nonfiction book about materials science -- specifically, about the history and chemistry of a dozen basic materials that underpin modern life.
Why is glass clear? Why does metal bend? Why can't you taste a spoon? Materials science is the study of all those questions a kid asks about household objects right before you throw up your hands and insist, "Just BECAUSE, okay? Now make yourself useful and fetch your Uncle Peter a whisky." It's all those simple, vexing questions about why materials behave the way they do. (And, for the record, the answers are: unavailable quantum energy levels, movable irregularities in crystalline structure, and a surface layer of chromium oxide, respectively.)
The field has the potential to be utterly fascinating. It's a study that's surprisingly relevant to 'real life'. I can think of at least four famous disasters -- the sinking of the Titanic, the explosion of the Hindenburg, the Challenger explosion, and 9/11 -- that on some level came down to materials behaving unexpectedly in catastrophic edge cases. And materials science gets at questions like "how does a sweater work" (by boxing in lots of air pockets; air is an insulator) that are so basic that, with age, you forget to even ask them any more.
There's a great popular-science book about materials science waiting to be written. As soon as the materials equivalent of John McWhorter shows up, I'm going to read everything they write with obsessive interest. For now, Stuff Matters is not bad.
The book is a glorified listicle -- a collection of eleven chapters, each of which covers a different modern material. Professor Miodownik is at his best when he's covering the nitty-gritty details of chemistry. He clearly knows that subject inside and out, and he employs lucid, clever writing to get even the trickiest ideas across -- he handles 'why is glass clear' so adriotly that you get nearly halfway through before even realizing he's talking about quantum theory.
As he gets further away from his field of study, the writing gets weaker. And unfortuantely there are a fair number of digressions. In one truly head-scratching tangent, he was talking about paper, then relating that to envelopes, then alluding to back-of-the-envelope calculations, then to Fermi's Paradox (a problem based on a back-of-the-envelope estimate), then to aliens. The best version of that would be a James Burke sort of giddy trip through history and thought, cleverly ending where it began. But Professor Miodownik does this poorly, and winds up feeling only like he's wandering afield from his book.
Still, there's a border zone between the hard science and the wild digressions that held my interest -- where he hasn't quite wandered off into aliens or media studies or dorm-room philosophy, but he's definitely in the neighborhood of the social sciences. There are aspects of materials that you never really think of -- like, you could make a perfectly-weighted billiard ball, mill it into a nice, smooth sphere, and if it didn't make a proper "clack" sound when it ran into another such ball, it would be disappointing and borderline-useless. Or, going back to the un-tasteable spoon, there was a time before stainless steel where not tasting your cooking implements was a rarer thing -- and eating with your fingers/chunks of bread a far more common one.
So there's a lot of interesting material to be found. But it doesn't really add up to much. Again, the book is a glorified listicle, with no real overarching theme beyond "materials are important". So expect a fun read, full of interesting trivia, that doesn't really *mean* anything.
For next week: still so so much media-writing to catch up on, including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Logan, Paper Girls, OJ Simpson: Made in America. At the moment, I'm listening to Made to Kill and finally reading On the Origin of Species. (Weird to get caught up in arguments about evolution and realize I'd never read that.) While exercising, I'm on season 11 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.
 For the record, I spent my teen years and early twenties alternating between 'working very hard at school' and 'crying all the time for no reason'.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none