Jonathan Crowe

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

Author: Jonathan Crowe Page 1 of 17

Pretzel, 20 Years On

Today is an anniversary of sorts. May 30, 1999 was the date I got back into snake keeping, when I brought home, from a pet store, a young female corn snake I named Pretzel. She wasn’t a particularly large snake, though she wasn’t a newborn, and she wasn’t particularly flashy: just a plain, ordinary corn snake with no fancy colour or pattern mutations.

Twenty years later, Pretzel is still with us, hardly changed from the day I brought her home. The Dorian Gray of colubrid snakes. I was going to say that she’s still going strong, but that’s up in the air at the moment. Right now she’s sequestered in a cage with a nesting box because she seems to be with (absolutely infertile) eggs; last week she had a few seizures that may or may not be related. We’re keeping an eye.

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Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters

My latest piece for Tor.com went live this morning. It’s called “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters” and it deals with the question of in-world fantasy maps: the maps that characters inside a fantasy novel might use. (Hint: They wouldn’t look like the maps found on the endpapers of a fantasy novel.)

Some background on how this article came to be:

The presentation on fantasy maps I gave at Readercon in 2014 had many highlights for me (and apparently for the audience). One of which was the question-and-answer session afterward: because it was Readercon, the questions were, like the attendees, very, very smart.

One question was in response to the point I made that fantasy maps didn’t scale up very well: the 24×30-inch maps of The Lands of Ice and Fire were a bit of a disappointment. I said: “When you blow up a fantasy map to the size of two by three feet [sic], without concomitantly increasing the information density, you end up with too much empty space. There’s a wrongness to it, I think, that is almost uncanny.” The questioner referred to a point George R. R. Martin himself made, that the maps were something that could have existed in-universe: “The idea was to do something representing the lands and seas of which, say, a maester of the Citadel might be aware.”

In response I went on an extended riff on some of the challenges of in-world fantasy maps, and the questions that would have to be addressed—the quality of surveying, the availability of paper, the state of geographical knowledge—before a map could exist. It was a great question (and I told the questioner so the next day), and not just because I could give it a good answer. I realized that I could expand that answer into a pretty good article.

Time, as they say, passed; ideas percolated; procrastination occurred; and then it became one of several fantasy map article ideas I pitched to Tor.com. Le voilà. It only took (checks notes) … er, almost five years.

I hope you like it.

Why Do Birds

Solutions to the bird strike problem I told you about last month proved more complicated than I thought. The simple stickers some of my friends recommended are, it turns out, totally ineffective, as are the silhouettes of birds of prey. What are recommended by websites focused on reducing bird strikes are window markers that create a pattern across the entire window, with ideally no more than five centimetres between the visual elements. Despite the total coverage, the markers apparently don’t impede the view outside, or light transmission, too much.

In the end, we more or less solved the bird strike problem by removing the proximate cause: the bird feeder, which encouraged transient bird flocks, who were not familiar with the surroundings, to stop in for a feed. Now that the feeder is no longer around to attract the finches and other seed eaters, and the migrating birds have moved on to their northern breeding grounds, the birds have done a shift change. The insectivores have taken over—which is handy, because we’ve got a lot of insects for them.

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The Coming of the Loyalists

The Ones Who Walk Away from America

To be honest, I felt a bit weird listening to and enjoying the Hamilton soundtrack. That’s because I’m descended in part from Loyalists from New York. My people were on the opposite side from Alexander Hamilton: the farmers he refuted, and the people he fought against, both rhetorically and literally.

The Woodhull side of my family—my father’s mother’s side—makes a big deal of our Loyalist background, though (as you will see) not every Woodhull was a Loyalist.1 Before my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Woodhull (1741-1810)2 made a run for the border after the American Revolution, they hailed from Suffolk County on Long Island.3

Josiah Woodhull House. Wikimedia Commons.Benjamin’s father, Josiah Woodhull (1695-1761) built what is now known as Josiah Woodhull House around 1720; his father, Richard Woodhull Jr. (1649-1699), founded Brookhaven. There are rather a lot of Woodhulls on both sides of the border (not all of them made a run for it, you see), and they’re a rather clannish bunch who are very much into their family history: my grandmother often told me that if I ever encountered someone who spelled their last name that way, they were a descendant of Richard Woodhull and therefore a relative.4

Victoria Claftin Woodhull. Wikimedia Commons.Those relatives include, on the treasonous side of the family, Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826), a son of Benjamin’s first cousin, who as “Samuel Culper Sr.” acted as a leading member of the Culper Ring, spying on the British during their occupation of New York.5 They also include Victoria Claftin Woodhull (1838-1927), a free love advocate who ran for president of the United States in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket, getting arrested on obscenity charges a few days before the vote. (Her nominal running mate was, get this, Frederick Douglass, though he did not campaign or even acknowledge the nomination.) Aunt Vickie was a distant relative of mine by marriage, having married (and divorced) Canning Woodhull (ca. 1828-1872), a grandson of Benjamin’s son Robert (1765-1848),6 who treacherously went back to the U.S., settling in upstate New York. Canning was apparently “an alcoholic and a womanizer,” and he married Vickie when she was 15 and he was twice her age,7 so we’d rather talk about her than him.

My mother’s side of the family tree was a bit more opaque, a bit less researched—possibly because they’re a bit less full of themselves than the Woodhulls. They’re from New Brunswick, which was carved out of Nova Scotia in 1784 because of the arrival there of thousands of Loyalist refugees. A Loyalist connection seemed likely there as well, but I wanted to make sure of it before I started spouting off online about my Loyalist roots.

So I did something I never expected myself to do: I committed genealogical research.

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The Enthusiast’s Blind Spot

We made the final payment on the car last month, which means it’s been five years since we took it home. So far it’s still going strong, though we’re not exactly taxing it: we’ve put just over 60,000 km on the thing. The current plan is to drive it until the wheels fall off, and at this point it looks like that might take some time.

Back when we were car shopping five years ago, I did a ton of research, because I’m me. I read hundreds of reviews, and watched scores of online video reviews. Even after we bought the thing, I kept it up; and even now I still read and watch too many car reviews, especially when you consider that we have no intention of buying a new car right now.1

Which means I’m really, really familiar with how car reviews operate. For example, they have some ferocious, and consistent, blind spots.

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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).

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