Archive for the 'Reading' Category

Jul 15 2014

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Review: Sherwood Nation, Benjamin Parzybok

Preorder <i>Sherwood Nation</i> from Small Beer Press

In a Pacific Northwest beset by hourly more plausible, climate change induced desertification, the city of Portland struggles under strict water and power rationing, while the government and the rich glut themselves on hoarded resources. A plucky group of rebels arises to oppose them in the name of the people, annexing the poor Northeast neighborhood to create a tiny utopian state within city limits. Idealism, triumph, smashed idealism and tragedy ensue, along with a healthy share of the soulstring-resonatingly surreal.

“…You’d need a mask and a horse, obviously.”

“Mm, spurs.”

An eerie clop clop clop sounded through the open window and they looked at each other in amazement.

“A horse!” she said. “You’re a conjurer!”

But instead it was a big moose that stumbled along the dusty street, its skin tight over its ribs. Its head jerked left and right in anxious, almost animatronic movements.

“Oh no,” Renee said, “I fucking hate this. Josh saw a bear two days ago—I told you?”

They watched it continue down the street until a shot rang out. The moose’s body jerked and sidestepped strangely and then there was another shot.

“That’s a whole shit ton of extra food rations if they can store it,” Zach said as they watched men close in on it. “God knows how they’ll store it.” The moose stumbled again on a third shot but continued on.

“They’ve got to get a straight shot in.”

“I can’t watch,” Renee said. She climbed back in bed and spoke to Zach’s shirtless back as he watched the moose fall and the hunters try to drag the animal to the side of the road. “Hunters in the streets.”

“Dying of thirst has got to be worse,” Zach said.

Benjamin Parzybok’s Sherwood Nation is the sort of SF novel I’ve been waiting for someone to write, wishing I could write: a near-future utopian political adventure romp thought experiment. By page 50 I was crying and cheering. These are not common reactions for me when reading fiction; I wish they were. Now I’m waiting for someone to write the next one, while I struggle to do the same. Here’s hoping it be you.

It’s not nostalgic–no laser blasters, no spaceships with batwings and 50s car fins. It’s not escapist. No, okay, it’s escapist–dare I say all fiction is–but it escapes to something rather than from it? It’s not grimdark, where the escapism comes from reveling in hopelessness, forcing you to roll in hopelessness like a bully mashing your face in the mud so when you look up at the real world it briefly–falsely–looks less shitty. It’s realistic, it’s honest. It’s fun. It’s as fun as Parzybok’s first novel, Couch, which is saying a lot, and somehow it manages to be almost as silly even while realistic, sympathetic, human characters are making horrible decisions and getting killed. It’s full of heroic characters I can actually believe in, I can almost believe myself and the people I love capable of being like, in the right circumstances, under great pressure. And it puts those plausible heroes in a setting enough like our own that the hard solutions they find just might apply to the real world. And that is something we need. Something I don’t see SF or literary mainstream fiction or anything in between providing.

Parzybok manages to make it feel effortless, spontaneous and painstakingly well thought out at the same time.

It’s not perfect. Sometimes Sherwood Nation gets caught up in its own myth and falls into wish-fulfillment. But it’s not often. As often, we’re shown the kind of horrors a Fox News pessimist might imagine of a dictatorial/socialist utopia. And as in every other post-apocalypse setting I can think of, there’s handwaving. The question of where the water comes from, the long view of a droughted state, fades away for most of the book. But the focus is on the social and political aspects of revolution, people getting caught up in ideas, people resorting to each other in ways they don’t, can’t, in other than extraordinary circumstances. All Parzybok’s really clever ideas for surviving water shortage and living with power shortage on a citywide scale may be considered to take the place of SF wow-factor trappings in a more traditional postapocalyptic novel–I think of Bacigalupi’s spring guns and engineered elephants. They’re cool, they fit the setting, they inspire–and in so doing set the stage for the radical choices that drive the plot–they’re not the story. But unlike in Windup Girl, really unlike in anybody else’s SF I can think of, Parzybok’s wow-factor trappings are actually practicable, now, to actual beneficial result for the individual and the potential future of humanity. And for me, at least, and for us climate geeks who are the likely target audience, that plausibility does absolutely nothing to reduce the wow-factor itself.

