The Dagger & The Monuments’ The Amanuensis.

My Futures Game preview went up this morning, and I did a Klawchat on Thursday. I’ll be at the Futures Game, of course, and will head to the Butcher & Boar stand out by right field after BP, around 3 pm. Hope to see many of you there.

The Dagger’s self-titled debut album (due out July 22) is one of the strangest releases you’ll hear this year – the music itself isn’t odd at all, as the eleven tracks are all very straightforward blues-rock songs, the kind of tracks you’d expect to hear on a classic-rock station. What’s strange is that the trio of death metal musicians in the band have produced a record that, if you didn’t know it was new, you’d assume was written and recorded in the late 1970s. It’s not especially innovative and a little lacking in certain areas, but if The Dagger wanted to bring the New Wave of British Heavy Metal back to life, they’ve succeeded.

Three of The Dagger’s members were once part of the defunct death metal band Dismember, and here they’re joined by Swedish vocalist Jani Kataja, who sang in a pair of stoner-metal acts before joining the Dagger in 2010. (It’s not that strange a transition for Kataja; Bill Steer, co-founder of Carcass and former Napalm Death guitarist, had a blues-metal side project called Firebird before Carcass reunited a few years ago.) Their bio specifically refers to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Rainbow, and Deep Purple as influences, although I also hear a lot of lesser-known acts from that era like Saxon and Quartz, bands that leaned toward the less heavy, more melodic end of the range. You’ll hear that especially on The Dagger‘s best tracks, “1978” and “Inside the Monolithic Dome,” songs driven primarily by brief, pronounced guitar riffs and mid-tempo rhythm sections.

As a whole, however, the album feels far too familiar, as if these are actually songs we all heard in the late ’70s or early ’80s but haven’t heard much since because they were overshadowed by stronger tracks. There aren’t enough memorable hooks, and the lyrics vary from weak to embarrassing (“Nocturnal Triumph” is just cringe-inducing, which is too bad as the guitar lines behind the verses would make it a great driving song). The Dagger appear to be more influenced by bands that drew from blues-rock rather than acts like Maiden or Priest that used faster tempos and, in Maiden’s case, more technical skills that came down from classical roots.

The Monuments’ sophomore album, The Amanuensis (for the people who like country music, amanuensis means “the secretary”), melds progressive metal with heavier “groove” elements – I hate the term, but it does fit here – like a blend of early Fates Warning and peak Pantera, with both clean and screamed vocals along with fugal guitar lines. There isn’t enough variety across the entire album, with many of the guitar melodies sounding too similar in structure, but it’s a highly precise, almost severe album, with appropriately serious lyrics. They also get bonus points for naming a song “Horcrux.”

That song and “Origin of Escape” are among the highlights of Amanuensis for the variation within each song – changing tempos, lyrical styles, but still relying on the same staccato-picked guitar riffs that populate the entire disc, so the second half of the album starts to sound too much like background noise. “Atlas” begins with the clich&ecaute;d death-metal growl but morphs into a jazz-metal track, a little less experimental than Cynic or Atheist might have produced but in a similar vein, with a seamless transition into the very similar “Horcrux,” which makes better use of undistorted passages to break up the monotony of the austere up-and-down lead guitar lines, concluding with the counterpoint pairing that makes the song the strongest on the entire disc. (It doesn’t hurt that the song also includes the highest ratio of clean to growled lyrics of the eleven tracks here.) But by the time we get to track five, “Garden of Sankhara,” the lead guitar riff style, both in meter and technique, has become too familiar already. Using the same motif across an entire album can be clever, providing a measure of artistic unity to a set of disparate songs, but the Monuments take it too far.

The Monuments rose from the ashes of English experimental-metal act Fellsilent, who had a cult following among fans of extreme metal but lacked enough of a melodic component to find a broader audience or to appeal to me. The Amanuensis is a significant step in that direction, even further towards the commercial end of the extreme-metal spectrum than their debut album, Gnosis, although it’s best consumed in small chunks, with a focus on the first four tracks of the disc – which on their own would have made an outstanding EP release. It’s not up to the standard set by Insomnium earlier this year but worth the $6 amazon is asking for the album right now.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

The Italian physicist Paolo Giordano became the youngest winner ever of the Premio Strega, Italy’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, when his debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, took the award in 2008. It became a feature film in Italian in 2010 and made its way here in an English translation that same year, earning very positive reviews around the world for its prose and the development of its two central characters. It is a beautiful rendering of those two horribly broken individuals, and one of the saddest novels I have ever read.

