Jonathan Crowe

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

Author: Jonathan Crowe Page 1 of 15

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.

The Writer’s Map and Other Map Book Reviews

Today my review of The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, a collection of essays and maps edited by the historian of exploration Huw Lewis-Jones, went live on Tor.com.

The Writer’s Map does two things: it collects writing about literary maps and it presents those maps pictorially. We’ve had collections of literary and fantasy maps before—for example, J. B. Post’s Atlas of Fantasy, the second edition of which came out in 1979, so we’re past due for another. We’ve had essays about literary maps, published here and there in periodicals, essay collections and online. This book gathers them both in one place, creating what is nothing less than a writer’s love letter to the map.

This is one of several reviews of new map books that I’ve done lately. On The Map Room proper, I’ve reviewed Tom Harper’s Atlas: A World of Maps at the British Library and Susan Schulten’s History of America in 100 Maps. Still to come: reviews of the latest edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World as well as Betsy Mason and Greg Miller’s All Over the Map. [Update: Those reviews have now been written; I’ve updated the links.]

It’s a busy season for reviews: map books tend to come out in the fall, in advance of the Christmas season, because they position themselves as gifts for map geeks. (I do an annual gift guide for that very reason.) Which makes the fall a very busy time for me: so far my accomplishments have been largely to (1) attend sf conventions, (2) rake leaves and (3) write map book reviews.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet

The trailer for the next season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“The Gauntlet”) dropped yesterday, and now we know which movies they’ll be mocking. Some titles seem awfully familiar, and immediately draw attention. And by “attention” I mean “cold sweats, tremors and screaming.”

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The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea

My first post for Tor.com—by the way, that’s now a thing—is now live. “The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea: On Númenórean Navigation” discusses something that’s always bothered me about the Tolkien legendarium. In The Silmarillion, the Men of Númenor are described as “mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished.” But in Tolkien’s world, the world was diminished by making it round: those Númenórean mariners were sailing the seas of a flat earth. Most of our navigational methods wouldn’t work on a flat earth, so how did they navigate? In this article I actually try to answer that question; it turns out the question is answerable. I think.

This is either incredibly pedantic or delightfully geeky. You get to decide which.

Featured image: “Mithlond” by Jordy Lakiere.

Party Like It’s 2004

In 2005, two products I used heavily were sold to new owners: the photo hosting service Flickr was sold to Yahoo, and the Mac RSS reader app NetNewswire was sold to NewsGator. Those decisions turned out to be pivotal, and not necessarily to the good; and this year they’re in the process of being undone.

Flickr didn’t exactly reach its full potential under its new owners, Yahoo not being one of the competently run tech giants, and for many years it languished, falling behind its competitors as its parent company died a slow death. Verizon acquired Yahoo last year, and in April of this year SmugMug bought Flickr from Verizon’s Oath subsidiary. Today SmugMug announced some changes to Flickr. Most controversially, the one terabyte of free storage announced in 2013 is coming to an end, and free users are limited to 1,000 photos. This is not a surprise: SmugMug is a small but profitable private company that has never taken VC funding, and they’re not interested in offering a free service to everyone in order to get their personal data; they want to sell services to customers, not customers to advertisers. Which in 2018 is refreshing. Also, they’re small and privately held: they can’t run at a loss. In some ways this is a retreat: they’re not going to even try to compete with the social media networks. But I suspect it’ll make for a better experience, at least for those who pay $50 a year for it, or have fewer than 1,000 photos. Not everything has to scale.

As for NetNewsWire, its development also languished for a while, as ownership passed from NewsGator to Black Pixel in 2011. At a point where most people were consuming RSS feeds via online readers like Google Reader, a desktop app—especially one you paid for—was almost an anachronism, though NetNewsWire always had healthy numbers in my feed stats. (How much of that was myself, though?) RSS itself, however, withered on the vine, as users started getting their news from social media sites rather than newsreader apps or portal pages (a lot of my RSS traffic came from Yahoo, oddly enough), and especially after Google Reader was shut down in 2013.

Version 4 of NetNewswire eventually came out in 2015. It was a commercial product, and I paid for it. But since then it’s been getting increasingly crufty. It keeps unread articles long past the point they disappeared from their RSS feeds, to the point that I now have something like 175,000 unread articles. As you might expect, even on my quad-core 5K iMac, this has an impact on performance: the app regularly pegs a processor core, and the spinning pinwheel of death is a frequent visitor. Whereas the original NetNewsWire was quick and snappy on a G3 iBook. It’s frustrating.

At the end of August, Black Pixel ended support for NetNewsWire sync and transferred the name and intellectual property to Brent Simmons, the original developer of said quick and snappy first version, who is releasing a new version 5.0 of NetNewsWire as a free and open-source app. You can download an early build today: it is, in Brent’s words, “not even alpha” and “barely useable”; it lacks some of the most basic of features (you can’t even drag a feed from one folder to another). But it’s so fast and responsive, compared to NetNewsWire 4.1, that I’ve already switched to it. It may be barely useable, but it at least it doesn’t freeze my computer.

So at least with these two services we’ve come full circle: small, functional and cruft-free services that predated the VC-fed ramp-up to rapacious data collection, invasive advertising and social-media dysfunction are, in the end, still ticking along, and able to find a home in more modest surroundings. They’re living fossils that come from an Internet that was smaller, less resource-intensive and more private. In many ways I miss that Internet.

