Sunday, August 30, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: Cults of Cahokia?

So it's a good year for the archeology of the Moundbuilders, looks like. This week my sources (i.e. random internet news sources I follow; thanks, tumblr!) tell me that recent analysis of mass graves at Cahokia reveal them to be full of people who were from Cahokia, not Aztec-style war captives as had previously been speculated.

Specifically, the researchers looked at two different, but chronologically related, mass graves. In one, over 200 young women who died in ways that didn't leave obvious marks on their bodies were laid out and stacked up in neat rows.

In another one nearby, however, a mixed lot of men and women, not quite 40 in all, between the ages of 15 and 45, were tumbled together after being killed in gruesome, spectacular, and obvious ways - stone points still embedded in their bones, decapitation, all the awful violence of warfare or massacre.

When these graves were first excavated, slotting them into a narrative similar to the historic MesoAmerican custom (not unknown to historical Europeans, either) of appeasing the gods with captives taken from conquered and subject peoples rather than your own. But modern methods of analysis are allowing archeologists to find out quite a lot of personal information about bones these days, and the indications are strong that all the bodies belong to natives or long-term residents of the Cahokia region.

Furthermore - and this is where my story nose starts twitching - the tidy grave, though more uniform in appearance, is more diverse biologically than the messy, violent grave, which contains people biologically more distinct from other people unearthed at the site, and more similar to each other, than one would expect from a random sampling.

So the massacred people all belonged to the same extended family; and the presumed sacrifices were drawn from the general population.

I don't know about you, but this snaps into a definite picture in my head: a tyrannical ruling elite imposing an increasingly unbearable young-woman tax on their subjects to feed an implacable god to stave off some real or imagined disaster. Until the ruled, or a rival, couldn't take it anymore and revolted in a vengeful night of horror...

This sort of thing, after all, does happen. Read the history of any country, any group of people, any power structure. It's likely to involve politics, economics, and personal pathology with a veneer of religion making it easy to go too far - for it can't possibly be evil if God requires it, right? You're just doing your job...

But that is only a general outline. For a solid theory, one would have to examine more data and run more tests and compare dates (or rather, date ranges; all date measuring tech necessarily gives results in a range within a safe margin of error). If it can be established that the tidy sacrifices precede the messy massacre, that's one story; but if the messy massacre precedes, or occurs halfway through, those are very different stories.

And as far as I could tell reading the article, there's still much that isn't known about how the inhabitants of the tidy graves died. Human sacrifice is one way to account for their uniformity in age, burial method, etc.; but it's not the only conceivable one. Might there have been an epidemic in an institution which concentrated young women into a single physical space, some analog to a convent or a girl's finishing school?

And though the story that forms in my head associates the massacred remains with guilty parties, it is by no means unheard of for a disadvantaged group to take the punishment belonging to an advantaged group; or for a group to be powerful in a way that doesn't protect them from scapegoating and mob violence (cf the history of anti-semitism, for example); or for the innocent to be punished along with their guilty relatives; or for institutions to overwhelm the conscience of individuals to a point that personal guilt and innocence aren't even useful concepts. The sacrifices may have been criminals in ways we wouldn't view as crime; the massacred may have been virtuous in ways from which we recoil.

All of which is overwhelming to one who wishes to write a story about it suitable for publication. Archeologists don't have to come out with any one "truth" - they can always say "we need more data!" and dive back in. Fiction writers, however, have to do a certain level of research (varying with their personal comfort level and the intended market) and then commit to a narrative, centered on one character. Most modern American narratives prefer a sympathetic protagonist who triumphs in the end, which limits your narrative choices. You can try to buck this trend and opt for an unsympathetic protagonist and/or a tragic ending, if you're prepared for the flak you'll take from readers, reviewers, and armchair moralists on the hunt for the motes in the eyes of others, who will all assume that to write from a character's viewpoint is the same thing as endorsing that character's viewpoint.

If you can find your way to a narrative and a protagonist based on this setting and this situation, however - what a book that would be! Universal human themes and experiences, in a unique setting that doesn't have the thumbprints of dozens of pulp novelists all over it!

The more I think about it, the more certain I am that there's a Great Native American Historical Novelist out there, somewhere, being discouraged from writing a whole string of powerful works about the great pre-Columbian civilizations, which, when finally published, will be runaway bestsellers and create a new subgenre of historical fiction, centered on Native American history and viewpoints.

And I hope I live long enough to read them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Not Sure How Much This Helps

Despite frontloading a lot of the second-guessing of myself, and going in with a sense of not having a damn thing of use to offer; despite both of us being unreasonably tired and Damon missing half of Saturday due to health crap; despite a surprisingly small dealer's room (no t-shirts? How can there be no t-shirts?), Armadillocon was good for me this year.

I can never remember what I say on panels, though I always think afterwards of things I absolutely should have said, but after each one someone in the audience sought me out to remark favorably on what I said, and moreover on how I said it. I always have the vague sense that I've talked too much (and too loud, and too diffusely) and not said any of the right things, but the audience - or these specific portions of the audience anyway - perceives this as me being passionate about things.

