Jonathan Crowe

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

Author: Jonathan Crowe Page 2 of 14

The 22-Year Anniversary of My Diagnosis, and Why I Don’t Talk About It as Much as I Might

I imagine that everyone with a serious or chronic illness knows the date of their diagnosis. Mine was January 13, 1998, which is to say 22 years ago today.

The diagnosis was by that point a formality. I’d known something was up since June 1997—I was in constant pain and I had trouble walking and sleeping—and had been talking to doctors and undergoing tests. The previous month I’d received results from a bone scan that suggested a possible diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis—a disease I’d never heard of before, though it turned out that there was a family history of it. The rheumatologist reviewed that family history, the symptoms and the test results and concluded that I had a “textbook case” of AS.

(As it turns out, my case is not so textbook, or at least the textbook has since changed. A 2012 MRI revealed no evidence of spinal fusion after 15 years, which made a different rheumatologist wonder whether I had AS at all. She retracted that doubt at a later visit when I arrived in flare and she saw how I walked. I suspect that what I have is non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis, which is similar to AS and is treated the same way, but doesn’t involve spinal fusion and doesn’t show up on X-rays. I’ve yet to run my theory past a rheumatologist, though.)

I’ve been living with that diagnosis, with modifications, for more than 22 years. I’ve always been open about my illness (much to my mother’s horror) and I used to talk about it a fair bit—I even ran a blog about it for a while—but lately I’ve been talking about it a lot less. That’s not because I’m doing better, because honestly I’m not (though there still seems to be no sign of fusion). It’s because talking about my illness is, even after all the elapsed time and the care received, still a potentially hazardous activity. Even under best-case conditions, talking about my illness requires a tremendous amount of emotion work.

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Books Read: 4Q 2019

Reading kind of fell off a cliff these past few months, which should give you a clue as to how I’ve been doing lately.

  1. Medallion Status by John Hodgman. Another collection of humorous personal essays from my favourite writer of humorous personal essays.
  2. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. Fascinating science fiction novel, set on a harsh alien world with a decaying human colony, that ends too abruptly.
  3. Phantom Islands by Dirk Liesemer. Another book about islands that were later proved imaginary; review forthcoming.

A Year of Misguided Opinions: 2019 in Essays

It was not one of my more productive writing years (book reviewing in particular seems to have fallen off a cliff), to the point that I resorted to reposting pieces I wrote years earlier. But I still managed to produce a few new pieces in 2019:

I published three essays on Tor.com this year that dealt with fantasy map design: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?,” “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters,” and “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?”: the second of these in particular generated a lot of interest, and pushback, mainly from people who stopped reading after the title.

(More articles along these lines will appear in the new year: they’re proving harder to write than I expected, so they’re slow in coming.)

In terms of science fiction and fantasy criticism, I also published one essay on the newly relaunched AE: “An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files” explored the unusual storytelling structure of the first two books. I also reviewed Farah Mendlesohn’s critical study of Robert Heinlein.

(Technically, the above pieces render me eligible for various Hugo and Aurora awards for fan writing and related works, but I have some sense of perspective about the chances of that.)

In terms of maps, I reviewed two books: John Roman’s Art of Illustrated Maps, which came out in 2015 but is now hard to find, but I needed it for my fantasy maps articles; and Matthew Edney’s academic and argumentative Cartography: The Ideal and Its History.

Other essays were more eclectic in subject. “The Enthusiast’s Blind Spot” was nominally about car reviews, but dealt with the disconnect between reviews by enthusiasts and the desires of the buying public. “The Ones Who Walk Away from America” melded my family history with the increasing crazification of American political discourse. “Canada’s Emergency Alerts Are Broken by Design,” which looked for a structural explanation for the complaints about being woken up by Amber Alerts, should have gotten me yelled at more than it did.

Finally, during last fall’s federal election I committed the sin of punditry, with a trio of essays exploring the parties’ election platform and rhetoric: “Status Quo Ante” looked at the Conservatives’ desire to restore the Harper years, “When Federal Politicians Talk About Provincial Matters, and Vice Versa” at politicians’ inability to resist talking about things that are not in their purview, and “Foreign Affairs” at the dangers of offering opinions on other countries’ politics.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture at 40

Today is, I’m told, the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—the first Star Trek movie, and one that suffered from a rushed production that left several things unfinished (the prints were apparently still wet when they were shipped to theatres) and from a critical response that could charitably be described as lukewarm.

