A Herpetological Roundup

Brown-snouted Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops wiedii or nigriscens), November 13, 2015. Photo by Will Brown. Creative Commons Licence.
  1. Known from only a handful of specimens since its discovery in 1937 and feared extinct, the Albany Adder (Bitis albanica) was found alive and well—at least four specimens were—last November, in a South African location that is being kept secret to deter poachers. Because yes, poachers will collect the shit out of these snakes.
  2. The plan to reintroduce Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts has been suspended in the face of local opposition; the Worcester Telegram’s outdoors writer Mark Blazis is disappointed.
  3. Ontario Nature has announced its new and improved Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas app, which isn’t so much an app as it is a mobile website that supports offline data. Anyway, it’s got a field guide and lets you enter species sightings.
  4. Fossil snakes are generally known from their vertebrae, which makes their study a little less exciting to the lay reader than dinosaurs; still, it’s rather exciting that a new extinct species, Zilantophis schuberti, has been described from a fossil found in eastern Tennessee. “Zilantophis bore uniquely broad wing-shaped projections on the sides of its vertebrae. In life, these were likely attachment sites for back muscles. These features are what inspired the name of the new genus, derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Tatar mythology.” [Journal of Herpetology]
  5. Blind snakes (Scolecophidia) are tiny, secretive and easily overlooked; even so, there’s something of a blind snake renaissance going on, says Andrew Durso. “I recently noticed, much to my surprise, the the number of described species of blindsnakes has doubled in the last 13 years, from 305 in 2004 to 599 today; that’s 16.5% of all snakes! There are certainly many undiscovered species of blindsnakes, so it’s likely that their numbers will continue to grow.”
  6. A fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine from Daniel Engber that looks at the increasing use of the Burmese Python (Python molurus bivitattus) as a laboratory animal, and the possibility that its extraordinary digestive system—which has to flip from inactive to a 50,000-calorie meal all at once—may help find a cure for diabetes.

J’y suis, j’y reste

“You’re from the city, aren’t you?”

That was the then-mayor of Shawville, watching me walk gingerly through the mud during the groundbreaking ceremony for what would soon become the village’s day care centre. It was the fall of 2003 and I was covering the event as a reporter for the local newspaper. For various reasons I lasted all of five months in that job, but it gave me a crash course in the town, the surrounding countryside and the MRC du Pontiac in general.

Yes, I was from the city—I grew up in suburban Winnipeg—but Shawville, a town of some 1,600 people, most of whom anglophone, about 75 km northwest of Ottawa, seemed somehow familiar. I spent a lot of my childhood staying with my paternal grandparents in Hartney, Manitoba, a village two thousand kilometres away and about one-third the size. But there were some similarities: both communities served as service centres for the surrounding farms. And both had demographics that tilted elderly. To me, it felt like moving to Shawville was like moving in with elderly relatives with whom you had to mind your manners and steer the conversation away from politics as much as possible, but apart from that you loved each other to bits.

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Are Conventions Necessary?

The latest science fiction convention meltdown—this time, Odyssey Con, a Wisconsin convention that bungled entirely foreseeable harassment issues—is a reminder of the outsized place conventions in general have in our field. In my view they take up too much space—too much time, money and space in our heads—leaving too little room for the literature and media these events purport to be about.

Last September, in a Patreon post about building bridges and equalizing power structures in arts communities, my friend Tim Cooper noted that the science fiction community does those sorts of things less well, partly because the work isn’t being done to the same extent, partly because it’s actively being opposed from some corners. But he had this to say about conventions:

I’m going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they’re basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose—coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there’s a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don’t accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner’s perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that’s spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it’s a bad idea for everybody.

Tim offers a useful perspective, because many people active in a community don’t have anything to compare that community to. And his point is worth thinking about: when we go to sf conventions, exactly what the hell are we doing?

Continue reading “Are Conventions Necessary?”

