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

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died in 2013, his son, the writer Chris Offutt, inherited his father’s papers, including the smut, both published and unpublished (the latter including four thousand pages of an erotic comic called Valkyria).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.

The portrait of Andrew Offutt that emerges from My Father, the Pornographer is not a flattering one. A difficult crank by the most charitable definition, the elder Offutt built a world around himself where he could be in control, like a big fish building a small pond around itself: his work, his family, his convention appearances. Many families will find something familiar about the Offutt household, where other family members twisted themselves in knots to accommodate his demands. The catalyst was when Offutt quit to work full-time: he basically disappeared into his work, and his office, where he could channel his private demons into his writing.

To be sure, the daddy issues are strong in this one, but while unflinchingly honest, Chris Offutt is unfailingly empathetic: more than capable of expressing compassion for a man who was not himself always kind or generous or (for that matter) present, a frankly tormented individual who found in words a means of escape. (Chris is considerably less kind with sf fans, no doubt a result of having been dragged to conventions as a child and then left to fend for himself while his parents were off having fun.)

My Father, the Pornographer is mainly a family history; if you’re primarily interested in the writing side of things, much of what’s in the book can be found in Chris Offutt’s piece for The New York Times Magazine, which came out last year. But the book, in its portrayal of Andrew Offutt the person, is far more haunting.

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

My Father, the Pornographer
by Chris Offutt
Atria Books, February 2016
Amazon (Canada, U.K.) | iBooks

Proportional Representation: Who Benefits?

In my post on electoral reform and the preferential ballot, I remarked that changing the rules benefits some players more than others. This is true of any change, and I suspect it’s one reason why electoral reform has been so difficult: the sense that the rules are being tweaked for someone else’s benefit.

As the centrist party, the Liberals would probably benefit from ranked or preferential ballots (and modelling appears to bear that out), and, funnily enough, ranked or preferential ballots happen to be Prime Minister Trudeau’s preferred option. So it’s easy to complain that the Liberals are rigging the game in their own favour.

But it’s important to keep in mind that, despite the lofty rhetoric about a “fairer” electoral system in which “every vote counts,” proportional representation also benefits some players more than others. The question is, which players?

Political parties for one: that much is obvious. (Although, as I’ve pointed out, not necessarily the current political parties. There would be a realignment.) But which political parties?

To answer that question, I looked at the results of every Canadian federal election going back to 1980, and compared what the actual results were under first-past-the-post with what they would have been under pure PR.

Now before we continue, we have to be mindful of a couple of things. For one, no one is actually proposing pure PR: most electoral reformers propose mixed-member PR or a single transferable vote. But we tend to use pure PR as our example because it’s a hell of a lot easier. For another, the electorate would almost certainly vote differently under PR or any other major rule change. There are too many variables at play, especially for someone as stats-challenged as myself.

But with all that in mind, what might PR have done, historically? Here’s a graph that shows the difference — not by which party, but the place in which a party finishes (i.e., in 2015 it was the Liberals, but in 2011 it was the Conservatives).

Difference in results between FPTP and PR in Canadian federal elections, 1980-2015
Difference in results between FPTP and PR in Canadian federal elections, 1980-2015

On average, the government party would lose 39 seats under PR. The official opposition party would two or three seats on average — basically a wash. The prime beneficiaries are the parties in third, fourth or fifth place. How much do they benefit? Here the Bloc Québécois confuses things, because their vote is concentrated in one province: they actually benefit from first past the post, and lose seats under PR — an average of nine. For other parties in third, fourth or fifth place, the average gain is around 22 seats.

So, compared with first past the post, PR is basically a means of transferring seats to the smaller parties. Not for nothing does PR tend to be popular among the parties that often finish in third, fourth or fifth place. They’re advocating for their own self-interest.

But what about the fringe parties? Under a pure PR system, some of them might actually have elected an MP. The Greens might have elected at least one MP since 1984; they’d have elected 21 in 2008 instead of none. But we’d also have seen MPs from the Christian Heritage Party, Libertarian Party, Marijuana Party, National Party — and, in 1993, two MPs from the yogic-flying Natural Law Party.

