Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Babylon 5 in the Age of Streaming

Babylon 5, the groundbreaking science fiction series that ran from 1994 to 1998, will finally be available to watch via a streaming service. As show creator J. Michael Straczynski noted yesterday, it will be coming to Prime Video next month.

It generally hasn’t been available on streaming services; our only option has been to buy the DVD box sets, more on which in a moment. Will the show eventually be available on Blu-Ray? The answer: probably not. It’s a victim of the television production practices of its era: live action sequences were shot on film, but visual effects were composited digitally in standard definition. Older shows were completely done on film, later shows on HD video: sf series of the mid-nineties, I remember reading somewhere, are at real risk of falling down the memory hole because they’re barely watchable today.

But it’s even worse with Babylon 5. As this page points out, the show was produced in the 4:3 aspect ratio, but when it was rebroadcast on Sci-Fi, and then again for its DVD release, it was converted to 16:9. This posed no problems for the live action sequences, but the 4:3 480p effects shots were cropped to 16:9 360p. On a standard definition set this isn’t much of a problem, but when you use an upconverting Blu-Ray player to play that DVD on a big 1080p set, those effects shots are done at one-third the TV’s resolution. The live-action shots without effects still look fine; the effects shots and the composited shots look terrible.

That won’t change with streaming, I’m afraid.

Redoing those effects sequences would be prohibitively expensive. It was done for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it cost a boatload and failed to sell in the hoped-for numbers. As a result it won’t ever be done for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Babylon 5 is great—if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat—but compared to Star Trek it’s a niche interest, so I figured it wouldn’t ever happen.

Except Straczynski has gone and thrown a wrench into things today, saying that while the 16:9 versions can’t be upgraded to HD, they provided Warners with 4:3 master negatives on film (he says the CG effects were output to film at 2K)—and those, he says, could be converted to HD. All it would take, he says, is for Warner to strike a new print and for Amazon to digitize it. It sounds a bit too good to be true: it conflicts with other sources that say that the effects were generated and composited in SD, and why have those sources not been contradicted before? Why only mention it now?

I’d like to hold my breath, but I’m not sure I ought to.

Back to the Digital SLR

I have a digital SLR—a five-year-old Nikon D7100—but I haven’t been using it very much over the past few years. Blame that on the iPhone, which has a camera that while nowhere near as good or as versatile as a digital SLR, is good enough in most cases, and has the advantage of always being (a) with me and (b) connected to the Internet. Which meant that I was able to get shots I’d otherwise miss, not having my camera with me, but it also meant that convenience and spontaneity often trumped image quality. The Nikon came out for deliberate acts of photography—such as last summer’s solar eclipse—which lately haven’t happened very often.

I think that might be changing. I’ve been picking up the Nikon more and more lately: to take pictures of nearby garter snakes, the trilliums growing on our property, and the birds that pay us a visit. So I’ve been blowing the dust off the photography-centred parts of my brain and getting myself back up to speed on using the big gun.

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Books Read: February-April 2018

  1. Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets. Because Star Trek Discovery (which outright steals Stamets’s name for a character and uses his ideas about mycelial networks); also see Stamets’s TED talk. Also because we have multiple mushroom species growing on our property, some of which are actually edible. As I expected, a bit more woo than I’m comfortable with, but I learned a bit about mycology.
  2. Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Graphic novel. Because of the movie, and it was available.
  3. The Art of Map Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock, Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill and Sarah King. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  4. The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard. Novella set in her Xuya universe. Holmesian detective story about a disgraced teacher and a traumatized ship mind: they solve crimes. Stories like these should come in six-packs, and I’d binge-read them that way; just one is just too little and too thin.
  5. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson. Novella in which cyborg time travelling environmental remediators from a despoiled future travel to ancient Sumeria. You know, when you put it that way…. Review forthcoming.
  6. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente. Batshit comedy sf novel, basically Douglas Adams meets Eurovision with just the hint of a post-Brexit edge and a ton of heart. So much goddamn fun. Strongly recommended.
  7. The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell. Reviewed here.
  8. Head On by John Scalzi. Review forthcoming.
  9. Lock In by John Scalzi. Reread for my forthcoming review of Head On.

House Anniversary

It’s been one year to the day since we took possession of the house, and we’re still working out its quirks and features.

These are the things you don’t notice when you tour the house for the first time, or even during the inspection. I’m amazed at what now seems conspicuous, even glaring, but that we missed completely when we were buying the place. For example, the floors. They’d obviously been redone since the house was built 30 years ago, but it’s clear now that that work was done not too long before we bought the place, and it had not been done well: there were problems with the transition pieces and the doors that wouldn’t close, which we had fixed almost immediately, and the carpet in the upper living room/dining room has been causing all sorts of problems with bookshelf stability that we’re still trying to engineer a permanent solution for. More subtle things have since emerged: baseboards that don’t line up, mismatched paint patches, that sort of thing.

