Archive for the 'Science Fiction' Category

Jul 23 2015

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Belated Readercon Recap: Towards a Literature of the Anthropocene

LCRW 33 in my mom's raspberry patch

LCRW 33 in my mom’s raspberry patch

One LCRW theme issue, two Readercon panels and a lot of hallway/bar/dealer’s room conversation (not to mention years of bumping around blindly alone in the dark), have only whetted my appetite for a much broader, sustained conversation about the promise and pitfalls of writing fiction in and about the anthropocene epoch. Don’t get me wrong–the panels were great (see previous post for titles/descriptions) and I even got to moderate one of them. But I confess I am not particularly good at steering discussion, especially not in person, in front of a crowd, with four smarter, more eloquent people all of whom have equally valid and quite distinct perspectives. And there just wasn’t enough time to cover it all. My fellow panelists laid out fascinating ideas, and I got a decent line in here and there, but we barely got into stuff I thought we could have spent a whole panel on, or two, or seven. And I had all these lovely panel notes I didn’t even get to!

One of my hall conversations afterward was with Emily Wagner, program chair, who I asked for more like that next year. “Propose panels,” she said, and I will. But I’m also going to do what I can to get people talking in the meantime.

To that end, I’ve convinced a few of the LCRW 33 contributors to field some questions about how they apply these ideas in their own work. I’ll be posting those interviews here over the next couple weeks, and doing a few interviews myself elsewhere (here’s one with the UK-based Nottingham Writers’ Society).

First, though, I thought I’d recap the Readercon discussion for those who missed it (insofar as I remember it), share some of those notes I haven’t yet managed to get the good out of, and lay out the directions in which I think this conversation needs to go.

  • I opened with a definition of the anthropocene: a new epoch in the history of time in which humans are the dominating influence on the trajectory of life on earth. The concept places us on a level with geological and even astrophysical processes. Part of the point, I think, is to make people realize the scale at which what we do has an impact. There is very little “nature” left in the world that’s the same as it would have been if we hadn’t become what we are: forests, deserts, the ocean floor, as far away from humans as you can get, you can almost always see evidence of our impact. Which presents a fascinating perspective on the way human institutions interact with natural ones. Invasive species, domestication, genetic engineering, breeding, habitat loss, which species thrive, which go extinct, which reach the verge of going extinct and then we rescue. Unintended consequences. Not much of which I managed to say, actually, besides the basic definition. Time constraints, me not wanting to talk too much.
  • Vandana Singh brought up the limitations of the concept of the anthropocene: that it makes humanity seem monolithic rather than complex and incredibly varied. The people most responsible for altering the climate, habitat, animal and human life on this planet are relatively few and immensely privileged. The people who are by far the most impacted are those with the least impact themselves. She mentioned the 18 million Bangladeshis who are already in the process of being displaced by rising waters. Michael J. Daley in the solarpunk panel brought up that William Gibson quote which Readercon’s bylines require be brought up at least once every year:

    “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

  • We talked about climate change and its impacts, about the viability of various technological solutions/mitigations including nuclear power, solar, batteries, desalination plants. Gwendolyn Clare brought up geoengineering: ejecting coolant chemicals or particulates into the atmosphere to dim the sunlight/mitigate greenhouse effect. To me, that’s a terrifying prospect, useful only as a threat, “Here’s what we might have to resort to if you people can’t get it together and stop using fossil fuels,” but Gwendolyn seemed to consider it a viable option. I would have loved to ask her more about that but did not manage to corner her in the halls.
  • We talked about the dominant narratives of climate change, the propaganda and PR, how wrong and blindered they are and why. It’s hard to change those narratives because the institutions that support them (corporations, governments) are so huge and we rely on them for so much. The cruise ship metaphor came up: the world is too big and has too much momentum to turn or stop on a dime. A change in trajectory takes time. The implication being that we’re pretty much doomed to slam into that iceberg and take to the lifeboats.
  • We talked about science fiction’s strong tendencies to dystopianism and escapism and how those tendencies can gloss past the real problems we’re facing rather than encourage practical thinking. Michael J. Daley, in both the anthropocene and solarpunk panels, brought up the problem of presenting utopian visions of society in fiction, the fact that utopia doesn’t necessarily include a conflict that can drive a story. In neither panel did we get too deep into the ways around that problem, but I think it was Max Gladstone who said that a setting is just a setting, the conflict and the story comes from the people you place in that setting.
  • We talked about reader expectations. People who’ve been brought up on a steady diet of the dominant narrative expect more of it, and it’s a very delicate, limiting thing trying to address those expectations while also providing counter-narrative. Vandana Singh talked about teaching climate change to kids, how she found she needed not just to provide information but to address the emotional impact of that information at the same time. Finding out that humanity is destroying the world isn’t an easy thing. It was Max Gladstone again who tried to bring this back around to story and character–but I don’t think he quite got the chance to make the connection that right there in those emotional consequences is a way to tell a compelling story.
  • We talked (a little in both panels, but much more in the solarpunk panel) about progressivism in the history of SF and previous forward- (and backward-) looking movements in the genre, particularly cyberpunk and steampunk. This was surprising and enlightening for me: in my preparations I spent some time thinking about classic SF and how it almost incidentally influenced the trajectory of technology: not spaceships or flying cars, but ipads and cellphones. Star Trek was a naive form of social SF: a black female officer on the bridge of the Enterprise. Cyberpunk, though, was way more prescient; it was depicting a future nearer to hand and actively pushing forward technological concepts as well as social structures that had already been demonstrated in their infancy. Whereas steampunk seems to represent the opposite tendencies: the real world is increasingly shitty, technology’s advancement has outpaced our capacity to adapt to it socially, so let’s escape back to a simpler time and postulate this vast, utterly impractical escapist utopia. Advocates of the nascent solarpunk movement want something that combines the utopian aesthetics of the latter with the practical forward-thinking of the former. I went into that second panel with some healthy skepticism, but listening to them talk about it, it started to sound like a pretty solid idea. Though I wish they’d decided to call it something else–the word “solar” is too limiting. Ecopunk.
    Ecopunk?

