Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Author: Jonathan Crowe (Page 2 of 11)

The Tangled Lands

Book cover: The Tangled LandsThe Tangled Lands (Saga Press, February 2018) represents a return to a world co-created by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell that first appeared in audio form. In 2010, Audible released The Alchemist and the Executioness, a 5½-hour recording comprising two novellas, “The Alchemist” by Bacigalupi (which went on to be a Nebula nominee) and “The Executioness” by Buckell.1 Both are set in a world where magic works, but (as usual) at a terrible price. Where magic is used, the poisonous bramble plant grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. Magic is banned as a result, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming.

The idea that how something is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it is a killer metaphor for the tragedy of the commons, but neither Bacigalupi nor Buckell stop there. In “The Alchemist,” the eponymous alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, only to discover, to his horror, that the authorities have other uses for his invention: surveillance, social control and the consolidation of power. And in “The Executioness,” an executioner’s daughter, chasing after the raiders who stole her children, finds herself at the centre of a burgeoning legend; the raiders, for their part, claim as their motivation to attack the people whose magic use brought disaster down on everyone, and convert their children to their cause. The knock-on effects of magic use have knock-on effects of their own.2

I loved both stories—well enough to buy the limited editions from Subterranean Press when they came out the following year. Now they make up the first half of The Tangled Lands, which means that I now own three copies—audio, limited-edition hardcover, and digital—of those two novellas.

The second half is made up of two new novellas: “The Children of Khaim” by Bacigalupi and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” by Buckell, each of which returns to the city of Khaim (left behind by “The Executioness”) and focuses on the city’s more disadvantaged residents—the ones who do not benefit from the new alchemical defences against the bramble, the ones most likely to face exploitation and punishment and use by the privileged classes who continue to use magic freely. If the first half of The Tangled Lands is an parable of environmental disaster, the second half makes clear that it’s a parable of social injustice as well. The Tangled Lands is a fantasy manifestation of disaster capitalism—how the wealthy and the privileged exploit natural and unnatural disasters for their own benefit. Even a city-swallowing menace like bramble can be turned to someone’s advantage.

Much more could be said on this theme, and the harrowing world Bacigalupi and Buckell have created is an open canvas for more harrowing tales. In an afterword the authors say they hope to have more opportunities to return to this world. I hope they do.

Amazon | iBooks

Springtime for Garter Snakes

It’s not spring until the garter snakes come out of hibernation. And after a winter that seemed longer and more brutal than usual, we finally got spring last week.

Last Tuesday, some of Jennifer’s students pointed her to a site near the school where Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) were emerging from hibernation. And when I say pointed her to, I mean told her about it by handing her a bunch of wriggling snakes, because the kids know her. The kids released the snakes where they found them, but she told me about it and we made a note to check the site out after classes were done.

The location the kids told her about was at the edge of some seriously snakey habitat: lots of ground cover, and next to a wetland that was already echoing with the calls of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) and Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). Which is to say, snake food. A good spot, in other words. But in our initial search we only found one snake, which musked all over Jennifer. It took us a while to find the entrance to the hibernaculum, the precise location of which I will not reveal here to ensure the snakes’ safety and privacy, but once we did we found the area fairly crawling with snakes. I had brought my Nikon D7100 with me and took some pictures.

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All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

Tonight, or if that doesn’t work out probably this weekend, I’ll be off to see the latest in a series of superhero movies, one that has been highly anticipated and relentlessly hyped for months. In a couple of weeks, the previous iteration of that series of superhero movies will be released on home video. Then, a little while after that, another superhero movie will be released in the theatres, one that isn’t part of the same series, but sort of related to another movie series that would have been part of the first series if the rights weren’t currently held by different movie studios.

You can probably figure out which movies I’m referring to. But I could have written the above paragraph a few months ago, or a few months from now, and I’m not sure I would have to change a word, because superhero movies are coming out all the time. (It’s not just movies: I’m leaving out all the different superhero TV series.) We’re in the midst of Peak Superhero, and it does not seem to be on the verge of exhausting itself any time soon.

Given this superhero-saturated environment, it’s difficult to take stock of a novel like James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, November 2017). A book that won me over with its title alone, before I knew anything about its contents. It’s a novel about four roommates at the University of Waterloo—one of my almæ matres: I got my M.A. there—who unexpectedly get superpowers and have to figure out what to do with them. It’s a tremendously enjoyable read: let’s get that out of the way first. But in the context of Peak Superhero, a fun novel playing with superhero tropes wouldn’t be enough to rise above the crowd. Comic books are already capable of producing their own meta-narratives, thank you very much.

Fortunately it does something rather more than that: it’s a book that addresses a major contradiction in the various comic book universes: the intersection of “science” (the scare quotes are necessary) and magic-based power systems.

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Three Twitter Threads on Negative Reviews

The issue of negative reviews in science fiction and fantasy is coming up again, as it does from time to time. It’s a subject I have talked about before, continue to have a lot of thoughts about, and will have more to say about in the future, but this time I’d like to highlight points made by others in threaded conversations on Twitter.

First, Rose Lemberg, who notes a disparity in who is expected to provide critical or negative reviews—and, notably, critical authority—and whose reviews are simply ignored. While reviewers from marginalized (e.g. non-cis) groups can and do write good works of criticism, those works are ignored, Rose says; whereas white male reviewers are criticized when they don’t assume the mantle of authority. (I suppose you might call it the Voice of Clute.)