I confess I love everything Parzybok has ever written. I know he’s not for everybody. But I’d argue Sherwood Nation is also the most accessible thing he’s written. So…if you’re anything like me…give it a try, won’t you?

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Jun 15 2014

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Towards a Borgesian Mythos

I want there to be a Borgesian Mythos like there’s a Lovecraftian Mythos. Instead of, even. Lovecraft is worn out. Like Poe. You don’t even need me to enumerate the reasons, you know them. Whereas Borges is still and will I hope forevermore remain the shit. Mirrors, labyrinths, alephs, books, libraries, tigers, dreams, dreamtigers, roses, compass roses and every other easily encapsulated form of the infinite. Knives, swords, hronir, secret cults, the color yellow. Leibniz, Ramón Llull, Schopenhauer, De Quincey, Martín Fierro, Borges (both the fictional Borges and the real one). The Thousand and One Nights. The Quixote.

I said this to some people and they told me I should edit an anthology. That’s too much work. Also, it threatens to undermine the very purpose I’m trying to achieve. What happens when you edit a themed anthology? One of two things. First: it goes away. The original short fiction anthology as self-defeating prophecy. Once was enough, everybody stops caring about the idea and goes on with their tentacle porn. Second: everybody falls in love with it. Fifteen more of the same anthology come out, one from every micropress, until we’re all sick of it the way I’m sick of shoggoths and being asked to redeem that unsavory sociopath whose head is the World Fantasy Award.

(Can I get a bronze Borges head? Maybe I’ll commission one.)

So here’s this blog post instead.

Why isn’t there a Borgesian Mythos? There is–lurking just around the next corner in the library stacks, unassuming, impeccably researched, subtle, wry, brilliant, obscure.Christopher Brown did it hilariously in Strange Horizons. Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Mark Danielewski all perpetrate patently Borgesian fictions. One step further away one finds Jedediah Berry, Stephen Millhauser, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. One step closer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Manuel Peyrou.

phobos

And me, yes, I do it. I’ve been trying to write Borgesian fiction for years. Not until lately have I (depending how stringently you’d like to define the term) succeeded. “The Immodest Demiurge Ezra Buckley” appears this week in Phobos Magazine. It’s a story based on a few lines from the postscript to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” I’ll let you go look up. Panel notes where I came up with the idea are here. The title is modeled on a couple of his early “histories”, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell” in particular. See also “Other Palimpsests” in Bibliotheca Fantastica, maybe my first attempt at Borgesianness, which went through quite a lot of iterations over years before I finally wandered across an enervated, obsessive academic POV ready to lose himself in an aleph-text, a page that is all pages.

bf-full-cover-72

The trouble with proposing a Borgesian Mythos–or of admitting you’ve contributed to one–is now you’ve talked about it. It’s not a secret cult anymore. Point it out and it ceases to be a fictional imposition on consensus reality, a comparative-cultural hronr like all those Borges fanboys in their yellow suits, and instead reverts to a fandom, the usual kind we all have to pick apart until it’s no fun anymore.

So forget what I just said. Forget all of it. This isn’t the blog you’re looking for.

Instead, just read this interview with Borges from 1966. He’s magic! Is there anything he hasn’t read? He’s like a santa claus of literature. Read the whole thing and tell me you don’t want to read about that guy for another couple thousand pages across all forms and genres.

Ready?

INTERVIEWER

You have said that a writer should never be judged by his ideas.

BORGES

No, I don’t think ideas are important.

INTERVIEWER

Well, then, what should he be judged by?

BORGES

He should be judged by the enjoyment he gives and by the emotions one gets. As to ideas, after all it is not very important whether a writer has some political opinion or other because a work will come through despite them, as in the case of Kipling’s Kim. Suppose you consider the idea of the empire of the English—well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they’re nicer people. And that’s because he thought them—No! No! Not because he thought them nicer—because he felt them nicer.

Lovecraft never said no such thing, let me tell you.

The defense rests.

Jorge Luis BORGES, Galleria Nazionale, Palermo, 1984

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Oct 23 2012

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The Coder

My reading of Benjamin Parzybok‘s excellent story from LCRW 21, “The Coder”, is live today at the Small Beer Press podcast. I worked hard and I’m quite proud of the result–every one of these readings I do, the audio quality and (I flatter myself) the delivery improve–so please go listen if you have time.

