Jonathan Crowe

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

Author: Jonathan Crowe (Page 1 of 15)

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.

Spring Peeper

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. With fewer than 100 individuals believed to exist in the wild, the Lake Pátzcuaro Salamander (Ambystoma dumerilii) or achoque, found only in and around Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Mexico, is critically endangered. They’re getting help from an unusual corner: Dominican nuns at a nearby convent, who for the past 150 years have been raising the salamanders in captivity. (They use them to make a “mysterious” medicine: a cough syrup called jarabe.) See this long and fascinating read in the New York Times, which is accompanied by first-rate photography.
  2. A biologist is warning that Okanagan populations of the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) are 100 years from extinction. The snake is at the northern limits of its range, and it’s down to between 1,500 and 2,500 individuals. It’s listed as a threatened species. There are populations in more trouble, and sooner (see above), but this is worth keeping an eye on.
  3. Male rattlesnakes engage in ritual combat during mating season. Here’s video of a pair of male Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) getting fighty with each other. Here’s another video from California, species unidentified.
  4. A beautiful essay by Laura Marjorie Miller on the controversial plan to reintroduce the Timber Rattlesnake to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, which I’ve mentioned in previous roundups.
  5. Where do snake-handling cults get their snakes? As The State discovered, South Carolina. Thanks to the lack of restrictions on the sale of venomous snakes, snake-handling preachers from other states regularly buy their snakes at reptile shows.
  6. CityLab takes a look at Isha Serpent, a volunteer snake rescue group in Madhurai, India; the snakes being rescued include spectacled cobras, kraits, and Russell’s and saw-scaled vipers. The group’s been active since 2009 and has relocated more than 2,000 snakes—with, they claim, no envenomations.
  7. A new study suggests that cats have a significant impact on reptile populations: in a field experiment, cats were removed from six 64-hectare plots; over a two-year period, reptile populations rebounded significantly in those areas. [Biological Conservation]
  8. A fossil snake embryo or neonate from the late Cretaceous has been found preserved in amber in Myanmar. [Science Advances]
  9. One of the most common questions people like me get from strangers: how do I snake-proof my yard? Here’s a comprehensive answer: I think I’ll point people to it from now on.
  10. Last month the Herpetologists’ League gave Richard Vogt the Distinguished Herpetologist award. Vogt, who made the significant discovery that incubation temperature can determine a turtle’s sex, proceeded to pepper his plenary lecture with photos, some of which were “censored” with coloured boxes, of his scantily clad students. (Research on aquatic reptiles often involves swimwear, but Vogt was apparently, and regularly, gratuitous.) Stories soon followed about Vogt, who appears to be someone female herpetologists have to warn one another about. News coverage in the #metoo era—local from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, national from the New York Times—was inevitable. Vogt’s award was rescinded, the League’s president has resigned, there was much huffing and puffing from one former league president on Vogt’s behalf (and presumably others), and the League’s new president is taking a tough line on harassment and misconduct. A code of conduct is in the works.

Question I’ve answered on Quora recently:

Featured image: Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) found on our property on August 10, 2018.

Mastodon Is the Dreamwidth of Twitter

Here we go again. Twitter is once again being awful and clueless—to the point of paralysis—about it now being the last safe harbour for online harassers, trolls, Nazis and other bad actors, and a good chunk of its user base is sufficiently fed up about it to threaten a mass walkout.

But walking away from Twitter is difficult, because social media is pervasive and addictive for a reason: it solves a problem. Human beings crave connection, and social media makes connections practically frictionless. Problem is, it’s pretty damn hard for users to connect when they’re subjected to torrents of abuse and harassment by bad actors, especially when Twitter not only refuses to deal with said bad actors, but seems to think that the existence of abuse and harassment is a feature rather than a bug.

Okay, so what about switching to another social media platform, one that doesn’t seem quite so keen on deep-throating Nazis? Apart from the questionable logic that the solution to social media problems is even more social media, other platforms are either problematic in their own right (Facebook), irrelevant (Google+, Tumblr, the new social platform of the week that gets the same few early adopters at launch, such as Ello or Vero), or Instagram.

