Authors: Wim Coleman & Pat Perrin
Publisher: Madeira Press (2012)
Number of Pages: 304
How long it took me to read: 5 days
Where I bought this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
Like a Moth to a Flame
As someone who looks at life through the lens of Occam’s razor, it’s never occurred to me to give the idea of the world ending on December 21st any bit of credence. That is the reason I almost didn’t choose to read this book. I had, however, been looking for an idea book, a book that has so many different themes that it almost doesn’t know what to do with itself, which is why I picked up this book anyway. There seem to be many potentially conflicting elements in this novel and I’m curious to see how they will mesh.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “They come to the Yucatán expecting to learn our magic, our healing in a day or two. They think it will make them all ‘spiritual.’ They think they can prepare themselves for a time of change, like this one now. But they don’t want to take the time to really get it right.” (p.152)
4. “ ‘There are places in the world,’ Lydia said quietly, ‘where stories are real, where life isn’t one damned thing after another—where reality itself is knit together by the fabric of myth and legend. And what doctor here call schizophrenia, folks there call magic and vision.’ ” (p.59)
3. “Like all the Maya in Kin Ich, Nacho considered himself a good, practicing Catholic. But he saw no contradiction between his Christian beliefs and his intimate acquaintance with Mayan deities like the rain-god Chac.” (p.207)
2. “According to the Maya, the world came into being during a conversation between two gods. Our reality was the result of a creative collaboration, not a demonstration of authority or an act of loneliness.” (p.258)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “We inherited a preference for one hand over the other and a brain with hemispheres wired for different kinds of thinking. We see things in endless dichotomies. Science and superstition, rich and poor, capitalist and socialist, intellect and emotion, conscious and unconscious, reality and art, good and evil, man and woman, end and beginning. And with every dichotomy, we embrace one side and deny the other. Whole cultures get stuck on one side of one dichotomy or another.” (p.151)
Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.
New Word: stela (noun)
Definition (Source: Merriam Webster): a usually carved or inscribed stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes
Origins: 1776; Latin & Greek; Latin ‘stela’; from Greek ‘stēlē’; akin to Old High German ‘stollo’ pillar; Greek ‘stellein’ to set up
As in: “They’d found the remarkable stela and worked feverishly to uncover it…. The twelve-foot tall stone was majestic, even lying in the mud and rubble, lit only by their flashlights.” (p.8)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“This is my first foray into the genre of visionary fiction. I didn’t even know that visionary fiction was a genre until I began perusing the back of this book and stumbled upon the designation under the recommended price and bar code. I’m still not sure exactly what visionary fiction is, however. I can take the classification literally: the novel’s protagonist, Lydia, starts off the novel with a (prophetic?) vision and doesn’t show any sign of settling down in reality any time soon. But the novel could also be designated as visionary because I’m only a couple of chapters in and it already seems to be questioning the foundations of what I would call reality. The protagonist’s visions seem just as real to her as eating honey-toasted breakfast cereal every morning does to me. I mean, this middle-aged gringa archaeologist really thinks she’s a shaman, a Mayan shaman with a spirit guide and everything, and while part of me is thinking, ‘Well, middle-aged gringa archaeologists will probably believe just about anything if it sounds “spiritual” enough,’ another part of me thinks, ‘That’s actually kind of awesome.’
“What’s awesome about her is that she’s not spiritual; she’s spiritually disciplined. That definitely doesn’t describe many people in my social circle. That any belief system worth it’s salt presents difficulties for its followers is an uncomfortable topic among my New Age friends. Living by faith is always hard, no matter what you have faith in, be it a single god, a pantheon of gods, the Universe, or Rationality and Science. It always requires work, dedication, and perseverance. At least it does if you actually want it to change your life.”
“There are some elements of Mayan Interface that are extremely well researched, namely the Mayan mysticism that is the core of the novel. There are other elements, however, that I’m finding difficult to take seriously because of their lack of plausibility. I think the novel is supposed to have a strong technological dimension to it, demonstrated by Claude VanderMeer, his virtual reality simulator, and it’s AI named Conti. While virtual reality and artificial intelligence are hardly anything new in computer science, the way the virtual reality simulator is set up and portrayed is unrealistic. A virtual reality simulator, as of 2012, would need a large team of engineers and scientists to develop it, regardless of the genius of its creators and the amount of money thrown at the project. If VanderMeer and perhaps a couple of contractors here and there were the only ones to have created Conti, it would still have been a lifelong project. This is just one example of some of the technological missteps in the novel.
“On the one hand, I understand that it’s very difficult to be well versed in two wildly different subjects like Mayan mysticism and computer science. However, the melding of dichotomies is a major theme of Mayan Interface. That the spiritual aspect of the novel is so deftly rendered while the technological aspect mishandled draws away from that theme. It makes an argument for the opposition of these two concepts rather than for their sameness.”
