Jonathan Crowe

Map blogger. Science fiction and fantasy critic and writer. Snake whisperer.

Stationery for the Strange

Toronto-based Wask Studios is the novelty store of stationery: weird dice, erasers and paper clips; sticky notes with the adhesive on the corner rather than the edge; rulers with the scale on the short side; rhombus-shaped notebooks; bookmarks made of matches. Office supplies as performance art.

Putting the Fact in Fantasy

Three years ago 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

Not Too Cheap to Upgrade

In December 2020 I won an eBay auction for a 1968 Royal 200. With shipping, the typewriter came to a grand total of $63.87. It was an ultraportable made in Japan by Silver-Seiko and sold under the venerable Royal brand; the 200 appears identical to the better-known Mercury. Our example turned out to be surprisingly good, not just for what it was—a cheap, small typewriter—but full stop: it types better and faster than many ostensibly superior machines, and despite some yellowed plastic1 it remains in terrific shape. But while its platen and sound insulation could stand replacing, I wondered whether it was worth spending money upgrading such a cheap typewriter: the expense would not necessarily be recouped if we decided to sell the thing on. Meanwhile, the typewriter blogger Joe Van Cleave went and did to his Royal Mercury what I was simply musing about: he replaced the platen and installed a sound insulation kit, with good results. He clearly intends to keep using his, and at this point I think I’m likely to do the same with mine. Resale value should be a moot point in this context. In a way it’s too bad that it’s no longer quite as silly to get J. J. Short to recover its platen, now that Joe’s broken this ground. I liked the idea of doing something silly.

Mechanical Watches

Bartosz Ciechanowski writes long, detailed explanatory articles about physics, math and engineering that are full of interactive, animated diagrams. His latest is about mechanical watches, which I found profoundly interesting (not least because the fundamentals of watches—mainsprings, escapements—also apply to manual typewriters, which are basically heavily modified clocks) and engrossing: there is a lot of material here.

The Gulf Stream Myth

If the Gulf Stream were somehow to shut down—something that it is hypothesized would happen due to climate change, as Greenland’s melting glaciers dump a ton of fresh water into the North Atlantic, disrupting the current1—it would not, it turns out, plunge Europe into a new ice age. That, at least, is the contention of Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He argues that European winters are 15 to 20 degrees warmer than North American winters at the same latitudes for two reasons: one, the effect of the Rocky Mountains on air currents, which bring cold air south in North America but warm air north into western Europe; and two, the seasonal release of heat stored by the Atlantic Ocean itself. The Gulf Stream itself is responsible for only a few degrees’ warming; if it were taken away, the cooling effect would not be enough to overwhelm the much larger warming effect from climate change.

Pilot Announces Iroshizuku Cartridges

Pilot just announced that 12 inks from its premium Iroshizuku line will be released in cartridge form next month. (Prior to this, only its basic ink colours could be had as cartridges.) Iroshizuku inks are extraordinarily good (we have nine different colours); this move will make them accessible to people who can’t or won’t use bottled ink. (Pilot’s cartridges are proprietary: they can only be used in Pilot pens. But with just a few exceptions even their most expensive pens can take a cartridge.) At 900¥ (before taxes), a box of six is three times the price of their regular cartridge pack, but not ridiculous compared to premium brands: regular Pilot cartridges are actually pretty cheap as cartridges go. (Also, I’m comparing the Japanese domestic price to the price here: I have no idea whether we’ll be seeing these over here.)

Half a Tree Down

Yesterday we were beset by strong winds that knocked out power for some and knocked down trees for others. In our case it brought down a secondary trunk of one of our beech trees. On its way down the trunk sheared off the top of one of the small maples and crushed the old, disused compost bin that predated our arrival here, narrowly missing the (also disused) shed.

All things considered, it could have been a lot worse.

The remainder of the tree isn’t looking so hot—the pileated woodpeckers have been at it—and will probably have to come down sooner rather than later. And today we spotted a pileated woodpecker checking out the fallen trunk, so I can’t help but think they were behind all this somehow.

Can Garter Snakes Recognize Themselves?

Male eastern garter snake in Shawville, Quebec, April 2018.

A research paper published last September in Behaviour found evidence that common garter snakes were able to distinguish their own scent from that of a littermate fed the same diet. The implication is that garter snakes are able to recognize themselves. Is this the chemosensory equivalent of the mirror test—evidence that even garter snakes have theory of mind? That’s proving controversial: see the National Geographic coverage. In any event, new research continues to suggest that snakes are smarter and more social than we previously thought (previously). Meanwhile, our 23-year-old California kingsnake decided to bite himself while his cage was cleaned yesterday: he, at least, still seems to have trouble recognizing himself (kingsnakes are really stupid).

