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Ring Cairn

June 21st, 2013

ring_cairn
Votadini ring cairn, circa 300, Caerketton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

“Votadini” was the name Roman occupiers used to refer to those Iron Age hill tribes, nearly lost to history, whose descendants were celebrated in the ancient Welsh war-poem Y Gododdin:.

Men went to Catraeth at dawn:
All their fears had been put to flight.

Happy solstice.

   Altars, Stones, Summer | No Comments »

Sleeping Bear

May 29th, 2013

Sleeping Bear Dunes

I spent the weekend at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and have returned with the resurgent impression that it would be more fulfilling and about a million times more effective if I laid off writing fiction and computer code and became an angry environmentalist full time. At this moment I literally would rather sit around watching my garden grow than struggle with some story that progresses at an equally glacial pace towards far less bountiful fruition. Nothing I make will be as beautiful as that which no hand hath made. Were all I’ve made to disappear, who would care?

This is not meant to be bleak or mopy. On the contrary. Thank God there is still something other than the internet.

   Angry, Environmentalism, Mountains, Summer, Transcendentalism | No Comments »

That City, with Cherry Blossoms

May 2nd, 2013

Cherry Blossoms, Boston, April 2013

I suffered through the recent horrible events in the city that was once mine from a distance of about seven hundred miles. I tried not to look at the news; I didn’t do very well. I didn’t know anybody directly involved. Until recently I didn’t think I had any great attachment to my city beyond that it was the only one I’d ever really known. I don’t love cities, though I can’t say I’m not fascinated by them. I love trees. I don’t consider myself a particularly emotional person. But for some reason, distance and homesickness combined with disturbing current events to make me cry silently while watching the news, wait to wipe away tears when my wife wasn’t looking, and dread the moment when what had happened came up in conversation (inevitable, since it was all anybody seemed able to talk about, even from seven hundred miles away).

Then, a few days after it had all wound down (except for the questions), I found myself obliged to return, as a result of an entirely unrelated tragedy, a sad, strange, serendipitous coincidence that allowed me an excuse to walk around and feel the breeze and drink beer and hug people and take pictures of spring in the city I only irrationally realized I missed when fear and uncertainty and mortal danger beset it.

Everybody seemed a little jittery, shell-shocked, not sure how to act. Freshly printed t-shirts for sale everywhere said “Boston Strong”. But otherwise everything was still there, pretty much how I’d left it, except for the person I’d come there to mourn. And even she, wiser heads soon made me realize, was still there too.

Happy spring.

   Horror, Realities | No Comments »

I Bail on GoodReads

April 2nd, 2013

GoodReads is a social reading site I had come to be quite a fan of and used extensively to track what I read and wanted to read. The other day they were bought out by Amazon, a bookstore-devouring, everything-selling, future-eating juggernaut I do my level best to avoid interacting with whenever possible. I hemmed and hawed a bit, asked some people I trusted if I might be overreacting, but came to the conclusion, based on who I am and where my money comes from, that I should sever ties.

To that end, as soon as this post here gets syndicated over there (yes, I told GoodReads it could follow my blog, an indication of just how much fun I was having tracking my books in public where some mindless corporate algorithm could track everything I read and rub its hands together maniacally thinking about how much money it would make advertising to me based on that information), I’m deleting my account. I’m removing GoodReads from the sidebar of this blog. I have already removed it from Weightless Books.

And now we at Weightless and some others are thinking about how we might go aboutcreating something GoodReads-like that isn’t owned by our corporate overlords. If you’re interested, please join us.

   Angry, News, Reading | No Comments »

Stuff (Fiction) I Have Coming Out in 2013 (in Theory)

March 14th, 2013

To remind myself when I forget. Also, once in awhile one must break down and do a little self-promo. Alphabetical by title.