“I’m always attracted to works that don’t put faith and/or mysticism and reason at odds. I was raised by Christian parents who were also software engineers. The Christian man I’m married to is also a software engineer. Despite being my family’s literature-inclined black sheep, I respect math, and science, and critical thinking skills, and I get a little frustrated when other people don’t demonstrate that same respect in their interactions with me. I find myself rather perturbed when people dismiss me as an irrational science-hater for my beliefs. I have had several engaging conversations cut short the minute I drop the C-bomb because it released the people I was talking to from the responsibility of taking me seriously. Mayan Interface is a novel that likes to explore dichotomies like faith and reason and then obliterate them, and, for the most part, I’m enjoying the wanton deconstruction. I’m iffy about putting aside my concepts of good and evil, but I will heartily admit that the human tendency to divide the world into Team Us and Team Them rather than focus on what all people have in common is one of the greatest sources of self-induced strife.
“At one point, a secondary character comments that even our own two hands are at war with each other, which is a way of saying that humanity’s inherent divisiveness begins internally and is in turn reflected in the way we structure our reality. I don’t think that this is because we are all conflict-prone and warlike, but I think it does have something to do with the desire for structure. When I divide things into different categories, every thing gets its own box with a label and a clear definition. Human beings prefer what is known to what is unknown: that’s just a matter of survival. Dividing things and labeling them, while limiting, allows me to safely navigate my world. I like to assume that the unknown, the other, is bad and dangerous because it is easier to protect myself if I assume the worst.
“One of the major issues of Mayan Interface, however, is that while that kind of pessimism is safe, it’s not the best way to live. Authentic living means taking risks and stepping into the opposite side of a dichotomy to find not balance but harmony. The novel purports that there is a place in life where I needn’t feel as if I’m being stretched taut between opposing forces but where I realize that those opposing forces are essentially the same thing. Having never visited this place myself, I’m not sure I believe. What little history I’ve studied seems to be one unending story of swinging between philosophical extremes. Children look back at their parents’ mistakes and in the attempt to correct them end up overcompensating. Most people I know either unabashedly embrace one side of a dichotomy or spend most of their energy trying to find the balance between the opposing forces trying to dominate their lives. To embrace the different sides of a dichotomy, to internalize that conflict of ideas, is alien to me. It’s something that has always appealed to me, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it happen anywhere but novels.”
“One of my favorite parts of this novel is the little academic blurbs at the beginning of each chapter that are supposed to come from Lydia’s book on Mayan mysticism. I always enjoy learning about other cultures, and Mayan Interface is a novel with all the interesting bits of an ‘Intro to Anthropology’ textbook tucked into it. One section I enjoy in particular discusses that this business of the Mayan calendar ending on December 21st, 2012 is based on a misunderstanding of the Mayan concept of time. December 21st is merely the end of the current Mayan cycle. There are several other larger cycles that continue to record dates well into the distant future (Mayans perceived time as cyclical rather than linear). Another section I appreciate is about the Mayan concept of other planes of existence. The narrator describes alternate realities with a physicality that most metaphysics lacks. When I think about another plane of existence, I think ethereal, insubstantial, and wavering in and out of phase. Describing an alternate reality with such concrete detail, describing its risks as poisonous plants and dangerous animals, demonstrates the solidity of Mayan belief.”
“I think with every chapter I’ve read thus far I’ve discovered another theme. That’s not necessarily bad, but it is a little overwhelming. One of the themes that I’m really struggling with is the one discussed in my second quote, or the idea that we can, in certain places and contexts, believe something into reality, that our perceptions can define reality in some way. Since I developed the self-awareness that often comes with puberty, I have felt the constant tension between subjective and objective truth within myself. It gets me through the day to think of my own small life as one more small chapter in the story of the universe, but the skeptic in me is always reminding me that the patterns I see in my life, the cause and effect I perceive and use to justify my personal faith, could merely be my brain imposing a pattern on random input in order to keep me functioning. I like to think that, in retrospect, the events in my life have been too meaningful to be random, that some force has been leading me to the place where I am today. The skeptic in me responds that the simplest explanation is that life actually is just one damn thing after another and that I’m just trying to make myself feel better by looking for alternative explanations. Perhaps it’s just that I feel the constant need to infuse my life with meaning that I find disturbing.”
“I’m disappointed that the book is over. I very deliberately tried to prevent myself from finishing it, but the novel rushed through to the end without stopping, without giving me a chance to think over what I’d just read. I think, perhaps, the pacing of the novel forced me to gloss over some important details because I’m finding the ending a bit muddled. I’m waking up from a daze and I’m not entirely sure what happened except that the journey with this book was wild and strange and that some vision-inducing substance someone slipped into my drink may have made me dance on a table at some point. I’m not really familiar with the tropes of visionary fiction, if it has any, so I would have appreciated to be given the chance to breath a bit more and take time to absorb what Lydia was experiencing. I’m walking away from this book having enjoyed reading it, but not really sure how I feel about it now that’s it’s over. I feel as if I’m waking from a dream.
“I am glad for my new understanding of the Mayan religion, especially as December 21st approaches. Not only do I now have a scholarly basis for my utter dismissal of all the apocalyptic theories running around, but I also find that the Mayan’s cyclical interpretation of time imposed on history reveals more than it obscures. I have a new pattern through which I can examine reality and am excited as to what I might discover about myself and my own plane of existence.”