Jonathan Crowe

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

Category: Science Fiction & Fantasy (Page 1 of 5)

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.

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.

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.

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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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.

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.

Reading Gardner Dozois

In my post about the passing of Gardner Dozois, I mentioned that I was a fan of his fiction, even if his reputation was mainly as an editor. I’d forgotten that his backlist is back in print, at least as ebooks: Baen Books reissued a bunch of them in 2012, and it now appears that all his novels and collections, including the heretofore-elusive collection of his collaborations, Slow Dancing Through Time, can be had for a few dollars each. I list those books below. (Warning: contains slimy affiliate links.) I’ve also gone and assembled a list of his stories that can be read for free online, also below. Because I think he needs to be read.

If you’d like to read something about Dozois’s fiction, there’s Being Gardner Dozois (Old Earth Books, 2001) a book-length interview conducted by Michael Swanwick that discusses every single story Dozois had published to that point. Toward the end of that book, Dozois said, “I figure there’s about five people in the world who are going to want to read this book. Maybe that’s overestimating it.” Bear in mind that it’s not a book you should read unless you’ve read his fiction. But it’s fascinating if you have. [Amazon/iBooks]

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Gardner Dozois, 1947-2018

As editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction from 1986 to 2004, Gardner Dozois probably did more to shape my taste as a science fiction and fantasy reader than any other figure in the field. Reading the Dozois-era Asimov’s exposed my young self to cutting-edge writers and genres and styles I hadn’t encountered before. It was a heady, eclectic and catholic mix, and it expanded my reading horizons (imagine, if you will, a teenage reader going from reading Isaac Asimov to reading Lucius Shepard in one jump); were it not for that magazine I might well have been stuck in a hard-sf Golden Age ghetto. It taught me to be open to newness in science fiction.

Gardner Dozois died this afternoon of an overwhelming systemic infection. He had been in poor health for a while—he missed the Nebulas last weekend—but as early as yesterday he had been expected to recover. He was 70 years old.

I met him a couple of times at conventions back in 2011. He was in person what his reputation promised: a madcap and ebullient performer, the polar opposite of most of his fiction, which was bleak and beautiful, written with elegance and grace, and tended toward the dark end of the spectrum.1 For an introduction to his writing, his short story collection, When the Great Days Come, which I reviewed in 2011, is still in print: it’s a mix of his best early work and his more recent stories. What may be his final story, “Unstoppable,” appears in the current (May/June 2018) issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I was a devoted fan of his fiction, but he was far better known as an editor: of Asimov’s and of decades of Year’s Best and theme anthologies. Michael Swanwick once said that Gardner was a better writer than he was an editor, and that, like John W. Campbell, saw his writing be overshadowed by his long tenure as an editor. But Gardner was not only a better writer than Campbell, he was also the better editor. He was arguably the best editor the field has ever had. No, check that: the best. More relevant, more transformative, more impactful than anyone else I can think of. His fingerprints and his footprints can be found on every exposed surface of the science fiction and fantasy field, and if you see your favourite writer mourning his loss tonight, there’s a reason: he opened the door for so very, very many of them.

Photos: Gardner Dozois (and Michael Swanwick) at Readercon, July 2011.

Babylon 5 in the Age of Streaming

Babylon 5, the groundbreaking science fiction series that ran from 1994 to 1998, will finally be available to watch via a streaming service. As show creator J. Michael Straczynski noted yesterday, it will be coming to Prime Video next month.

It generally hasn’t been available on streaming services; our only option has been to buy the DVD box sets, more on which in a moment. Will the show eventually be available on Blu-Ray? The answer: probably not. It’s a victim of the television production practices of its era: live action sequences were shot on film, but visual effects were composited digitally in standard definition. Older shows were completely done on film, later shows on HD video: sf series of the mid-nineties, I remember reading somewhere, are at real risk of falling down the memory hole because they’re barely watchable today.

But it’s even worse with Babylon 5. As this page points out, the show was produced in the 4:3 aspect ratio, but when it was rebroadcast on Sci-Fi, and then again for its DVD release, it was converted to 16:9. This posed no problems for the live action sequences, but the 4:3 480p effects shots were cropped to 16:9 360p. On a standard definition set this isn’t much of a problem, but when you use an upconverting Blu-Ray player to play that DVD on a big 1080p set, those effects shots are done at one-third the TV’s resolution. The live-action shots without effects still look fine; the effects shots and the composited shots look terrible.

That won’t change with streaming, I’m afraid.

Redoing those effects sequences would be prohibitively expensive. It was done for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it cost a boatload and failed to sell in the hoped-for numbers. As a result it won’t ever be done for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Babylon 5 is great—if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat—but compared to Star Trek it’s a niche interest, so I figured it wouldn’t ever happen.