  • “Construction-Paper Moon”, a father-daughter SF story, in Space & Time #118, reprinted from The Homeless Moon 1.
  • “Deer Feet”, a YA urban fantasy story set in my old neighborhood in Jamaica Plain, Boston, in Urban Green Man.
  • “Other Palimpsests”, a Borgesian horror story, in Bibliotheca Fantastica.
  • “Remorse and the Pariah”, a mini-epic poem about the cyclops from Homer, in Abyss & Apex.
  • “The Unicyclist’s Fate”, an electropunk love story set in the ’30s, in Airships and Automatons, reprinted from The Homeless Moon 3.
  • “The Urchin’s Dark Kite”, a fairytale, in White Cat, reprinted from the now-defunct A Fly in Amber.

I think that’s everything so far. Three new stories, three reprints.

I need to write more.

   HM, News | No Comments »

Layers, Echoes, Decay and Its Lack

February 6th, 2013

zaculeu_ruined_shrine

This is an unnamed shrine southeast of Plaza 1 at the Zaculeu archaological site, Huehuetenango, Guatemala: an example of the temple-within-temple phenomenon I mentioned in the last post. Hard to say what happened to leave both inner and outer layers exposed like this. I’ll hazard a guess: a somewhat more judicious use of the excavation-by-dynamite technique employed by early British explorer Thomas Gann (and no doubt others) to disastrous effect at Chichen Itza and elsewhere. At least here—if that’s what happened—they only blew up this wee little outlier shrine instead of the main attractions. The white structure you can see in the near distance is a corner of the ballcourt; the mound on the right is Structure 9, an unfinished temple whose construction was interrupted by the conquest.

Then there’s the other layer, not immediately noticeable: click the above to zoom in and you’ll see that this entire bombed-out shrine and even a couple feet of earth surrounding it has been covered over in concrete. The United Fruit Company, in 1946, hired another incompetent non-archaeologist, John M. Dimick, to ‘restore’ the temples at Zaculeu as part of their PR campaign to appear to be improving Guatemala’s infrastructure and protecting its cultural heritage while sucking its land and people dry. Dimick, a building engineer from Iowa who’d caught the Mayanist bug, came to the understandable but stupid conclusion that all the weird angles in the pyramids were the result of incompetence, and the ancient Mayans had really intended everything to be at nice clean right angles if only their engineering skills had been up to snuff. Concrete was the obvious material of choice: cheaper, harder, withstood earthquakes better and lasted longer than the traditional Spanish colonial stucco (which was already falling into disuse), never mind the orginal Mayan cooked limestone mortar.

100_1678

Zaculeu’s concrete-encased temples are the only ones I’ve ever seen without weeds, or even whole trees, growing from cracks between stones. They’re the only thousand-year-old temples I’ve ever been allowed to climb and leap all over like in a Prince of Persia video game. They’re also the only temples, with the exception of the Castillo at Chichen Itza (also restored, though with infinitely more painstaking faithfulness and care) with any kind of functioning acoustics: not the effect its original architects intended, for certain, but it’s not like I was ever going to get that anyway. Shout in front of the ten-terraced Temple 1 at Zaculeu, you get back ten harsh, staggered echoes, like yelling into one of those toy echo microphones with a vibrating spring inside you had as a kid. The effect is disconcerting, dissonant: it forced a halt to our conversation until we’d reached a point oblique to those unassailable planes. Interestingly, though, when two hundred people gathered in the plaza before the temple, the press of bodies dampened the effect; instead of feeling shouted down by several angry copies of myself, it just seemed like there were twice or three times as many people in the crowd, clapping, cheering, babbling.

Gonzalo de Alvarado conquered Zaculeu in 1525, after a protracted, horrific siege during which the entrenched Mam resorted to eating their dead. For 421 years, it decayed. Then it stopped decaying. The effect is something like that of an alternate history Mayan ruin replica as conceived by aliens. No, not that kind of aliens.