I love this story. I’ve been advocating for it to the Small Beer interns for years. It has this wry bizarro/surrealist tone which fits perfectly with the LCRW/Small Beer ethic, writers like Ray Vukcevich, Alan DeNiro and (yes) Kelly Link who are SBP’s bread and butter. It has interesting metafictional/Borgesian undertones, dealing with the influence of archetypal structure on reality; the cycle of life and death still applies, even in the sterile cubicle warrens of a software company. How to describe “The Coder” without giving too much away? To put it like Bob the annoying geek co-worker might: is it like Office Space meets The Matrix? Is it Funes the Memorious plus The Metamorphosis? Maybe. What I can say is that to me, it’s one of those stories that feels like it’s always existed notionally out in the ether, at least since cubicle warrens and coding began, waiting for somebody clever and talented enough to step up and be the medium through which the universe inscribes its processes on human cognition. Like one of those Michelangelo slaves.

Lots of people have tried to write this story, me included. We try, because they tell us “write what you know”, and what we know best–tiny, pathetic tragedy–is mindless corporate monotony. We fail because who cares?

So maybe what impresses me most is its capacity to turn the world’s most boringest occupation, computer programmer, into something mind-blowingly sublime. Sure, there are instances in film and fiction wherein programmers are made to appear awesome–The Matrix, Tron–but it’s not by writing code. Ready Player One and one million works of high anime follow the same path, glossing past the code in favor of what it produces, the virtual. “The Coder” does just the opposite. Nor am I counting all those scenes in all those thrillers where somebody hacks the CIA: I don’t call that sublime, I call it wankery. Okay, there’s that scene in The Social Network where ye sympathetic-ified zeitgeist-personifying supergenius Zuckerberg assembles a software social-dysfunction-demonstrating device to the sound of post-industrial Trent Reznor. That comes close. Maybe some of the Lone Gunmen bits in The X-Files count. Many have tried–I venture to call it a holy grail of latter-day geekdom–but nobody has pulled it off like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and to a degree sympathize with the sentiment behind those CODE IS POETRY bumper-stickers. A complex thing well-designed to do its purpose is beautiful, and when it comes to software, it’s only the programmers who get to appreciate that beauty. As opposed to, say, suspension bridge engineering. This story gives non-coders a window on that mindset, a way to understand how code can be poetry.

Let it suffice to say that “The Coder” includes two instances, one a pseudo-JavaScript, the other a pseudo-PHP script, wherein code actually is poetry and fits perfectly into the structure and function of the story, revealing the hidden (terrifying?) truth that underneath, all poetry, all narrative, is code.

Now go listen.

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Jun 01 2011

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Poised on the threshold of a lifelong dream

I've been thinking about this blog post for a long time, and thinking about the subject for even longer. But as is often the case with such things, a picture gives you the important information faster. :)

And in case that's not clear enough:

I have author copies, they are beautiful, and the book is available on Amazon now, though at the moment there are only 11 5 2! left in stock.

Kiba, as you can see, is quite excited.

Nothing I could say would be even remotely adequate. I have memories of walking through the aisles at Crown Books at ten years old and thinking about how amazing authors were. I remember being midway through a fantasy book once and being suddenly existentially struck by what an amazing thing a book is. That we think of it as a finished object, a thing, but what we don't consciously wrap our minds around while reading is how every word put down is a moment in another person's life, that each page and collection of pages is a chronology of experiences, probably multiple experiences, days and weeks and months of hard work and pure invention.

And now I have one, and, perhaps in part because I work in games I am unusually aware of the number of people that go into this (and yet I'm not as aware as Lou Anders is, who actually works with them all). In Prometheus's case, right around fifty hardworking people who all touch every book at some stage of its production. Which basically multiplies the complex work of the story, refines it, polishes it, makes sure that every moment of your reading experience is a crafted one, carefully considered. They did a hell of a good job.

