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

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.

My thanks to Jennifer, Tamara and this year’s guest contributors, Jennifer Hurd and Simon McNeil, for their work. Fanzines are by definition non-remunerative; I’m deeply grateful that they took leave of their senses and shared their work with me — and with our readers.

The finalists in my category are:

(Against such competition I frankly don’t stand a chance: Derek has won it the last two times, and Adam’s put Page of Reviews on indefinite hiatus so this is his last kick at this particular can. But you never know.)

The Aurora Awards are essentially the Canadian equivalent of the Hugo Awards. They’re nominated and voted on by members of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association; voting takes place much as it does with the Hugos. To vote for the Auroras, join the CSFFA: it costs $10 and gets you access to the voter’s package. Voting will be open from June 15 through July 23. The awards will be presented this year at When Worlds Collide in Calgary on August 13.

The Canadian sf/fantasy scene being what it is, practically every award category has someone nominated in it who’s a good friend or at least someone I’ve met, and not for the first time either. Trebles all round, you guys.

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.

Snakes of the Southeast

There are a lot of regional field guides to reptiles and amphibians out there: I own at least two dozen of them myself, and I’ve reviewed several of them for herpetological newsletters.1 They perform yeoman service helping people identify the wildlife around them, which in areas with venomous snakes can be absolutely critical. But not every field guide is the same. Some really are field guides, to be used in the field to identify specimens: slim volumes that provide little more than range maps and identification keys. Others throw portability out the window in favour of comprehensiveness, providing hundreds of pages of scholarly detail between hard covers, but at a cost: they’re nearly inaccessible to the general reader.

Book cover: Snakes of the Southeast One of my favourite field guides, Snakes of the Southeast, stakes out a middle ground. Though it’s written by two college professors, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, who co-authored a scholarly monograph on North American water snakes, it’s definitely aimed at a general readership — one that isn’t necessarily mucking about in swamps, but is nonetheless interested in the wildlife living in their region.2 More comprehensive than a slim pocket guide, but much more accessible than a scholarly reference, Snakes of the Southeast has a clear idea of what questions need answering and who’s asking them.

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Links to the 2015 Nebula Short Fiction Nominees

The Nebula nominees were announced last weekend, which means that a lot of people, Nebula voters and otherwise, have some reading ahead of them. (I’m not a SFWA member, but I like to read what’s on the Nebula ballot — if nothing else, it helps inform my Hugo nomination ballot.)

Most of the stories are available online for free, but many of the posts announcing the nominations omitted direct links to the stories themselves. For my own reference purposes as much as anything else, here they are with those direct links. If a story is not available to read online but there’s an ebook for sale, I’ve linked to that.

Cover art for Nebula nominees for Best Novella

Novella (17,500 words to 40,000 words)

Novelette (7,500 to 17,500 words)

Short Story (under 7,500 words)

If I’m lucky and organized I’ll have something to say about the nominees once I’ve had a chance to read them all.

Rattlesnakes and Men

Magazine cover: Asimov's Science Fiction (February 2015) Michael Bishop’s “Rattlesnakes and Men,” which appeared in the February 2015 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, is one of six finalists for the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. (The nominees were announced over the weekend.)

It’s a story that imagines a Georgia town where rattlesnake ownership is mandatory, where people wear pit vipers on their belts for protection, and where death by snake bite is carefully hushed up. “Rattlesnakes and Men” is a transparent parable for the out-of-control gun culture in the United States, and some readers and reviewers have found its allegory a bit obvious and heavy-handed.

But given that Bishop’s son Jamie was one of 32 people killed in the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, I think he’s earned the right: this story can properly be read as a primal scream of frustration. In March 2015 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to Bishop about his story and the gun control advocacy that was born of his loss.

(“Rattlesnakes and Men” is not online at the moment. Publishers frequently make award finalists available to read online, though, so check the Asimov’s website in a few days.)

(Update, March 8: It’s now available online.)

The Semi-Secret Life of Andrew J. Offutt

Book cover: My Father, the Pornographer Andrew J. Offutt was a well-known figure in the science fiction and fantasy field. Though he never quite levelled up to the top tier of writers, his stories and novels were well-regarded, he was a frequent presence at sf conventions, and he served two terms as SFWA president. Less widely known was the fact that most of his writing was pornographic novels for men — a genre that more or less disappeared with the advent of home video in the mid-1980s. Offutt published hundreds of them, under a variety of pen names, using a system that enabled him to write them in a few days.

When Offutt died in 2013, his son, the writer Chris Offutt, inherited his father’s papers, including the smut, both published and unpublished (the latter including four thousand pages of an erotic comic called Valkyria). Going through those papers has resulted in the younger Offutt’s memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, out this week from Atria Books.

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