The latest science fiction convention meltdown—this time, Odyssey Con, a Wisconsin convention that bungled entirely foreseeable harassment issues—is a reminder of the outsized place conventions in general have in our field. In my view they take up too much space—too much time, money and space in our heads—leaving too little room for the literature and media these events purport to be about.
I’m going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they’re basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose—coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there’s a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don’t accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner’s perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that’s spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it’s a bad idea for everybody.
Tim offers a useful perspective, because many people active in a community don’t have anything to compare that community to. And his point is worth thinking about: when we go to sf conventions, exactly what the hell are we doing?
Spring is here, and the garter snakes (Thamnophis) are busily mating away — and that means mating balls where as many as a hundred frenzied males may be trying to woo a single female snake. That frenzy may be harder on the males than the females: a new study found that telomere length — associated with stress — decreased with males as they aged, but did not do so with females. [Proc. R. Soc. B]
Ontario has banned the hunting of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina), a species that had previously been regulated as game wildlife (with seasons and bag limits). Conservationists have long argued that any take is unsustainable, and they’re right: turtles simply reproduce too slowly, and face too many other dangers (roadkill, nest predation) — they’re simply in too much trouble already.
In other good news, the Arizona snake shot — allowing snakes to be shot within city limits — bill died in a tie vote in the state senate.
Cobra venom is largely neurotoxic — it shuts down a prey animal’s autonomic nervous system — but some cobra venoms have cytotoxic, or tissue-destroying, qualities, most famously the venoms of African spitting cobras. Cytotoxins are painful but not as lethal as neurotoxins, so you’d think that cytotoxic venoms in cobras developed as a defense mechanism. But it turns out that cytotoxins don’t correlate with spitting, but with spectacular hoods: the more brightly banded or coloured a cobra species’ hood, the more cytotoxins in the venom. [Toxins]
Paul Wells, now back at Maclean’s, argues that Donald Trump is a hermit who has walled himself off from the rest of the world since the 1980s. This explains two rather odd things about the president that a lot of us have noticed: one, he spends an awful lot of time, even as president, at his own properties like Mar-a-Lago; and two, that his politics are decades out of date.
Trump’s public statements betray the effect of his extended hiatus from North American society. In a Republican candidates’ debate in March 2016, he listed Japan as one of the countries where the U.S. is “getting absolutely crushed on trade.” That hasn’t been true since before Bill Clinton was president. In his inaugural address, he painted an apocalyptic portrait of the United States — where “crime and gangs and drugs . . . have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential” — even though crime today is much lower, in most jurisdictions and by most measures, than in 1990, or even in 2005.
These outbursts are worth the effort to understand because their author is now, at least on paper, the most powerful man in the world. They are best understood as the musings of an emissary from another era. Donald Trump is in effect a time traveller from the late 1980s, when crime in American cities was at record-high levels, racial tension was rampant, Japanese billionaires were buying up much of Manhattan and a much younger Donald Trump was building the collection of gold-plated safe houses in which he would hide for the next three decades, subsisting on well-done steaks, taco bowls and the time-clock adulation of lackeys and hirelings.
Wells goes on to compare Trump to a character in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but the point is clear enough without the analogy.
While The House of Binding Thorns can be read on its own without too much trouble, you’d do better to begin with The House of Shattered Wings. That book introduced us to a fin-de-siècle Paris blasted into ruins by a magical war, where powerful fallen angels command rival Houses, while an Annamite (Vietnamese) dragon kingdom lay hidden under the waters of the Seine.
The focus of Shattered Wings was on House Silverspires; in The House of Binding Thorns the action moves to House Hawthorn, where the angel essence addict Madeleine, whom we first met in Shattered Wings, is now back under the control and protection of the fearsome and malevolent Asmodeus. The textbook definition of Lawful Evil, Asmodeus is by turns horrific and charismatic, a problematic but compelling figure who steals every scene he’s in. He sends Madeleine as part of an embassy to the dragon kingdom under the Seine to arrange a political marriage with one of the dragon princes. Philippe, one of the protagonists of Shattered Wings, is also back, on a quest to recover his lost Isabelle, and we’re introduced to a couple of new protagonists: a dragon, Thuan, who has infiltrated Hawthorn to investigate the source of the angel essence the addiction to which is ravaging the kingdom; and Françoise, an Annamite in a relationship with Asomdeus’s sister, Berith.