    Ecopunk?

  • Towards the end of the anthropocene panel, I slipped in part of an idea I had. Earlier, talking about the value of the anthropocene as a concept, Vandana Singh brought up the question of what separates us from animals and how the answer keeps slipping the more we learn. First it was tools, but now we know all kinds of animals use tools. Then we thought it was language, but birds and apes and even insects maybe have language. I suggested the concept of narrative. There’s some debate as to when the anthropocene epoch began: the ’70s? the industrial revolution? But as far as it applies to narrative, I feel like there’s a strong argument the anthropocene began with the dawn of the dreamtime, the origin of metaphor: let’s say 40,000 years ago. It began when humans first started to ask themselves that perhaps most arrogant of questions: what separates us from everything else?

By any measure it was all very left-leaning, progressive discussion. Not once, thank Pan, was it suggested on either panel that global warming wasn’t real or caused by human beings. I believe communism was even mentioned without anyone in the audience getting up and leaving. From Readercon, I would have expected no less. And yet for me it didn’t go far enough. No surprise, I guess. I am a radical when it comes to this stuff. Not a revolutionary–I’m too meek and polite for that, unfortunately–but the new world order I’d create if you made me dictator…let’s just say I fear the average Readercon liberal SF fan would be plotting my assassination.

At the top of the list of things we failed to address fully are science fiction’s blind spots. Let’s be honest, despite or perhaps as a prerequisite of genre’s recent, much-boohooed explosion into mainstream culture (I was relieved, when reviewing the Readercon program, that they left off the “Did Fandom Lose By Winning” panel this year), science fiction and genre on the whole remain the purview of the white, affluent and privileged, and the thing about the white, affluent and privileged is that there’s nothing forcing them to look at the world from outside of their own experience. In my opinion genre itself ought to be doing that, but to some extent, as with the dominant narrative and global warming, there’s a positive feedback loop. You grow up in a bubble of privilege, that’s what you know to write about, that’s what your fans get to read about.

Vandana Singh touched upon this in the anthropocene panel, and I think would have gotten further into it if we’d let her. Later, in the hall outside the dealer’s room, I was telling her my line from the LCRW 33 editor’s note about how great and eye-opening it was to see all those diverse viewpoints in the submission pile, and she said (again I paraphrase), “This is what people don’t seem to understand about We Need Diverse Fiction–it’s not just about fairness or letting everyone have an equal chance, it’s about exposing people to different viewpoints.” Shall I pull out the inbred royalty metaphor? Ages ago, an innovative thinker came up with the ideas for spaceships and FTL drives, and everybody liked it so much that they kept doing it long, long after it ceased to be an innovative or even inspiring idea. The field needs new, different voices with new, different ideas, or the bloodline will thin until every novel comes out anemic.