A Herpetological Roundup

Mating group of Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis), Narcisse Snake Dens, May 5, 2014.
  1. Spring is here, and the garter snakes (Thamnophis) are busily mating away — and that means mating balls where as many as a hundred frenzied males may be trying to woo a single female snake. That frenzy may be harder on the males than the females: a new study found that telomere length — associated with stress — decreased with males as they aged, but did not do so with females. [Proc. R. Soc. B]
  2. Then again, it could be worse: a photographer caught a female Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) in the act of constricting and eating its mate.
  3. Speaking of constriction. Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis) are known for eating other snakes, and they’ve also been known to eat snakes longer than they are — including other constricting snakes. They do it by constricting harder — twice as hard as rat snakes. [Journal of Experimental Biology]
  4. Ontario has banned the hunting of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina), a species that had previously been regulated as game wildlife (with seasons and bag limits). Conservationists have long argued that any take is unsustainable, and they’re right: turtles simply reproduce too slowly, and face too many other dangers (roadkill, nest predation) — they’re simply in too much trouble already.
  5. In other good news, the Arizona snake shot — allowing snakes to be shot within city limits — bill died in a tie vote in the state senate.
  6. Researchers at Grand Valley State University are monitoring a population of Eastern Massasaugas (Sistrurus catenatus); they hope to learn more to fight the onslaught of snake fungal disease, which is hitting the massasauga particularly hard.
  7. Oh, great: the purported medicinal properties of the Indian Sand Boa (Eryx johniihas led to a spate of poaching and smuggling, putting the species, which is protected in India, at greater risk of extinction.
  8. India is also home to the unusual shield-tailed snakes (Uropeltidae), which Andrew Durso calls the “Darwin’s finches” of snakes.
  9. This January a rare species of boa, Corallus cropanii, endemic to Brazil’s São Paulo state, was found alive for the first time since it was described in 1953. It’s otherwise known from only a handful of specimens.
  10. Cobra venom is largely neurotoxic — it shuts down a prey animal’s autonomic nervous system — but some cobra venoms have cytotoxic, or tissue-destroying, qualities, most famously the venoms of African spitting cobras. Cytotoxins are painful but not as lethal as neurotoxins, so you’d think that cytotoxic venoms in cobras developed as a defense mechanism. But it turns out that cytotoxins don’t correlate with spitting, but with spectacular hoods: the more brightly banded or coloured a cobra species’ hood, the more cytotoxins in the venom. [Toxins]

‘A Time Traveller from the Late 1980s’

Paul Wells, now back at Maclean’s, argues that Donald Trump is a hermit who has walled himself off from the rest of the world since the 1980s. This explains two rather odd things about the president that a lot of us have noticed: one, he spends an awful lot of time, even as president, at his own properties like Mar-a-Lago; and two, that his politics are decades out of date.

Trump’s public statements betray the effect of his extended hiatus from North American society. In a Republican candidates’ debate in March 2016, he listed Japan as one of the countries where the U.S. is “getting absolutely crushed on trade.” That hasn’t been true since before Bill Clinton was president. In his inaugural address, he painted an apocalyptic portrait of the United States — where “crime and gangs and drugs . . . have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” — even though crime today is much lower, in most jurisdictions and by most measures, than in 1990, or even in 2005.

These outbursts are worth the effort to understand because their author is now, at least on paper, the most powerful man in the world. They are best understood as the musings of an emissary from another era. Donald Trump is in effect a time traveller from the late 1980s, when crime in American cities was at record-high levels, racial tension was rampant, Japanese billionaires were buying up much of Manhattan and a much younger Donald Trump was building the collection of gold-plated safe houses in which he would hide for the next three decades, subsisting on well-done steaks, taco bowls and the time-clock adulation of lackeys and hirelings.

Wells goes on to compare Trump to a character in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but the point is clear enough without the analogy.

The House of Binding Thorns

Sometimes the Law of Sequels does not apply. The House of Binding Thorns, the second book in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series, is a better book than its predecessor, The House of Shattered Wings (which I reviewed in 2015). It may simply be that book two can get down to business now that the introductions are out of the way, but the characters, setting, motivations — everything seems clearer and in sharper focus. De Bodard has found her groove.