And then there’s Mastodon, a decentralized, open-source and surprisingly well-designed alternative to Twitter that has measures to combat toxic behaviour built into its design. I’m on Mastodon. I like it. But in the same way that Dreamwidth is not the solution to LiveJournal, Mastodon is not the solution to Twitter.1

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A few years ago, frustrated at the time and emotional overhead required to moderate their comments sections, bloggers began moving away from having comments at the bottom of their blog posts. The point of blogging, the logic went, was writing; dealing with spam and bad behaviour was outside the remit, especially when the noise exceeded the signal and comment spam hammered web servers to the point of shutdown.

The net effect of that was that commenting—that conversation—moved to social media. Not that it wasn’t already happening. But while it made sense at the time, in hindsight leaving reader feedback to the various toxic hellscapes looks more and more like a mistake.

Suddenly having the ability to host, moderate and curate comments makes sense again. And since I upgraded my hosting a while back and (for the moment at least) have CPU cycles and RAM to spare, I’m going to give it a try here again. So, starting now, comments will be open on new posts. They will be subject to spam filtering and moderation, and will close after 14 days.

To be honest I don’t expect to have that many regular commenters, but occasionally I write something that goes viral, and I think there’s some value in having at least some of the discussion that follows take place here rather than elsewhere.

AE Is Back Online

AE, the Canadian online science fiction magazine, is finally back online after a hiatus of nearly two years. It went down in September 2016 after being hacked; its resurrection took a lot longer than anyone expected, including those working on it, but as of today the fiction and nonfiction archives are accessible again. Peruse at your leisure! New material is coming, too: I’ll let you know when the first new issue launches, if for no other reason than I think I have a review essay in it.

Previously: AE Is Resurrecting Itself.

Books Read: May-July 2018

Reading has been slow going. Presbyopia is now in full flower, and I haven’t picked up a set of reading glasses yet. (Soon, though.)

  1. The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts. Novella set in the same universe as “The Island,” “Giants” and “Hotshot.” Review forthcoming.
  2. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien. Reread (of course), because it had been a few years since the last time and I needed a comfort read.
  3. The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien. Reread.
  4. The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien. Reread.
  5. Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly. Secondary-world queer fantasy set in an stand-in for interwar Europe during the rise of fascism, full of secret agents, intrigue, and nightclubs. If Cabaret had been a fantasy novel. Disturbingly easy for the reader not to see the oncoming danger as danger, which is the whole point. Not as much my cuppa as you might expect, for stylistic reasons: I keep bouncing off historical fantasy (and this is close enough) with modern prose style.
  6. How to Lie with Maps, 3rd edition by Mark Monmonier. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  7. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter. What few secrets about Middle-earth revealed in this book are wrapped in layers of paleoconservatism, long lectures about Christianity and marriage to his sons, complaints about deadlines and schedules and available time, health issues, ferocious pedantry and general fussbudgetry. One should not know too much about one’s literary heroes.
  8. The Quest of the Missing Map by Carolyn Keene (Mildred Wirt). Nancy Drew novel, read for a forthcoming essay on maps in mystery novels.
  9. You Belong to Me by Colin Harrison. Crime thriller (more about it here), read for a forthcoming essay on maps in mystery novels.

There have been a few behind-the-scenes changes to this website recently:

  1. As of this morning, this website is running on a secure server. To my everlasting shock, the process was easy and broke nothing. This was a test run; next up for me is to do the same thing for The Map Room, future plans for which require a secure server. I expect things to break in a spectacular fashion at that point, because it will be mission critical and in front of a much larger audience.
  2. When I switched this site to WordPress in October 2016, I mentioned that older posts would be going away. Not quite all of them, though. Last fall, I imported the two hundred or so map-related posts I made on this site between 2011 and 2015 into The Map Room. And last month, I imported a handful of posts from 2015 and 2016—book reviews, plus posts I felt had some value to posterity, 31 in total—into this site’s WordPress database. I don’t expect to be going much further back than that, though I’ve changed my mind on that before.
  3. I’ve simplified the Reviews section: the year-by-year list of reviews is now on a single page, with links to blog posts, published reviews, or archived pages as appropriate. Still some tidying up to do there, but for the two or three people actively looking for my reviews, it should already be less unwieldy.
  4. My privacy policy is now vaguely GDPR-aware and attempts to cover all the websites for which I am responsible.

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