- How to Bake by Paul Hollywood. Celebrity chef cookbook, but one that wants to get people baking rather than be in service to a lifestyle brand. Perfect for what we needed: we’d bought a stand mixer in order to bake more; this book covers the basics we needed to learn. Very inexpensive Kindle edition.
- Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee. Military science fiction novel, sequel to last year’s award nominee Ninefox Gambit. Still a bit bewildering (what is calendrical warfare?), but not as bewildering to the characters in this book who don’t know how the last one ended, and are brought up short.
- Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. Based on hundreds of interviews with terrible mendacious liars, whose perspective is not filtered or critically engaged with. Mostly Steve Bannon. If Fire and Fury was A Confederacy of Dunces, Bannon would be its Ignatius J. Reilly.
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Classic fantasy children’s book. Never read before now; I confess that the upcoming film was an impetus. Pleasantly odd. Surprised at how theologically Christian it is—C. S. Lewis was more subtle.
- Navigation: A Very Short Introduction by Jim Bennett. Reviewed at The Map Room.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Classic and influential science fiction novel about first contact with a human culture whose people change their sex over the course of a month. One of the ur-texts of anthropological sf. Fantastic book.
- The Moon and the Other by John Kessel. Science fiction novel. Why Artemis was the moon book talked about last year when this book was already out is proof there is no justice in publishing. Sensitive and, in the end, sad book about masculinity, marginalization and cultural difference; the elevator pitch could well be “MRAs on the Moon” but it’s way more nuanced than that.
I came late to Ursula K. Le Guin, who died yesterday at the age of 88.
I read the Earthsea books only a few years ago, as a fortysomething adult—too late, I think, to appreciate them properly. I read a lot of science fiction and a bit of fantasy growing up, but my reading was largely focused on the hoary classics and on hard sf, with an emphasis on Asimov and Niven (which did not help my development as a writer). I made up for lost time later; by the time I was in university I was in the midst of a serious contemporary sf reading binge. For a while, thanks to my father’s Asimov’s subscription, my own Locus subscription, and the surprisingly good sf holdings of the Winnipeg Public Library, I was as up to speed on the science fiction of the late 1980s and the 1990s as it was possible for anyone to be. (Then came graduate school, and it was no longer possible to keep up.)
But in the process I had missed out on a lot of stuff from the late 1960s and the 1970s. Tiptree I’d read, and Varley and Wolfe; but not Delany, or Zelazny—or Le Guin. What had happened was that I’d skipped over a generation, jumping from the Golden Age to the Postmoderns, from Asimov and Pohl to Kelly, Kress, Robinson, Swanwick and Willis. From the classic to the right now. There was a gap in my reading. Except for a few short stories, I’d missed out on Le Guin.
Or so I thought.
Some of my favourite science fiction novels from the 1990s were set on other worlds and had an anthropological bent. Eleanor Arnason’s A Woman of the Iron People. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child.
You can see where this is going, can’t you.
Earlier this month I finally got around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s fourth novel and the one the won all the awards. It was a revelation. Not because of how powerfully good it is (though it is), not because, as a work of anthropological sf, this kind of thing was very much my bag (though it is), but because I immediately clued in to its influence.
All those anthropological sf books I’d enjoyed reading, decades ago? The line between them and The Left Hand of Darkness could not be more clear.
Those of you familiar with Le Guin will by now be saying, well, duh. This is not exactly unknown. But hear me out. I came to Le Guin late, and backwards; it’s an odd, uncanny thing to read the works that were inspired before the work that originally did the inspiring. I had managed to encounter The Left Hand of Darkness’s impact before I had read the book itself—to reverse-engineer the book’s importance from what had followed in her wake.
This is, of course, only a small part of Le Guin’s legacy. Others who knew her better or read her sooner will speak to other parts far better than I ever could. But it’s what I noticed when I belatedly finished one of her most important books, eight days before she died.
There’s been some discussion recently about the need for more (and better) reviews of science fiction and fantasy short stories, much of which is predicated on the various inadequacies of the few existing short fiction review venues.
In general I think more short fiction reviews can only be a Good Thing, because more critical discourse on science fiction and fantasy literature is never a Bad Thing. There’s not enough of it (as opposed to PR and squee). That said, I have a couple of reservations.
First, if the purpose of short fiction reviews is to be useful for award nomination purposes, I have a problem with that. I appreciate that nowadays there are frankly too many short stories being published for any single person to read them all,1 and that award nominators are looking for ways to filter the reading material down a bit. But I have a problem with the implicit assumption that winning awards is the reason for creating works of art. (Winning an award should be an inadvertent by-product, not the point of the enterprise.) If we’re reviewing short fiction because we’re trying to figure out our award nomination ballots, then we’re reinforcing the notion that art is grist for a career: write a story to generate buzz; generate buzz to win an award; win an award to further the career; ???; profit!
