Jonathan Crowe

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

Meanwhile: Bird Strikes, Ovulating Snakes, Connection Issues and Spoiler Warnings

We have a bird strike problem. Spring is here, and birds are returning in huge numbers. And on a near-daily basis, they’re colliding with our windows. Usually it’s a glancing blow and they fly off, but sometimes it’s worse. Last Wednesday a dark-eyed junco hit hard enough that I thought it had died: it was prone on the ground for an awfully long time, but when I checked back later it had disappeared. Either it recovered and flew off, or it didn’t and was carried away by another animal. A female purple finch hit rather harder on Thursday, and her fate was rather less ambiguous (pictured above).

A thrush lost its encounter with a window last fall as well.

We’ll have to do something about this: we have a lot of birds around here, and I don’t like being responsible for reducing that number. The house is surrounded by trees, which the windows reflect very well, especially on sunny days, and especially in spring and fall when there aren’t leaves to provide some shade. A friend has suggested ultraviolet window decals as a deterrent, and we’ve received some other suggestions on how to reduce bird strikes. Until we get those set up, at the very least I’ll have to keep the curtains shut on sunny days.


Pretzel has refused to eat three times in a row. She’s our oldest corn snake, and almost certainly our oldest snake overall: I acquired her nearly 20 years ago, in May 1999, and she wasn’t a baby when I got her. When an old snake suddenly goes off her food, that’s usually a sign that the end is near. But not in this case, I think. She’s all soft and expansive in the belly, which tells me that the old girl is actually full of eggs. Pretz was always one to lay lots of eggs, to the point that she was gaunt and hollow afterward; I stopped trying to breed her nearly a decade and a half ago, because her eggs weren’t hatching any more and I didn’t want to put her through that for no reason. She usually laid her eggs in May, so we’ll see soon enough if that’s what this is. I expect she’ll be back on her food after that.


Our Internet connection troubles may finally have been solved. Cable crews were in the area on Thursday and pinpointed our house as an issue for the neighbourhood’s signal quality. We’d previously noticed periodic and persistent bandwidth losses, usually in the evening, that seemed to have no identifiable cause and were resistant to all fixes. The culprit in both cases was the last few feet of coaxial cable, which couldn’t be easily replaced because it was routed underneath the front porch. We found a way to reroute the line into the basement, where I moved all the networking gear. Because the troubles were intermittent, it’s too soon to say whether the fix is actually a fix: the dog has to fail to bark, if you follow my meaning.

One reason why the crews were in the area is that our cable company is in the process of offering significantly faster download speeds in our region. Right now we have 15 megabits, the fastest speed they had on offer. Not bad for a small town. Now they’re offering 30- and 50-megabit downloads in my area, and the crew told us that 100 megabits should be available by next month or so. I always want the fastest speed on offer, but with the troubles we’d been having I wasn’t sure there’d be much point in paying for bandwidth the line couldn’t handle. Now though? Bring on the megabits.


I may be changing my mind on spoiler warnings. Saw Avengers: Endgame on Friday night. I’d planned on seeing it unspoiled, but I made the mistake of visiting the movie’s Wikipedia entry a few days before release: the page had a complete (and accurate) plot synopsis. Wikipedia editors were unrepentant on the Talk page, pointing out that the movie had already been released in some markets. Which strikes me—as someone who’s generally been pro-spoiler—as a dick move.

I’ve deliberately spoiled myself going into movies and I’ve gone in unspoiled, and there are pros and cons to either method. I’ve always felt the spoiler police were being excessive. (Spoilers about sports results, or decades-old movies or books? Get a grip.) I do think that going in unspoiled requires a certain amount of Internet hygiene: avoid fan sites, discussion boards, anything related to the thing being spoiled. I just didn’t think that Wikipedia was one of the sites that needed to be avoided, especially four days before the movie launched in North America.

About Gene Wolfe

The author Gene Wolfe died on April 14 at the age of 87. He was one of science fiction and fantasy’s most brilliant, important, profound—and elusive—writers. Ever since The Fifth Head of Cerberus rewired my brain has he been one of my favourites. Here are some links to give you some sense of the man and his work.

Tor.com broke the news for many of us: Tor had been Gene’s publisher since the mid-1980s. The New York Times obituary is functional but serves its purpose. Better retrospectives come from Jeet Heer, writing for The New Republic, who calls Wolfe’s magnum opus The Book of the New Sun “an almost indescribable combination of speculative Christian eschatology with a Conan the Barbarian adventure story, written in a prose that can fairly be described as Proustian”; and from Brian Phillips in The Ringer, with an amazing recounting of Wolfe’s life.