It's obvious, I think, from my shield-banging about sustainability and organic food and conservation activism that I am a pretty passionate environmentalist. My tax return so attests. And I love technology, and I love what it's doing to the experience of reading. But crafted objects like this, touched by so many people, delivered to you, the reader, are what will keep paper books around, at least for the next while. And though I am biased (ridiculously biased!), this one is a treasure, and I am humbled to have it. If you seek it out (or if I throw it at you -- cough), I hope you enjoy it too. And if you do, or even if you're just interested and haven't taken the plunge yet, I'd love if you'd consider joining the party on the Andovar World Facebook page, where there will be info, links, giveaways, and more. :)

If you want to read more of my thoughts about game design, storytelling, and a bunch of other things, before I was flummoxed by this meteor of awesome, Jeremy Jones was kind enough to interview me for Clarkesworld Magazine. If you take a gander I'd love to know what you think.

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Jun 01 2011

Profile Image of Erin

Poised on the threshold of a lifelong dream

I've been thinking about this blog post for a long time, and thinking about the subject for even longer. But as is often the case with such things, a picture gives you the important information faster. :)

And in case that's not clear enough:

I have author copies, they are beautiful, and the book is available on Amazon now, though at the moment there are only 11 5 2! left in stock.

Kiba, as you can see, is quite excited.

Nothing I could say would be even remotely adequate. I have memories of walking through the aisles at Crown Books at ten years old and thinking about how amazing authors were. I remember being midway through a fantasy book once and being suddenly existentially struck by what an amazing thing a book is. That we think of it as a finished object, a thing, but what we don't consciously wrap our minds around while reading is how every word put down is a moment in another person's life, that each page and collection of pages is a chronology of experiences, probably multiple experiences, days and weeks and months of hard work and pure invention.

And now I have one, and, perhaps in part because I work in games I am unusually aware of the number of people that go into this (and yet I'm not as aware as Lou Anders is, who actually works with them all). In Prometheus's case, right around fifty hardworking people who all touch every book at some stage of its production. Which basically multiplies the complex work of the story, refines it, polishes it, makes sure that every moment of your reading experience is a crafted one, carefully considered. They did a hell of a good job.

It's obvious, I think, from my shield-banging about sustainability and organic food and conservation activism that I am a pretty passionate environmentalist. My tax return so attests. And I love technology, and I love what it's doing to the experience of reading. But crafted objects like this, touched by so many people, delivered to you, the reader, are what will keep paper books around, at least for the next while. And though I am biased (ridiculously biased!), this one is a treasure, and I am humbled to have it. If you seek it out (or if I throw it at you -- cough), I hope you enjoy it too. And if you do, or even if you're just interested and haven't taken the plunge yet, I'd love if you'd consider joining the party on the Andovar World Facebook page, where there will be info, links, giveaways, and more. :)

If you want to read more of my thoughts about game design, storytelling, and a bunch of other things, before I was flummoxed by this meteor of awesome, Jeremy Jones was kind enough to interview me for Clarkesworld Magazine. If you take a gander I'd love to know what you think.

No responses yet

May 30 2011

Profile Image of Erin

Taking the Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test is an enthralling read for anyone who is even the slightest bit odd. (And if you're reading this, chances are I mean you.) It's a wild ride, a Philip K. Dickian roller coaster through some of the darkest crevices of human behavior, spiraling out into the macro-levels of societal power structures and human history, and then back into the minutiae of everyday people living lives with the greatest intentions of normalcy. And in its way it is an act of torah, in the universal sense -- a paean of love for humanity, of love that looks closely and does not flinch.

Be warned that if you go in and go deep you will probably go a little crazy. And perhaps the great honesty of the book is that it dives in deep here as well, pushes you to reflect on your own crazy, and the expanded crazy of the greater semi-conscious social system that we live in.

It will make you think about your friends, your enemies, your coworkers, your family. I know people who are capable of violence. Some of them great violence. You know people like this, too -- maybe you even are one. One of the questions at the heart of this work is one asked by dystopians for centuries, and yet one that seems to get sharper with every increase in our civilization and technology: where do you draw the line around what kind of abnormalities should be eliminated from society, by imprisonment, by medication?