(I saw it in the theatre myself, but as I was all of seven years old at the time, I hadn’t developed much of a critical sense yet.)

Forty years later, though, there seems to be some groundswell of affection for the thing, warts and all. (See Ed Power’s piece in The Independent, for example.) A few years ago I wrote a piece for my fanzine, Ecdysis, called “In Defence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and I thought I was being all heterodox about it. Turns out I wasn’t alone: others have either been reassessing their initial takes on the movie or finding that their impressions weren’t in sync with conventional wisdom.

It probably doesn’t hurt that there have been a dozen Star Trek movies since then to compare it with, and against some of them The Motion Picture compares … rather favourably. It was in that context that I wrote my little essay. Which practically no one read when it first came out, so here it is again:

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The 2019 Election by (Some of) the Numbers

Seat Distributions

Regional distribution of seats, 2019 Canadian election

The Liberals elected as many MPs west of Ontario as the NDP did: 15. (That number doesn’t include the North.) Not entirely sure why the CBC commentators made a fuss about the Liberals having no cabinet representation in the West: “the West” is more than just Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Even so, the Liberals elected more seats west of Ontario than the Conservatives did east of Ontario: 15 vs. 14. The NDP elected only two seats east of Ontario.

The Liberals elected more Quebec MPs than the Bloc Québécois—35 vs. 32—and edged them out in the popular vote in Quebec.

Half of the Liberal caucus will be from Ontario (79 out of 157). Nearly half of the Conservative caucus will be from the Prairie provinces (54 out of 121). Nearly half of the NDP caucus will be from British Columbia (11 out of 24).

Regionalism is a thing, in other words.

The Conservatives got fewer seats than the Liberals despite having more votes. Having the largest popular vote while coming up short in the seat count is what happens when you win your own seats by gargantuan margins (see Alberta) but lose by narrower margins. Happens to the Quebec Liberals provincially all the time: they win anglo Montréal seats by margins that would make Jason Kenney blush, and end up losing elections while winning the popular vote.

(If your response to this is “we need proportional representation,” please see my earlier post from 2015: The Unintended Consequences of Proportional Representation.)

Local Results

Pontiac went Liberal, to no one’s surprise (see Pontiac in the 2019 Federal Election: A Preview).

Pontiac results, 2011-2019

Incumbent Liberal Will Amos was easily reelected with 48.9 percent of the vote. That’s down 5.6 points (and some 4,400 votes) from his 2015 result: still a comfortable win by a comfortable margin. There was a lot of movement further down the ballot. The Conservative vote recovered somewhat, the Bloc Québécois vote more than doubled, and the NDP vote was less than half of what it was in 2015. Looking at these numbers, which are much more in line with what I saw in the Chrétien and Martin years, you’d be hard pressed to believe that the NDP took this seat in 2011. They got just over a quarter of their 2011 vote this time around.

Voter turnout was nearly 61,000: down only 1,700 from 2015, and some 10,000 above the (redistributed) 2011 turnout.1 Quite strong, in other words. The Liberal vote didn’t stay home as much as I thought it might.

Foreign Affairs

Axiom: For a politician, interfering in the politics of another country, especially a friendly country, is a super-bad idea because it will have diplomatic repercussions down the road: the side you come out against may win, and hold your support for the other side against you.

Therefore:

  1. Then-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair calling Donald Trump a fascist and demanding that the Trudeau government condemn his candidacy was a bad idea in 2016, because Trump went on to win: whoever lives in the White House, even if he’s horrible, the Canadian government has find some way to work with him. We know that Trump never met a grudge he wouldn’t nurse forever.
  2. Current NDP leader Jagmeet Singh hoping that Trump is impeached is also a bad idea, for the same reason. I think Trump should be impeached too, but I’m not trying to be prime minister. In the black-swan scenario where Singh ends up as prime minister next week, what does the incoming prime minister being on record hoping for the U.S. president’s impeachment do to Canada-U.S. relations? There’s a reason the Trudeau government has been treading delicately.
  3. Andrew Scheer coming out in in support of Brexit was also a bad idea. (It was also mystifying: I’m trying to think of what domestic constituency Scheer was trying to appeal to, other than certain other right-wing politicians abroad.) Supporting Brexit is not an obvious way to good relations with the EU—nor, should Britain turn on its heels, reject Brexit in a second referendum, and elect a pro-Remain government, the U.K. itself. Again: should Scheer be elected prime minister next week, this will complicate things.
  4. What about Barack Obama tweeting his support for Justin Trudeau? A bit more complicated: there are no direct diplomatic implications for Obama’s support, because Obama is no longer the president: he’s technically a private citizen. Trouble might come for Trudeau from other U.S. politicians who detest Obama enough to spite him by torpedoing Canada-U.S. relations, but I doubt that changes very much: the Obama-Trudeau bromance was very much a thing in 2015-2016.

