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

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.

Ghost Talkers is powered by a clever premise. Spiritualism, the craze that swept the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is real and has been put to use by the British Army on the front lines of the Great War. Their soldiers are conditioned so that when they die, their ghosts report in to teams of mediums, providing valuable intelligence from the front lines. (One imagines suicide missions for intelligence reasons becoming increasingly acceptable.) Ghost Talkers’ protagonist is Ginger Stuyvesant, an American medium working for the British Army’s Spirit Corps, a secret wing of the army’s intelligence services. Her work, and those of the other mediums, is overwhelming: the toll of the dead is relentless, and Ginger, like other mediums, runs the risk of having her soul separated from her body.

Evidence begins to appear that the Germans are aware of the Spirit Corps and are trying to sabotage their work — by blinding wounded soldiers to limit their intelligence-gathering abilities, by overwhelming the Corps with sheer numbers of casualties, and, we soon read, by other measures. After a British officer is murdered, Ginger suspects that a spy is at work. Then her fiancé, Capt. Benjamin Harford, is also murdered, and haunts her until the mystery of his death — and, relatedly, the threat to the Spirit Corps — is solved.

Ginger’s grief and loss is personal, individual; the cataclysm that went on to scar an entire continent fades into the background. It’s at this point that Ghost Talkers trades the sublimity of war literature for a perfectly entertaining story full of romance, suspense and adventure, conscious of gender and racial bias, with empowered and passionate characters who have great chemistry with one another — everything that fans of Kowal’s work have come to expect. But it’s also where my experience of the book became increasingly dissonant, and where I bounced off it a bit.

A reader approaches a book with certain expectations. As a historian of modern Europe I am well acquainted with the poetry, literature and visual art of the Great War, which had a transformative impact on European culture and society (for an introduction, read The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell). Because of my background, I found Ghost Talkers … tonally jarring, despite my best efforts. To be fair, if Ghost Talkers fails to scale the lofty heights of the war poets or delve deeply enough into the grief of life in the trenches, that is to a certain extent beside the point. This is a book of a different sort, with a different purpose — yes, written in the shadow of Graves, Remarque, Sassoon and so many others, which problematizes books that are about the War, set during the War but not necessarily of the War.

The problem I had with Ghost Talkers was not that it had insufficient gravitas; the book was, if anything, too heroic — too patriotic — where the literature and poetry of the War was decidedly neither. The real-world experience in the trenches was simply too ghastly for any ghost story. But, a century after the Somme, with all the remaining survivors now gone, the Great War may have finally shed its sacerdotal nature.

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

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.)

The discovery is the outcome of the Pale Red Dot Campaign to discover planets around Proxima, and involved observations from ground-based facilities like the European Southern Observatory’s HARPS instrument. More from the European Southern Observatory.

That Proxima b is in the habitable zone does not necessarily mean that it’s habitable, much less inhabited. It’s just that, unlike most other exoplanets discovered to date, we can’t rule out its habitability immediately. (Some estimates of the Sun’s habitable zone include Mars and Venus, which aren’t exactly pleasant places to live right now.) There are plenty of reasons why it may not be habitable: it’s tidally locked to its host star (as any planet in the habitable zone of a red dwarf would be), and Proxima puts out X-ray flares that could strip off any planetary atmosphere or oceans. On the other hand, it just might. But we’re unlikely to be able to find out for ourselves, as Charlie Stross points out in a badly needed reality check (written last Saturday, before the announcement but while rumours were swirling) — 4.25 light years is still very far away.

Proxima Centauri is a bit closer to our solar system than Alpha Centauri, a binary system that Proxima may be the third component of. In 2012 it was announced that a planet had been discovered around Alpha Centauri B, but that later turned out to be a false positive. Proxima b was discovered using the same method, but Bad Astronomer Phil Plait is more confident this time around: “In this case when I heard the news I was pretty skeptical, but after reading the paper it looks good to me. I’m satisfied the planet is real.”

Proxima Centauri has a planet. Sit down and absorb that news.

Previously: Proxima Centauri; Alpha Centauri Bb: Closest. Exoplanet. Ever.