We’d also be privileging the latest at the expense of the greatest: reviewing for awards purposes means you only review what’s eligible for the next award season. A story that is only three to five years old may still be worthy of critique and analysis—may still be worth talking about—but if all you’re doing is reading for awards, it has already disappeared down the memory hole. Functionally speaking, it no longer exists.
Neophilia might be good for the publishing calendar, it might be good for writers’ careers, but it’s terrible for art.
Second, if we’re agreed that there should be more short fiction reviews, I think it’s a bad idea for us to simply review it on our own blogs and journals. It’s too haphazard. There aren’t enough people looking for short fiction reviews to have those reviews scattered across the intertubes. There’s a reason why Rocket Stack Rank, Tangent and Locus came to be: collating reviews from divers hands makes a lot of sense. The reader only has a single place to go.
The problem is that short fiction reviews make absolutely no economic sense. I could easily reboot Ecdysis with a new focus on short fiction reviews, but how would I solicit them? Reviewers would expect, reasonably, to be compensated, but what business model (other than Locus’s, but they primarily do book reviews and trade news) would there be for a periodical focused mainly on short fiction reviews? Book reviews get few enough eyeballs; short fiction reviews would be even worse, and without even the faint hope of affiliate income. It would have to be a labour of love, which in sf community terms means a work done for social capital, and that’s often been problematic too.
I’ll keep thinking about this, and listening to other opinions on this subject.
I finished 60 books in 2017:
- The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
- Miniatures by John Scalzi
- A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit
- The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
- Weird Dinosaurs by John Pickrell
- The Fifty Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years edited by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
- The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams edited by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross
- The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
- The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
- A Perfect Machine by Brett Savory
- The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
- Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall
- Dune by Frank Herbert (reread)
- The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman
- All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
- Borderline by Mishell Baker
- The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action by Dale Smith
- Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (reread)
- Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer
- The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard
- The Gradual by Christopher Priest
- The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
- Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
- Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
- Snakes of the United States and Canada by Whit Gibbons
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
- Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
- Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
- The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
- Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
- Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
- The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
- Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
- Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
- The Man with the Aura by R. A. Lafferty
- The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
- The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
- Venera Dreams by Claude Lalumière
- Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
- River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
- Recipearium by Costi Gurgu
- The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
- Infinity Wars edited by Jonathan Strahan
- A History of Canada in Ten Maps by Adam Shoalts
- How to Draw Fantasy and RPG Maps by Jared Blando
- The Map Thief by Heather Terrell
- Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein
- The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
- You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City by Katharine Harmon
- Vacationland by John Hodgman
- Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
- Artemis by Andy Weir
- Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby
- The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent
- Provenance by Ann Leckie
- Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
- Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
- All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner
- The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer
Links are to my reviews. (Note that several books read in 2017 will be reviewed in 2018.)
I have a bone to pick with news stories that declare, hyperbolically, whenever a location is in the midst of a deep freeze, that it’s “colder than Mars”—stories like this one from CTV News or this one from The Atlantic.
What exactly do they mean by “colder than Mars”? Mars is a planet—one that, like Earth, has an atmosphere, albeit thin, and weather and seasons. Mars can get as cold as –143°C (–226°F) and as warm as 35°C (95°F) in spots. Mars’s mean temperature is
It turns out that what reporters really mean is the current temperature at Gale Crater, as measured by the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on the Curiosity rover. It also turns out that there’s a handy widget that gives the current conditions as measured by REMS. As I write this, the air temperature on Mars is –19°C and the ground temperature is –6°C (the difference is because the air is so thin).
Since it’s –19°C right now where I live, yes, Mars—or at least Gale Crater, which is not the same thing (again: apples to oranges)—is just as cold. But temperatures as high as 20°C (68°F) and as low as –127°C (–197°F) have been recorded at Gale Crater. It’s no trick for a Martian summer to be warmer than a Canadian winter, but even the daytime highs of a Martian winter can be warmer than a Canadian winter. Because the air is so thin, the Martian surface heats quickly when it’s sunny, and the temperature can swing as much as 100 degrees.3
I know that hyperbole is an essential part of talking about how goddamn cold it is out there (see also: using wind chill instead of temperature), but honestly, Mars isn’t a useful point of reference.
- “Fix and Release” is a 15-minute CBC documentary on the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre’s work rehabilitating injured turtles. [YouTube]
- More signs that reptile population locations are being obscured or hidden to keep the animals from being poached or killed: scientists released 6,000 eastern spiny softshell (Apalone s. spinifera) hatchlings near London, Ontario, but the location is being kept secret.