The character threads — Madeleine’s, Philippe’s, Thuan’s and Françoise’s — are woven deftly together as de Bodard spins a cunning web of addiction, deception and intrigue involving factions within the dragon kingdom and Houses out in the banlieu. Schemes within schemes abound. Interpersonal drama, at the family and political level, is something de Bodard has always excelled at.
Binding Thorns explores colonial themes even more deeply than Shattered Wings, as the pantheons of implicitly Christian fallen and Vietnamese dragon kingdoms intersect with one another. It’s also a fairly explicit allegory of the Opium Wars, and a reminder that addiction is also a tool of control, although a certain aspect of Madeleine’s addiction was unconvincing (it occurs at the end, so: spoilers). All of which makes for a setting that feels breathtakingly real (if not necessarily alive, if you take my meaning), a world that exists beyond the storytelling façades. Combined with the intriguing plot and characters, and you have a book that is very much the total package.
The House of Binding Thorns is out today from Ace in North America and from Gollancz in the U.K. on Thursday. I received an electronic review copy of this book from Berkley Publishing Group (Ace) via NetGalley.
Since November 2014 I’ve been reviewing books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Last September their website went dark; a brief note said that the site had been compromised by hackers and would be back soon. Months passed, and people were starting to wonder if AE would ever be back. (Because I reviewed for them, I got a few emails about it.)
But last week they finally broke their silence: their front page now announces that they will be coming back. Now I’m told that the relaunch is still some time away — months, not weeks. (Remember: this is done in their spare time.) But when that does occur I’ll be back writing reviews and other nonfiction pieces for them.
(If nothing else, I’m glad not to have killed the magazine per the Waldrop rule: the last thing they published before the site went down was my review of Jo Walton’s Necessity.)
Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, the first novel from the Canadian screenwriter, begins in a consciously retro future — a present day as imagined by the 1950s and 1960s, brought into being by the invention in 1965 of a device that generates unlimited clean energy. In the words of protagonist Tom Barren, it’s “the world we were supposed to have.” Barren is the mediocre son of the inventor of a time machine; through that family connection he finds himself training to be a chrononaut alongside far more qualified and less nepotistic candidates. When an accident puts the time travel project on hold, Barren transports himself into the past and, through an entirely in-character act of fucking things up, messes with the past; when he returns, he finds himself in a dystopic world that is entirely his fault: ours.
This is a book to try the patience of experienced science fiction readers. Not for its prose, which is quick and engaging (there are 137 short chapters in 369 pages), or its clever and well-handled plot. But All Our Wrong Todays begins inauspiciously, and sets off many genre reading protocol alarm bells. A retro future that is not immediately ironic — that’s one thing. Barren is, at least at the outset, one of the most annoyingly pathetic protagonists I have ever encountered. He’s a dim bulb surrounded by luminosities, whose motivations are powered in large part by his manpain, which is generated by his own mediocrity as well as the the fridging of two — count ’em — two female characters. It does get better — Barren does learn better — but the book takes its time getting there, and it’s not necessarily pleasant or enjoyable until it does.
I’ve been thinking about the differences between genre and non-genre science fiction (of which this, like Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, is an example of the latter). One that came to mind during a recent sleepless and pain-filled night is subjectivity. A non-genre story will tend to focus more narrowly on its subject, and that subject’s inner life and personal growth, than a genre story might. It will be about people, rather than events or ideas, whereas a genre story, with its adventure-pulp traditions, might have different emphases: the point of saving the world, after all, is saving the world; character growth is a side effect. Which is to say that All Our Wrong Todays seems off-balance in these emphases to the point of profound solipsism. As we watch its self-absorbed protagonist struggle to become a better person as a result of radically changing the timeline, we might be struggling ourselves to give a shit.
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.
Il faut désormais faire face outre-Atlantique à l’arbitraire et à l’incompétence la plus totale. Je ne sais ce qui est le pire. Ce que je sais, aimant ce pays depuis toujours, c’est que les États-Unis ne sont plus tout à fait les États-Unis.
When reports started appearing on social media that a distinguished French historian had been detained and nearly deported by U.S. officials at Houston’s international airport, I thought, as I clicked the link, that I probably knew who it was.
And indeed I do: the historian in question is none other than Henry Rousso, whose book, translated into English as The Vichy Syndrome, is absolutely essential reading for anyone studying the Second World War and its aftermath: it looks at the ways France has remembered, commemorated — and forgotten — the War, the Holocaust, the Occupation and the Resistance. (That book loomed very, very large in my studies.)
