Local snake identification groups on Facebook have been reducing the number of snakes being killed out of fear, Emily Willingham reports for Scientific American. The work of snake ID groups, such as Facebook’s Snake Identification group or Reddit’s r/whatsthissnake subreddit, has been covered before (see Sierra in 2017), and now that I no longer respond to snake ID requests myself, I point people to these very groups. The interesting twist here is that these are local groups, focusing on a specific region (e.g. north Texas). Not only is local expertise more relevant and reliable (r/whatsthissnake gets ID requests from every continent), but a local group might also help someone get on-site assistance (not every snake problem can be solved remotely).
If you had to guess, at what point on the timeline do you think a book about prehistoric mammals would begin its tale? Most of us, I suspect, would imagine that book to start at the end of the Cretaceous, when the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs and ushered in the so-called Age of Mammals. But surprise! Steve Brusatte’s latest book, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, doesn’t do that. In fact, the asteroid strike shows up halfway through the book. In other words: the entire first half of a book about prehistoric mammals covers the period before the Age of Mammals. The first half is the rise, the second the reign: get it?
That’s because The Rise and Reign of the Mammals isn’t about the Age of Mammals, i.e. the Cenozoic; it’s about the mammals. And their origin predates the dinosaurs by a lot. And like Brusatte’s previous book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (reviewed here), the focus is on evolution. What makes a mammal? (It’s not about the semi-eponymous mammary glands, which don’t fossilize in any event; it’s mostly about the jaw.) When did mammal characteristics evolve? What kinds of mammals evolved, and where, and what happened to them?
And again like the previous book, that evolution is presented in context: with the state of the climate in particular, and what mammals were competing against. It’s a paleontological shibboleth that the presence of dinosaurs suppressed mammalian evolution, in that mammals were kept small; Brusatte argues that mammals kept dinosaurs big—at least the non-avian kind. It’s that context—time, climate, habitat, other species—that made The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs stand out, and the same is true here: if you liked the last one, you’ll like this one too.
Add to that the fact that, at least as far as popular culture is concerned, mammal evolution is somewhat overlooked of late. This book remedies that, and in spades.
Three years ago Tor.com published an essay of mine in which I argued that the classic fantasy map style was not something that would be used by characters in a fantasy world. Provocatively titled “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters,” it proved to be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written. The main complaint was that it was wrong for me to think that fantasy should follow the rules of the real world; fantasy was fantasy, and as such it was okay if its maps didn’t follow the rules.1 In fairness, my critics were the wrong audience for what I was trying to say.
They would also be the wrong audience for the book under consideration here: Putting the Fact into Fantasy, a collection of 50 short essays by various writers, edited by Dan Koboldt and published earlier this month by Writer’s Digest Books. The publisher is a hint as to the audience: these pieces are aimed at writers of fantasy and science fiction who want to up their game in terms of adding a touch of realism to their work. Because fantasy is built from recognizable real-world raw materials—horses and castles, archers and peasants, trade routes and languages, weapons and wounds—getting the real-world details right can in fact matter. They can save you from resorting to clichés, and knowledgeable readers from being thrown out of the story by what to them is an obvious error.2