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

Cipaille, Sea Pie

This month the National Post had a feature on Bryson’s annual sea pie supper; the layered meat pie dish variously known as as cipaille, cipâtes, six-pâtes or sea pie; and its etymological and culinary origins. Having lived in the Pontiac for 13 years, I’ve certainly heard of the dish, but for the life of me I can’t remember ever having it. It doesn’t seem to be a thing in Shawville, which marches to its own drummer relative to the rest of the Pontiac, and in any case I don’t get out to community events as often as I should. But Bryson is just 13 km up the road. We’ve talked about relocating there, given the state of the Shawville housing market. In which case I’ll have even less of an excuse.

Not So Much, Said the Cat

Book cover: Not So Much, Said the Cat It’s hard for me to review Michael Swanwick’s latest collection of short stories, Not So Much, Said the Cat (Tachyon, August 2016), without coming across like a total fangoober. That’s partly because, when it comes to Swanwick’s work, I am a total fangoober, and have been for decades. He’s one of my favourite writers and a literary hero of mine, so I’m primed to like a collection of his — I always have. But it’s also because Not So Much, Said the Cat is such a good collection — far better than any book of its kind has any right to be.

Not So Much, Said the Cat includes most of Swanwick’s short fiction production from 2008 onward — the only exceptions I’m aware of are the collaborations with other authors, the miniatures he’s written for his wife’s Dragonstairs Press project, and the Mongolian Wizard stories, which presumably will get their own volume (though the fourth story in the series, “House of Dreams,” is included here). Which is to say that it’s one of those short story collections that are iterative and reasonably all-inclusive: here, these collections say, are the stories that have appeared since the author’s previous collection — in this case, The Dog Said Bow-Wow (Tachyon, 2007).

Collections like these inevitably have stronger stories and weaker stories, the latter more or less serving to pad out the collection. Here’s the thing: there are no weak stories in Not So Much, Said the Cat. They’re all great. Every last one of them. (I checked this assessment with Jennifer, no small Swanwick fan herself, and she agrees with me.) These 17 stories are all of a very high standard, each infused with emotional insight, clear intelligence, meticulous craft, and the cunning and clever mischief that are Swanwickian hallmarks.

Michael Swanwick (2012) The subject matter ranges from the mundane to the metaphysical, and from the fantastic to the hardest of hard science. In stories like “The Man in Grey” and “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” the nature of time and reality are unravelled; in “Passage of Earth” and “From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled …” we encounter thoroughly well-realized aliens; in “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown” a daughter travels to the underworld to save her father. The rogues Darger and Surplus make a welcome re-appearance in “Tawny Petticoats”; this time they meet their match while visiting New Orleans (which suffers the usual fate). “The Dala Horse” takes a Swedish folk object and turns it into a post-utopian tale. Russia features twice, in “Pushkin the American,” a sly secret history, and “Libertarian Russia,” a parable that is both timely and timeless. Finally, we have “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” a Gene Wolfe tribute that flipped the details of his classic novella, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” Only a few of these stories appeared online (I have linked to them above); most appeared in either the traditional magazines (six in Asimov’s, two in F&SF) or in original anthologies, so it’s likely there’s more than a few stories you haven’t seen before.

The quality of this collection is mind-boggling and has forced me to recalibrate my expectations: I almost have to go back and take one star off my reviews of other short story collections. With Not So Much, Said the Cat Swanwick is at the top of his game, the height of his powers, the insert-whatever cliché-seems-appropriate-here. It’s all the more striking when you consider that at the same point in Isaac Asimov’s career — 36 years after first publication — Asimov published Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (Doubleday, 1975), a collection of feghoots, shaggy dogs and other minor Asimoviana whose prime virtue was that they had not yet been published between boards. But Asimov had largely been phoning it in on the fiction front since the late 1950s. Swanwick has done no such thing: this collection is proof positive of that. Indeed, it is proof that Swanwick, who has spent considerable time talking about the important figures of the science fiction and fantasy field, is one such figure himself — and almost certainly one of our greatest living writers.

If that sounds like fangoobering, so be it.

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

Can-Con 2016: My Schedule

Can-Con logo Can-Con, Ottawa’s science fiction convention, is coming up this weekend. Along with new dates, it’s at a new hotel: the Novotel Ottawa on Nicholas Street, just east of Rideau Centre and south of the Byward Market. If you’re in the Ottawa area and have an interested in science fiction and fantasy books, you should come.

I’ll be on programming again this year. Here’s where you’ll find me:

Saturday

10:00 AM. How to Build an Amazing Reading List from the Juried Awards. Our panelists talk about the different works that have made the shortlists of the World Fantasy Award, the P.K. Dick Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, le Prix Jacques Brossard, the Shirley Jackson award, and certainly not least, the Sunburst Award. Jot down a bevy of titles that those in the field think are worth your time and your dime. Peter Halasz, Jonathan Crowe (m), Annette Mocek, Jean-Louis Trudel.