But things like this are fixable, and more to the point we can live with them in the meantime, so they don’t bother us too much. We’ll get to them eventually.

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The Tangled Lands

Book cover: The Tangled LandsThe Tangled Lands (Saga Press, February 2018) represents a return to a world co-created by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell that first appeared in audio form. In 2010, Audible released The Alchemist and the Executioness, a 5½-hour recording comprising two novellas, “The Alchemist” by Bacigalupi (which went on to be a Nebula nominee) and “The Executioness” by Buckell.1 Both are set in a world where magic works, but (as usual) at a terrible price. Where magic is used, the poisonous bramble plant grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. Magic is banned as a result, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming.

The idea that how something is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it is a killer metaphor for the tragedy of the commons, but neither Bacigalupi nor Buckell stop there. In “The Alchemist,” the eponymous alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, only to discover, to his horror, that the authorities have other uses for his invention: surveillance, social control and the consolidation of power. And in “The Executioness,” an executioner’s daughter, chasing after the raiders who stole her children, finds herself at the centre of a burgeoning legend; the raiders, for their part, claim as their motivation to attack the people whose magic use brought disaster down on everyone, and convert their children to their cause. The knock-on effects of magic use have knock-on effects of their own.2

I loved both stories—well enough to buy the limited editions from Subterranean Press when they came out the following year. Now they make up the first half of The Tangled Lands, which means that I now own three copies—audio, limited-edition hardcover, and digital—of those two novellas.

The second half is made up of two new novellas: “The Children of Khaim” by Bacigalupi and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” by Buckell, each of which returns to the city of Khaim (left behind by “The Executioness”) and focuses on the city’s more disadvantaged residents—the ones who do not benefit from the new alchemical defences against the bramble, the ones most likely to face exploitation and punishment and use by the privileged classes who continue to use magic freely. If the first half of The Tangled Lands is an parable of environmental disaster, the second half makes clear that it’s a parable of social injustice as well. The Tangled Lands is a fantasy manifestation of disaster capitalism—how the wealthy and the privileged exploit natural and unnatural disasters for their own benefit. Even a city-swallowing menace like bramble can be turned to someone’s advantage.

Much more could be said on this theme, and the harrowing world Bacigalupi and Buckell have created is an open canvas for more harrowing tales. In an afterword the authors say they hope to have more opportunities to return to this world. I hope they do.

Amazon | iBooks

Springtime for Garter Snakes

It’s not spring until the garter snakes come out of hibernation. And after a winter that seemed longer and more brutal than usual, we finally got spring last week.

Last Tuesday, some of Jennifer’s students pointed her to a site near the school where Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) were emerging from hibernation. And when I say pointed her to, I mean told her about it by handing her a bunch of wriggling snakes, because the kids know her. The kids released the snakes where they found them, but she told me about it and we made a note to check the site out after classes were done.

The location the kids told her about was at the edge of some seriously snakey habitat: lots of ground cover, and next to a wetland that was already echoing with the calls of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) and Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). Which is to say, snake food. A good spot, in other words. But in our initial search we only found one snake, which musked all over Jennifer. It took us a while to find the entrance to the hibernaculum, the precise location of which I will not reveal here to ensure the snakes’ safety and privacy, but once we did we found the area fairly crawling with snakes. I had brought my Nikon D7100 with me and took some pictures.

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All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

Tonight, or if that doesn’t work out probably this weekend, I’ll be off to see the latest in a series of superhero movies, one that has been highly anticipated and relentlessly hyped for months. In a couple of weeks, the previous iteration of that series of superhero movies will be released on home video. Then, a little while after that, another superhero movie will be released in the theatres, one that isn’t part of the same series, but sort of related to another movie series that would have been part of the first series if the rights weren’t currently held by different movie studios.

You can probably figure out which movies I’m referring to. But I could have written the above paragraph a few months ago, or a few months from now, and I’m not sure I would have to change a word, because superhero movies are coming out all the time. (It’s not just movies: I’m leaving out all the different superhero TV series.) We’re in the midst of Peak Superhero, and it does not seem to be on the verge of exhausting itself any time soon.

Given this superhero-saturated environment, it’s difficult to take stock of a novel like James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, November 2017). A book that won me over with its title alone, before I knew anything about its contents. It’s a novel about four roommates at the University of Waterloo—one of my almæ matres: I got my M.A. there—who unexpectedly get superpowers and have to figure out what to do with them. It’s a tremendously enjoyable read: let’s get that out of the way first. But in the context of Peak Superhero, a fun novel playing with superhero tropes wouldn’t be enough to rise above the crowd. Comic books are already capable of producing their own meta-narratives, thank you very much.

