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.

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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.

Continue reading “T. Rex Machina”

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).

Continue reading “Pontiac MRC Municipal Elections: Toller Wins, Belec and Murdock Defeated”

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.

Continue reading “The Latecomers”

A Herpetological Roundup

Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis), Narcisse Snake Dens, May 5, 2014.
  1. Neil Balchan is upset, and so am I. The garter snake researcher visited a wintering den where he was doing field research only to discover that dozens of harmless red-sided garter snakes had been beaten and butchered at the site. CBC News has more.
  2. Here’s TVO on the fragile state of the eastern hognose snake in Ontario.
  3. And here’s the Great Lakes Echo on scientists’ efforts to track the elusive—and, in Ontario, endangered—rat snake.
  4. The Tennessee Aquarium has created the first map of North America’s biogeographical turtle communities.
  5. Burmese pythons might be an invasive scourge in Florida’s Everglades, but they’re not doing well in their natural range. The Guardian looks at conservation efforts on the python’s behalf in Bangladesh.
  6. An interesting read in Smithsonian magazine about taxonomic vandalism—the act of exploiting international rules to name new species without the science to back it up, usually for self-aggrandizing reasons. It’s endemic in herpetology; Raymond Hoser’s name turns up here, and not for the first time.
  7. Tiger keelback snakes are both venomous (it’s a rear-fanged colubrid) and poisonous, thanks to the toads they feed on. The snakes store the toad toxins in their nuchal glands. But do they know they’re packing toad toxins? According to a new study, yes: the snakes’ defensive behaviour changes depending on the toxicity of their diet. [Journal of Comparative Psychology]
  8. Commercial reptile collection has been banned in Nevada, where it’s been more or less unregulated for decades. Nature’s Cool Green Science blog has the story behind the ban.
  9. Sean Graham has some advice for field herpers: instead of spending money and effort on finding rare species for your life list, they should spend that on field work that might actually do some good. “Imagine if instead of trying to find their lifer Pigmy Rattlesnake in Apalachicola National Forest, they instead went looking for them in central Alabama where records are few and patchy? If instead of herping for fun, everyone made their herping count?”3
  10. Using the Internet to identify snakes is definitely a thing; I’ve gotten my share of requests. Sierra, the Sierra Club’s magazine, looks at how the Snake Identification Facebook group does the job. Turns out the challenges the group faces are as much about social dynamics—dealing with frivolous requests, not attacking people for killing snakes—as they are scientific.
  11. If you can’t feed a snake mice, does that mean you can’t keep snakes at all? I answer this question on Quora.

The Rebel Alliance Has Terrible OpSec

Rogue One

In the original Star Wars movie, the capture of Princess Leia is a key tactical objective for the Empire because she alone can reveal the location of the Rebels’ secret base. “Now she is my only link to finding their secret base,” says Darth Vader in the opening scenes. That fact is why she is taken to the Death Star and interrogated, and why Tarkin orders the destruction of Alderaan: her singular knowledge is worth the destruction of a world.

But then Rogue One came along and messed all of that up—by making the Rebels’ secret base not much of a secret.

Rogue One reveals that the Rebel Alliance is a shitty rebel insurrection because it does not use a proper clandestine cell structure. Need-to-know is nowhere to be seen; Yavin 4’s location is the opposite of closely guarded. Just about everyone in the Alliance seems to know where the hidden base is. Not only that, but travel to and from said base by high-ranking Rebel leaders—leaders that are almost certainly under surveillance by Imperial security services—appears to be routine.

Here’s the thing. If the Millennium Falcon could be traced to Yavin 4, then so could any other ship carrying someone suspected of being a Rebel. Anyone, from Mon Mothma down to the lowliest private, could be captured, interrogated and compromised—and should have been long before the events of the first film. As depicted in Rogue One, the Rebels are extremely vulnerable to a decapitation strike.

Fortunately, the Empire seems to be run by fricking idiots. If they were dead serious about finding the hidden base, they would have made capturing alive any operative—any soldier, any pilot—a top priority. Leia’s resistance to the mind probe was considerable—the Force runs strong in her family, after all—but the same could not be said for every ground-level Rebel.

Instead, they shoot them down, throw grenades at them, vaporize the general area in which they are found with a Death Star superlaser, and, well …

Star Wars

Pretty sure this guy knew where the secret base was too, Darthie-boy. Nice going.

The original Star Wars4 made sense if the Tantive IV practiced good operations security—if it never visited the secret base on Yavin 4, and its personnel were unaware of the base’s location.

But thanks to Rogue One, they’ve been there. This is a problem, because Leia isn’t Vader’s “only link to finding their secret base.”

Star Wars

Look at what we have here! Prisoners! Half a dozen or so of them, plus two astromech droids whose memory banks are probably full of actionable intel.

Unless Imperial intelligence is as much of an oxymoron as precision stormtrooper sharpshooting, the Empire doesn’t need Leia at all.

At. All.

DARTH VADER: You will tell me the location of the secret Rebel base. (does hand-wavy Jedi thing)

REBEL REDSHIRT: I will tell you the location of the secret Rebel base. Ah, it’s Yavin 4. Here, I’ll give you the exact coordinates. It’s longitude—

DARTH VADER: No need. Seriously. No. Need.

What can I say? The new movies strike the right emotional notes, but they don’t do plot logic or continuity very well. It’s one of the few things the prequels did better. (Possibly the only thing.)

Twitter Isn’t Just Awful, It’s Unnecessary

So I’m taking a day off from Twitter, in solidarity with #womenboycottTwitter. It was an easy decision to make, because Twitter is objectively awful on several levels. It’s a performative rage-machine with a distressingly bad signal-to-noise ratio that enables racists, fascists, harassers and other sociopaths and punishes the targets of same. In a sane world we wouldn’t put up with it, but we do—and Twitter’s management is counting on that—because we think Twitter is somehow necessary, in terms of getting our message out, in terms of sending traffic to our websites …

Yeah, about that. It turns out that Twitter is terrible at sending traffic to websites. Despite all the noise and the rage, we tend not to click on the links attached to tweets.

To see what I mean, here are some traffic stats from The Map Room, my map blog. New posts on The Map Room are automatically posted to Facebook, Google+, Twitter and Tumblr (and someone’s even imported the RSS feed into LiveJournal), but there are share links at the bottom of each post as well. So where does most of The Map Room’s traffic come from?

Continue reading “Twitter Isn’t Just Awful, It’s Unnecessary”