Jonathan Crowe

I’m a blogger and writer from Shawville, Quebec. I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis. More about me.

My Correct Views on Everything

Review of Company Town

Book cover: Company Town In my latest review for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, I look at Company Town, the new standalone novel from Madeline Ashby.

My incorrigible need to place all things in their proper context has asserted itself again: in this review I see Company Town as one of several recent science fiction thrillers written by up-and-coming authors. The thriller mode, I argue, has implications for how a tale is told and what it focuses on. See what I mean in my review.

Route 303 Closure

Quebec Route 303 highway sign Another spring, another sinkhole, another road closure — though this time it’s on another highway. I’ve been seeing reports on social media of a sinkhole erupting on Route 303 between Portage-du-Fort and Shawville near the intersection with Front Road. (There was a washout at roughly the same spot a few years ago.) Quebec 511 now says that the highway is closed for repairs. Don’t know yet for how long, but meanwhile the detour is via Routes 148 and 301.

Ethics in Opera Reviewing

A relevant screencap from Citizen Kane

The latest contretemps concerning ethics in reviewing comes not from science fiction or computer games, but opera.

Earlier this month, the National Post pulled their review of a Canadian Opera Company performance of Rossini’s Maometto II after a COC public relations manager, Jennifer Pugsley, wrote the Post to complain about a couple of points in the review. Rather than standing by their reviewer, freelancer Arthur Kapitainis, or making the corrections requested, features producer Dustin Parkes apologized and pulled the review.

Kapitainis quit (inasmuch as a freelancer can do so); his review was reprinted at Musical Toronto before being restored, sans an offending sentence, at its original location.

In the email exchange between Pugsley and Parkes (reprinted here), Parkes noted that performing arts reviews “simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.” (He went on to ask about getting tickets. Ahem.)

As for the news coverage of this incident, the Washington Post focuses on the role, and importance, of arts criticism in journalism, whereas Maclean’s piece looks at the economics of arts reviews in leaner, meaner times: reviewing the performing arts in mainstream publications has never been viable; it’s just that newspapers used to have money enough to subsidize it.

As I see it, critical integrity is beside the point in cases like these. I suspect that performing arts coverage has always been filed under civic boosterism (the tickets are part and parcel): covering the event, rather than critiquing it, is what’s important. No one, after all, wants to read that the local orchestra can’t play worth a damn — what good would that do?

Puppy Count (Again)

Even though twice as many people nominated for the Hugo Awards this year versus last year (4,032 vs. 2,122), the Rabid Puppies slate managed to take more than three-quarters of the nomination slots. How did this happen?

Using statistical models, Rocket Stack Rank’s Greg Hullender and Chaos Horizon’s Brandon Kempner estimate the number of Puppy supporters at around 200 (Hullender) or between 250 and 480 (Kempner). Roughly the same as last year, and between five and ten percent of the total ballots cast. It seems counterintuitive that the same number of Puppies could dominate a ballot with double the total number of voters, but it’s quite possible: last year they had so many more votes than they needed (see the last year’s Hugo Award statistics, especially the nomination statistics beginning on page 18) that even if you were to double the votes received by the non-slate candidates, the Puppy slates would still have dominated — though a few more non-slate candidates would have made the final ballot. Which is probably what happened this year. We’ll see in August, when the counts are released.

Previously: Puppy Count.

Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning At the final Farthing Party in the fall of 2013, Tor managing editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden read the opening from a book, the first of a four-part series, that he had just acquired. We the assembled multitudes were impressed, because it sounded fantastic, and also a bit annoyed, because we knew we’d have to wait some time before the book came out, and we wanted it now.

Our wait is now almost — finally — over, because that book, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, comes out in two weeks from Tor Books. I have read it, and I have thoughts.

We don’t talk enough about authorial voice in our field. New and emerging authors are under certain pressures to conform: to achieve publishability, to get it right. It’s a process that risks filing off all the interesting bumps and edges found in an author’s writing and results in a certain sameness of tone and theme. Clarion grads with English degrees workshop the distinctiveness out of one another. One libertarian space jockey sounds more or less like any other. Epic fantasies blur together. In other words: they play it safe.

So it’s awfully exciting when an author comes along who sounds so thoroughly unlike anyone else. It’s as though she’s coming from another planet. Or, in Palmer’s case, the history department of the University of Chicago; she’s an intellectual historian of early modern Europe, which no doubt influenced her choice of style. The opening paragraph, which Patrick read back in October 2013:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

This is the memoir of Palmer’s protagonist, Mycroft Canner, who despite his anachronistic writing style is writing to a future living in a world shaped by the monumental changes that he is about to recount. His tale is strongly narrated, addressing (and even arguing with) the imagined reader; when the POV shifts, it’s with the conceit that the other narrator is relating the events for inclusion in Canner’s chronicle.

The juxtaposition of future and past is jarring but it works: it emphasizes a future that is alien and different, a future further away from us than we are from the eighteenth century, but with affectations, quirks and anachronistic social customs that feel appropriate and ring true.