Head On

Book cover: Head OnDespite the title, the sport of hilketa—in which robots piloted by humans try to remove each other’s heads—is not the most interesting part of John Scalzi’s Head On (Tor, April 2018).

Like its predecessor, Lock In (Tor, August 2014), Head On is set in a world where millions of people have a condition called Haden’s syndrome, where they are awake and aware but locked into their bodies. Hadens log into robot avatars called “threeps” (because, yes, they resemble C-3PO) to interact with the non-Haden world. But rather than make the disease and the solution the central focus of this series, Scalzi treats them as background, tucking them away in a prequel novella, “Unlocked.” What he does instead is, to me, much more interesting: he focuses on the knock-on effects of the solution to the epidemic.

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Books Read: August-September 2018

  1. The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann. Uses Norman Borlaug and William Vogt as archetypes of two diametrically opposed approaches to solving global problems like hunger, energy and climate change: essentially, innovate versus reduce. Engrossing synthesis and a tour de force of even-handedness.
  2. The Million by Karl Schroeder. Novella set in the same universe as Lockstep. Review forthcoming.
  3. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber. An expansion of his 2013 essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”; explores why a capitalist society ostensibly obsessed with efficiency and productivity would produce jobs that for all intents serve no purpose and should not exist, and the inverse relationship between usefulness and compensation.
  4. The Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Edward Huth. A look at how we navigated before GPS came along. Review forthcoming.
  5. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. A history of espionage activities around New York during the Revolutionary War, focusing on the Culper Ring. Fun fact: Abraham Woodhull is a relative of mine (he was my 4×-great-grandfather’s second cousin) so this is family history, as is the TV series based on it.

Upcoming Convention Appearances

This year the entirety of my science fiction convention activity takes place on two consecutive weekends in October.

First up, Scintillation, which takes place in Montreal from October 5 to 7. It’s the successor to Jo Walton’s Farthing Party. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter campaign that resurrected it, sorry: there’s no room left for last-minute attendees. But if you are going to be there, I’ll have a small role on the program on Saturday the 6th at noon, when Caroline-Isabelle Caron, Gillian Speace, Tom Womack and I will talk about the stories included in The Scintillation Collection, which was sent to Kickstarter backers at the end of last year. (Again, if you weren’t a backer, sorry.)

The following weekend I’ll be at Can-Con, which you can still register for. I’ll be around for the duration of the convention, but my panel appearances will take place on Sunday. First up at 10:00 AM: Book-Clubbing Foreign Works of SF Translated into English, with me, Costi Gurgu, Su J. Sokol and Tamara Vardomskaya. Su’s the moderator, and she’s chosen the following stories for us to discuss:

  • Taklamakan Misdelivery” by Bae Myung-hoon, translated from the Korean by Sung Ryu. Asymptote, April 2018.
  • Catching Dogs with Dogs” by Rob van Essen, translated from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman. 2.3.74, March 2018.
  • Under the Spinodal Curve” by Hanuš Seiner, translated from the Czech by Julie Novakova. Tor.com, March 28, 2018.
  • The Mauve Planet” by Safia Ketou, translated from the French by Nadia Ghanem. ArabLit, August 13, 2018.

Now you can read them too, so you’ll know what we’re talking about.

Next, You Should Have Read This in 2018, our annual look at the notable books that have been published in the past year. I’m the moderator this time, and this time I’m joined by Kate Heartfield, Bradley Horner and Michael Johnstone. This takes place at 1:00 PM, at which point we will all be tired and incoherent, especially those of us who’ve done two conventions back-to-back, so that should make for quite the show.

It would be a pity if you missed that.

Quebec Election 2018: Pontiac Candidates

Every election, I try to take a look at what’s happening in my own constituency. For the 2018 Quebec provincial election now underway, that constituency is Pontiac, which takes up the Pontiac MRC, the Municipality of Pontiac, and most of the Aylmer sector of Gatineau.

While on the provincial level this election promises to be one of the most interesting we’ve had in decades, the outcome in my constituency is almost certainly a foregone conclusion. Pontiac concentrates most of the Outaouais’s anglophone population and as a result is one of the safest Liberal seats off the island of Montréal.

Pontiac constituency results by percentage, 1981-2014

The only time the Liberals got less than 50 percent of the vote in the last 40 years was in 1989, when Mark Alexander of the Unity Party1 took 30.6 percent of the vote. A Liberal candidate losing here would signal a province-wide electoral wipeout.

That being said, here are the candidates I’ve been able to find out about. A new twist this time: candidates for the provincial NDP and the provincial Conservative Party, both newly established (or re-established, if you like).

  • Roger Fleury (Green), an activist;
  • André Fortin (Liberal), the incumbent MNA and minister of transport;
  • Samuel Gendron (NDP), about whom no information as yet;
  • Olive Kamanyana (Coalition Avenir Québec), a federal civil servant with a fairly impressive résumé, and the only candidate likely to provide Fortin with any real competition;
  • Louis Lang (Marxist-Leninist), perennial candidate;2
  • Marie-Claude Nivolon (Parti Québécois), a longtime party activist from Châteauguay who looks to be a poteau or paper candidate;3
  • Kenny Roy (Conservative), a construction worker; and
  • Julia Wilkie (Québec Solidaire), a student.

The election takes place on Monday, October 1.

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