I live in the federal electoral district of Pontiac, which includes the rural counties and reserves of the Outaouais north and west of Gatineau, plus some suburban neighbourhoods in Gatineau. It’s about one-third anglophone, with a large concentration of rural anglophones, especially here in the namesake Pontiac MRC (an MRC is basically a county) that have much in common culturally with people on the Ontario side of the Ottawa Valley. The presence of those voters, who tend to vote Conservative, has made for some interesting electoral dynamics in the past.
When Amazon announced, in late 2017, that it would be producing a multi-season television series prequel to The Lord of the Rings, there was a lot of speculation as to what ground a prequel series would cover. Some speculated that it would focus on Aragorn in his youth, engaged in knight-errantry in the service of Rohan and Gondor. I held out hopes for stories set earlier in the Third Age: the rise of the Witch-king, the fall of Arnor, the Kinslaying, and various other disasters and tragedies would make fertile material for a TV series, I thought.
Earlier this year, Amazon revealed its true intentions with a map—a map of Middle-earth that was subtly different from the map found in The Lord of the Rings. Gondor and Mordor were not labelled. And the lost island of Númenor, which fell into the sea thousands of years before Bilbo and Frodo, was present at the southwest edge of the map.
“Welcome to the Second Age,” Amazon tweeted. Hold on—was Amazon planning on covering the forging of the Rings of Power and the Downfall of Númenor?
[Read the whole post before you come after me, okay?]
On Thursday morning the entire province of Ontario was woken up, first at 3:04 AM, then again at 3:36 AM, by an Amber Alert issued by the Brantford police. It was the sixth Amber Alert issued by Ontario police since the emergency alert system was extended to mobile phones. Though we live in Quebec, for some reason we get all the Ontario Amber Alerts, so we got it too. The usual flurry of complaints ensued: despite the backlash against people clueless enough to call 911 to complain about being woken up by an Amber Alert, the complaints seem to be getting worse.
I think I know why people are complaining about being woken up by Amber Alerts. It’s not because they’re being selfish bastards who don’t care about children. (Or it’s not just because.) It’s because the way Amber Alerts have been integrated into the emergency alert system in Canada, and in Ontario in particular, is broken by design. And unless it’s fixed, more lives will be put at risk than are saved.
Let me explain.
We marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 last week, which means that the next step is to put all our moon-landing related nostalgia away until the next milestone anniversary, or until another of the remaining Apollo astronauts dies.1
If, on the other hand, all this attention has piqued your interest in the moon landings, the Apollo program, and the history of crewed spaceflight generally speaking, I have some suggestions as to what you should watch and read next. There are, of course, plenty of books and documentaries on this subject, but these will give you a general overview, with increasing levels of detail.
AE, the Canadian online science fiction magazine, is finally, finally back, with a new issue—its first in nearly three years—launching today. Five new stories and three new nonfiction pieces are available to read.
One of those pieces is by me: “An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files” evaluates whether the narrative structure Neuvel adopts in those books is a success or not. It focuses on the first two books in the trilogy—Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods—because at the time I wrote this piece the third volume, Only Human, hadn’t been published yet. Note that Only Human came out in May 2018: this piece has waited a long time to come out.
That’s because, for various reasons, getting AE back online has taken far longer than anyone involved in the project expected it to take. In September 2016 its database was hacked and the whole site was taken down. Recovering from that hack, and getting the previous six years’ content ported onto another platform, took until August 2018. Getting enough of the remaining ducks in a row to get things up and running again—that took until, well, now.
More than a dozen people worked on getting this magazine back up and running, in what little spare time they could find. I think it would have been easier, and quicker, to start from scratch. Refusing to give up on continuity took some tenacity.
Here’s hoping for smooth sailing from here on.
- Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal by Abigail Carroll. Cultural history of food in America: what constitutes a meal and when and how it should be eaten; tracks the rise of the formal evening meal, commercial packaging, and snacking.
- Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre. Hugo- and Nebula-winning classic about a snake-handling healer in a post-apocalyptic world: how did I not read this sooner?
- The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal. Sequel to The Calculating Stars. Civil unrest breaks out during the first mission to Mars. I honestly think it’s better than the first book, which just won a Nebula.
- The Man Underneath by R. A. Lafferty. Third volume of Centipede Press’s Collected Short Fiction series. David Hartwell once told me that a Lafferty story was more powerful as one story in a magazine than it was as one story in a collection of other Lafferty stories, where his tricks and devices start to get repetitive. This volume proves his point, I’m afraid.
- Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris. Travel book in which the author and a friend bike across central Asia, from Istanbul through the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China, Nepal and India, and inadvertently prove that white woman privilege can be cashed in anywhere in the world.
- The Faithful Executioner by Joel F. Harrington. Microhistory teasing out meaning from, and providing context to, the memoirs of a 16th-century Nuremberg executioner.
- The Iron Dragon’s Mother by Michael Swanwick. Proficient fantasy novel from one of my favourite authors. Third in a loose trilogy set in an industrial Faerie, with a different focus and scope than the first two (The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel). The two viewpoint characters don’t feel balanced to me—Helen is too absent—but it’s a fluid and delightful read.
