Jonathan Crowe

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

Month: August 2016

Ghost Talkers

ghost-talkersFirst, a caveat. I’m a (lapsed) historian; for me, reading historical fantasies and alternate histories unavoidably sets of alarm bells in the positivist/materialist corners of my brain. That’s largely my problem, not the genre’s. Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, Ghost Talkers (Tor, August 2016), her first since wrapping up her five-volume Glamourist Histories, is, like that earlier series, a historical fantasy, and an engaging and readable one at that. But the fact that it’s a historical fantasy set during the Great War, which was one of my areas of focus during my studies, means that I brought more than the usual baggage to this book when I read it. My take on it is more complicated than the typical reader’s would be.

Ghost Talkers is powered by a clever premise. Spiritualism, the craze that swept the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is real and has been put to use by the British Army on the front lines of the Great War. Their soldiers are conditioned so that when they die, their ghosts report in to teams of mediums, providing valuable intelligence from the front lines. (One imagines suicide missions for intelligence reasons becoming increasingly acceptable.) Ghost Talkers’ protagonist is Ginger Stuyvesant, an American medium working for the British Army’s Spirit Corps, a secret wing of the army’s intelligence services. Her work, and those of the other mediums, is overwhelming: the toll of the dead is relentless, and Ginger, like other mediums, runs the risk of having her soul separated from her body.

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Electoral Reform and By-Elections

In a piece discussing four upcoming by-electionsiPolitics’s Susan Delacourt mentioned in passing that “unless electoral reform happens really quickly, those seats will be filled the old-fashioned way — no preferential ballots, winner take all.”

Which made me wonder: how exactly would electoral reform deal with vacancies in Parliament? By-elections, after all, only work if MPs are elected from individual constituencies; you can’t run a campaign across an entire province or country just to fill one or two seats out of more than three hundred.

I could speculate, but instead I had a look at the website of Fair Vote Canada, a group advocating for proportional representation in Canada, to see what their solution would be. In their submission to the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform, FVC proposed three options, one of which was mixed-member proportional representation, in which regional seats, elected from party lists, are added to MPs directly elected by their constitutencies. In that option, regional seat vacancies would be filled from party lists.

In case of a resignation or death of a regional MP during a term, the party’s runner-up moves up into the seat. No working MMP model has by-elections for regional MPs. As the Jenkins Commission pointed out, if a region-wide contest were to take place “it would almost by definition result in the victory of the predominant party in the area, thus negating the essential purpose of the Top-up seats.”

I have to say, this isn’t something that makes me more likely to support proportional representation.

The Seven Species of Milk Snake

At one point the Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) comprised two dozen subspecies ranging from Quebec to Ecuador, from drab, saddled snakes to brilliant tricolours, and from bootlace-sized minatures to six-foot behemoths. The difference between a local Eastern Milk Snake and a tangerine-morph Honduran Milk Snake from the pet store is pretty extreme. It had been suggested, I can’t remember where, that the Milk Snake was an example of a ring species, where neighbouring populations interbreed but the end points (i.e., Quebec and Ecuador) are too distantly related.

But the simpler answer is that these snakes are not all one species, and a recent study—an early draft of which I tweeted about in December 2013—suggests that they are, in fact, seven species. The authors divide them as follows:

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