I still think it’s bad form to endorse candidates in elections you don’t vote in: it’s easy to support a political position if you’re not affected by the outcome. I try not to comment on other provincial elections: it’s none of my business. But none of my business is on a different level than diplomatic incident. The latter does more damage than you might think.

Consider what has happened when foreign politicians inserted themselves into our political debates. We didn’t like it one bit.

In 1988 Margaret Thatcher addressed the Canadian House of Commons. In her speech she assured her audience that Canadians had “nothing to fear” from the just-signed free-trade agreement with the United States. (Said trade agreement was a bitter point of contention, and would become the single issue on which the 1988 election was fought.) When Thatcher said that, the opposition parties flipped out. John Turner declared the statement “inappropriate”; Ed Broadbent accused the government of being “colonial Conservatives.” Just imagine the impact on Canada-U.K. relations if Broadbent or Turner had gone on to be prime minister.

Or, to take another example: De Gaulle’s “Vive le Québec libre!” Which did have an impact on Canada-French relations: it created a serious diplomatic incident, and was a major political scandal back in France.

If we don’t like British, French or U.S. politicians offering their opinions on contentious Canadian issues, we should probably resist the temptation to do the same to other countries. Especially since doing so tends to blow up in your face.

By no means is this to say that we should remain silent when another government is engaging in acts of aggression, crimes against humanity, or other human rights violations: these are appropriate, even necessary things to speak out about.

But gratuitously inserting yourself into the domestic political debates of an ally? Endorsing one candidate or platform over another? No. Don’t do that. Are you stupid?

When Federal Politicians Talk About Provincial Matters, and Vice Versa

In law there is the concept of ultra vires: “beyond the powers.” It refers to something beyond the power of a person, entity or government. An organization cannot do something beyond what is set out in its by-laws, or the laws that regulate organizations like it; and a government cannot do something beyond its legal authority.

A town council, for example, cannot raise an army or issue its own currency, because (at least in Canada) its powers are strictly delimited by provincial municipal legislation, legislation that says a municipality may only enact by-laws in these specific areas.

Canada’s constitution assigns different powers and responsibilities to the federal and provincial governments. It’s all set out in Part VI of the Constitution Act, 1867. But that doesn’t stop Canadian politicians from trying to legislate in areas that aren’t theirs.

Provincial governments can’t help themselves from mucking around in the federal arena: they open trade offices in other countries or demand control over culture and immigration. And as we’ve seen in the current election, federal politicians can’t help but campaign on matters that fall under provincial jurisdiction.

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Can-Con 2019 Schedule

Earlier today we got back from Scintillation, which went well. My co-panelists loved the book I chose (Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar)1 and my presentation was very well received: one attendee called it the highlight of the convention, my friends asked questions so on-point that I’ll get an article out of them, and I made Greer Gilman happy. So there’s that.

Next up this weekend is Can-Con, Ottawa’s science fiction convention; this year they’re the hosting convention for Canvention, the Canadian national sf convention, and (as a result) the (English-language) Aurora Awards. I’ll be appearing on program again, twice—which is just the right amount for me. Read on for the details:

Friday, 18 October

6:00 PM Worldbuilding: Government and Politics (Salon E). Anatoly Belilovsky (moderator), Jonathan Crowe, Millie Ho, Stephen Graham King, Nisa Malli, Leo Valiquette. “There’s a whole category of science fiction and fantasy that centers on politics (like Game of Thrones) or incorporates political maneuvering heavily (like Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5). How do you create a believable government that isn’t too heavy on worldbuilding? How can government’s idiosyncrasies and redundancies fit in without it always being a caricature? What is there to learn from contemporary political thrillers, and how well do they match the real world?”