You know what it’s like? Those concrete tipi motels on Route 66. Or the miles of parking lots and concession stands surrounding the Niagara Gorge, the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. What was maybe at one point a well-intentioned effort to allow regular people to interact with this beautiful, unfathomable thing without destroying it has in the intervening generations become an ageless, indestructible monument to epidemic cultural disconnect. And the doomed effort to traverse all these layers of misinterpretation and time becomes part of the point of being there.

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One of the “traditional” Mayan costumes centers on a mask depicting what I can only interpret as an absurdly stylized roly-poly German gentleman, complete with rosy cheeks and ridiculous moustache. These costumes also come in red monkey, black monkey, jaguar, black moustache guy, demon, tiger, etc.

What does this effigy mean to the guy wearing it? I get the impression this style of costume is a throwback to a different time, where the relationship between the colonizing and colonized culture was simpler, more black and white, though still weird and screwed up. And maybe it’s trotted out now only when called for by political pageantry (such as a PR tour for a future presidential candidate) or tourism (such as Oxlajuj Baktun). Certainly I only saw this style of costume in the context of the government-funded 13 Baktun celebrations when there were armed police present and helpful educational banners strung up everywhere, as opposed to the more intimate events where real Mayans followed their own beliefs with less regard for the crowd watching.

Traditions change, things cease to mean what they meant, and it happens over and over. Other things, though, seem as transparent now as ever:

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   Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor | No Comments »

Tree Meditations

January 28th, 2013

How is a tree like a Mayan temple?

Layers. Every 52-year cycle of the Calendar Round (every time the synodic period of Venus made it halfway back around to resynchronization with both the orbital period of Earth and their own 260-day sacred calendar), the ancient Mayans built a new layer of temple atop what was already there. Trees build fifty-two new layers in the same period. Both are meditations upon time.

Some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen have been at Mayan sacred sites (like the ceiba at the gate to Tikal). Coincidence?

Kaminaljuyú is the ancient Maya city on top of which the modern-day Guatemalan capitol is built. It’s huge–widely cited as the greatest archaeological site in the Americas–but most of it is buried now under highways and high-rises. The archaeological park preserves only a tiny fraction behind a 12 foot high barb-wire fence in what is perhaps not the nicest neighborhood. Not a lot of nice neighborhoods in Guate. Like at Takalik Abaj, centuries’ accumulation of earth has turned the temples into green hills covered in jacarandas and moss-bearded cypresses (this is where I saw the foxes). At the foot of this particular tree, two Maya priests were celebrating, still at it two days after the solstice, the tourists long gone. They asked me not to take pictures of the sacred fire atop their little brickwork altar or the offerings of tamales and aguardiente.

The tree was just as awe-inspring.

Same tree from the squirrel’s POV. Also my desktop background.

This enormous, amazing tree has been growing in the central plaza in Tecpán outside the church I daresay since before the church was built. Pedro de Alvarado’s troops built their first permanent military base here in 1524 just after they razed the nearby Cakchiquel capitol of Iximché, at the ruins of which I spent the night of Ojlajuj Baktun. I have never seen a tree like this–it’s clearly some kind of conifer, but the foliage is fernlike, soft to the touch, though much thicker than a fern’s. I’ve researched to the end of my ability and I can’t figure out what it is. The twitter of a thousand birds in its canopy competed with the ranchero band ringing in the new era at the other end of the plaza. I sat on that wall with my back to its trunk and ate a chocolate-covered frozen pineapple.

Laguna de Chicabal is a tiny volcanic crater lake in Quetzaltenango department that spends about half its time inside a cloud. On the trail descending to it from the mountain, a hand-cut wooden sign asks visitors to stop and ask permission of the Mam ancestors before going on. On the path around the shore are twenty altars piled with calla lilies and carnations, each corresponding to one of the twenty days of the month in the Mayan ritual calendar. I paced it out labryinth-style, thinking of nothing, while the cloud condensed in gray jewels on my eyebrows. This tree corresponds to the altar of Noj, day of self-reflection and creative thought.

Next, maybe some temple meditations.

   Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor, Religion, Travel, Trees | No Comments »

Immortal ConFusion

January 17th, 2013

has nothing to do with either navel-gazing vampires or an opiated Duncan MacLeod. Not much, anyway. It’s the name of a Detroit-area speculative fiction convention I’ll be at this weekend along with suspects such as Saladin Ahmed, Justin Howe, Scott H. Andrews et al. Maybe we’ll see you there.

My schedule is as follows:

Saturday 11:00 AM Reading: Michael J. Deluca & Scott H. Andrews Windsor
Join Michael J. Deluca & Scott H. Andrews as they read from forthcoming work. Michael J. DeLuca, Scott H. Andrews

Saturday 2:00 PM So Your Protagonist Is An Orphan… Southfield
Batman. Luke Skywalker. Cinderella. Frodo Baggins. Dorothy in Wizard of Oz. Harry Potter. James Bond. Superman. One of the few things that heroic characters have in common is that they often have dead parents. While this does sever their ties to past and family, and while this often kick-starts the hero’s journey…can we lay off for a while? What is it about the orphan angle that we can’t seem to leave alone, and what kind of alternatives could provide an equally compelling Batman? Carrie Harris (M), Diana Rowland, Doug Hulick, Mary G. Thompson, Michael J. DeLuca

Sunday 10:00 AM Religion In SF/F Erie
Is there a place for religion in Fantasy and Science Fiction beyond a tool for the villainous? How do we produce fantastical faiths, or imagine a future society that does not lampoon people who believe? Aspects of religious demagoguery are often the go-to model in speculative fiction, for good reason, but what else should authors be looking for from theology? Alastair Reynolds, Brian McClellan, Howard Andrew Jones, Michael J. DeLuca (M), Saladin Ahmed

Sunday 11:00 AM What The Heck Is Literary Fiction? Erie
Literary fiction has cachet. Publishers love it – but what exactly do they mean? When “Literary” works can include post-apocalyptic scenarios, science-bending technology, generation-spanning storylines that run from sword swinging to future technologies, how does one define “Literary”? Should we, as authors or audience, even try,? Is this definition a cover for “serious” writers dipping their toes into our favorite subjects? Kat Howard, Michael J. DeLuca, Myke Cole, Ron Collins (M)

Hoo I signed up for too many of these. If nobody strenuously objects, I shall likely not post panel notes this time. They’re not that interesting, and anyway I’d rather be posting more Guatemala pictures instead.

If you come to just one thing, make it the reading. Saturday at 11 AM. Scott and I will make an effort to have something cool and homemade for (some of) you to taste. First come, first served.

   HM, News | 2 Comments »

Whose Dawn?

January 14th, 2013

What by way of inertia we here came to call the end of the world, the Mayan apocalypse, I spent in Guatemala, the center of the Mayan world.

Now that the grand tidal wave of misinformation has crashed and the world didn’t end, I’ve had trouble figuring out what name to give that strange night’s vigil. “The end of the world” doesn’t work anymore. “Winter solstice” doesn’t quite cover it. The Mayans, both ancient and modern, called it 13 Baktun, or Oxlajuj Baktun, meaning simply that it represented, depending on how you want to count, either the beginning or the end of the thirteenth unit of 144,000 days since they started keeping track in 3114 BC. The Guatemalan tourism department’s propaganda machine has been calling it “the new dawn of the Maya”, plastering the words all over posters and websites like they’re a catchphrase for the latest summer popcorn doomsday movie—meaning, depending who you ask, either that it’s the dawn of a new golden age for the Maya, their culture will regain and even surpass what it achieved at its peak, its people will be respected again etc…or else that it’s merely the dawn of a new age the Maya happen to have predicted, but which is really up for grabs in terms of whose new dawn it will actually turn out to be.


Temple 3, Iximche archaeological site, Tecpán, Guatemala, half an hour before sunset, December 20th, 2012.


Temple 3 again, with ghost, wind and Orion, sometime after midnight on the 21st.