While The House of Binding Thorns can be read on its own without too much trouble, you’d do better to begin with The House of Shattered Wings. That book introduced us to a fin-de-siècle Paris blasted into ruins by a magical war, where powerful fallen angels command rival Houses, while an Annamite (Vietnamese) dragon kingdom lay hidden under the waters of the Seine.

The focus of Shattered Wings was on House Silverspires; in The House of Binding Thorns the action moves to House Hawthorn, where the angel essence addict Madeleine, whom we first met in Shattered Wings, is now back under the control and protection of the fearsome and malevolent Asmodeus. The textbook definition of Lawful Evil, Asmodeus is by turns horrific and charismatic, a problematic but compelling figure who steals every scene he’s in. He sends Madeleine as part of an embassy to the dragon kingdom under the Seine to arrange a political marriage with one of the dragon princes. Philippe, one of the protagonists of Shattered Wings, is also back, on a quest to recover his lost Isabelle, and we’re introduced to a couple of new protagonists: a dragon, Thuan, who has infiltrated Hawthorn to investigate the source of the angel essence the addiction to which is ravaging the kingdom; and Françoise, an Annamite in a relationship with Asomdeus’s sister, Berith.

The character threads — Madeleine’s, Philippe’s, Thuan’s and Françoise’s — are woven deftly together as de Bodard spins a cunning web of addiction, deception and intrigue involving factions within the dragon kingdom and Houses out in the banlieu. Schemes within schemes abound. Interpersonal drama, at the family and political level, is something de Bodard has always excelled at.

Binding Thorns explores colonial themes even more deeply than Shattered Wings, as the pantheons of implicitly Christian fallen and Vietnamese dragon kingdoms intersect with one another. It’s also a fairly explicit allegory of the Opium Wars, and a reminder that addiction is also a tool of control, although a certain aspect of Madeleine’s addiction was unconvincing (it occurs at the end, so: spoilers). All of which makes for a setting that feels breathtakingly real (if not necessarily alive, if you take my meaning), a world that exists beyond the storytelling façades. Combined with the intriguing plot and characters, and you have a book that is very much the total package.

The House of Binding Thorns is out today from Ace in North America and from Gollancz in the U.K. on Thursday. I received an electronic review copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) via NetGalley.

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AE Is Resurrecting Itself

AE logoSince November 2014 I’ve been reviewing books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Last September their website went dark; a brief note said that the site had been compromised by hackers and would be back soon. Months passed, and people were starting to wonder if AE would ever be back. (Because I reviewed for them, I got a few emails about it.)

But last week they finally broke their silence: their front page now announces that they will be coming back. Now I’m told that the relaunch is still some time away — months, not weeks. (Remember: this is done in their spare time.) But when that does occur I’ll be back writing reviews and other nonfiction pieces for them.

(If nothing else, I’m glad not to have killed the magazine per the Waldrop rule: the last thing they published before the site went down was my review of Jo Walton’s Necessity.)

All Our Wrong Todays

Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, the first novel from the Canadian screenwriter, begins in a consciously retro future — a present day as imagined by the 1950s and 1960s, brought into being by the invention in 1965 of a device that generates unlimited clean energy. In the words of protagonist Tom Barren, it’s “the world we were supposed to have.” Barren is the mediocre son of the inventor of a time machine; through that family connection he finds himself training to be a chrononaut alongside far more qualified and less nepotistic candidates. When an accident puts the time travel project on hold, Barren transports himself into the past and, through an entirely in-character act of fucking things up, messes with the past; when he returns, he finds himself in a dystopic world that is entirely his fault: ours.