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:

  1. Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum), found in northeastern and central North America, includes the former Eastern (L. t. triangulum) subspecies and adds Louisiana Milk Snakes (amaura) from northeastern Louisiana and most populations of Red Milk Snakes (syspila). The Coastal Plains Milk Snake (“temporalis”), previously considered an intergrade between the Eastern Milk Snake and Scarlet Kingsnake (elapsoides), is also included.
  2. Western Milk Snake (Lampropeltis gentilis), found in the Great Plains and mountain states of the U.S., includes the New Mexico (celaenops), Central Plains (gentilis), Pale (multistriata) and Utah (taylori) Milk Snakes, as well as most Louisiana Milk Snakes (amaura), Mexican Milk Snakes (annulata) from central Texas and Red Milk Snakes (syspila) from Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
  3. Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides), found in the southeastern U.S., is unchanged.
  4. Tamaulipas (Mexican) Milk Snake (Lampropeltis annulata) includes Dixon’s Milk Snake (dixoni) and most populations of the former Mexican subpsecies (annulata), and is found in northeastern Mexico and Texas.
  5. Mexican Milk Snake (Lampropeltis polyzona) includes the former Jalisco (arcifera), Pueblan (nelsoni), Sinaloan (sinaloae) and Smith’s (smithi) subspecies, as well as some populations of the Conant’s (conanti) and Atlantic Central American (polyzona) subspecies. It’s found in central Mexico.
  6. Central American Milk Snake (Lampropeltis abnorma) includes the Guatemalan (abnorma), Blanchard’s (blanchardi), Honduran (hondurensis), Pacific American (oligozona), Stuart’s (stuarti) subspecies, as well as some populations of the Conant’s (conanti) and Atlantic Central American (polyzona) subspecies. It’s found from southeastern Mexico (Guerrero, Veracruz) to Costa Rica.
  7. South American Milk Snake (Lamproletis micropholis) includes the Andean (andesiana), black (gaigae) and Ecuadorian (micropholis) subspecies. It’s found in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela.

I’m no herpetologist, but to my amateur eyes this makes considerable sense, and upends a taxonomical paradigm that was clearly unsustainable. Whether this one holds, or is refined further, is anyone’s guess.

If nothing else, it’ll make things more clear in the pet trade, especially here, where Eastern Milk Snakes are a local, protected species (and lousy captives, to boot), whereas Mexican and Central American Milk Snakes are in every pet store. Strictly speaking, as (former) members of Lampropeltis triangulum, they were illegal, though in practical terms they were obviously not local snakes. Now the letter and spirit of the law can be more closely aligned.

Previously: Taxonomic Changes to Crayfish, Swamp and Earth Snakes.

Ceres’ Bright Spots Are Carbonates

Occator Crater and Carbonates

We now have some idea of what those bright spots on the surface of Ceres are. In an article published last month in Nature, scientists report that the spots’ spectral readings are consistent with sodium carbonate. (They had initially been thought to be made up of hydrated magnesium sulfate.) Sodium carbonate suggests the existence of subsurface water or ice that was brought to the surface by an impact (the bright spots are all in impact craters; the brightest are found in Occator, a crater 92 km wide); the carbonates would have been left behind after the water boiled off. JPL, Scientific American.


Previously: A Closer Look at Ceres’ Bright Spots.

Scrivener for iOS Is Finally Here

Scrivener logo Scrivener is a writing application that many authors swear by. (Word, on the other hand, is the application that many authors swear at.) An iPad version has been promised for years, but it’s been delayed by various development issues. But it’s here now: the iOS version of Scrivener finally went live at the App Store this morning; here’s the iTunes link. It costs US$20 (C$28) and uses Dropbox to sync with the desktop version.

I use Scrivener myself; buying the iOS version was frankly a no-brainer for me, as I suspect it is for a lot of other writers, who’ve been frothing at the mouth to get their hands on this for a long time. I don’t anticipate writing a novel on my iPad, but I do look forward to being able to peck away at a work in progress when I’m away from my iMac or MacBook.

My Readercon 27 Schedule

Readercon will soon be upon us once more. This year’s iteration takes place from July 7 to 10 at a new location, at the Marriott in Quincy, Massachusetts (just south of Boston).

I’m on programming again this year. The preliminary program schedule is now online; barring any last-minute changes, here is where you’ll find me, at least officially:

Continue reading this entry

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.

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