Last Wednesday, Rousso was travelling to the U.S. to speak at Texas A&M University; his 10-hour detention has been described as a mistake by an “inexperienced” officer. Rousso describes his experience in this French-language Huffington Post article. Basically, when he was pulled out for a random check, he was asked whether he was coming to the U.S. for compensated work (his talk) as a tourist; the U.S. does not require a visa from French tourists, and most people have taken this sort of thing very casually, but U.S. officials seem to be getting more strict about it. His previous J1 visa, issued for his visiting professorship at Columbia University last fall, was flagged, and he was accused of entering the U.S. on that (now-expired) visa. Texas A&M had to haul ass to prevent his deportation and ensure he could give his talk last Friday.
France takes its history very seriously, and that extends to its historians. I’m not at all surprised that Emmanuel Macron, the centrist presidential candidate with a real shot at beating Marine Le Pen, tweeted his support for Rousso. Make no mistake: France noticed this.
When I was a dinosaur-obsessed child, I tore through every dinosaur book I could find in every public library I encountered. Some of those books were extremely dated. In the 1970s and 1980s books from the 1940s were still in the children’s section, even science books, so nomina dubia like Antrodemus and Trachodon showed up repeatedly, and the art was, in hindsight, anatomically risible. Kids these days have no idea how bad it used to be.
But there was one book — one I actually owned — that stands out in my memory even now: The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs by L. B. Halstead. (The paleontology blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs covers it here and here.) Published in 1975, the book was on the cusp of the dinosaur renaissance and is, in Marc Vincent’s words, “an odd, uneasy melding of new and old ideas here, both in the text and in the art.” Some of those ideas were just plain weird, and since disproven: a species of Compsognathus with paddles instead of hands, stegosaurs whose plates lay flat against the body, that sort of thing.
But the weirdest thing in that book, assuming I’m remembering it correctly (I’m pretty sure this was the book I saw it in), was not a dubious interpretation, but a fossil: two gargantuan, eight-foot-long arms, discovered in Mongolia in 1965, named Deinocheirus. The arms were all that was known of the dinosaur.
What did the rest of Deinocheirus look like, I wondered. The arms had claws, so they clearly had to come from some gigantic theropod. But that would make it bigger than Tyrannosaurus and that’s just crazy talk. The mystery preoccupied me for years. In the eighth grade I actually made Deinocheirus the subject of a two-minute speech I was required to give in English class: I gave a junior-high cargo-cult scientific talk in which I speculated that Deinocheirus was a quadruped, a cat-shaped dinosaur predator. It was the only way I could reconcile the size of those arms.
But in 2014 the rest of Deinocheirus was announced to the world, and the truth proved more bizarre than my childhood imagination. It was an ornithomimosaur, but at 11 metres long and more than six tons in weight, one that traded speed for size and mass. It was horse-faced and hunch-backed, toothless and omnivorous, and apparently food for the local tyrannosaur, Tarbosaurus.
Pickrell’s thesis that after decades of relative stability, the field of dinosaur paleontology is changing more rapidly than ever before. Thanks in part to a generation of Jurassic Park-inspired paleontologist, he writes, “”More dinosaurs are being discovered right now than ever before — and not just a few more: the rate of discovery has been increasing nearly exponentially.” If libraries could get away with having decades-old dinosaur books on the shelves when I was growing up, that’s not the case any more. Even a dinosaur book a decade old is out of date.
The title is a little click-baity, especially coming from a university press; Pickrell is at pains to explain what he means by weird in the introduction: “Really, I mean dinosaurs that fall outside existing stereotypes, but dinosaurs are also weird in the sense that they display some traits that are utterly unfamiliar to us in living animals today.” A weird dinosaur, then, is one that upsets that consensus and our expectations.
Pickrell has plenty of examples: Deinocheirus, to be sure, but also the batlike Yi qi from China, the double-sickle-clawed Balaur bondoc from Romania, feathered ornithischians from Siberia and Alaskan dinosaurs from north of the Arctic Circle. Opalized dinosaur fossils from Australia that had been broken up for their gem value before their paleontological worth was realized.
If you’ve been following paleontological bloggers like Brian Switek you’ll recognize many of the species and stories Pickrell recounts.