For fantasy writer C. S. E. Cooney, an acquaintance of mine, the loss was more personal: “We were very good friends. He was one of my finest teachers. He was momentous.”

Some earlier articles and interviews worth rereading. In 2015, Peter Bebergal profiled Wolfe in The New Yorker: “Truth of any kind, no matter how closely you read, is hard to come by in Wolfe’s books. And yet, over time, it does seem to emerge.” From 2014, MIT Technology Review’s interview with Gene Wolfe. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote the introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe; a revised version appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction in 2013 (in the same issue that had an article of mine). Finally, Larry McCaffery’s interview with Gene Wolfe, published in Science Fiction Studies in 1988.

Books Read: 1Q 2019

  1. The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi. Science fiction novel, second in the Interdependency series. The usual fun, but definitely a middle book.
  2. The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein. Science fiction novel whose protagonists think they’re in a fantasy novel; third book in the Steerswoman series. Kirstein’s worldbuilding levels up here.
  3. The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein. Fourth book in the Steerswoman series. The curtain is starting to be pulled back here. Desperately awaiting the next volume.
  4. The Starlit Wood edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe. Fantasy anthology reimagining fairy tales. I’ve been reading this off and on for more than a year. Not a weak story in the book; some are just superb.
  5. The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack. Short book on islands that proved imaginary.
  6. The Phantom Atlas by Edward Brooke-Hitching. Longer, more substantive book on the same subject—geographical features later found to be false—but covers more than just islands.
  7. They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded by James Alan Gardner. YA superhero novel, sequel to the highly entertaining All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (reviewed here); switches the POV to another character.
  8. An Agent of Utopia by Andy Duncan. Short story collection by one of my favourite authors. His first two collections—both of which I own—were limited editions from small presses and aren’t easy to find (all but three of the stories in Agent can be found in those collections); this book makes his delightful and idiosyncratic stories more widely available.
  9. Infinity’s End edited by Jonathan Strahan. Science fiction anthology; final volume in the Infinity series; I’ve read every volume (and reviewed three of them: here, here and here).
  10. The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. Fantasy novel, sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant. A saga of imperialism and colonialism, infiltration and revenge, and weaponized financial instruments. Most epic fantasy isn’t this politically or economically sophisticated.
  11. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. First book in the Lady Astronaut series: former WASP and computer dreams of space in an alternate history where an asteroid strike threatens survival on Earth and kickstarts a desperate space program; Hidden Figures meets Promised the Moon.
  12. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn. Reviewed here.
  13. Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. France is its own thing and does things by its own rules and logic, and has been doing so for a very long time. This is something Anglo-American observers of the country find hard to understand, and treat France as a kind of broken Britain or America.

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

I came late to Robert A. Heinlein, as I did with Ursula K. Le Guin: I didn’t grow up reading his juveniles; I didn’t look to him for inspiration or revere him as a guru. I’d read a few of his books, but my impression didn’t match the extreme esteem with which he was held in the field.

Later, beginning in my late thirties, I made a point of reading his juveniles, as well as classics like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and found myself appreciating them on a technical level: I saw why they worked for so many people, and why people thought he was good.

But there’s a great deal of space between he’s good and he’s god.

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Florida Man, Open Government and Rob Ford

There’s a reason for the Florida Man meme, and—surprise!—it isn’t because Florida is particularly weird or strange. As the Miami New Times explained in 2015, it’s because open government laws make all records—including the colourful arrest records that are the heart and soul of Florida Man encounters—publicly available.

The Star’s Ed Keenan is jealous: in Canada, this sort of thing is very hard for reporters to extract from government officials. Even if you know the document exists, you aren’t granted access, or if you are it’s heavily redacted. Ironically, one way for Canadian reporters to get the goods is to go to Florida.

When Rob Ford was running for mayor, the mug shot from his long-past Florida DUI arrest appeared in Toronto news outlets, alongside details of how he was alleged to have thrown all the money in his pockets at the feet of an officer and said, “Go ahead, take me to jail.” Toronto reporters just had to call the Miami-Dade police and ask, and all those details and photos were furnished immediately.