To draw that line is to say that we have found the pattern. We want so badly for there to be a decisive list, for there to be labels and boxes, for things to be clean. We are pattern-seekers. Patterns make a chaotic world comprehensible, they lull us into functionality. And so ultimately, we need books like this, the world needs books like this, that peel back the skin of reality and have a good sticky look inside, to challenge the artificiality of the psychological borders that keep us safe. And as all truly well designed things are, it achieves a life of its own by being entertaining, by taking us from Douglas Hofstadter's Strange Loop to Bedlam to Mississippi industrial ghost towns, from Wall Street to the brainstem of psychiatry to mass murderers, from Scientology to DSM IV, from opulent Florida mansions to four-year-old children being treated for bipolar disorder.

In the end, once we have gone through the wormhole of inquiry and emerged onto the far side, changed, the concluding question is: if there were a "normal", truly, would we want to be it? Even considering the consequences of the vast systems around us, their need to contain us, to statistically filter out danger and potential disruption?

Hopefully, the answer remains no. Hell no. My cold dead hand no. God is dead no.

And yet, being the social animals that we are, it is inevitable that we try. And that's okay. And also a little bit crazy.

No responses yet

May 30 2011

Profile Image of Erin

Taking the Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test is an enthralling read for anyone who is even the slightest bit odd. (And if you're reading this, chances are I mean you.) It's a wild ride, a Philip K. Dickian roller coaster through some of the darkest crevices of human behavior, spiraling out into the macro-levels of societal power structures and human history, and then back into the minutiae of everyday people living lives with the greatest intentions of normalcy. And in its way it is an act of torah, in the universal sense -- a paean of love for humanity, of love that looks closely and does not flinch.

Be warned that if you go in and go deep you will probably go a little crazy. And perhaps the great honesty of the book is that it dives in deep here as well, pushes you to reflect on your own crazy, and the expanded crazy of the greater semi-conscious social system that we live in.

It will make you think about your friends, your enemies, your coworkers, your family. I know people who are capable of violence. Some of them great violence. You know people like this, too -- maybe you even are one. One of the questions at the heart of this work is one asked by dystopians for centuries, and yet one that seems to get sharper with every increase in our civilization and technology: where do you draw the line around what kind of abnormalities should be eliminated from society, by imprisonment, by medication?

To draw that line is to say that we have found the pattern. We want so badly for there to be a decisive list, for there to be labels and boxes, for things to be clean. We are pattern-seekers. Patterns make a chaotic world comprehensible, they lull us into functionality. And so ultimately, we need books like this, the world needs books like this, that peel back the skin of reality and have a good sticky look inside, to challenge the artificiality of the psychological borders that keep us safe. And as all truly well designed things are, it achieves a life of its own by being entertaining, by taking us from Douglas Hofstadter's Strange Loop to Bedlam to Mississippi industrial ghost towns, from Wall Street to the brainstem of psychiatry to mass murderers, from Scientology to DSM IV, from opulent Florida mansions to four-year-old children being treated for bipolar disorder.

In the end, once we have gone through the wormhole of inquiry and emerged onto the far side, changed, the concluding question is: if there were a "normal", truly, would we want to be it? Even considering the consequences of the vast systems around us, their need to contain us, to statistically filter out danger and potential disruption?

Hopefully, the answer remains no. Hell no. My cold dead hand no. God is dead no.

And yet, being the social animals that we are, it is inevitable that we try. And that's okay. And also a little bit crazy.

No responses yet

Nov 02 2009

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Circular Time

In which I digress (much) further about the not-coming apocalypse.

This is long. Sorry. I tried to break it into two parts, but it just wasn’t happening. Thanks in advance for your kind attention.

The Popol Vuh is the Mayan creation myth. The version available to us today was written in secret between the years 1554 and 1558 by three anonymous philosopher-priests of the Maya religion, during the early years of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, when Catholic missionaries under Friar Diego de Landa were systematically destroying all evidence they could find of indigenous religion and culture. In order to preserve it, the authors of the Popol Vuh spirited it away somewhere in the Guatemalan city of Chichicastenango (underneath a Christian altar, perhaps, as was a favorite tactic of the Maya, preserving the old beneath the new) until 1701, when it was discovered, copied, and translated from the original Roman alphabet transliteration of Quiché into Spanish by Francisco Ximenes, another Catholic friar. His copy is the only one that survives today.