Saturday, 19 October

7:00 PM Criticizing Criticism (Salon D). Jonathan Crowe (moderator), Shirley Meier, Michael Skeet, Una Verdandi. “In a world of Amazon and Goodreads reviews, is there a still a need and a place for the professional critic? Have critics been failing to keep pace with new technology and changes in how writing about writing is consumed, or has the craft become lost between the academic and the popular? How can critics and book reviewers reclaim the trust and attention of readers? In a world of algorithms and ‘5 stars!’, what is it that critical writers bring to the table that can’t be crowdsourced?”

Can-Con is sold out, so if you haven’t registered yet, too bad: you can’t. Better luck next year.

Scintillation 2

This weekend I’ll be appearing at Scintillation, a small convention that takes place in Montreal over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. Registration for the event is already closed, so if you haven’t signed up for it yet, it’s too late for you to attend. If, however, you’ll be there too, here’s my schedule:

Friday, 11 October

6:00 PM A Good Read (The Big Room). Marianne Aldrich (moderator), Jonathan Crowe, Matthew Surridge, Shaz Taslimi. Four people each choose a novel, everyone reads all of them, and then discuss them. (Show up at the panel to attend to find out which books we chose.)

Saturday, 12 October

3:15 PM The Territory Is Not the Map: Exploring the Fantasy Map Style. (The Reading Room). Jonathan Crowe. In this presentation, I identify and explore the default fantasy map style: where is it, where it comes from, where it’s going, and why we seem not to be able to talk about it. (If you’ve been reading my Tor.com articles about fantasy maps, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’ll be talking about. I finally finished the presentation just after noon today, which is, you know, handy.)

Books Read: 3Q 2019

  1. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. Science fiction novel. A new ambassador from a peripheral world must learn to survive at the heart of an expansionist interstellar empire. Loved it.
  2. The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente. Novella that centres “fridged” female comic book characters (i.e., killed solely to cause pain and motivation for the male protagonist); in this case said characters are recognizably stand-ins for well-known female characters.
  3. Making Conversation by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. A collection of Teresa’s blog posts and other web comments, many of which are extraordinarily pertinent to online discourse.
  4. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Time-travel epistolary novella in which agents from mutually exclusive futures develop a relationship through the messages they leave for each other.
  5. The Art of Illustrated Maps by John Roman. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  6. The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross. The ninth Laundry Files novel. Nyarlathotep dispatches Mhari and her team to America, where no one seems to remember the president. (This will make sense to regular readers of the series.)
  7. The Fire Opal Mechanism by Fran Wilde. Fantasy novella, set in the same world as The Jewel and Her Lapidary. Time travel and library destruction.
  8. Desdemona and the Deep by C. S. E. Cooney. Fantasy novella. Industrial Faerie; daughter of privilege rescues men sacrificed to the world below.
  9. Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone. Science fiction novel. Expansive space opera on a wide canvas.
  10. Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer. Reread. Trafalgar Medrano tells you tall tales over coffee about his adventures in space.
  11. Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy. Useful collection of essays on the craft of writing.
  12. After Atlas by Emma Newman. Science fiction mystery novel.
  13. Cartography: The Ideal and Its History by Matthew H. Edney. Reviewed at The Map Room.
  14. The Famished Road by Ben Okri. A spirit child grows up in an impoverished quarter of an unnamed African city.
  15. He, She and It by Marge Piercy. A cyborg’s creation in a post-apocalyptic world is juxtaposed with the story of Rabbi Loew’s golem. (First published as Body of Glass in the U.K.)

Status Quo Ante

The Liberals’ key attack line against the Conservatives in this election is that their leader, Andrew Scheer, is simply the second coming of Stephen Harper. It’s a standard line from the political playbook: tie the new guy to the unpopular old guy. But the Conservatives seem to be doing their best to make their point for them: a good chunk of their platform seems to be the restoration of a lot of policies, credits and benefits that were brought in during the Harper years and subsequently scrapped by the Trudeau government. As Andrew MacDougall writes in the Citizen this morning, “by picking up many of the Harper planks discarded by Trudeau in office—transit, sport and arts tax credits, small business tax changes—Scheer is literally promising to be Harper 2.0.” One wonders whether they’ll shut up the scientists and cancel the long-form census again, too.