I’m not sure if anybody actually believes in the former interpretation. Certainly a lot of people are hoping for it, many of whom I heard speak or sing or pray at the ruins of Iximche in the cold, windy hours from the afternoon of the 20th through the morning of the 21st, as the sun’s last rays slipped from the surface of the altar, the moon and the constellations of the Feathered Serpent and the Seven Hundred Boys rose and set. When it came my turn to throw my candle on the sacred fire and light up the ceremonial cigar graciously provided for me by the Ministry of Sports and Culture, I prayed for that too. But I’m not holding my breath.

Smart money, sadly, must lie with the latter interpretation, which has been taken to heart by every one of Guatemala’s 28 political parties and pretty much everybody with a soap box or a chunk of rubble to lift them half a head above the crowd. A few days earlier, I happened to show up at the ruins of Zaculeu at the same moment as “next president of Guatemala” Manuel Baldizón (I strongly advise you not click that link without first turning down your computer volume), mid promo tour, solidifying his position as prophesied leader of the new era acclaimed by several local beauty queens and a half dozen white guys dressed in rented monkey and jaguar costumes. Surrounded by late Classic temples half-assedly “restored” with concrete in 1947 by the United Fruit Company, he somehow managed to keep a straight face as he promised to represent all Guatemalans, not just robber baron industrialists in geek-rimmed glasses like himself, but Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, even Garifuna, and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity blah blah blah blah facepalm.


Baldizón at Zaculeu (nerd glasses, center right) with beauty queens and monkey man. Click for full size.

In case the above hasn’t made it obvious, nobody I met in Guatemala thought the world was ending. Nobody even brought it up—with the notable exception of a Korean 24-hour news reporter who interviewed me on the morning after. He asked what I was planning to do if the world actually ended. I disappointed him; I had absolutely no plans for that contingency. Hadn’t even considered it. Funny: I know exactly, down to the letter, what I’m going to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse—but the Mayan apocalypse would have caught me unawares. Good thing it didn’t happen.

He asked what I was doing there.

“I’m here,” I told him, “to find out what the real Maya think.”

Because I didn’t know. For all my research, for all the ranting I’ve done for years on this very subject, all my information has come from outsiders—white people, mostly—the kind who’ve spent decades sitting in jungle mud puzzling out fanciful interpretations of crumbling reliefs left behind by a decadent, brilliant civilization disappeared these thousand years without once looking up at the quiet, calm-eyed guide who led them here and wondering how or even if the one could have engendered the other.

Guatemala, like the US, like every other nation in the Western Hemisphere, lives with the legacy of its colonial past: a disenfranchised indigenous population, descended from those who lived there before everybody else showed up, but lacking nearly any say in what’s done with land that was once theirs. Unlike the US or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere besides Bolivia and maybe Peru, Guatemala’s indigenous population, with dozens of unique cultural groups and even more distinct languages than there are political parties, is actually the majority, yet they have if possible even less of a voice in their government and the world, less recourse to combat the appropriation of their lands, resources, and yes, their culture. Guatemala has yet to issue its indigenous peoples any casinos, if you follow me.

Perhaps you heard how in advance of 13 Baktun, Mexico banned Maya peoples from performing ceremonies at their own ancestral temples. Perhaps you wondered, like I did, why the hell anyone would do that. It didn’t take long to figure out. What bigger soapbox could the modern Mayan people hope for than the summit of an ancient Mayan temple on the day the whole world is waiting for the not-apocalypse they never predicted? If you’ve spent decades, centuries marginalizing those people, you’re probably not going to be particularly interested in letting anybody hear what they have to say. Especially if you’ve made big plans to invite a bunch of foreigners and charge them a lot of money to see the same ancestral temples, especially if those foreigners have collectively deluded themselves into thinking the Mayans whose doomsday prophecy they’ve bought into have been dead for a thousand years and at the same time developed some not very complimentary opinions about the state of your democracy.