Giordano begins the novel by breaking those two characters in harsh, haunting ways. Alice, pushed too hard by a father whose impetus is never quite clear, suffers a horrible accident while skiing that leaves her scarred, disabled, and bitter. Mattia, meanwhile, is saddled with a twin sister who is severely developmentally disabled, and one day, while taking her to a birthday party to which they’ve both been invited, he leaves her in a park and tells her to wait there for him rather than taking her to the party. She vanishes and is never seen again, leaving Mattia a shell who fears the outside world and inflicts compensatory punishment via self-mutilation.

Solitude cover The two end up meeting in secondary school and forge a friendship based on their mutual recognition of each other’s willful isolation. Mattia is a math genius who has a single friend, Denis, who himself is gay and in love with Mattia but, of course, closeted and himself ostracized from the cruel society of his classmates. Those same classmates taunt or ignore Alice, and eventually the school’s mean girls clique targets her, both because of her disability and her late entry into puberty – the result of her anorexia, which worsens as she gets older. Mattia and Alice seem like a perfect couple, the two peas in the pod on the paperback’s cover, but Giordano argues through his prose that people this detached from others cannot be together. They are twin primes: Two prime numbers with a difference of two, like 11 and 13 or 59 and 61, as close as a pair of odd primes can get, but never actually adjacent. (Only 2 and 3 are neighboring primes. Because 2 is the only even prime, all other pairs must be separated by at least two places on the integer scale.)

Eventually, other circumstances drive Mattia and Alice apart, both as a couple and as neighbors, as Mattia takes a job in Germany and Alice ends up in another relationship. But a strange coincidence, one that Giordano wisely never confirms in full, brings them back together for one final attempt at … something, a connection if not an actual romance, because Giordano hasn’t given us any reason to believe these two broken people can heal themselves enough to be with each other. If this were Hollywood, they’d promise to fix each other (with Coldplay softly playing in the background) and that would be the ending. Giordano gives us ambiguous realism rather than pat endings, and while it doesn’t offer the catharsis a book this sad might call for, it keeps the ending in tune with the remainder of the story.

Alice’s character felt more familiar than Mattia’s, probably because we’ve all known someone who had one of her major issues – a physical disability, leading to social isolation; or an eating disorder. Piling both on Alice might have made her more pathetic, yet Giordano gave her more strength of character, more forcefulness than Mattia, to balance the scales. Mattia’s disappearance into math, especially into research on prime numbers (and specifically Riemann’s zeta function, a key component in the search for a proof or disproof of the Riemann Hypothesis, an unsolved problem detailed extremely well in the book Prime Obsession), further underscores his difficulty with communication – as if a man that comfortable with numbers and order could ever be comfortable in the subjective, anarchic world of words and feelings. He comforts himself by counting objects or looking for familiar shapes or structures in the world, but eventually ends up hurting himself or drawing his own blood in almost every disturbing situation. Is it really right to expect two “primes,” two loners whose self-inflicted solitude has become inescapable, to be able to save each other when neither is capable of helping him- or herself?

As gorgeous as Giordano’s rendering of his characters, even secondary ones like Denis or Alice’s housekeeper Soledad, can be, Solitude can also be intensely painful to read because of the damage he inflicts on them, as if he were pushing and prodding them to see how far they can bend without breaking. Where Alice responds with anger, Mattia responds by becoming increasingly insular, as if even the solitude he finds in numbers isn’t alone enough for him. I was also a little surprised that none of Mattia’s or Alice’s parents seemed to take an active role in trying to draw their children out, showing more resignation, perhaps provoked by guilt (on Alice’s father’s side) or shame (for Mattia’s parents). The only hints of this come with the primes’ rejection of their parents as adults, something I found even more painful now as a parent – to love and raise a child, only to find that child has no use for use once she’s grown, would be the dementor’s kiss of parenthood.

If you’ve already read Solitude, Giordano’s second novel, The Human Body, will be released in the U.S. on October 2nd.

Next up: J.K. Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy.

Redshirts.

I’ve been busy on the baseball side too, with Insider posts on All-Star snubs, the Samardzija-Hammel trade, and the Brandon McCarthy trade.

