Jonathan Crowe

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

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What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?

New from me on Tor.com this morning: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?” This is the first of several planned pieces that will take a deep dive into the look and feel of fantasy maps: their design and aesthetic, their origins and inspirations, and where they may be going in the future. In this piece, I start by trying to describe a baseline fantasy map style—which, though it’s well recognized and often imitated, has not often been spelled out.

Garter Snakes: Banned in British Columbia

One odd quirk of Canadian reptile law that I’ve known about for a while is that garter snakes can’t be kept as pets anywhere in British Columbia. Not just the three species found in that province—any garter snake. This question just came up on the Facebook Garter Snakes group, which I manage. I did some digging and found the exact laws and regulations that prohibit this. I’m sharing what I turned up here for future reference.

British Columbia’s Wildlife Act regulates wildlife, and wildlife is a term that has a specific definition under the Act: something has to be defined as wildlife (as opposed to controlled alien species, another defined term in the Act) in order for the Act’s provisions on wildlife to apply to it. The Act defines wildlife as “raptors, threatened species, endangered species, game and other species of vertebrates prescribed by regulation.” For that prescribed by regulation part, see schedule A of B.C.’s Designated Exemption Regulation,1 which defines a number of species, not all of which live in B.C., as wildlife. This includes, among other things, all species of garter snake. (Garter snakes aren’t being singled out: the list also includes all true frogs, treefrogs, toads, mole salamanders, lungless salamanders, pond turtles, snapping turtles and softshell turtles. More on that in a moment.)

Back to the Wildlife Act, where section 33 prohibits the private possession of wildlife without a permit or regulatory exemption. A permit can be issued under paragraph 2(j) of the Permit Regulation2 but I have no information on how that works in practice. The only regulatory exemption I’ve found for keeping wildlife in captivity is for Red-eared Sliders, the keeping of which is exempt from section 33.3 Wildlife can’t be imported, exported or trafficked in without a permit either.4 Penalties can include a fine of up to $100,000 or a year in prison for the first offence, but in practice it will never be anywhere near that high for someone keeping a pet garter snake.

Fine and good, but why are they being so heavy-handed, you ask? Garter snakes are plentiful and harmless, after all. But given what other species are being defined as wildlife (and therefore prohibited), my guess is that they’re trying to prevent people from bringing in non-native species that stand a chance of surviving in British Columbia. (Which is also more or less what Alberta law sets out to do.) They don’t want people snatching local garter snakes from the wild, but they also don’t want escaped Eastern Garter Snakes establishing themselves out there either.

People are getting confused because B.C. is trying to do both things at the same time: they expect laws about native wildlife and exotic wildlife to be separate. But other provinces do it this way as well.

Featured image: Photo of a Valley Garter Snake in Port Coquitlam, B.C. by Harold Wright. Creative Commons licence.

Steve Irwin Schadenfreude

On Friday Google posted a Doodle in honour of what would have been Steve Irwin’s 57th birthday. PETA, the Westboro Baptist Church of animal rights, decided to use this opportunity to take a swipe at Irwin (who died in 2006) on Twitter. The usual backlash and fulminations ensued.

Irwin’s legacy is complicated. He did a lot of real conservation work behind the scenes, but his brash, loud animal wrangling made conservationists uncomfortable: he operated at an uneasy intersection of conservation, education and showmanship, and lots of people felt he emphasized the last one too much.

Immediately after he died in September 2006, those people took shots at him and his work, suggesting that getting killed was a kind of karmic revenge. In response, I wrote a blog post that I’m reprinting below. Unless you were following me 12½ years ago, you probably haven’t seen it. Given the recent flareup, I think it might be worth another airing.


The worldwide reaction to Steve Irwin’s death has been swift, strong and usually sympathetic, but it’s inevitable that some people are insufficiently socialized that they cannot help but take a shot at the recently departed and the circumstances of his death.

Jason Calacanis says that the Discovery Channel killed him because of its focus on televising risky encounters with wildlife; Germaine Greer says that the stingray attack was the animal world extracting its revenge. The sentiment behind these posts occurs elsewhere, and can be distilled into one of two arguments: Steve Irwin was an irresponsible thrill seeker; Steve Irwin was a cruel tormentor of animals. Either way, it’s poetic justice—in other words, he got what was coming to him—and the commentariat, whether in the op-ed pages or on the blogosphere, thrives on poetic justice the way it revels in Schadenfreude.

My response to those espousing these arguments is simple: You have no idea what you’re talking about.

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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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