You have to admit, it would have made Parliament more interesting.

But if Canada were to adopt a system whereby political parties needed a minimum percentage of the popular vote to get party list representation in the House of Commons (as is the case in Germany, where the threshold is five percent), all of these parties would be shut out. As might some current parties: at the national level, neither the Bloc nor the Greens got more than five percent of the vote, though the Bloc got 19 percent in Quebec and the Greens eight percent in B.C. Under a mixed system they’d certainly elect individual MPs, and under a regional party list system they’d do all right — but almost every system short of pure PR would keep out most other fringe parties.

Unless, of course, electoral reform changes the behaviour of the electorate. Which it almost certainly will: voters would have almost no reason to vote strategically, and would be able to vote for their first preference, no matter how fringe or nutty. Mainstream coalition parties would fragment to cater to those preferences.

And there’s every chance of Canadians taking the opportunity to prank the system. We’ve got a nihilist streak in this country, one that tried to change the name of the Northwest Territories to Bob. One that gave the Rhinoceros Party several second-place finishes in the 1980s (under pure PR, the Rhinos would have elected three MPs in 1980). One that gave 84,743 votes to the Natural Law Party in 1993 precisely because they were batshit bonkers.

Just imagine what we could do if a few pranksters spread out across the country could get somebody elected. The political class clutching their pearls will only encourage us. Try to stop it with a five-percent rule and we’ll take that as a challenge. You just watch us.

That might actually be the best argument in favour of proportional representation, now that I think of it.

Radiance

Book cover: Radiance When reading a novel by Catherynne M. Valente, it’s important to pay close attention to what she’s doing — and then to take an even closer look. Her novels are like vínarterta: dense, many-layered, and can take a while to digest. Last week as I read Radiance (Tor, October 2015), her first novel for adults since Deathless (2011), I realized that this was not just a book that would reward rereading; it practically demands it.

In Radiance Valente does several things at once, all of which I approve of. It’s set in an alternative-retro solar system that would have seemed like the future to someone at the end of the nineteenth century: the planets are all habitable and colonized by the various Great Powers; space travel is undertaken by means of cannons of the sort Jules Verne described in From the Earth to the Moon. Filmmaking is king, but takes place on the Moon rather than Hollywood; for patent reasons the silent era persists for decades (talking pictures exist, but are seen as vulgar or good only for documentaries).

On top of all that, Radiance is told in indirect and documentary fashion: an interview from the 1960s here, a fragment of screenplay there, a memoir here and a piece of footage there. Slowly the story emerges: the disappearance and presumed death of Severin Unck, under mysterious circumstances, while filming a documentary on Venus called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, of which only a handful of scenes remain.

It’s a little bit Dos Passos, or at least a bit Waldrop, but the effect is the opposite: unrealism rather than realism. Radiance deliberately blurs the line between artifice and genuine, between fiction and documentary. At one point in the novel, the filmmaker Percival Unck — Severin’s father — is given cause to say, “The lens, my good man, does not discriminate between the real and the unreal.” It’s as close to a thesis statement as this astonishing novel is likely to arrive at.

Radiance is an expansion of her 2009 short story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” a story pregnant with unanswered mysteries that begged for a more in-depth retelling. With Radiance we have that retelling, but Valente has wisely left many of the mysteries unanswered. The result is a work of surprising depth that belies its fanciful setting and not-entirely-serious tone.

Amazon (Canada, U.K.) | iBooks

Open Road to Republish Swanwick Books

Michael Swanwick Michael Swanwick is one of my favourite writers. But it’s hard for me to tell people to seek out his work when so much of it has been out of print. That’s about to change. Michael reports that five of his novels and one collection will be coming out as ebooks from Open Road Integrated Media. The collection is Tales of Old Earth (2000); the novels are In the Drift (1984), Vacuum Flowers (1987), Bones of the Earth (2002) and, most significantly, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), arguably his best-known and best-loved novel. (His Nebula-winning 1991 novel, Stations of the Tide is in print — Tor put out a new edition in 2011 — as are his later novels.) I have all these books; very soon, you’ll be able to have them as well.