But Weird Dinosaurs isn’t just about the weird dinosaurs: each chapter is as much about the discovery of the dinosaur, the process and the people involved in the discovery (replete with colourful characters, intrigue and controversy in some cases — there are some great stories here) and the location it was discovered. One of the reasons why these dinosaurs seem so weird to us is that they’re coming from new sites in Argentina, Australia, Egypt, Madagascar, Mongolia, Romania — even Antarctica. The fossil record is the tiniest sample of what existed: you can’t extrapolate the Mesozoic from the Cretaceous bone beds of North America.
So to a certain extent, what’s weird is simply what’s new — like an explorer finding something utterly ordinary for the first time. Feathered dinosaurs were always feathered: we didn’t know they were feathered until recently, and it wasn’t until even more recently that we began to understand that many dinosaurs were feathered — that feathers on non-avian dinosaurs may well have been utterly normal.
Weird Dinosaurs is science journalism: it’s not a technical book, but it’s not written at an introductory level either. A certain level of dinosaur knowledge is required. If you know the difference between a saurischian and an ornithischian, and know the general dinosaur groups (sauropods, ceratopsians) and the more commonly known species, you should be fine. But since these are the sorts of facts that dinosaur-mad children have down cold before the age of eight, this should not limit Pickrell’s readership too much.
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.
So our 10-year-old female Okeetee corn snake, variously known as Little Miss Adorable, LMA and Ella Mae, started laying infertile eggs yesterday.
This is not unheard of — our female bullsnake, Lucy, and our leucistic Texas rat snake, Snowflake, have done this once or twice — so while we were surprised (February is really out of season for this sort of thing), we were not completely unprepared. Egg binding can be a thing, so we threw together a nesting box full of sphagnum and vermiculite, and then a larger box of sphagnum and vermiculite because her cagemate, Pretzel, wanted to curl up in there as well.
This does explain her recent behaviour: missing the last two or three meals (unheard of for a corn snake, except when gravid), restlessly pacing her cage and upending the furniture (much to the annoyance of Pretzel, who is twice her age and much more seclusive).
Five eggs so far, all infertile — she’s never so much as shared a cage with a male snake, and for good reason: corn snakes are the second-friskiest snake species known to captive husbandry. This is much to the annoyance of the (aptly named) Trouser, the male corn snake who lives in the next cage, who I suspect has been slowly going nuts about living next to two female snakes for years. But when I kept Pretzel and Trouser in the same cage, she would hollow herself out laying eggs that turned out to be infertile. The only surefire way to keep corn snakes from breeding is to segregate them by sex.
All things considered, infertile eggs — or, in the case of live-bearing snakes like garter snakes, egg masses — are a pretty rare occurrence. Caught us off guard this time, it did.
Update, Feb. 17: As of yesterday, LMA has laid an additional six eggs, for a total of eleven. Her backside looks appropriately hollow and she’s entered her post-egg-laying shed cycle, so we can stand down with respect to the risk of egg binding. There’d been some worry about that for a while: at one point it looked like had an egg just above the vent that was not going to pass.
In Canadian sf circles, Brett Savory is best known as half of the husband-wife duo (with Sandra Kasturi) responsible for ChiZine Publications. Brett — with whom, full disclosure, I am somewhat socially acquainted — recently stepped back from his publishing duties to focus on his writing. Not coincidentally, he has a new novel out: A Perfect Machine, while published by Angry Robot, is very much in the ChiZine ethos of dark and seriously messed-up speculative fiction, inhabiting the crossroads between science fiction, horror and bizarro fiction.
A Perfect Machine’s premise is bizarre enough: a secret society of Hunters and Runners operating on the margins of society, protected by a kind of amnesia that prevents outsiders from remembering what’s going on. Runners, when shot, do not die — they accumulate lead. Henry Kyllo is the first Runner (to his knowledge) whose body reaches 100 percent metal content — at which point, Runners believe, they achieve ascension. What follows is the story of his weird transformation, peppered by violence, intrigue and survival in the gutters.
From time to time while reading this relatively short book I would pause and mutter under my breath, “This is some seriously fucked-up shit, Brett.” Which I’m sure is what he was aiming for. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book succeeds, because for me, at least, it didn’t. Its characters are Tourette’s-afflicted cardboard clichés. Its prose aspires to a toughness, a street-level grit, that it does not achieve, with repeated use of sentence fragments as paragraphs that gets old fast. And its transfigurative ending comes out of nowhere, failing to achieve anything other than absurd bathos. It’s quick-paced, but feels rushed — it’s a potboiler with some deliciously messed-up imagery, but it came off the stove a bit too soon. A Perfect Machine is basically a B movie in book form, with all that implies, both good and bad.
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.