That is certainly true as far as it goes. And apparently the other panelists don't find it too obnoxious, either, because when the ghost story panel was short of participants, at the tag-end of the day Saturday, someone I'd been on with earlier in the day invited me to get out of the audience and onto the panel. So I did. Because, ghost stories. And we were all weird by then anyhow, it wasn't just me.

I once again sat through a panel on promotion and was once again admonished that all sales involve "selling myself" and once again concluded that if that's true, I'm screwed, because I can't sell myself. This is not reluctance; this is not naivete; this is not cowardice; this is demonstrated fact. You might as well tell me to flap my arms and fly to the moon, or do a pull-up (honestly, how? I've never managed even one; I can't even bend my elbows), or fall asleep because it's bedtime. I've had 54 years to try this advice and it's not going to work because I can't do it, and my ability to network at all is small.

But I have sold books, and I have given workshops and been on panels that apparently were good for some of the participants, and I do get traffic on this blog, and somehow I've accumulated 337 simblr followers as of this morning, the vast majority of whom are not spammers, without any promotion at all. This is all small, but real. I'm okay with small success, and all my small successes have been the result of me telling stories and talking about the things I care about and basically engaging passionately with something, and conveying that engagement to people outside of it.

I do not know how to translate Being All About the Story into, say, a living wage.

But it's clear enough that Being All About the Story has to be where I start, or nothing else is going to happen at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Road Trip Time

Off to Armadillocon in the morning. We're leaving early so we can make a couple of stops on the way. My first panel is at 5:00 tomorrow.

If you're there too, find a panel I'm on and come say hi.

Maybe you can help me figure out this e-reader I bought.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Armadillocon 2015, Very Soon

The Armadillocon schedule is up.

I feel kind of detached from it all, as if I'm not really going. But I'll be there, and I expect I'll be present enough at the time. It's just that I'm so weird right now.

If you're there too feel free to say hi.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Publishing Today

Nothing sums up modern publishing like the fact that Lois McMaster Bujold's fourth theological thriller set in the World of Five Gods did not get picked up by the publisher, so she's e-pubbing it herself.

And now I have to cave in and get an e-reader. Because there's not going to be a print run, and Bujold is a read-while-walking, read-while-eating, take-book-to-bed-to-finish-chapter-oh-look-I-finished-and-it's-three-AM author.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: The Buried Bobcat (News)

Yeah, it's not Sunday but you know what posting when I want means? It means schedules don't apply, and this is a doozy! What was previously assumed to be a puppy burial in an Illinois Hopewell mound turns out to have been a 4-7 month old bobcat! Wearing a collar! And being treated unlike any other animal burial found in the Hopewell culture ever!

I trust this will lead to a re-evaluation of old animal burials to make sure of the species (a bobcat skull is not particularly canine-looking - someone was careless there!), but it will still be unique in the record because neither domestic nor wild animals are typically buried in Hopewell mounds at all, and this bobcat's remains show no signs of it having been part of a sacrifice or anything like that. Even as a puppy burial it should have attracted more interest than it did, she says with 50/50 hindsight, because the person who wasn't there always knows best. The Hopewell just did not bury animals in the same way they buried humans - except for this one time, raising the huge question - why?

And that, of course, is where the storyteller comes into play because there's a limit to what the evidence can tell us at any scientific level. Was it somebody's pet bobcat? That's a story in itself, as (Disney versions aside) dogs were the only animal routinely domesticated in the Americas till European imports came along. Was it an animal of some ceremonial significance? Forensic analysis find no indication of a sacrifice, but not all forms of death lead a clear record in the bones - maybe it was suffocated very skilfully. Or maybe it had some ceremonial significance that had nothing to do with sacrificing it, and it died of natural causes (which may have been a bad omen for somebody!). Maybe it was understood to actually "be" someone else - a messenger from the land of the dead, or the vessel of some power.

My mind rides off in all directions, and I hesitate to pick one, because - somewhere out there is someone who is much, much better qualified to tell this story than me. This story needs someone who has a stronger connection to the Hopewell tradition than I have, some much firmer grounds for thinking that (for instance) the bobcat might have temporarily held the spirit of a culture hero, ancestor, or shaman, and been buried when that spirit's work on earth was done. Anything I wrote on it would be a straight-up fantasy with the fingerprints of European-American cultural assumptions all over it. Someone out there is better able to wash those fingerprints away and give us a straight-up fantasy that showcases the cultural assumptions of the Hopewell - a culture long gone, except for its archeological traces and the biological descendants, holders of a series of different cultures, of Hopewell citizens.

I hope this person recognizes herself, and finds the story, and commits to the story, and gets it past all the barriers trying to lock anything but European-American cultural assumptions from media, and publishes it where I can read it.

I promise to cry when the bobcat dies.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Armadillocon 2015

I just booked Damon's membership and our room for Armadillocon 2015.

I'm not sure why they want me. I'm not sure I'm a draw. I'm not sure I'm up to it. But I'm going and it'll sort itself out.

Because nothing good happens if you don't give them a chance; and the bad things that can happen aren't that bad.