- Here’s a short video on building a snake hibernaculum on your property, hosted by two friends of mine: Jeff Hathaway (of Scales Nature Park) and Ben Porchuk, whom I met while messing about on Pelee Island.
- Dozens of snakes—western fox snakes (Pantherophis ramspotti) and racers (Coluber constrictor)—were rescued from a well scheduled to be demolished.
- Last month a Peterborough, Ontario man was bitten by a monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia) and had to be given given antivenom from the Toronto Zoo’s stock at Scarborough and Rouge Hospital. [CBC News, Toronto Star]
- The Calabar burrowing python (Calabaria reinhardtii) is an unusual egg-laying boa from central Africa. It’s a nest-raider that feeds primarily on baby rodents. Mama rodents tend to have a thing or two to say about that, so it turns out that Calabaria has an extraordinarily thick skin that resists penetration (i.e., from bites)—thicker and tougher than any other snake they compared it to, causing researchers to call it a “rhinoceros among serpents.” [Journal of Morphology]
- Climate change may be making bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) dumber. The National Geographic headline is a bit clickbaity; the underlying study suggests that incubation impacts social cognition. “Lizards incubated at colder temperatures were quicker at learning a social task and faster at completing that task.” The study determined that the effects of incubation temperature lasted into adulthood. The effect of rising global temperatures follows from that. [Royal Society Open Science]
- Last week the New York Times reported on snake fungal disease, which has featured prominently in previous posts. A new study suggests that in the eastern United States snakes afflicted by the fungus “are both phylogenetically and ecologically randomly dispersed”—i.e., widely different species in widely different habitats—and that monitoring “should consider that all snake species and habitats likely harbor this pathogen.” This is, as they say, bad. [Science Advances]
- Paul “Little Ray” Goulet is another old friend, and the proprietor of Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo in Ottawa. For the past few years he’s been offering free passes over the holidays to disadvantaged families who’d otherwise be unable to afford to go to the zoo. (Zoos, whether private or public, are a lot more expensive than they used to be.) Here’s the Ottawa Citizen story.
- Finally, here’s video footage of a western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) riding on the back of a tortoise. Yee-haw. [UPI, YouTube]
My most popular opinion piece in 2017 was actually something I wrote in late 2016: “Opposition in the Age of Gish Gallops,” in which I argued that the Age of Trump required focused and strategic action from his opponents. A year later, much of what I feared has come to pass: I see a lot of blanket opposition to everything at once and not much focus, while Republican unity seems stronger than I’d hoped.
Over on The Map Room, I tackled a different kind of controversy: the Peters projection. I argued that the debate over the Peters projection was increasingly irrelevant, because wall maps were increasingly irrelevant; the future is online, and the Internet, for better or worse, uses Web Mercator. I also wrote a major piece on fantasy maps, my first in four years: “The Territory Is Not the Map” was partially a book review and partially an observation that when we talk about fantasy maps—when we talk about good maps and bad maps, for example—we’re talking about the geography of imaginary places, not the maps of those places.
In “Are Conventions Necessary?” I took a hard look at the usefulness of science fiction conventions; the piece got a lot of attention, some of it even from people who took the time to read it. (A lot of Twitter critics apparently did not.) It got an order of magnitude more page views than any of my reviews of science fiction or fantasy novels, which says something; meanwhile, my Star Wars essays (“The Lightsaber Black Market,” “The Rebel Alliance Has Terrible OpSec”), while fun to write, sank without a trace.
Speaking of book reviews, I posted nineteen of them this year: fourteen here, five at The Map Room. See this page for links. (I didn’t publish any reviews on AE this year, simply because AE didn’t publish anything at all this year. As far as I know their relaunch is still in the works, and if all goes well I’ll have reviews there in the new year.)
Finally, I wrote two essays of local interest that were widely shared by my neighbours. “J’y suis, j’y reste” was posted on the day we took possession of our house, and traced the path we took en route to becoming permanently ensconced here in Shawville. “The Latecomers” looked at the curious fact that three of the five candidates for warden were recent arrivals—including the winner (and now the Pontiac MRC warden) Jane Toller, who as Jane Pitfield once ran for mayor of Toronto.
I suppose each of us could ask one another how we ended up in this neck of the woods; their stories would probably be as roundabout as mine.