One of the reviewers Rose mentions is Bogi Takács, who points to something I worry about but haven’t much experienced: writers who harass reviewers who give them a bad review. Then again, I’m a straight white cis male (and as such, selon Rose, am supposed to be critical); Bogi points out that reviewers from marginalized groups are much more likely to experience harassment from authors, because authors don’t go after reviewers they perceive as having power. As I see it, it’s textbook bullying behaviour—behaviour that, according to Bogi, chases reviewers out of their field, because no one has those reviewers’ back and the work is just not worth the grief.

Finally, Cecily Kane looks at the unintended consequence of framing negative or critical reviews as toxic or as “attacking authors”: you create a perverse incentive in which the only ones willing to do the necessary work of critical reviews are the toxic assholes who are fully on board for attacking authors. Because you’ve chased out everyone else who would otherwise be willing to do the work.

Or to put it another way: If writing a negative review is going to get the reviewer shat on, you’re going to incentivize the people who enjoy flinging poo.

I honestly think we protest too much: there are still plenty of good, critical reviews out there. It’s just that they’re drowned out by a much greater volume of uncritical squee, unapologetic logrolling and frankly mediocre reviewing work. It’s an extraordinarily incestuous field, and it’s hard to shitcan a bad book written by someone in your social circle. Necessary, but hard. It’s probably better we not leave that work to the sociopaths.

A Herpetological Roundup

Featured image: Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnsoni), Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, May 2013.

  1. How do you tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? Usually the answer has something to do with snouts and teeth. Add another difference: alligators and caimans have shorter foreleg (humerus) and hind leg (femur) bones than crocodiles. Crocodiles can gallop—alligators not so much. [Royal Society Open Science]
  2. Evidence of parental care in snakes does exist, but it’s rare and tantalizing. Here’s another data point. Python mothers are already known to incubate their egg clutches: while cold-blooded, they can raise the temperature of their clutch through muscle movement. A new study finds that Southern African Rock Pythons (Python natalensis) also stay with their young for the first two weeks after their eggs hatch. (Much like rattlesnakes have been observed doing.) [Journal of Zoology]
  3. Audubon magazine looks at efforts to reintroduce the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) into its former range, and asks a very Audubon question: what is the impact of this on songbirds? (Indigo snakes are snake predators: feeding on nest raiders like rat snakes can reduce predation on songbirds.)
  4. No surprise: “The European Union is a major destination for illegally smuggled live snakes, lizards and tortoises from southern Africa, posing a serious threat to their conservation.” From what I heard when I was more active in the trade, Europeans have a reputation for smuggling everything from everywhere: they have all the species, just don’t ask too many questions about how they got them.
  5. The Turtle Conservation Coalition has released a report highlighting the most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles. A lot of the “25+” most endangered species are in southeast Asia, as you might expect, but not all of them are. The 68-page report, titled Turtles in Troublecan be downloaded as a PDF here.

Questions I’ve answered on Quora in the past month:

The Will to Battle

The Will to Battle (Tor, December 2017), the third volume in Ada Palmer’s complex and strange Terra Ignota series, is a murderously difficult book to review. Third books in a series generally are (a review can only speak to readers of the previous two volumes, and spoil those books for everyone else), but that goes double for this one, because, as I said, of how complex and strange the Terra Ignota series has been from the jump.

That series, which began in 2016 with Too Like the Lightning (which I review here) and continued last year with Seven Surrenders, introduced us to a 25th-century world organized into seven hives rather than nation-states, a world that professed itself a utopia but had long-repressed tensions running hot under the surface. A world where public discussion of religion is forbidden but bore witness to the miraculous child Bridger as well as the singular being J. E. D. D. Mason, a child of many parents who believes himself to be a god from another universe, the cynosure of a secret cult—and, at the end of Seven Surrenders, the beneficiary of a resurrection at the hands of the aforementioned Bridger after an assassination attempt aimed at preventing him from taking power.

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Books Read: January 2018

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Navigation: A Very Short Introduction by Jim Bennett. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Le Guin’s Legacy

Ursula K. Le Guin. Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch, Oregon State University. Creative Commons Licence.

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.

Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Short Fiction Reviews

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 RankTangent 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.

Books Read in 2017

I finished 60 books in 2017:

  1. The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin
  2. Miniatures by John Scalzi
  3. A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit
  4. The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley
  5. Weird Dinosaurs by John Pickrell
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
  9. The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
  10. A Perfect Machine by Brett Savory
  11. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
  12. Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall
  13. Dune by Frank Herbert (reread)
  14. The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman
  15. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
  16. Borderline by Mishell Baker
  17. The Unbroken Machine: Canada’s Democracy in Action by Dale Smith
  18. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (reread)
  19. Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer
  20. The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard
  21. The Gradual by Christopher Priest
  22. The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
  23. Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
  24. Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
  25. Snakes of the United States and Canada by Whit Gibbons
  26. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  27. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
  28. Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
  29. The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
  30. Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin
  31. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
  32. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
  33. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  34. Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  35. Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
  36. The Man with the Aura by R. A. Lafferty
  37. The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
  38. The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
  39. Venera Dreams by Claude Lalumière
  40. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
  41. River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
  42. Recipearium by Costi Gurgu
  43. The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin
  44. Infinity Wars edited by Jonathan Strahan
  45. A History of Canada in Ten Maps by Adam Shoalts
  46. How to Draw Fantasy and RPG Maps by Jared Blando
  47. The Map Thief by Heather Terrell
  48. Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein
  49. The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
  50. You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City by Katharine Harmon
  51. Vacationland by John Hodgman
  52. Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
  53. Artemis by Andy Weir
  54. Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby
  55. The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent
  56. Provenance by Ann Leckie
  57. Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
  58. Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
  59. All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner
  60. The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer

Links are to my reviews. (Note that several books read in 2017 will be reviewed in 2018.)

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