The Star’s Jim Rankin remembers an older story about when Norm Gardner, who was then chair of the Toronto police services board, shot a man who was trying to rob his bakery. “We learned he had a permit to carry a concealed handgun,” Rankin recalled. “He also had a permit for the same in Florida. I called Florida up and asked for Norm’s permit and training certificate. A kind clerk promptly faxed me a copy. Imagine that happening in Canada.”

Compare with the Rob Ford crack video: it was released 39 months after its existence was first reported on, and five months after Ford died (see timeline).

What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?

New from me on Tor.com this morning: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?” This is the first of several planned pieces that will take a deep dive into the look and feel of fantasy maps: their design and aesthetic, their origins and inspirations, and where they may be going in the future. In this piece, I start by trying to describe a baseline fantasy map style—which, though it’s well recognized and often imitated, has not often been spelled out.

Garter Snakes: Banned in British Columbia

One odd quirk of Canadian reptile law that I’ve known about for a while is that garter snakes can’t be kept as pets anywhere in British Columbia. Not just the three species found in that province—any garter snake. This question just came up on the Facebook Garter Snakes group, which I manage. I did some digging and found the exact laws and regulations that prohibit this. I’m sharing what I turned up here for future reference.

British Columbia’s Wildlife Act regulates wildlife, and wildlife is a term that has a specific definition under the Act: something has to be defined as wildlife (as opposed to controlled alien species, another defined term in the Act) in order for the Act’s provisions on wildlife to apply to it. The Act defines wildlife as “raptors, threatened species, endangered species, game and other species of vertebrates prescribed by regulation.” For that prescribed by regulation part, see schedule A of B.C.’s Designated Exemption Regulation,1 which defines a number of species, not all of which live in B.C., as wildlife. This includes, among other things, all species of garter snake. (Garter snakes aren’t being singled out: the list also includes all true frogs, treefrogs, toads, mole salamanders, lungless salamanders, pond turtles, snapping turtles and softshell turtles. More on that in a moment.)

Back to the Wildlife Act, where section 33 prohibits the private possession of wildlife without a permit or regulatory exemption. A permit can be issued under paragraph 2(j) of the Permit Regulation2 but I have no information on how that works in practice. The only regulatory exemption I’ve found for keeping wildlife in captivity is for Red-eared Sliders, the keeping of which is exempt from section 33.3 Wildlife can’t be imported, exported or trafficked in without a permit either.4 Penalties can include a fine of up to $100,000 or a year in prison for the first offence, but in practice it will never be anywhere near that high for someone keeping a pet garter snake.

Fine and good, but why are they being so heavy-handed, you ask? Garter snakes are plentiful and harmless, after all. But given what other species are being defined as wildlife (and therefore prohibited), my guess is that they’re trying to prevent people from bringing in non-native species that stand a chance of surviving in British Columbia. (Which is also more or less what Alberta law sets out to do.) They don’t want people snatching local garter snakes from the wild, but they also don’t want escaped Eastern Garter Snakes establishing themselves out there either.

People are getting confused because B.C. is trying to do both things at the same time: they expect laws about native wildlife and exotic wildlife to be separate. But other provinces do it this way as well.

Featured image: Photo of a Valley Garter Snake in Port Coquitlam, B.C. by Harold Wright. Creative Commons licence.

Steve Irwin Schadenfreude

On Friday Google posted a Doodle in honour of what would have been Steve Irwin’s 57th birthday. PETA, the Westboro Baptist Church of animal rights, decided to use this opportunity to take a swipe at Irwin (who died in 2006) on Twitter. The usual backlash and fulminations ensued.

Irwin’s legacy is complicated. He did a lot of real conservation work behind the scenes, but his brash, loud animal wrangling made conservationists uncomfortable: he operated at an uneasy intersection of conservation, education and showmanship, and lots of people felt he emphasized the last one too much.

Immediately after he died in September 2006, those people took shots at him and his work, suggesting that getting killed was a kind of karmic revenge. In response, I wrote a blog post that I’m reprinting below. Unless you were following me 12½ years ago, you probably haven’t seen it. Given the recent flareup, I think it might be worth another airing.


The worldwide reaction to Steve Irwin’s death has been swift, strong and usually sympathetic, but it’s inevitable that some people are insufficiently socialized that they cannot help but take a shot at the recently departed and the circumstances of his death.

