Jonathan Crowe

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

Author: Jonathan Crowe (Page 3 of 11)

‘Colder Than Mars’

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

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 –63°C (–82°F), which is colder than just about any population centre can get (and no, wind chill doesn’t count for this). So that can’t be it. (Besides, comparing a mean temperature to a local temperature would be an apples-to-oranges comparison. Earth’s mean temperature, for the record, is 15°C.)1

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.2

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.

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. Fix and Release” is a 15-minute CBC documentary on the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre’s work rehabilitating injured turtles. [YouTube]
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Dozens of snakes—western fox snakes (Pantherophis ramspotti) and racers (Coluber constrictor)—were rescued from a well scheduled to be demolished.
  5. 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 NewsToronto Star]
  6. 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]
  7. 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]
  8. 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]
  9. 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.
  10. Finally, here’s video footage of a western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) riding on the back of a tortoise. Yee-haw. [UPI, YouTube]

A Year of Misguided Opinions: 2017 in Essays

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

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.

Amazon | iBooks

Dragon Teeth

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.1

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.2 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.

T. Rex Machina

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.

I’ll explain.

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.

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Artemis

Artemis (US cover)When your first novel is The Martian, what do you do for an encore?

The Martian was a freak of publishing. Andy Weir self-published it electronically in 2011; when brisk online sales caught the attention of the publishing industry and Hollywood, it went on to be a hardcover bestseller in 2014, and spawned a 2015 movie that grossed more than $630 million. While the book was weak on characterization and prose, it was full of humour and dramatic tension while remaining unapologetically geeky. It was terrific fun to read. (See my review.)

That’s a hell of an act to have to follow up on. Weir’s second novel, Artemis, is out today—published by Crown in the United States and Del Rey in the United Kingdom. And I have to say that while Artemis is a diverting enough read, I don’t expect it to bottle the same lightning its predecessor did.

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Venera Dreams and the Art of the Mosaic Novel

Vermilion is an intense red pigment made from powdered cinnabar. It’s also extremely toxic—cinnabar is mercury sulfide—which is why vermilion has largely been replaced by cadmium-based pigments. But in Claude Lalumière’s new book, Venera Dreams (Guernica Editions, August 2017), vermilion is a hallucinogenic, mystical spice that is only found on the mysterious, hedonistic island-state of Venera, which few outsiders are permitted to visit.

Venera Dreams is a mosaic novel. I’m fond of mosaic novels, and last month at Can-Con I was, fortuitously and somewhat awkwardly in the context of writing this review, on a panel with Claude Lalumière discussing the mosaic novel form. Along with Jerome Stueart and Liz Westbrook-Trenholm we had a fascinating conversation, almost none of which I remember a month later. (This is a normal problem: I never remember what was said on panels I participate on, even what I said. I hope you were all taking notes.) Which is to say that Claude had an interesting and strictly limited definition of what constituted a mosaic novel that I had absolutely no argument with, and for the life of me I cannot recall what it was.

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Pontiac MRC Municipal Elections: Toller Wins, Belec and Murdock Defeated

Jane Toller has been elected warden of the Pontiac MRC, the first warden in the Pontiac’s history to be elected directly rather than selected from the MRC’s council of 18 mayors. Toller, who as Jane Pitfield served on Toronto’s city council and ran a somewhat quixotic campaign for Toronto mayor in 2006, took 46.7 percent of the vote, finishing well ahead of incumbent warden Raymond Durocher. The outgoing mayor of Fort-Coulonge took 18 percent of the vote.

Linda Davis finished third, ahead of former Pontiac MNA Charlotte L’Écuyer; onetime Calumet Island mayor Pierre Fréchette was only 40 votes behind L’Écuyer.

At the municipal level, new mayors in the Pontiac MRC include Gaston Allard in Fort-Coulonge, Maurice Beauregard in Campbell’s Bay and Serge Newberry in Île-du-Grand-Calumet. Two incumbent mayors were defeated decisively: Danielle Belec in Mansfield-et-Pontefract to Gilles Dionne, and controversial Thorne mayor Terry Murdock to Karen Daly Kelly. Several mayors were elected by very narrow margins, including Lynne Cameron of Portage-du-Fort (6 votes) and Sandra Murray of Shawville (16 votes). Only 6 of 18 mayors were elected by acclamation.

Voter turnout was extremely high for a municipal election. A total of 7,552 people voted in the warden election, which is just insane for a county whose entire population—not just those eligible to vote—was 14,251 in last year’s census.

Full results after the jump. Winners’ names are in boldface; incumbents are marked with an (i).

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The Latecomers

First, some background, so you understand what’s going on a bit better:

In Quebec, what would be called a county elsewhere is called a municipalité régionale de comté or MRC; an MRC encompasses all the towns, villages, townships and other municipalities within its boundaries (with the exception of large cities and reserves). Shawville, the municipality where I live, is part of the Pontiac MRC, which comprises a total of 18 municipalities as well as a vast unorganized territory to the north.

The head of an MRC is called a préfet (or prefect); around here that title is translated as warden. Pontiac MRC’s warden has heretofore been selected from the 18 mayors that make up the MRC’s council. But that changes this year: in Sunday’s municipal elections, the Pontiac MRC’s warden will be directly elected for the first time.

Five candidates are running. Two of them are familiar faces: Raymond Durocher is the incumbent warden and the outgoing mayor of Fort-Coulonge, a post he’s held since 1999. Charlotte L’Écuyer is the region’s former Liberal MNA: she represented the provincial district of Pontiac between 2003 and 2014. But the other three are relatively recent arrivals to the Pontiac: each has been here full-time for only three to six years.

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