John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-winning novel Redshirts takes Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on the Klaw 100) and transplants it into a science-fiction setting, where the characters in question appear on a Star Trek knockoff TV series rather than in a book. Metafiction where the characters interact with or rebel against their author is nothing new, and Jasper Fforde (who gets name-checked in one of the book’s three codas) pioneered the destruction of the wall between fiction and metafiction in his Thursday Next series, leaving Scalzi with a narrow space in which to craft something new, without settling for some light satire of the “redshirts” phenomenon. By focusing on the redshirt characters and allowing them to muse on their metafictional status, he has created a witty yet intelligent philosophical novel that covers themes from the writer’s responsibilities to whether man has free will.

The term “redshirt” refers to the disposable characters found in the original Star Trek series who would join three regular/named characters on away missions and never make it back, typically dying before the show’s halfway mark. They’d appear to represent the danger of a situation without the need to sacrifice a series regular. In Scalzi’s universe, a few techs and ensigns on the starship Intrepid have started to pick up on the trend that such crew members typically die horrific deaths on away missions, often as a result of rash or irrational actions. When Andrew Dahl, a new crew member who realizes that the ship and its inhabitants are all behaving in weird ways, decides to investigate, he realizes what they are and what’s causing all of these calamities, cooking up with a crazy plan to try to save all of their lives by using the Narrative’s illogicality in their favor.

The setup here is truly brilliant as Scalzi sends up Star Trek and its many derivatives in so many ways, targeting the obvious and the subtle equally well, while even hitting problems that plague non-sci-fi series like the various crime-solving shows that make use of bullshit scientific explanations and impossible coincidences to get the perpetrators caught (or killed) and everyone home by the end of 44 minutes of screen time. Most of the jokes will make sense even to folks who’ve only seen a few episodes of any sci-fi series, and some, like the Box, are just funny in their own right – only funnier if you realize Scalzi is mocking every hack writer in Hollywood who decides to hand-wave away days or weeks of science because that won’t fit in the show’s timeline.

Around the midpoint, when Scalzi has his characters come to the realization one-by-one that their will may not be their own, he sends the core quintet back in time to our present to confront their Creators, relying on one significant coincidence to push the plot forward but otherwise driving it by the consequences of their appearance in the wrong timeline – and in the wrong universe. (There’s some many-worlds-theory quantum thinking behind this, but Scalzi wisely stays out of that sort of digression.) After that, the novel doesn’t lose much wit, but it’s more dialogue-driven than satirical humor, as Scalzi shifts course, mixing in more philosophical musing on free will and the nature of existence. If the show is cancelled, do the characters disappear? Does their whole universe end? How can they believe in free will if the Narrative turns out to be real?

The novel itself only runs about 225 pages, after which Scalzi gives us three codas, all worth reading. The first one delves further into a question first broached in the novel proper: Does the writer have a responsibility to treat his characters more seriously? Ignoring the novel’s conceit that characters put on paper or screen become real, there’s a legitimate argument here about using death or injury as a cheap plot trick. I’ve read and still do read many classic novels, and few use a character’s death as a mere convenience to move the story along; the main exceptions revolve around wills and inheritances. Characters’ deaths may be exploited for the responses of others, but they don’t usually come cheap. (Mr. Krook notwithstanding, and besides, that’s the best example of a character killed for humor’s sake in literary history.)

I enjoyed Redshirts as a brilliant satire that turns into a compelling adventure story with surprising dashes of heart, but there’s also an exhortation here for other purveyors of fiction to just write better. I can see why it earned the Hugo Award and why FX is trying to turn it into a limited-run series. It’s an outstanding mix of humor and action layered on a thought-provoking concept. Even if you’re not a Trekkie – I’m far from one myself – it’s a must-read.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Paolo Giordano’s Premio Strega-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

Les Misérables (book).

My breakdown of the Jeff Samardzija trade is up for Insiders now.

Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables) is by far the longest book I’ve ever read, over 1300 pages and well over half a million words, and if you’re considering tackling it too, I strongly suggest you just watch the musical instead. Cameron Mackintosh changed very little of the novel’s plot for the stage version and omitted nothing of significance; Hugo padded his novel with lengthy expositions on topics from Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo to the structure of the Parisian sewer network, none of which is remotely worth your time.