This is a book to try the patience of experienced science fiction readers. Not for its prose, which is quick and engaging (there are 137 short chapters in 369 pages), or its clever and well-handled plot. But All Our Wrong Todays begins inauspiciously, and sets off many genre reading protocol alarm bells. A retro future that is not immediately ironic — that’s one thing. Barren is, at least at the outset, one of the most annoyingly pathetic protagonists I have ever encountered. He’s a dim bulb surrounded by luminosities, whose motivations are powered in large part by his manpain, which is generated by his own mediocrity as well as the the fridging of two — count ’em — two female characters. It does get better — Barren does learn better — but the book takes its time getting there, and it’s not necessarily pleasant or enjoyable until it does.

I’ve been thinking about the differences between genre and non-genre science fiction (of which this, like Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, is an example of the latter). One that came to mind during a recent sleepless and pain-filled night is subjectivity. A non-genre story will tend to focus more narrowly on its subject, and that subject’s inner life and personal growth, than a genre story might. It will be about people, rather than events or ideas, whereas a genre story, with its adventure-pulp traditions, might have different emphases: the point of saving the world, after all, is saving the world; character growth is a side effect. Which is to say that All Our Wrong Todays seems off-balance in these emphases to the point of profound solipsism. As we watch its self-absorbed protagonist struggle to become a better person as a result of radically changing the timeline, we might be struggling ourselves to give a shit.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Historian Detained

Il faut désormais faire face outre-Atlantique à l’arbitraire et à l’incompétence la plus totale. Je ne sais ce qui est le pire. Ce que je sais, aimant ce pays depuis toujours, c’est que les États-Unis ne sont plus tout à fait les États-Unis.

—Henry Rousso

When reports started appearing on social media that a distinguished French historian had been detained and nearly deported by U.S. officials at Houston’s international airport, I thought, as I clicked the link, that I probably knew who it was.

And indeed I do: the historian in question is none other than Henry Rousso, whose book, translated into English as The Vichy Syndrome, is absolutely essential reading for anyone studying the Second World War and its aftermath: it looks at the ways France has remembered, commemorated — and forgotten — the War, the Holocaust, the Occupation and the Resistance. (That book loomed very, very large in my studies.)

Last Wednesday, Rousso was travelling to the U.S. to speak at Texas A&M University; his 10-hour detention has been described as a mistake by an “inexperienced” officer. Rousso describes his experience in this French-language Huffington Post article. Basically, when he was pulled out for a random check, he was asked whether he was coming to the U.S. for compensated work (his talk) as a tourist; the U.S. does not require a visa from French tourists, and most people have taken this sort of thing very casually, but U.S. officials seem to be getting more strict about it. His previous J1 visa, issued for his visiting professorship at Columbia University last fall, was flagged, and he was accused of entering the U.S. on that (now-expired) visa. Texas A&M had to haul ass to prevent his deportation and ensure he could give his talk last Friday.

France takes its history very seriously, and that extends to its historians. I’m not at all surprised that Emmanuel Macron, the centrist presidential candidate with a real shot at beating Marine Le Pen, tweeted his support for Rousso. Make no mistake: France noticed this.

Weird Dinosaurs

Deinocheirus mirificus at the “Dinosaures. Tresors del desert de Gobi” exhibition in CosmoCaixa, Barcelona, February 2011. Photo by Eduard Solà. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons licence.

When I was a dinosaur-obsessed child, I tore through every dinosaur book I could find in every public library I encountered. Some of those books were extremely dated. In the 1970s and 1980s books from the 1940s were still in the children’s section, even science books, so nomina dubia like Antrodemus and Trachodon showed up repeatedly, and the art was, in hindsight, anatomically risible. Kids these days have no idea how bad it used to be.

But there was one book — one I actually owned — that stands out in my memory even now: The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs by L. B. Halstead. (The paleontology blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs covers it here and here.) Published in 1975, the book was on the cusp of the dinosaur renaissance and is, in Marc Vincent’s words, “an odd, uneasy melding of new and old ideas here, both in the text and in the art.” Some of those ideas were just plain weird, and since disproven: a species of Compsognathus with paddles instead of hands, stegosaurs whose plates lay flat against the body, that sort of thing.