All of which is to say that the contents of the Popol Vuh as we know them have been deeply, irrevocably compromised by the influence of a conquering culture. Some evidence mitigating against this has come to light fairly recently: a stucco frieze dating from before 100 BC has been uncovered in the ruined Mayan city of Mirador, which depicts in detail a scene from the Twin Gods cycle of the Popol Vuh myth. That’s some impressive continuity, considering what an incredibly diverse range culture and belief can be seen across mesoamerica—even from one Mayan sacred site to the next. Still, there is a huge gulf of uncertainty in the 1600 years between those two points, and in the 450 years between then and the winter solstice, 2012. And it’s exactly that kind of gulf from which new-agey doomsday conspiracy theories are born.

It used to be that the big source of mystery and wild speculation about the Maya was what happened to them—why, when Cortés and De Soto arrived in the 16th century, they found jungle ruins instead of thriving cities. Where did the builders of these cities go? They were abducted by aliens! They ascended to a higher plane of reality, like those Brahmins who set themselves on fire!

But that part isn’t really a mystery anymore. We know what happened to the Maya: they’re still there, still living in the same jungles, speaking in the same tongues, following the same traditions. What happened to them was the same thing that happened to the American settlers of the southwestern plains states in the 1930s. Their civilization “advanced” so far that it exhausted its natural resources. They used up their water supply through overpopulation and careless irrigation, exhausted the fertility of their soil through overfarming, undermined its stability with too much quarrying and monumental construction. They were living beyond their means. And when the droughts came, they suffered for it. Over the course of generations, they were forced to come to terms with their mistakes, step down off their thrones and the shoulders of their slaves and go back into the jungle, to live the way their ancestors had.

Sound familiar? Maybe it will.

Doesn’t make them sound particularly like the sort of people you’d look to for spiritual wisdom, does it? Let alone the unprecedented understanding of the nature of time and existence that would allow them to prophesy the end of days.

But look at it like this: they’ve already lived through it once. They’ve had the chance to learn from their mistakes the hard way. And they want to pass on what they know, through myth and story, for the next time history repeats itself.

The Popol Vuh opens like the New Testament: with god moving on the face of the waters, and with the Word. Sovereign Plumed Serpent, with the aid of his cronies, the deities of lightning, thunder, the hurricane and the sky, parts the oceans and raises the earth, creates the plants and animals. But this isn’t enough. The gods want to be believed in, worshipped, praised. They need these things. The world needs people to understand and keep the order by which it operates, to observe the patterns and cycles and assign them meaning. So we come to maybe my favorite quote from the Popol Vuh, which appears perennially in the upper left corner of The Mossy Skull as inspirational quote of the season:

“Our recompense is in words.”

— Hurricane, Sudden Thunderbolt, Newborn Thunderbolt and Heart of Sky, upon the creation of humans. The Popol Vuh

But the Maya gods aren’t perfect. It takes them a couple of tries. The current race of humanity, the ones who keep time with a calendar, observe the movements of the heavens, and write stories to explain the things they learn and see, are the third incarnation.

The first humans were made out of mud. They couldn’t do much more than walk and wave their arms and mumble. They weren’t intelligent enough to perceive the actions of the gods, the nature of existence, or to do much of anything at all. So the gods unmade them. The second humans were of wood. They were stronger, smarter, they lived, had families, worked and made tools. But they didn’t worship the gods. They were arrogant and forgetful. The story of their destruction is maybe the closest thing the Popol Vuh has to an apocalypse. The wooden people’s own serving animals and tools, their own houses, even their food rises up against them and overthrows them.

There came a rain of resin from the sky.
There came the one named Gouger of Faces: he gouged out their eyeballs.
There came Sudden Bloodletter: he snapped off their heads.
There came Crunching Jaguar: he ate their flesh.
There came Tearing Jaguar: he tore them open.

This goes on a long time, comprehensively brutal. And the second race of humans ends up as the monkeys in the forest, reduced to jabbering and swinging from the trees, which is where that quote from Dennis Tedlock’s introduction that I posted the other week comes in. I can totally see how it might inspire a CGI explosive doomfest—or, for that matter, an apocalyptic prophecy some people might actually believe.