Today is an anniversary of sorts. May 30, 1999 was the date I got back into snake keeping, when I brought home, from a pet store, a young female corn snake I named Pretzel. She wasn’t a particularly large snake, though she wasn’t a newborn, and she wasn’t particularly flashy: just a plain, ordinary corn snake with no fancy colour or pattern mutations.
Twenty years later, Pretzel is still with us, hardly changed from the day I brought her home. The Dorian Gray of colubrid snakes. I was going to say that she’s still going strong, but that’s up in the air at the moment. Right now she’s sequestered in a cage with a nesting box because she seems to be with (absolutely infertile) eggs; last week she had a few seizures that may or may not be related. We’re keeping an eye.
My latest piece for Tor.com went live this morning. It’s called “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters” and it deals with the question of in-world fantasy maps: the maps that characters inside a fantasy novel might use. (Hint: They wouldn’t look like the maps found on the endpapers of a fantasy novel.)
Some background on how this article came to be:
The presentation on fantasy maps I gave at Readercon in 2014 had many highlights for me (and apparently for the audience). One of which was the question-and-answer session afterward: because it was Readercon, the questions were, like the attendees, very, very smart.
One question was in response to the point I made that fantasy maps didn’t scale up very well: the 24×30-inch maps of The Lands of Ice and Fire were a bit of a disappointment. I said: “When you blow up a fantasy map to the size of two by three feet [sic], without concomitantly increasing the information density, you end up with too much empty space. There’s a wrongness to it, I think, that is almost uncanny.” The questioner referred to a point George R. R. Martin himself made, that the maps were something that could have existed in-universe: “The idea was to do something representing the lands and seas of which, say, a maester of the Citadel might be aware.”
In response I went on an extended riff on some of the challenges of in-world fantasy maps, and the questions that would have to be addressed—the quality of surveying, the availability of paper, the state of geographical knowledge—before a map could exist. It was a great question (and I told the questioner so the next day), and not just because I could give it a good answer. I realized that I could expand that answer into a pretty good article.
Time, as they say, passed; ideas percolated; procrastination occurred; and then it became one of several fantasy map article ideas I pitched to Tor.com. Le voilà. It only took (checks notes) … er, almost five years.
I hope you like it.
Solutions to the bird strike problem I told you about last month proved more complicated than I thought. The simple stickers some of my friends recommended are, it turns out, totally ineffective, as are the silhouettes of birds of prey. What are recommended by websites focused on reducing bird strikes are window markers that create a pattern across the entire window, with ideally no more than five centimetres between the visual elements. Despite the total coverage, the markers apparently don’t impede the view outside, or light transmission, too much.
In the end, we more or less solved the bird strike problem by removing the proximate cause: the bird feeder, which encouraged transient bird flocks, who were not familiar with the surroundings, to stop in for a feed. Now that the feeder is no longer around to attract the finches and other seed eaters, and the migrating birds have moved on to their northern breeding grounds, the birds have done a shift change. The insectivores have taken over—which is handy, because we’ve got a lot of insects for them.
To be honest, I felt a bit weird listening to and enjoying the Hamilton soundtrack. That’s because I’m descended in part from Loyalists from New York. My people were on the opposite side from Alexander Hamilton: the farmers he refuted, and the people he fought against, both rhetorically and literally.
The Woodhull side of my family—my father’s mother’s side—makes a big deal of our Loyalist background, though (as you will see) not every Woodhull was a Loyalist.1 Before my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Woodhull (1741-1810)2 made a run for the border after the American Revolution, they hailed from Suffolk County on Long Island.3
Benjamin’s father, Josiah Woodhull (1695-1761) built what is now known as Josiah Woodhull House around 1720; his father, Richard Woodhull Jr. (1649-1699), founded Brookhaven. There are rather a lot of Woodhulls on both sides of the border (not all of them made a run for it, you see), and they’re a rather clannish bunch who are very much into their family history: my grandmother often told me that if I ever encountered someone who spelled their last name that way, they were a descendant of Richard Woodhull and therefore a relative.4
Those relatives include, on the treasonous side of the family, Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826), a son of Benjamin’s first cousin, who as “Samuel Culper Sr.” acted as a leading member of the Culper Ring, spying on the British during their occupation of New York.5 They also include Victoria Claftin Woodhull (1838-1927), a free love advocate who ran for president of the United States in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket, getting arrested on obscenity charges a few days before the vote. (Her nominal running mate was, get this, Frederick Douglass, though he did not campaign or even acknowledge the nomination.) Aunt Vickie was a distant relative of mine by marriage, having married (and divorced) Canning Woodhull (ca. 1828-1872), a grandson of Benjamin’s son Robert (1765-1848),6 who treacherously went back to the U.S., settling in upstate New York. Canning was apparently “an alcoholic and a womanizer,” and he married Vickie when she was 15 and he was twice her age,7 so we’d rather talk about her than him.
My mother’s side of the family tree was a bit more opaque, a bit less researched—possibly because they’re a bit less full of themselves than the Woodhulls. They’re from New Brunswick, which was carved out of Nova Scotia in 1784 because of the arrival there of thousands of Loyalist refugees. A Loyalist connection seemed likely there as well, but I wanted to make sure of it before I started spouting off online about my Loyalist roots.
So I did something I never expected myself to do: I committed genealogical research.