John Harvard, 1938-2016

Former Manitoba MP and lieutenant governor John Harvard died Saturday at the age of 77 (CBC News, Winnipeg Free Press). A longtime broadcaster, first with CJOB and then with CBC Manitoba, he made the jump to politics in 1988, when he won the riding of Winnipeg St. James, a longtime Conservative stronghold, for the Liberals. Re-elected in 1993, 1997 and 2000, he remained a backbencher, twice acting as parliamentary secretary, before being appointed Manitoba’s 23rd lieutenant governor in 2004.

I worked on John Harvard’s first election campaign in 1988; we got to know each other quite well.

That was the year I caught the political bug, swept up by the provincial Liberal wave that elected 20 MLAs and made Sharon Carstairs opposition leader. I was all of sixteen years old: precocious as all hell, socially awkward and dealing with some serious emotional shit, and I coped by throwing myself into politics. During the federal campaign I practically lived at Harvard’s campaign headquarters at 1856 Portage Avenue, doing my best to help out any way a precocious-but-awkward teenager could. I did a lot. I mean, a lot. I think I came home to collect my messages and sleep. But I was one of hundreds of volunteers who could say the same.

Compared to the four other Manitoba Liberal MPs elected in 1988, Harvard seemed a bit rough around the edges. There were three PhDs, a medical doctor — and him. One of his first contributions to the debates of the House of Commons was when, during the debate on legislation enacting the free trade agreement, he got up during the Committee of the Whole and asked whether the House had to put up with listening to “this Tory bullshit.” (It’s in Hansard. Look it up.) Surrounded by technocrats, he sounded a bit bombastic.

But his retail political instincts were first-rate — something I saw for myself when I accompanied him on his door-to-door canvassing. He had a strong populist streak. And it soon emerged that he took his constituency work seriously: knowing full well that looking after his constituents — the way his controversial Tory predecessor, Dan McKenzie did — was the best way to ensure his re-election in a traditionally Conservative seat.

I do want to correct the record in one respect. In his remembrance of Harvard for CBC News, Roger Currie said “Harvard was a loyal backbencher, but a cabinet post was not in the cards as long as Jean Chretien was prime minister. He was a vocal supporter of Paul Martin for the Liberal leadership as far back as 1990.” Not true — at least not in 1990.

Before Lloyd Axworthy decided not to run for the leadership, Harvard tried to drum up support for him; I remember receiving one very uncomfortable phone call from him where I had to explain that I was already a committed Chrétien supporter. Once Axworthy was out, Harvard supported Chrétien (as I recall, the only Manitoba MP to support Martin in 1990 was David Walker). There was, in fact, some drama over a constituency mail-out that contained a photo of a slightly goofy, slightly rumpled Harvard arm in arm with Chrétien; it was supposed to come out after the leadership convention but started appearing in mailboxes before, which among politicos was seen as bad form.

Soon afterward I drifted away from politics, burnt out from the Liberals’ internecine warfare (yes, even then) and a rough year I spent as president of the provincial Young Liberals. I let my membership lapse and shifted my focus to my studies, which took me away from politics and from Manitoba. My political life, such as it was, faded into the background — just a phase, a period of youthful indiscretion, something I began to forget.

Harvard, however, hadn’t forgotten about me. When CBC Newsworld (as it was called then) interviewed me about DFL, my blog about last-place finishes at the Olympics, Harvard — by then Manitoba’s lieutenant governor — dropped me a line:

hello Jonathan!

saw you on television yesterday, nice to see you after all these years. I can see you still enjoy the lighter side of life. I still remember your help on my first election campaign. I hope this letter finds you well, and I’d like to hear from you sometime.

all the best,

John Harvard
Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba

To be honest, I never wrote back. I was a little overwhelmed by all the public attention at that point — and I had no idea how exactly to respond to a personal note from the Queen’s representative, even one I was on friendly terms with sixteen years before. And even before he was an MP Harvard had a way of filling the room with his presence: there was an intensity that no amount of casual affability could take the edge off of. Even the kindest of people can be a little intimidating.