If you’ve avoided the musical in both its stage and film versions, the plot of the book is quite simple and linear given the tome’s thickness. Jean Valjean was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and ended up spending nineteen years in prison after multiple failed escape attempts. He gains his freedom but finds himself rejected by everyone in society, unable even to find a place to stay, only finding shelter with a bishop possessed of impeccable compassion, a night that leads Valjean to a religious awakening and gives his life new purpose – but also makes him (in modern terms) a parole violator, doomed to a life of fleeing the robotic law-and-order Inspector Javert. Valjean takes on responsibility for Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a fallen seamstress named Fantine, after a handful of coincidences – something that Hugo uses repeatedly to put his small universe of characters into incessant contact with each other. When Cosette reaches her late teens, she falls for the student Marius, who’s tangentially involved with a group of would-be rebels who set up a barricade in the streets during the uprising of 1832, after which everyone dies but Marius, who’s saved by Valjean … and I haven’t even mentioned Thénadier, who hangs around this book like a bad penny.

There aren’t any proper subplots and most of the characters get minimal development other than Valjean, leaving the book somewhere between a character study and a vehicle for Hugo to discuss his views on religion, politics, and French history, as well as the sewers. Valjean’s status as an iconic character of literature may result from his own impossible goodness, his willingness to subvert himself to help others, notably Cosette, but he’s far more interesting for his verbose internal debates over the proper course of action when faced with difficult moral decisions. Fantine’s story is sad and probably well-founded in reality, but it’s a straight-line descent, and Hugo makes them almost comically good – sweet, dainty, ladylike. Javert lacks any sort of nuance, rigid in his adherence to order and authority, devoid not just of compassion but of emotion. Marius is the standard romantic-heroic doofus, and he and Cosette deserve each other if only for their mutual insipidness – each of them has the personality of a root vegetable. Gavroche, the imp who dies helping the insurgents at the barricade, might get more character development than most of the adults, as well as some details that are left out of the musical, such as the fact that he’s Éponine’s younger brother – and that they have three other siblings. Éponine is a very different character in the book, less overtly tragic than in the musical. Her love for Marius isn’t lifelong, but fleeting, and he’s barely aware of her existence, but “On My Own” wouldn’t quite pack the same punch if Mackintosh had left it as a mere crush than unrequited love.

Hugo’s purpose in writing the novel was social criticism, particularly the French systems of economics and justice, which resulted in huge disparities between the wealthy and the poor, while creating (in Hugo’s view) a very high risk of recidivism for released convicts. He paints dismal pictures of the lives of the poor in France and the plight of women born or left outside the narrow upper echelon of society, especially those who, like Fantine, are left as unwed mothers, with no recourse to make the fathers of their children take responsibility. But to craft these polemics, he relies on endless coincidences and forces his characters to make choices or decisions that beggar belief, right down to Valjean’s final, ridiculous choice to remove himself from Cosette’s life after her marriage to Marius without explaining to her why he’s done so – or to Marius why his revelation of his criminal past should be irrelevant. (Marius is such a doofus that he goes along with Valjean’s self-imposed exile anyway.) Heck, even Fantine’s decision to house her child with the Th&ecaute;nardiers, a critical plot point several times over, makes no sense – yet without it, nothing that comes afterwards would hold together. She happens to work in Valjean’s factory, he happens to come upon her as she’s about to be arrested by Javert, and so on. Hugo writes as if there were only a half a dozen people in France and it was perfectly normal for Valjean to bump into Javert or Thénardier while walking down the street – or that all of these nitwits should end up at some point in the same ramshackle tenement.

Had Hugo published Les Misérables as a 300-page romantic/adventure novel, it would have been a much better read but might not have endured as a work of populist fiction. Yet despite a mediocre contemporary reception and the presence of those tedious harangues on social or political subjects, it ended up at #90 on The Novel 100 and made the Bloomsbury 100 too, which I have to assume is as much about the book’s renown as its quality. There’s a decent story in here, but it’s just not a very good book.

Next up: I knocked off the sixth Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, in a day – and feared, incorrectly as it turned out, that it marked the end of the series – and am now halfway through John Scalzi’s Hugo Award winner Redshirts, which is hilarious.

Guest bartending at Ulysses, June 26th.

I’ll be one of the guest bartenders at a fundraising event this Thursday, June 26th, at Ulysses Gastropub in north Wilmington, located on the southwest corner of the intersection of Marsh and Silverside. All of the tips and 15% of meal tabs go to benefit First State Montessori Academy, a new charter school opening up in downtown Wilmington this August.