We’re talking about countries who put ancient, jewel-bedecked Maya kings on their money. Can you see how the sight of a bunch of poor, oppressed actual Mayans might be muddying the message?

Everywhere I went in Guatemala, I saw evidence of the (overwhelmingly non-indigenous, non-Maya) government appropriating Maya cultural icons to promote tourism, validate the regime and foster a sense of national identity. In Guatemala City there’s a giant chrome and glass mall designed to look like a Mayan temple. At Zaculeu there was Baldizón, riding the crest of a populist political campaign funded by the sale of mining rights to indigenous lands in El Petén. At Iximche, while the real Maya were quietly murmuring prayers around a fire, the government carted in truckload after truckload of armed police, a stage and sound system, a garishly-painted plywood ballcourt and a bunch of white guys dressed up in feathers and beaded loincloths to reenact the ballgame to the tinny sounds of recorded birdsongs and thumping synthesized bass. Granted, at least they let the Maya people be there and take part. But there were, very clearly delineated, the fake government-sponsored prayers and the real indigenous prayers. The fake ones (amplified, with backing vocals) talked about a bright future. The real ones talked about a harried, tortured present.

And given all the bullshit about apocalypse we’ve been telling ourselves for years out here in the rest of the world, it’s those real prayers we need to hear, to remind us what’s still at risk.


Protesters at Iximche. Translation: 13 Baktun is our time, the time of the people. No to the illegal development of electric power. No to the privatization of natural hot springs. No to the privatization of communal lands. Repeal of the General Mining Law.

So. I’ve got a soapbox here, a little one. And despite being well aware of the problems involved in my being the one to tell you this, I still think it’s better if I say it than nobody.

Here, as best I can remember and in paraphrase, from a seven-page manifesto I heard read aloud in Spanish and Mam at Iximche on the first morning of the new era by a pot-belied Mam gentleman in a straw hat and scraggly black beard, is what the real Maya think.

This isn’t your new dawn, it’s ours. Stop trying to take it from us. Stop trying to profit from our culture. Instead, listen to our ancestors for a change. If you don’t want there to be a real apocalypse, stop destroying the earth. Stop damming and poisoning our rivers. Stop dumping pollutants into Lake Atitlan. Stop bulldozing our forests. Stop mining for gold. Stop evicting us from our lands. Stop massacring our people. Stop pretending like it didn’t happen. Stop pretending like we don’t exist. Archaeologists: stop saying the Maya are extinct. Let us live and speak and teach our children and practice our culture and languages in peace, or else this new Baktun will be even worse than the last one.

Update 1/31/2013: I’ve been looking for the full, real version of the above massively abridged, painfully subjective recollection. El Nubo has a printed copy, which I hope she’ll eventually post over at Cultural Survival; in the meantime, here’s an earlier edition of the same manifesto: Second Declaration of Iximche (en Español).


Zaculeu Temple 1, with flowers and ashes.

   Altars, Angry, Environmentalism, Guatemala, Religion, Trees | 2 Comments »

Fox at Kaminaljuyu

January 2nd, 2013


Guatemalan gray fox pup, Urocyon cinereoargenteus guatemalae
Kaminaljuyu archaeological site, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Taken the morning after the end of the world, December 22nd, 2012. There were two of these guys, living in a concrete drainpipe built into the side of an unexcavated temple.

I spent the two weeks leading up to the winter solstice traveling in Guatemala. I visited three different ancient Mayan ruins, at all three of which, with varying degrees of authenticity and government co-opted-ness, modern Maya people were celebrating oxlajuj baktun, the end of a 400 year cycle which began in 1618. I visited a crater lake and a hot springs sacred to both the modern and ancient maya. I saw the oldest church in Central America, erected by the conquered Maya at the behest of Pedro de Alvarado in 1524.

Plus I got my shoes shined.

All this and more in the coming weeks of the new age as I slowly unpack my luggage, brain, notes and memory cards.

   Beasts, Guatemala, Visions | No Comments »

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