Sunday

11:00 AM. Book-Clubbing Foreign Works of SF Translated into English. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and StarShip Sofa have sought out new translated works from other fandoms. We pick a few stories available online and our panelists will discuss what they thought. You should check these out too!

Anatoly Belilovsky, Peter Halasz, Jonathan Crowe, Su Sokol, Costi Gurgu (m).

12:00 PM. Amazing Books in the Different Sub-Genres of SF. Science fiction is bubbling over with new ideas and new voices. Our panel discusses must-read works that have been published in the last couple of years. Timothy Gwyn (m), Leah Bobet, Lisa Toohey, Jonathan Crowe, Amal El-Mohtar

These panels are not necessarily conducive to early risers. Fortunately for me (but not necessarily for you), I am one. Hope to see you there in any event.

Extrovert, 1999-2016

Extrovert Extrovert, our female Wandering Garter Snake, finally died overnight. She’d been declining for months and we’d been expecting this for quite some time. She last ate on March 23rd, which was not immediately a cause for concern (she’d gone off her food before, in 2011 and 2014, but her appetite came roaring back in each case). But as the skipped meals piled up it became increasingly clear that this was probably it. We kept offering her food, just in case, but in the end it was the end.

Extrovert came into my hands on May 12, 2000. She was a well-started juvenile by that point, which meant that she’d been born the year before. That made her 17 years old when she died. Now, 17 years is a magnificent age for a garter snake. Not unheard of, but certainly not typical. She’s outlasted any other garter snake we’ve had, and a good number of the other snakes, too. Only four have been in our care longer than her.

Wandering garter snakes mating (2002)
Extrovert and Introvert mating (2002)
A mouse-eating garter snake
One of Extrovert’s offspring eating a mouse (2004)
Dark-phase wandering garter
One of Extrovert’s offspring was a dark-phase morph (2004)
Extrovert, eating
Extrovert eating (2009)
No worries about her feeding response now.
Extrovert eating (2014)

She arrived with another wandering garter, a male we named Introvert. We planned on breeding them, but because their species has a reputation for cannibalism they had to be kept in separate cages. Intro died in 2003 from a tapeworm infection, but they managed to breed once the year before, and on July 4, 2002, Extro had a litter of seven babies, six of which made it out of infancy. Compared to the litter of 42 Red-sided Garter Snakes we were also wrangling at the time, they were larger in size but fewer in number. They were in no particular hurry to start eating, but eventually took mice eagerly.

Finding homes for those babies took rather longer. Wandering Garter Snakes aren’t terribly popular with reptile hobbyists, largely because they’re garter snakes and they’re drab, which make two strikes against them. I always thought very highly of them, because they were so interesting: they were strong, and they had voracious appetites (at least most of the time).

They were also surprisingly gentle — I say surprisingly because people who’ve encountered wandering garters in the wild have not always enjoyed the experience. Extrovert did bite Jennifer on two occasions, but in each case the snake had been startled, so it’s excusable. Me she never bit at all. And she was used in presentations and handled and seen by hundreds of kids. Because Wandering Garter Snakes are a western snake — in Canada they’re found in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan — her educational utility here was pretty limited. All the same, she was a sweetheart.

Snakes aren’t cats, and while I’m terribly fond of them, I’m not at all devastated by this. As I wrote back in 2007, “while I have to admit that there is a stronger emotional bond with a cat than, say, a corn snake, I’m still affected when I lose a reptile. Even if I’m not affected as much.” My primary feeling, I said back then, was responsibility rather than grief: “[I]n captivity, I have a duty to ensure their health and, inasmuch as their little reptile brains can comprehend it, their happiness. When they die, I feel as though I’ve fucked up, even if they’re dead from natural causes or old age.”

Except that back then old age really hadn’t played much of a factor: I didn’t know what I was talking about. When a snake dies of old age — and Extrovert lived to a grand old age — I find an absence of guilt more than anything else. She was a snake we were happy to look after, we did not screw up her care, and she was with us longer than I could have anticipated. I’m okay.

Facebook, Kingsnake.com and Reptile Hobbyists

The liberal political website Daily Kos has a piece on how Facebook has been wreaking havoc on independent website owners by drawing away both users and advertising dollars. They used as their example Jeff Barringer’s Kingsnake.com, which a decade and a half ago was the online reptile community website. That was a blast from the past: back then I spent an awful lot of time reading and commenting there, but I don’t think I’ve visited it at all in more than a decade.

