Hugo 2017 Review: Splendor & Misery by Clipping

Experimental Hip Hop group, Clipping are not a stereotypical Hugo nominee but I’d be hard pressed to name an album that is so tightly linked to the Hugo tradition. Science fiction themes are not new to popular music from David Bowie to Janelle Monae but Splendor & Misery approaches science fiction from a different direction musically. Rather than reaching for the broader aesthetics of SF visuals, Splendor & Misery dives directly into science fiction as both a narrative and as a distinct historical genre.

Before I continue, I have to point out the three-part discussion of the story, themes and layers (upon layers) of references in the album:

http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/2016/10/14/prognotes-clippings-splendor-misery-part-i-all-black-everything/

http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/2016/10/20/prognotes-clippings-splendor-misery-part-ii-long-way-away/

http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/2016/11/03/prognotes-clippings-splendor-misery-part-iii-break-the-glass/

Given that some are apparently delivered by secret codes, I can’t claim to have spotted every reference. Many of the overt references to other music/performers went right over my head. However, there is no shortage of overt SF references from Delaney (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stars_in_My_Pocket_Like_Grains_of_Sand), Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin (who’d have thought mandible rhymes with ansible?) amid less specific layers of connections with 60s, 70s and 80s space fiction.

Musically it is dominated by rap but interspersed with acapella songs that make use of African American song traditions to establish yet another layer of history and cultural connections. On each dimension, even its sense of the future, the album connects with the past.

So Best Dramatic Presentation? Absolutely and unambiguously, it fits into the category as a worthy nominee. It is (mainly) a science fiction story. Not a vastly original one but one told via a different medium.

The story is told in three (maybe) voices:

  • The AI controlling a starship carrying a human cargo. Called ‘mothership’, this is the primary narrator of the story.
  • Cargo 2331, a man who escapes from incarceration and takes control of the ship.
  • Something best described as a chorus – basically I’m lumping together tracks that divert from the main story to add background, mythology or connections.

The story starts where lots of space ship stories start: something goes wrong  – ‘A small anomaly has become evident’. Mothership alerts the crew that the ‘cargo’ is waking up. One in particular, is awake and dangerous and has escaped his confines. 2331 somehow commandeers the ship. Quite what happens to the crew, we don’t know but the AI does reveal as it describes events, that it has methodically killed the rest of the ‘cargo’. 2331 though survives the blow to his head and the ‘fever’ sent as a countermeasure. Watching, the violent, disturbed man who has taken control, Mothership shifts emotionally and decides to protect him, announcing to the ships now seeking to reclaim the stolen spaceship:

Warning: mothership reporting
This will be the last report, turn back, everything is fine
Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 is not a danger, let him be
Warning: mothership reporting
If you continue to pursue there will be no choice but to destroy you
Warning: mothership reporting
This love will be defended at all costs, do not fuck with it

Avoiding pursuit via hyperspace (I assume) jumps, 2331 eventually goes on a mission of vengeance (or possibly simply imagines doing so). However, his erratic behaviour leads to a distance between him and the ship. Their personal conflict intensifies until they decide to avoid pursuit permanently and head off into the unknown.

And somebody gotta keep watch where the watch stops
He talks about his pops in polarity
Fingers fantasize of rocks there will never be
“Land ho!” Likely
Lest a hole in the mantle of Heaven
He’s demanding the evidence for something
That maybe never was for anyone
He’s missing something pretty
He’s missing where the air tastes gritty
He’s missing the splendor and misery
Of bodies, of cities, of being missed

In between, the songs hit a background mythology, hint at war, conflict and sinister trade in human beings.

As a story, it becomes more indistinct and tangential through the album. Earlier songs address events more directly, later ones reflect 2331’s possible psychological decay (and he doesn’t start in a great state – alone, wounded and assaulted by disease) and Motherships own ambivalent emotional state. The song Story 5 (about a woman named Grace, a former soldier who attempts to expose the bosses of an unsafe factory and is murdered for it) has no obvious connection to the plot but feels heavy with hidden relevance.

The third time listening through and after reading the ‘prognotes’ articles above, I started REALLY liking this. I don’t think it is easy to instantly like – aside from anything else, there is a distracting amount of things going on. Arguably, it shouldn’t take three long essays to make sense of an otherwise simple tale of hibernating man waking up on a spaceship in deep space but Splendor & Misery is not just cryptic but compressed like some file format that has been encoded to cram as much in as possible, even if it makes difficult to unpack.

I think it will be hard for me to give anything else a 1 in this category.

 

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