Jason Calacanis says that the Discovery Channel killed him because of its focus on televising risky encounters with wildlife; Germaine Greer says that the stingray attack was the animal world extracting its revenge. The sentiment behind these posts occurs elsewhere, and can be distilled into one of two arguments: Steve Irwin was an irresponsible thrill seeker; Steve Irwin was a cruel tormentor of animals. Either way, it’s poetic justice—in other words, he got what was coming to him—and the commentariat, whether in the op-ed pages or on the blogosphere, thrives on poetic justice the way it revels in Schadenfreude.

My response to those espousing these arguments is simple: You have no idea what you’re talking about.

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Books Read: 4Q 2018

  1. Soundings by Hali Felt. Biography of ocean cartographer Marie Tharp. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  2. Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys. Lovecraftian novel; a Cold War-era sequel to The Shadow over Innsmouth that has lots to say about who the monsters are.
  3. Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library by Tom Harper. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  4. A History of America in 100 Maps by Susan Schulten. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  5. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander. Magnificent long novelette banging together the electrocution of Topsy the elephant, the radium girls, and the long-term storage of radioactive waste.
  6. The Steerswoman’s Road by Rosemary Kirstein. Omnibus of The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret. I understand why people have proselytized this series. Sympathetic fearless female protagonists travel the world seeking and sharing knowledge; they think they’re in a fantasy world, but they aren’t. Strong recommend.
  7. Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield. (Disclosure: she’s a friend.) Engaging time-travel novella in which a female highway robber is swept up by a time war.
  8. The Writer’s Map edited by Huw Lewis-Jones. Reviewed at Tor.com.
  9. The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken. (Disclosure: he’s a friend.) Ambitious hard sf novel that is simultanouesly a heist and a meditation on humanity and autonomy. Also features an interstellar empire run by Québécois Venusians.
  10. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. Campbell and (to a lesser extent) Hubbard are the primary foci, and come off less well than Heinlein or Asimov: Hubbard comes across as a mythomaniacal liar, Campbell a mansplaining, bigoted opportunist. Delicious and readable book, disappointing literary icons.
  11. All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey by Betsy Mason and Greg Miller. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  12. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire. Novella; third in the Wayward Children series. Less impactful than the first two; still good.

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. A new species of salamander, the Reticulated Siren (Siren reticulata), has been described: CNN, Earther, National Geographic. Found in the Florida Panhandle and Alabama, the three-foot aquatic salamander had a near-mythic status (it was known as the leopard eel) before a specimen was caught and identified. [PLOS ONE]
  2. A new genus and species of snake was found in the stomach of a Central American Coral Snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus). The coral snake was collected in 1976; a ten-inch snake was found in its stomach that did not match any known species, so into the museum collection it went. As it often does, it took until this year for said snake, now named Cenapsis aenigma (“mysterious dinner snake”), to be formally described. [Journal of Herpetology]
  3. But maybe those discoveries aren’t such good news for the species being discovered. An excerpt from Rachel Love Nuwer’s Poached, published this week at Wired, looks at the plight of the Earless Monitor (Lanthanotus borneensis). When a population of this secretive lizard was found in 2008, the article reporting the find was careful to omit exact the exact coordinates. That didn’t stop reptile collectors: as with many other newly discovered species and populations, the monitor soon turned up in collections and on online ads.
  4. The Wildlife Justice Foundation has issued a report on Operation Dragon, its two-year investigation into turtle and tortoise smuggling in southeast Asia, and the widespread corruption that enables it. National Geographic has coverage.
  5. Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii), died in 2012, but his genome still has much to teach us: a comparative analysis of his genome with Aldabra Giant Tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) explores the genetic factors in tortoises’ longevity, gigantism and immune response. [Nature Ecology & Evolution]
  6. Last August, a Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) was spotted off the British Columbia coast: a rare thing, apparently.
  7. A taxonomic update regarding small burrowing snakes found in Mexico and the southwestern United States: a study earlier this year placed sand snakes (Chilomeniscus) and shovelnose snakes (Chionactis) under the same genus as ground snakes (Sonora). CNAH’s list has already been updated.
  8. The Center for Biological Diversity is suing the U.S. government for failing to protect the Northern Mexican Garter Snake (Thamnophis eques megalops) and the Narrow-headed Garter Snake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus). In 2005 the Center sued to force the government to grant endangered species status to the Mexican garter; both species were granted threatened status in 2014.

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