Jonathan Crowe

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

Month: April 2018

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.

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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.

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