Autonomous (Tor, September 2017), the debut novel from io9 founder and tech editor Annalee Newitz, falls somewhere on the spectrum between the work of Madeline Ashby and the work of Cory Doctorow. It deals with drug patents, autonomy and free will and ownership of human beings and artificial intelligences alike. All at the same time, but there’s a common thread: they’re all about several kinds of property, specifically the intellectual and human kind, and the ways in which possession and ownership interact with freedom and selfhood.
Also, a good chunk of it is set in Canada, about which I have thoughts.
Autonomous is set in the mid-22nd century, but the world is, for all its additional technological enhancements, a familiar territory. A dystopia with recognizable characteristics. Big Pharma is still with us, and has metastasized into Big Brother, a drug-patent oligarchy enforced with brutality that sells productivity-enhancing drugs with some frightening side effects. The narrative alternates between Jack, a drug pirate who has reverse-engineered a productivity drug that is starting to kill people, and Paladin, a robot with a human brain (installed to facilitate facial recognition processing) that has been partnered with Eliasz, an agent assigned to deal with the threat Jack presents. Eliasz also has a thing for Paladin, which Paladin does their best to process. Jack also has a sidekick: Threezed, an indentured slave she inadvertently liberates during a botched assassination attempt against her.
The plot advances briskly, as Eliasz and Paladin move ruthlessly against Jack, wreaking carnage in the process; Jack, for her part, must simultaneously evade capture and find a cure for the drug that she helped disseminate. All the while, it’s via the plot arcs of both Threezed and Paladin that Autonomous explores and develops its eponymous theme, as each learns, via their respective partnerships, to gain (or regain) and assert a certain sense of self. That theme elevates Autonomous beyond mere technothriller; this is a book that is about something, and it’s thought about it. As first novels go, this is exceptionally good.
Most of the action takes place in Canada: in the far north, in Vancouver, and in Saskatchewan. It was oddly dissonant to see a future Canada rendered through a funhouse mirror: much was familiar (I’ve actually been to some of the locations mentioned), much unrecognizable. Partly that’s because it’s set in the future, but in a couple of cases I found myself bouncing off geographical errors, if you could call them that, that tried my ability to suspend disbelief. Little details of location or scale that suggested that the author didn’t get things quite right. Not significant, but the kind of thing that can throw a Canadian reader out of the book. (If anything it’s a reminder to my own self to be careful when writing about other people’s geographies.)
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.
Sometimes trunk novels need to stay in the trunk. That was my takeaway from Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (HarperCollins, May 2017), a novel published posthumously earlier this year. (Crichton died in 2008.) As a novel of the Bone Wars, the bitter feud between rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, it drew my attention: fictional representations of the Bone Wars are, shall we say, a professional interest of mine, as I’m working on one myself.4
Set in 1876, it follows the fictional William Johnson, a feckless Yale undergrad who, on a bet, signs up with Marsh’s expedition to the west. Johnson spends the rest of the novel bouncing between the paranoid Marsh and the tempermental Cope, surviving the west in the immediate aftermath of Little Big Horn, being left for dead and surviving the lawless town of Deadwood.
You’d think this would be interesting, but I struggled to give a damn, partly because Johnson is literally the least interesting character in the book, a blank onto which the reader can project himself.5 The prose is spare, the description light—I haven’t read any Crichton prior to this (there have been audiobooks) so I don’t know if this is an underwritten first draft or Crichton’s regular modus operandi. But one gets the impression of an author laying down the beats, setting up the basic tracks, before coming back to finish it, and never doing so.
But it’s also because I’ve read plenty of stories about the Bone Wars, about Cope and Marsh’s expeditions, about Marsh’s relationship with indigenous tribes—and they were all more interesting than this. The fact that National Geographic is adapting this into a TV series boggles my mind; it’s unnecessary. Read The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark Jaffe (Crown, 2000) or The Bonehunters’ Revenge by David Rains Wallace (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), detailed, readable historical accounts that appeared after Crichton wrote Dragon Teeth. Or track down Charles Sternberg’s memoir, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1909). Or see the “Dinosaur Wars” episode of The American Experience, which ran in January 2011. Dragon Teeth was a disappointment in that as fiction, it did not add measurably to the real-life story, which is already kind of amazing. Crichton’s book is superfluous.
In the Jurassic Park movies, the Tyrannosaurus rex is more than a deadly predator bent on eating everyone and everything in its path. It also serves a key plot function above and beyond that of mere antagonist.
You are perhaps familiar with the concept of deus ex machina? Wikipedia calls it “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or act as a comedic device.” It’s the sudden rescue at the end, the long-lost relative who adopts you as their heir, the bacteria that kill the Martians just before all is lost.
I’d like to propose the idea of the T. rex machina—the plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the inspired and unexpected intervention of a T. rex.