Fortunately it does something rather more than that: it’s a book that addresses a major contradiction in the various comic book universes: the intersection of “science” (the scare quotes are necessary) and magic-based power systems.

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Three Twitter Threads on Negative Reviews

The issue of negative reviews in science fiction and fantasy is coming up again, as it does from time to time. It’s a subject I have talked about before, continue to have a lot of thoughts about, and will have more to say about in the future, but this time I’d like to highlight points made by others in threaded conversations on Twitter.

First, Rose Lemberg, who notes a disparity in who is expected to provide critical or negative reviews—and, notably, critical authority—and whose reviews are simply ignored. While reviewers from marginalized (e.g. non-cis) groups can and do write good works of criticism, those works are ignored, Rose says; whereas white male reviewers are criticized when they don’t assume the mantle of authority. (I suppose you might call it the Voice of Clute.)

One of the reviewers Rose mentions is Bogi Takács, who points to something I worry about but haven’t much experienced: writers who harass reviewers who give them a bad review. Then again, I’m a straight white cis male (and as such, selon Rose, am supposed to be critical); Bogi points out that reviewers from marginalized groups are much more likely to experience harassment from authors, because authors don’t go after reviewers they perceive as having power. As I see it, it’s textbook bullying behaviour—behaviour that, according to Bogi, chases reviewers out of their field, because no one has those reviewers’ back and the work is just not worth the grief.

Finally, Cecily Kane looks at the unintended consequence of framing negative or critical reviews as toxic or as “attacking authors”: you create a perverse incentive in which the only ones willing to do the necessary work of critical reviews are the toxic assholes who are fully on board for attacking authors. Because you’ve chased out everyone else who would otherwise be willing to do the work.

Or to put it another way: If writing a negative review is going to get the reviewer shat on, you’re going to incentivize the people who enjoy flinging poo.

I honestly think we protest too much: there are still plenty of good, critical reviews out there. It’s just that they’re drowned out by a much greater volume of uncritical squee, unapologetic logrolling and frankly mediocre reviewing work. It’s an extraordinarily incestuous field, and it’s hard to shitcan a bad book written by someone in your social circle. Necessary, but hard. It’s probably better we not leave that work to the sociopaths.

A Herpetological Roundup

Featured image: Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnsoni), Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, May 2013.

  1. How do you tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? Usually the answer has something to do with snouts and teeth. Add another difference: alligators and caimans have shorter foreleg (humerus) and hind leg (femur) bones than crocodiles. Crocodiles can gallop—alligators not so much. [Royal Society Open Science]
  2. Evidence of parental care in snakes does exist, but it’s rare and tantalizing. Here’s another data point. Python mothers are already known to incubate their egg clutches: while cold-blooded, they can raise the temperature of their clutch through muscle movement. A new study finds that Southern African Rock Pythons (Python natalensis) also stay with their young for the first two weeks after their eggs hatch. (Much like rattlesnakes have been observed doing.) [Journal of Zoology]
  3. Audubon magazine looks at efforts to reintroduce the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) into its former range, and asks a very Audubon question: what is the impact of this on songbirds? (Indigo snakes are snake predators: feeding on nest raiders like rat snakes can reduce predation on songbirds.)
  4. No surprise: “The European Union is a major destination for illegally smuggled live snakes, lizards and tortoises from southern Africa, posing a serious threat to their conservation.” From what I heard when I was more active in the trade, Europeans have a reputation for smuggling everything from everywhere: they have all the species, just don’t ask too many questions about how they got them.
  5. The Turtle Conservation Coalition has released a report highlighting the most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles. A lot of the “25+” most endangered species are in southeast Asia, as you might expect, but not all of them are. The 68-page report, titled Turtles in Troublecan be downloaded as a PDF here.

Questions I’ve answered on Quora in the past month:

The Will to Battle

The Will to Battle (Tor, December 2017), the third volume in Ada Palmer’s complex and strange Terra Ignota series, is a murderously difficult book to review. Third books in a series generally are (a review can only speak to readers of the previous two volumes, and spoil those books for everyone else), but that goes double for this one, because, as I said, of how complex and strange the Terra Ignota series has been from the jump.

That series, which began in 2016 with Too Like the Lightning (which I review here) and continued last year with Seven Surrenders, introduced us to a 25th-century world organized into seven hives rather than nation-states, a world that professed itself a utopia but had long-repressed tensions running hot under the surface. A world where public discussion of religion is forbidden but bore witness to the miraculous child Bridger as well as the singular being J. E. D. D. Mason, a child of many parents who believes himself to be a god from another universe, the cynosure of a secret cult—and, at the end of Seven Surrenders, the beneficiary of a resurrection at the hands of the aforementioned Bridger after an assassination attempt aimed at preventing him from taking power.

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