Another related blind spot is SF’s tendency to resort to technological solutions. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yes, development of cheaper, more efficient solar technology and next-generation battery storage and etc will doubtless help curb global warming, and we should absolutely get the hell off fossil fuels. But there are non-technological solutions already available and in use by enormous swathes of the human population of the earth–it’s just that those people don’t happen to own cars or ipads or rely on fast food for their sustenance or feel the need to water their driveways and feed their lawns better than they feed their kids. On the anthropocene panel, Gwendolyn Clare pointed out the very real threat of food shortages posed by climate change. For every degree that we warm the planet, we lose 6% of our global yield of wheat. One solution would be to let the corporations that brought us Roundup-ready corn engineer a more heat-tolerant wheat, thereby subordinating farmers even further to that corporation’s draconian intellectual property litigation. Another would be to adapt away from corporate monoculture and turn to the thousands of varieties of wheat and other grains humans have developed through conventional means over the past 9,000 years of agriculture. I’m afraid that because that’s not a technological solution, it falls squarely into the blind spot. Michael J. Daley brought up the myth of the mad scientist, the lone inventor who singlehandedly saves the world with his brilliant scientific advance. And yes, that archetype certainly speaks to SF’s penchant for the heroic. But it strikes me as rather narrow.

Something the wonderful Emily Houk said to me as the solarpunk panel was getting out: “I was wondering why nobody talked about using plants as technology.” And she’s right. Plants are a freaking amazing technology developed by mad scientist earth over billions of years. Why cast that aside? Because it doesn’t prop up the dying myth of the hero? It’s so simple: as long as there are enough plants on earth to balance out the CO2 generated by everything else, the climate stays stable. But it can also be incredibly complex. The earth’s enormous biodiversity, which we are winnowing down by the minute, includes granular solutions to a host of problems we haven’t even considered. Just one example I learned about the other day: the osage orange tree, a springy, resilient hardwood that makes giant ugly fruits like rock-hard, bitter oranges. Before European colonization its range was restricted to a small area of northeast Texas and its wood was prized by Native Americans for use in bows. In 1934, FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt project planted 220 million trees stretching 18,000 miles as windbreaks to combat the erosion that caused the Dust Bowl. Now they’re everywhere.

I know it’s not fiction’s responsibility to come up with these ideas or to encourage people to think differently. You’ll hear that repeatedly from some of the LCRW contributors whose interviews I’ve got lined up for the next few weeks. But there’s also nothing stopping us. There’s no reason fiction can’t be a source of inspiration for change that will make the world a better place. And if we can, why wouldn’t we want to?

In another way, this is an answer to the question of how to get readers excited, how to make them care, how to inspire them to think for themselves about these issues. For the most part I think both panels spent more time talking about the ways that didn’t work and couldn’t be done than how it could. But inspiring, surprising ideas are one of the things that got us into genre in the first place. The sense of wonder: there’ve been plenty of Readercon panels on that too over the years. Yes, the chance to see for the first time the surface of Pluto is indeed mindblowingly cool and amazing, and SF has the capacity to approximate that on the page. But I’d argue it can be just as if not more inspiring to discover a real-world solution to a real-world problem tossed away as an aside in a book about the human heart in conflict with itself.

Which of course is the other way to get readers excited, the same way you get them excited about any story, by writing brilliant, strong characters and putting them in impossible situations and showing us how they react. And here’s another way that diverse perspectives in fiction can help us. To a lot of us in the privileged affluent white first world, global warming is still an abstract problem, something that may be coming a few decades in the future. But to tons and tons of people in the world now, more every day, global warming is a real threat, a source of anger and grief and devastation, a source of real conflict, the stuff epic drama is made of. I want to see that in fiction, to teach those of us sitting here sipping lemonade in our hammocks what that feels like. I think that’s what the solarpunk advocates want too. Though I still wish they’d change the name.

To come: LCRW 33 contributor interview #1: Giselle Leeb!

Update: Hey, you didn’t even have to read my recap, because both panels are online. Though I’m glad you did anyway. Here, I made a playlist:

And hey, if you happen to be one of those people whose opinions I have horribly mangled and misused in the above, I would love to be corrected. Really.

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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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Dec 07 2009

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Shoulder-Fired Reforestation

I have a story out in the new issue of The Future Fire, a politically-oriented online SF magazine featuring a super-awesome ironical Nietzsche quote (perhaps the best kind of Nietzsche quote) about the value of escapism.

To invent stories about a world other than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, belittling, and suspicion against life is strong in us: in that case, we avenge ourselves against life with a phantasmagoria of another, a better life.

—F. Nietzsche, Götzen-Dämmerung

“Maryann Saves the World” is a piece of full-on, unapologetic, angry environmentalist escapism I sat down and wrote in a huff after watching some of my favorite woods in the whole world (in Westwood, a little town where I grew up, named for its awesome, under-appreciated, steadily vanishing woods) get knocked down and dynamited and replaced with landscaping and mcmansions. Writing it was a wonderful catharsis, which will completely justify that Nietzsche quote—and in by-no-means ironic fashion—unless, by some miraculous stroke of wish-fulfillment, a few complacent armchair environmentalists find their way to it, read it, and are re-energized to change their evil ways.

If you fit that description, please go read!

Here’s a little piece of the super-cool angry mansion-eating thicket illustration the story got from crafty artist Carmen:

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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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