Which brings me back to December 21st, 2012. The gods create the third race of humans out of corn. Those humans do remember to honor the gods and keep their calendar. And they keep it up until the present day. The Mayan people are still living in the jungle, as humble, poor and wise as they’ve been since they stepped down off their thrones back in the year 600. And meanwhile, a new “advanced” civilization has sprung up around them, and has already begun to desperately backpedal as they try to avoid screwing up their resources so badly that they too have to give up their iPhones and cheap Chinese imports and go back to the jungle. The current administration of Guatemala is allowing industry and uncontrolled population growth to pour waste matter into Lake Atitlan, a sacred Maya pilgrimage site mentioned in the Popol Vuh as one of the four corners of the Maya world, causing an algae buildup that, unless they stop, will kill off every other living thing in its waters and no doubt cause havoc for the kickass sunken Mayan temple residing on the lake bottom. The modern Maya are getting kicked off their land to make way for American nickel mining. I could go on. Logging in the Amazon. Individually-wrapped toothpicks. Toilet paper made from old growth trees. I am inclined to go on. But I’d rather you read the rest of this and not be driven away by my angry. You’ve heard it all before.

You’ve heard it all before.

“Circular Time” is the title of a 1941 essay by Jorge Luis Borges, in which, in three and a half fanciful, impeccably researched pages, he outlines the history of ancient and modern Western culture’s interaction with the notion that history repeats itself. Starting with Plato:

…who, in the thirty-ninth paragraph of the Timaeus, claims that once their diverse velocities have achieved an equilibrium, the seven planets will return to their initial point of departure in a cycle that constitutes the perfect year.

The Mayan calendar follows a similar logic. Using the orbital periods of Venus, Mars, the sun, moon and stars, their ritual and secular year consisted of a set of interlocking cycles—one 20 days long, another 260, another 365. I’m not going to get into the math, you can go read about that elsewhere. It’s enough to say that when all these cycles are fitted together, they generate one enormously big circle of time. Represented in the modified base-20 of the Mayan reckoning (with the dots between numbers representing a decimal place), day one, year one of the current 5,125-year cycle, which fell on August 6th, 3114 BC in the Julian calendar, is represented 13.0.0.0.0. And December 21st, 2012, the last day of the last year in that cycle, is represented 12.19.13.19.19. I think. Look it up. On December 22nd, it will be 13.0.0.0.0 again.

However—even though the Long Count, as it’s called, only uses five decimal places, the Mayan calendar is actually designed to account for a much, much longer span of time: something like 26,000 years, the orbital period of the star grouping we refer to as the Pleiades, which the Maya refer to as the Four Hundred Boys, whose gruesome death in the Popol Vuh marks the final event before the first rising of the moon and sun.

In other words, the calendar doesn’t end on December 21st, 2012. It just resets. Time starts over at the beginning—the same way it does for us Westerners every calendar year on January 1st, only on a far larger scale. Looking at it that way, the 2012 prophecy starts to bear a resemblance to the Y2K prophecy. Two thousand years since the birth of Jesus! Shit! The antichrist! The whore of Babylon! Big ole computer glitches! As we know, that prophecy went out with something of a whimper.

But these things are all metaphorical—that’s what the 2012 doomsayers don’t seem to get. If we can find a meaning in these myths and apply them to the stories of our own lives, why not? That’s what myths are for. The world didn’t end in the year 2000, but in a sense, it was reborn. The world is reborn every year, and every moment for that matter. The present renews itself eternally, and we’re reliving the past all the time, starting over from scratch. Death doesn’t change, and neither does birth. Perception doesn’t change. Time doesn’t change. Yet everything is changing all the time.

So what will happen when time resets itself in 2012? Maybe our tools and food, our fossil fuels and copyrighted corn will rise up and overthrow us, as they did to the wooden humans, and Sovereign Plumed Serpent and his cronies the Hurricane will create a fourth iteration of humanity, a further refinement on the flawed mold of the third. Or maybe there won’t be a need. Maybe we’ll have learned from the warnings of our predecessors, handed down to us in the form of myth and ruined cities overgrown with jungle, listened to the ticking of the universe’s clock, marked the time, and understood that we needed to change.

But it won’t happen with a bang, nor with a billion dollars’ worth of CGI destruction. It’ll happen over generations, just like it did the last time, and the time before that.