If status quo ante as election platform—we’re going to put things back exactly where they were—strikes you as a bit strange, it shouldn’t: “returning things to normal” is what you campaign on when you think the other guys have broken things irredeemably. It wouldn’t be out of place in the U.S., for example. But in this case it seems a bit more brazen and a bit less self-aware: as though the Conservatives haven’t quite encompassed the fact that they lost the last election for real; that Trudeau shouldn’t have won, or didn’t deserve to win, or his win was a result of some random cosmic accident. (The NDP indulged in this sort of thinking after the last election as well.)

What this is, I think, is an example of a phenomenon I’ve observed in Canadian political parties before. When a governing party is defeated at the polls, it seems to take two electoral defeats to beat the entitlement out of them. One can be dismissed as an exception, an aberration—the electorate taking temporary leave of their senses. It takes a second drubbing at the polls to make a party reflect and take stock. Not for nothing did the Liberals lose in 2006, 2008 and 2011: not only did they deserve the time out, they needed it. Only when a party accepts its defeat can it regroup and sort itself out so that it can be electorally viable again. In fact, this process is almost essential to a party’s long-term health.

It’s one reason why most governments are re-elected to a second term: the opposition hasn’t accepted the fact that it lost the first time.

Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?

New from me at Tor.com this morning, the latest instalment in my series on the history and design of fantasy maps. “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?” looks at the influences on and origins of the fantasy map style—the existing traditions, stretching back as far back as the sixteenth century, that the fantasy map drew upon when it came into being in the early to mid-twentieth century. (Tolkien couldn’t have made it up out of whole cloth, after all.)

This is a speculative piece that draws upon a large and diverse number of sources—everything from Renaissance maps to mountain panoramas, from bird’s-eye views of cities to children’s book illustrations—to come up with … well, something interesting, at least. To do proper justice to the subject would require a Ph.D. dissertation. This is a start.

Pontiac in the 2019 Federal Election: A Preview

I live in the federal electoral district of Pontiac, which includes the rural counties and reserves of the Outaouais north and west of Gatineau, plus some suburban neighbourhoods in Gatineau. It’s about one-third anglophone, with a large concentration of rural anglophones, especially here in the namesake Pontiac MRC (an MRC is basically a county) that have much in common culturally with people on the Ontario side of the Ottawa Valley. The presence of those voters, who tend to vote Conservative, has made for some interesting electoral dynamics in the past.

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Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series Will Be Set in the Second Age

When Amazon announced, in late 2017, that it would be producing a multi-season television series prequel to The Lord of the Rings, there was a lot of speculation as to what ground a prequel series would cover. Some speculated that it would focus on Aragorn in his youth, engaged in knight-errantry in the service of Rohan and Gondor. I held out hopes for stories set earlier in the Third Age: the rise of the Witch-king, the fall of Arnor, the Kinslaying, and various other disasters and tragedies would make fertile material for a TV series, I thought.

Earlier this year, Amazon revealed its true intentions with a map—a map of Middle-earth that was subtly different from the map found in The Lord of the Rings. Gondor and Mordor were not labelled. And the lost island of Númenor, which fell into the sea thousands of years before Bilbo and Frodo, was present at the southwest edge of the map.

“Welcome to the Second Age,” Amazon tweeted. Hold on—was Amazon planning on covering the forging of the Rings of Power and the Downfall of Númenor?

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Canada’s Emergency Alerts Are Broken by Design

[Read the whole post before you come after me, okay?]

On Thursday morning the entire province of Ontario was woken up, first at 3:04 AM, then again at 3:36 AM, by an Amber Alert issued by the Brantford police. It was the sixth Amber Alert issued by Ontario police since the emergency alert system was extended to mobile phones. Though we live in Quebec, for some reason we get all the Ontario Amber Alerts, so we got it too. The usual flurry of complaints ensued: despite the backlash against people clueless enough to call 911 to complain about being woken up by an Amber Alert, the complaints seem to be getting worse.

I think I know why people are complaining about being woken up by Amber Alerts. It’s not because they’re being selfish bastards who don’t care about children. (Or it’s not just because.) It’s because the way Amber Alerts have been integrated into the emergency alert system in Canada, and in Ontario in particular, is broken by design. And unless it’s fixed, more lives will be put at risk than are saved.

Let me explain.

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