It’s safe to say that most reptile hobbyists have migrated to Facebook. The mailing lists I subscribed to have been moribund for years, whereas I manage an active Facebook group with 2,500 members. What precipitated the move? I have a few guesses. For users, discoverability — everyone’s already on Facebook. And a Facebook group is turn-key: easy to set up, easy to use, already part of the ecosystem. You don’t need to buy web hosting or set up forum software. Also, reptile hobbyists are a fractious lot. A bunch of Canadian reptile hobbyists up and left Kingsnake.com’s Canadian site in a huff and started another site; then a bunch of that site’s users left it in a huff and started yet another site (which is still in operation, kind of). This diluted the authority of any one community website; no single site was compelling enough to have the stickiness necessary to go up against Facebook.

The end result is bad for independent site owners, who rely — or rather relied — on ad revenues that have long since dried up, and bad for the web ecosystem in general. It’s great for Facebook, of course, but it’s not necessarily bad for individual users. Let me be blunt: Kingsnake.com today looks a lot like it did in the late 1990s. Most independent reptile communities were not necessarily well-run in a technical or community sense. For users, Facebook can be an improvement — especially if Facebook is too busy delivering targeted advertising based on your personal data to care whether or not you should have to pay to post a classified ad.

Ghost Talkers

Book cover: Ghost Talkers First, a caveat. I’m a (lapsed) historian; for me, reading historical fantasies and alternate histories unavoidably sets of alarm bells in the positivist/materialist corners of my brain. That’s largely my problem, not the genre’s. Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, Ghost Talkers (Tor, August 2016),, her first since wrapping up her five-volume Glamourist Histories, is, like that earlier series, a historical fantasy, and an engaging and readable one at that. But the fact that it’s a historical fantasy set during the Great War, which was one of my areas of focus during my studies, means that I brought more than the usual baggage to this book when I read it. My take on it is more complicated than the typical reader’s would be.

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Proxima Centauri Has a Planet

Proxima Centauri b
Artist’s impression of Proxima Centauri b (ESO/M. Kornmesser).

Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to our sun, has a planet in its habitable zone.

Today researchers published an article in Nature describing the planet as “a small planet with a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earth masses orbiting Proxima with a period of approximately 11.2 days at a semi-major-axis distance of around 0.05 astronomical units. Its equilibrium temperature is within the range where water could be liquid on its surface.” (Proxima is a red dwarf. Its habitable zone is really close in.)

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Electoral Reform and By-Elections

In a piece discussing four upcoming by-elections, iPolitics’s Susan Delacourt mentioned in passing that “unless electoral reform happens really quickly, those seats will be filled the old-fashioned way — no preferential ballots, winner take all.”

Which made me wonder: how exactly would electoral reform deal with vacancies in Parliament? By-elections, after all, only work if MPs are elected from individual constituencies; you can’t run a campaign across an entire province or country just to fill one or two seats out of more than three hundred.

I could speculate, but instead I had a look at the website of Fair Vote Canada, a group advocating for proportional representation in Canada, to see what their solution would be. In their submission to the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform, FVC proposed three options, one of which was mixed-member proportional representation, in which regional seats, elected from party lists, are added to MPs directly elected by their constitutencies. In that option, regional seat vacancies would be filled from party lists.

In case of a resignation or death of a regional MP during a term, the party’s runner-up moves up into the seat. No working MMP model has by-elections for regional MPs. As the Jenkins Commission pointed out, if a region-wide contest were to take place “it would almost by definition result in the victory of the predominant party in the area, thus negating the essential purpose of the Top-up seats.”

I have to say, this isn’t something that makes me more likely to support proportional representation.

Review of Necessity

Book cover: Necessity My review of Necessity, the concluding volume in Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy, went live last night at AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. I should warn you that this review includes some self-indulgent woolgathering about series, reviews of books in series, and the ways in which the third book of a trilogy can be reviewed critically. One of the tricks about reviewing book three of a trilogy is that it invariably involves spoilers for the first two books. That’s certainly the case here; if you haven’t read the first two books in the series (The Just City and The Philosopher Kings), you should instead read the double-barrelled review of them that I wrote for AE last year.

The Seven Species of Milk Snake

At one point the Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) comprised two dozen subspecies ranging from Quebec to Ecuador, from drab, saddled snakes to brilliant tricolours, and from bootlace-sized minatures to six-foot behemoths. The difference between a local Eastern Milk Snake and a tangerine-morph Honduran Milk Snake from the pet store is pretty extreme. It had been suggested, I can’t remember where, that the Milk Snake was an example of a ring species, where neighbouring populations interbreed but the end points (i.e., Quebec and Ecuador) are too distantly related.

But the simpler answer is that these snakes are not all one species, and a recent study — an early draft of which I tweeted about in December 2013 — suggests that they are, in fact, seven species. The authors divide them as follows:

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