I wonder what we would have talked about, had I worked up the nerve to respond, and what he would have thought of the person that awkward, skinny, stressed-out teenager had become.

The Map Room Is Back

You might have noticed that I resumed blogging on The Map Room last Wednesday. It took a lot less time to get operational than I expected, and the remaining things on the to-do list could be done while the site was live, so on the spur of things I just … started. It’s going well so far: WordPress is behaving itself, and I’m usually able to figure out how to do what I want to do.

This means that from now on I won’t be talking about maps on this website. (Yes, that includes fantasy maps.) Nor will map-related content appear on my personal Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter accounts, as a rule. But you can follow The Map Room on Facebook, LiveJournal, Tumblr, Twitter and via its RSS feed. My Google+ account will also mirror Map Room content. And you can subscribe to a daily email digest.

Trans-Canada Highway Closed at Nipigon

There are points along Route 148 where no alternative route is possible: close the road there, and you have to double back to Gatineau. We had to deal with a closure at one such point a year and a half ago.

But that’s nothing compared to what just happened on the Trans-Canada Highway in Nipigon, Ontario: a newly constructed bridge over the Nipigon River has split due to the cold, closing the highway indefinitely (CBC News, tbnewswatch.com). The problem is, that stretch of highway, a concurrence of Highways 11 and 17, is the only highway between western and eastern Canada (Highways 11 and 17 split again just east of the bridge). Until the bridge reopens, cross-Canada traffic will have to be rerouted through the United States.

There are a couple of points in Canada where the country is connected by only a single highway: the Trans-Canada between Thunder Bay and Nipigon is one of them. Another is the Trans-Canada at the Manitoba-Ontario border. (In both cases there is more than one rail line, to be fair, but road traffic is bottlenecked.)

Winter Smog

A smog warning has been issued for Gatineau this morning. (Similar warnings are in effect in the Montréal and Trois-Rivières regions.)

If smog in winter seems counterintuitive to you, it’s apparently the result of wood-burning stoves and furnaces, which are quite popular around here. “Residential wood heating is responsible for almost 61% of particles that contribute to smog during winter. This activity generates the largest number of these particles — more than industrial activities (22%), the use of motorized vehicles (14%) and other sources (3%).”

So much is made about carbon emissions — wood burning is effectively carbon neutral, because you’re only putting back into the atmosphere what the tree took out — that we often forget about other forms of pollution. See also: diesel, lauded for its increased efficiency over gasoline, but far nastier when it comes to NOx and particulate pollution.

Wild Geckos Laundered Through Captive Breeding Facilities

Tokay Gecko Captive breeding can’t account for the vast numbers of Tokay geckos being exported from Indonesia, a new report argues. “While it’s often argued that captive breeding relieves pressure on endangered species by providing an alternative source for trade, the report, Adding Up the Numbers: An Investigation into Commercial Breeding of Tokay Geckos in Indonesia, demonstrates that the opposite is true. Rather, it finds that wild-caught Tokay geckos are regularly laundered through Indonesia’s captive-breeding facilities on a massive scale.” When wild-caught animals can be acquired for a fraction of the cost it takes to raise them in captivity, the incentive to breed in captivity is poor. Couple that with poor enforcement …

Poachers Use Academic Journals to Target New Species

According to The Guardian, wildlife poachers are using location data in academic journals to collect newly discovered species of reptiles and amphibians. In one case, a poison dart frog species turned up in the German reptile trade just three months after it was first described. Academic journals are now beginning to withhold location data for sensitive species; the IUCN has guidelines (PDF) to that effect.

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