But the weirdest thing in that book, assuming I’m remembering it correctly (I’m pretty sure this was the book I saw it in), was not a dubious interpretation, but a fossil: two gargantuan, eight-foot-long arms, discovered in Mongolia in 1965, named Deinocheirus. The arms were all that was known of the dinosaur.

What did the rest of Deinocheirus look like, I wondered. The arms had claws, so they clearly had to come from some gigantic theropod. But that would make it bigger than Tyrannosaurus and that’s just crazy talk. The mystery preoccupied me for years. In the eighth grade I actually made Deinocheirus the subject of a two-minute speech I was required to give in English class: I gave a junior-high cargo-cult scientific talk in which I speculated that Deinocheirus was a quadruped, a cat-shaped dinosaur predator. It was the only way I could reconcile the size of those arms.

Deinocheirus mirificus restoration
Deinocheirus mirificus restoration. Art by FunkMonk. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons licence.

But in 2014 the rest of Deinocheirus was announced to the world, and the truth proved more bizarre than my childhood imagination. It was an ornithomimosaur, but at 11 metres long and more than six tons in weight, one that traded speed for size and mass. It was horse-faced and hunch-backed, toothless and omnivorous, and apparently food for the local tyrannosaur, Tarbosaurus.

The story of Deinocheirus, its initial discovery, and how the rest of it was found nearly forty years later, is just one of the stories that make up John Pickrell’s latest book, Weird Dinosaurs: The Strange New Fossils Challenging Everything We Thought We Knew, out next month from Columbia University Press.

Book cover: Weird DinosaursPickrell’s thesis that after decades of relative stability, the field of dinosaur paleontology is changing more rapidly than ever before. Thanks in part to a generation of Jurassic Park-inspired paleontologist, he writes, “”More dinosaurs are being discovered right now than ever before — and not just a few more: the rate of discovery has been increasing nearly exponentially.” If libraries could get away with having decades-old dinosaur books on the shelves when I was growing up, that’s not the case any more. Even a dinosaur book a decade old is out of date.

The title is a little click-baity, especially coming from a university press; Pickrell is at pains to explain what he means by weird in the introduction: “Really, I mean dinosaurs that fall outside existing stereotypes, but dinosaurs are also weird in the sense that they display some traits that are utterly unfamiliar to us in living animals today.” A weird dinosaur, then, is one that upsets that consensus and our expectations.

Pickrell has plenty of examples: Deinocheirus, to be sure, but also the batlike Yi qi from China, the double-sickle-clawed Balaur bondoc from Romania, feathered ornithischians from Siberia and Alaskan dinosaurs from north of the Arctic Circle. Opalized dinosaur fossils from Australia that had been broken up for their gem value before their paleontological worth was realized.

If you’ve been following paleontological bloggers like Brian Switek you’ll recognize many of the species and stories Pickrell recounts.

But Weird Dinosaurs isn’t just about the weird dinosaurs: each chapter is as much about the discovery of the dinosaur, the process and the people involved in the discovery (replete with colourful characters, intrigue and controversy in some cases — there are some great stories here) and the location it was discovered. One of the reasons why these dinosaurs seem so weird to us is that they’re coming from new sites in Argentina, Australia, Egypt, Madagascar, Mongolia, Romania — even Antarctica. The fossil record is the tiniest sample of what existed: you can’t extrapolate the Mesozoic from the Cretaceous bone beds of North America.

So to a certain extent, what’s weird is simply what’s new — like an explorer finding something utterly ordinary for the first time. Feathered dinosaurs were always feathered: we didn’t know they were feathered until recently, and it wasn’t until even more recently that we began to understand that many dinosaurs were feathered — that feathers on non-avian dinosaurs may well have been utterly normal.

Weird Dinosaurs is science journalism: it’s not a technical book, but it’s not written at an introductory level either. A certain level of dinosaur knowledge is required. If you know the difference between a saurischian and an ornithischian, and know the general dinosaur groups (sauropods, ceratopsians) and the more commonly known species, you should be fine. But since these are the sorts of facts that dinosaur-mad children have down cold before the age of eight, this should not limit Pickrell’s readership too much.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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