Canner is a servicer, a criminal sentenced to perform tasks for anyone who demands them of him, though the full horror of the crime he committed emerges only slowly — Palmer believes in incluing, but there are are infodumps too, as you’d expect in a narrative informed by eighteenth-century style. Canner’s world is a future utopia, of sorts, where religion is fairly outlawed (priests have been replaced by “sensayers”), families have been reconceptualized into extended bash’es, and nation-states replaced by seven Hives that transcend territory and ancestry, whose leaders are fairly interconnected and incestuous — a fair parallel to the aristocracy of early modern Europe.

Into that mix add some deeply strange wild cards in the persons of Bridger, a small child seemingly capable of miracles who Canner has pledged to hide from the outside world, and J.E.D.D. Mason, an enigmatic son of an emperor who may be the cynosure of a religious cult. This is a future with flying cars, but the narrative focuses on the cultural, philosophical and political axes: the world is at a tipping point, on the verge of a spiritual crisis while the political system teeters. It’s an ostensible utopia paid for in coin that is sometimes terrible and secret.

Maddeningly, it’s at the point where we begin to understand that cost that the book comes to an abrupt end. I do so hate it when a story can’t be told between one set of covers, but the story and world and cast of characters are simply too large. (Now I have some idea of what readers must have felt when they finished Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, knowing that three books were still to come.) We’ll have to wait until December, when the second volume, Seven Surrenders comes out, for the rest of Canner’s narrative; then we’ll know if Palmer has stuck the landing. (At this point I don’t know what books three and four of her series, Terra Ignota, will be about.)

But as for what we have right now, Too Like the Lightning is, for a first novel, a work of startling virtuosity: Ada Palmer has emerged, like Pallas Athene, full-grown and fully armed. One cannot help but be in awe.

Read chapters one and two, three, and four at Tor.com.

I received an electronic review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

The Winged Histories

Book cover: The Winged Histories Sofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer, 2013), won the British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards. Her second novel, The Winged Histories (Small Beer, March 2016) does not function as a sequel to that earlier book, though it too is set in the Olondrian Empire during the same time period, and there is some overlap in characters. The density and richness of Samatar’s world is profoundly intoxicating, to say nothing of her prose, and fans of the first book will welcome a return to it. A prior familiarity is not strictly required (a good thing for me: A Stranger in Olondria was 115 books ago and my memory of it was poor).

Instead of the first book’s Bildungsroman we have a book that very much lives up to the noun in its title (the adjective is more subtle): these are histories — chronicles told by four women who play key roles in a many-layered civil war that splits along familial, regional, ethnic, religious and even interspecific lines. These are tales about the margins of empire, and colonial relationships, and things that are hidden and not spoken of. Each of them ends much too soon, leaving the reader hungry.

The reader will stay hungry, too: news that this book marks the conclusion of Samatar’s Olondria project (which she “always envisioned as a two-book adventure”) will no doubt be disappointing, though mad props for the integrity of her decision (other authors would have written their secondary worlds into the ground, with all-too-familiar results).

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

On the Aurora Ballot Again

Aurora Nominee The finalists for the 2016 Aurora Awards have been announced. For the second year running, my fanzine Ecdysis has been nominated in the Best Fan Publication category.

A big thank-you to those who felt that our work was worthy of a nomination. We only published two issues in 2015, but I’m rather proud of those issues: they represent some of our best work.

They’re available as part of the Aurora voter’s package and (of course) on the Ecdysis website. If you’d like to download the Ecdysis voter’s package file, it’s available here (30.6 MB PDF). You can also download and read the individual issues, naturally.

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A Social Media Reality Check

Social media is not terribly efficient at sending traffic to your website, if some stats from a recent, fairly popular post on The Map Room are any indication. As of this moment it got 1,641 views, 19 likes and 11 shares on Facebook and 1,513 impressions and 79 engagements (including five retweets and three likes) on Twitter. All of which resulted in … 241 page views, not all of which should be attributed to social media. Keep in mind that The Map Room has more than 2,200 followers on Facebook and more than 3,700 followers on Twitter. It takes a lot of followers to make a little bit of traffic; these response rates are good compared to ads, but that’s about it.

Rattlesnakes and Empathy

Even snakes have friends, Brandon Keim writes for National Geographic News: he cites recent scientific research demonstrating that rattlesnakes have social lives — they exhibit parental care, recognize kin, and show preference for certain snakes over others (i.e., they have friends) — as an argument against butchering them in rattlesnake roundups. (The piece was published last week, on the eve of the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater, Texas; its timing was no accident.)

I’ll take any argument in favour of not killing snakes — we need all the help we can get — though I’m a little disappointed that we seem to require other living things to be just like us in order for us to have empathy for them.

Quantum Night

Book cover: Quantum Night My review of Quantum Night, Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel, went live this morning at AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

I had a very strong reaction to Quantum Night; my first response was actually “This is a horrible book!” Horrible doesn’t mean bad; I simply found the book’s implications so disturbing. Find out why in my review.

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