«Путін хуйло»

Siderea conducts the deepest dive possible into the history, context and significance of a particular phrase that emerged in Ukraine in 2014 and has since spread like wildfire: Путін хуйло1 (Putin khuylo: roughly, “Putin is a dickhead” or “Putin the dickhead,” depending on context, with the understanding that хуйло is a far far far stronger obscenity than dickhead is in English). That she manages to tie in everything from Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Æthelred the Unready when talking about something that began as a chant by Kharkiv soccer hooligans is impressive enough—to say nothing of the implication that Putin’s rage at Ukraine just might have something to do with “Putin Khuylo” becoming an epithet like Ivan the Terrible or Catherine the Great.

Undiscovered Territories

My review of Robert Freeman Wexler’s short story collection, Undiscovered Territories (PS Publishing, 2021), is now online at Strange Horizons. “Wexler’s stories inhabit the same emotional universe. There is a certain similarity to his protagonists and the situations they find themselves in. By and large they are men. More to the point, they are uprooted, unattached, and unhappy men: sensitive, socially and romantically isolated, unhappy in their employment, miserable to varying degrees of desperation, and above all else alone. In many of these stories, it’s into these miasmas of masculine anxieties that the speculative elements intrude, and offer a path out—whether emotionally or literally.” Amazon (UK)

Important Tyrannosaurus Updates

Wikimedia Commons

A new study argues that what we know as Tyrannosaurus rex is actually a cluster of three species. The division is based on physical differences between the 37 fossil specimens found to date, plus there’s some variation in the age of the rocks in which the fossils were found. The researchers, led by paleoartist Gregory Paul, propose Tyrannosaurus imperator as the oldest and more robust species, with Sue as its holotype; the other two species, T. rex and T. regina, were contemporaneous, with T. regina the more gracile of the two (T. rex’s holotype is unchanged, T. regina’s is the Wankel Rex). The proposal is contentious to say the least: the best coverage of the debate I’ve seen comes from National Geographic’s Michael Greshko.

Another well-known specimen, Stan, would also become T. regina. Stan more or less disappeared from public view when he was auctioned for $31.8 million in October 2020. At the time no one knew who the buyer was, but Greshko (again: working full-time at the tyrannosaur desk) managed to work it out from trade records: Stan went to the United Arab Emirates. It’s just been confirmed that he’ll be the star of a new natural history museum now under construction in Abu Dhabi.

Update: Riley Black is tired of talking about T. rex, in a Slate piece that echoes something she wrote for the Grauniad eleven years ago: that there’s more to dinosaurs, and there’s other dinosaurs, than T. rex.

Maps in Science Fiction

My article “Maps in Science Fiction,” which attempts a taxonomy of the maps that appear in science fiction novels, stories and media, has just been published in the February 2022 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. It took a while for this to see print—I started work on it in the summer of 2014—but I’m glad it finally has: science fiction maps don’t get a fraction of the attention fantasy maps do, and I think I might have come up with some useful frameworks in this piece. The complete text of the article will be posted at some point; in the meantime, I’ve posted a bit of a teaser to The Map Room. But if you really can’t wait, you can buy the NYRSF issue here; it costs just US$2.99 in the usual electronic formats.

Update: Read the article here.

Facit Typewriter Resources Page

Because I have an abiding interest in vintage Swedish typewriters, and information on said typewriters is somewhat thin on the ground online—especially in English—I’ve put together a page of links to various manuals, guides, reviews and videos about Facit and Halda typewriters. To be added to as I go.

The Sixth

Today marks the 88th anniversary of le 6 février: on 6 February 1934, far-right paramilitary leagues rioted in Paris in an attempt to overthrow the newly installed French government. Does that sound familiar? John Ganz thought so too. “So, just how similar were Feb 6 1934 and Jan 6 2021? Starting somewhat superficially, it has to be admitted that there is an eerie parallelism: both involve a far-right mob with many military veterans attempting to to storm the legislative branch that was in the process of recognizing a new administration.”

Gorodischer Passes

It is an indictment of how writers in other languages are overlooked that I cannot find a single item in English about the passing of Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer, who died yesterday in her lifelong home city of Rosario at the age of 93. Here’s El País in Spanish. Of the four books of hers translated into English, I’ve read three: Kalpa Imperial, Trafalgar and Prodigies. (A fourth, Jaguars’ Tomb, came out last year.) Kalpa Imperial got the most attention (it was translated by Le Guin) and Prodigies is difficult; as for Trafalgar, a series of mischievous tall space tales from an unreliable narrator, it’s one of my favourites. In 2003, on the occasion of their publishing Kalpa Imperial, Small Beer Press presented 20 Questions with Angélica Gorodischer.

Update: A post from Small Beer Press, On Publishing Angélica Gorodischer, is a behind-the-scenes look at how they came to publish her in translation.

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