Except Straczynski has gone and thrown a wrench into things today, saying that while the 16:9 versions can’t be upgraded to HD, they provided Warners with 4:3 master negatives on film (he says the CG effects were output to film at 2K)—and those, he says, could be converted to HD. All it would take, he says, is for Warner to strike a new print and for Amazon to digitize it. It sounds a bit too good to be true: it conflicts with other sources that say that the effects were generated and composited in SD, and why have those sources not been contradicted before? Why only mention it now?

I’d like to hold my breath, but I’m not sure I ought to.

The Tangled Lands

Book cover: The Tangled LandsThe Tangled Lands (Saga Press, February 2018) represents a return to a world co-created by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell that first appeared in audio form. In 2010, Audible released The Alchemist and the Executioness, a 5½-hour recording comprising two novellas, “The Alchemist” by Bacigalupi (which went on to be a Nebula nominee) and “The Executioness” by Buckell.1 Both are set in a world where magic works, but (as usual) at a terrible price. Where magic is used, the poisonous bramble plant grows, soon choking out everything else and forcing people to flee. Magic is banned as a result, and punishable by death. Even so, people work small magic every day, and the bramble keeps coming.

The idea that how something is innocuous when one person does it is catastrophic when everyone does it is a killer metaphor for the tragedy of the commons, but neither Bacigalupi nor Buckell stop there. In “The Alchemist,” the eponymous alchemist finds a way to destroy bramble, only to discover, to his horror, that the authorities have other uses for his invention: surveillance, social control and the consolidation of power. And in “The Executioness,” an executioner’s daughter, chasing after the raiders who stole her children, finds herself at the centre of a burgeoning legend; the raiders, for their part, claim as their motivation to attack the people whose magic use brought disaster down on everyone, and convert their children to their cause. The knock-on effects of magic use have knock-on effects of their own.2

I loved both stories—well enough to buy the limited editions from Subterranean Press when they came out the following year. Now they make up the first half of The Tangled Lands, which means that I now own three copies—audio, limited-edition hardcover, and digital—of those two novellas.

The second half is made up of two new novellas: “The Children of Khaim” by Bacigalupi and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” by Buckell, each of which returns to the city of Khaim (left behind by “The Executioness”) and focuses on the city’s more disadvantaged residents—the ones who do not benefit from the new alchemical defences against the bramble, the ones most likely to face exploitation and punishment and use by the privileged classes who continue to use magic freely. If the first half of The Tangled Lands is an parable of environmental disaster, the second half makes clear that it’s a parable of social injustice as well. The Tangled Lands is a fantasy manifestation of disaster capitalism—how the wealthy and the privileged exploit natural and unnatural disasters for their own benefit. Even a city-swallowing menace like bramble can be turned to someone’s advantage.

Much more could be said on this theme, and the harrowing world Bacigalupi and Buckell have created is an open canvas for more harrowing tales. In an afterword the authors say they hope to have more opportunities to return to this world. I hope they do.

Amazon | iBooks

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

Tonight, or if that doesn’t work out probably this weekend, I’ll be off to see the latest in a series of superhero movies, one that has been highly anticipated and relentlessly hyped for months. In a couple of weeks, the previous iteration of that series of superhero movies will be released on home video. Then, a little while after that, another superhero movie will be released in the theatres, one that isn’t part of the same series, but sort of related to another movie series that would have been part of the first series if the rights weren’t currently held by different movie studios.

You can probably figure out which movies I’m referring to. But I could have written the above paragraph a few months ago, or a few months from now, and I’m not sure I would have to change a word, because superhero movies are coming out all the time. (It’s not just movies: I’m leaving out all the different superhero TV series.) We’re in the midst of Peak Superhero, and it does not seem to be on the verge of exhausting itself any time soon.

Given this superhero-saturated environment, it’s difficult to take stock of a novel like James Alan Gardner’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault (Tor, November 2017). A book that won me over with its title alone, before I knew anything about its contents. It’s a novel about four roommates at the University of Waterloo—one of my almæ matres: I got my M.A. there—who unexpectedly get superpowers and have to figure out what to do with them. It’s a tremendously enjoyable read: let’s get that out of the way first. But in the context of Peak Superhero, a fun novel playing with superhero tropes wouldn’t be enough to rise above the crowd. Comic books are already capable of producing their own meta-narratives, thank you very much.

Fortunately it does something rather more than that: it’s a book that addresses a major contradiction in the various comic book universes: the intersection of “science” (the scare quotes are necessary) and magic-based power systems.

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