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Oct 05 2009

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Casey Jones

Filed under hm,music,Reading

Long have I been familiar with the Grateful Dead ballad of that name, at whose lyrics I once giggled mischievously and thought I was getting away with something as I listened on my walkman headphones in bed late of a school night:

Come round the bend
You know it’s the end
The fireman screams and
The engine just gleams
Drivin’ that train
High on cocaine
Casey Jones you better
watch your speed

Years later I heard the traditional version by Mississippi John Hurt, with that one eerie verse that always sticks in my head, about his wife’s cold practicality upon hearing of her husband’s death:

Mrs. Casey when she heard the news
Sitting on her bedside, she was lacing up her shoes
Children, children now hold your breath
You will draw a pension at your Papa’s death

And of course there’s the Johnny Cash version… and Josh Ritter has a line about him in To the Dogs or Whoever, which I figured was a reference to all these other roots folk songs, since that’s sort of his M.O…. So I always assumed Casey Jones to be a purely folkloric figure, like Clementine, Peggy-o, John Henry, Fennario and Ichabod Crane. Specifically, I thought he was ye archetypal train engineer, in blue and white striped overalls with soot all over his face and a corncob pipe in his mouth, whistling dixie as he drove The Little Engine that Could up that mountain.

Not so, as it turns out. In fact, Casey Jones was a real, flesh and blood train conductor in the 1890s, who was so dedicated to his job and so good at it that he ended up as a national hero, with his face on a stamp and everything. He once saved a little girl from getting run over by a train by climbing down out of the cab onto the cowcatcher and snatching her up right off the tracks. He drove the famous “cannonball run” at eighty miles an hour between Chicago and New Orleans. He had a special way of blowing a train whistle so that whenever a train he was driving pulled into a station, you knew it was him at the tiller. And in 1900, on a densely foggy night passing through Memphis, Tennessee, he stayed onboard a doomed locomotive to save its passengers and crew. There was a stationary train idling on the same track as his own, and though he couldn’t prevent the collision, he managed to slow the train enough before impact that he himself was the only casualty.

Hence all these songs about him.

And what do you know, there’s an even older version of the song, by a fellow named Wallace Saunders, who was a friend of the real Casey Jones and worked with him on the railroad, which tells the story of his death.

Trust research to destroy your childhood illusions.

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Sep 28 2009

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The Borges in Eco

Filed under hm,Reading,Writings

Foucault’s Pendulum is an 800-page novel about the representatives of a vanity press, hell-bent on fabricating historical conspiracy for profit, who discover too late that they have fabricated truth, or something sufficiently indistinguishable from truth in the minds of its beholders to be worth killing for. The Name of the Rose is a 1000-page novel about the catastrophic failure of an investigation into a series of murders committed in a repetitive, mazelike library devoted to absurdly complex, meaningless religio-bureaucratic apocrypha.

Borges never wrote a novel. He wrote sketches for novels, two- or three-page treatments, spare and ephemeral, yet which laid out the bones of ideas so fathomless and colossal that, coming to the end of one, my thoughts are pulled in as many directions as though I had just completed something four hundred pages long.

I remember reading a comment of his upon this preference, in which—with that typical combination of self-effacing humility and absurdist ambition—he judged himself both unskilled or undisciplined enough to muster the great effort required to go from sketch to novel and consummately uninterested in the task, since another idea just as immense was always waiting. It was the creation of such kernels, the ambiguity and the possibility of them, that interested him most. Or so I recall him having said. Perhaps I am projecting. I’ve read so much Borges, in so many obscure, pencil-thin editions with titles varying endlessly upon the motif of tigers multiplied by optical illusion, dug from wonderful book-glue-mildew-smelling university library stacks where I had no business being, that I’ll likely never find that precise quote again. I have a vague impression of it coming from an introduction to someone else’s work—a heterogeneous anthology or a collection by Bioy-Casares…. But it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that at the end of this passage forswearing the long form, Borges encourages other authors to do with his ideas what he will not: make novels of them.

And so we get these labyrinthine, Borgesian novels of the real and unreal, of conspiratory mass-self-delusion and headlong dives into the carefully-delineated infinite, things like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Carlos Ruis Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, to name two distant poles within that spectrum. And we get Umberto Eco.

And me. I hope. Someday.

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