Ullysses will be releasing two new micro-brews from Yards and Mispillion River. Also, we will be auctioning off Kids First Swim lessons, a value of $95.

The event runs from 6 to 9 pm; I’ll be behind the bar from 7-7:30 pm, but will be at Ulysses for the whole three hours. I hope to see some of you there!

Google Maps © 2014

Also, ICYMI, my Insider post on the Josh Byrnes firing went up last night.

Weekend five, 6/22/14.

Here’s all my ESPN content from the last week:

* Updated Sunday afternoon: My report on Dylan Bundy and Marcos Molina from Saturday night’s Aberdeen-Brooklyn game.
* A very quick note on Cuban defector Yasmani Tomás.
* Scouting notes from the California-Carolina Leagues All-Star Game, held in my backyard this year in Wilmington.
* Notes on Yankees/Orioles AA prospects, including lefties Manny Banuelos and Eddie Rodriguez.
* More notes, this time on the Ike Davis trade, some Lakewood/Hickory prospects, and Daniel Carbonell.
* This week’s Klawchat.

And now, the links…

Music update, June 2014.

I’ve hit a few minor-league games this past week, and have written posts about each one:
* Scouting notes from the California-Carolina Leagues All-Star Game, held in my backyard this year in Wilmington.
* Notes on Yankees/Orioles AA prospects, including lefties Manny Banuelos and Eddie Rodriguez.
* More notes, this time on the Ike Davis trade, some Lakewood/Hickory prospects, and Daniel Carbonell.
* This week’s Klawchat.

I’m a little overdue for a music update, with the draft sort of getting in the way of things earlier this month, but I think I’m back on track for now with this post, which covers a dozen songs to come out in the last few weeks or months that I’ve enjoyed. The new Spotify playlist below includes some other songs I’ve mentioned in previous music posts but haven’t put on a playlist before. As always, links on song titles go to amazon.

alt-J – “Hunger of the Pine.” I would have been disappointed if the first single from alt-J’s upcoming album was anything but weird, but as with An Awesome Wave, I had an immediate “WTF” reaction to this song, especially the presence of a sample from Miley Cyrus’ “4×4” in lieu of a traditional chorus. But as with everything I’ve ever heard from alt-J, the song’s complexity and precision becomes more and more apparent with each listen, and now I’m fired up again for the full release in September.

The Holidays – “Tongue Talk.” My pick for the top song of the year’s second quarter, “Tongue Talk” melds the Madchester sound with the musical experimentation of Beck, the best song I’ve heard so far from the Australian indie-pop act’s sophomore album, Real Feel. The first single from the LP, “All-Time High,” is lighter and poppier and apparently more indicative of their overall sound; I prefer the hints of darkness and tempo shifts of “Tongue Talk” for its greater balance.

Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting On You).” It’s a good song, but I think it’s been boosted by their performance on the David Letterman show, featuring the lead singer’s mesmerizing dance. Without that, it might have just been set aside as a solid pop song drawing on 1970s soft-rock tropes.

Young Rising Sons – “High.” From nearby Red Bank, NJ, the band just signed with Interscope Records and I presume there will be an album somewhere in their near future. Good luck getting this one out of your head – my daughter latched on to this one right away.

The Horrors – “So Now You Know.” Hard to believe this is the same group that debuted with the shock-rock “Sheena Was a Parasite,” and I think to some extent they’ve sold out for more airplay by shifting into psychedlic-tinged indie rock. That doesn’t make this a bad song, just not what you’d expect if you liked The Horrors’ earlier work. Of course, every time I see this song title I start singing “…who gets mystifiiiiiiiied.”

Creases – “Static Lines.” If you liked the Libertines, I think you’ll like this, mostly because it sounds like a remastered Libertines track, but with less sloppy guitars.

Hundred Waters – “Xtalk.” I received a review copy of this album, but it’s not to my tastes at all, too slow and spacey, with breathy vocals that grated on me before I got halfway through it. There are a few more promising moments from this experimental group, who are touring with alt-J this summer, led by this track, driven by a plaintive synth line over the record’s most uptempo beat, as well as “[Animal],” which features a quiet drum-machine line that picks up volume as the song goes along and morphs into a techno track by the three-quarters mark.

The Bleachers – “I Wanna Get Better.” On the one hand, it’s the dopey sing-along song of the summer, and if the keyboard sample doesn’t make you think of Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” you’re probably under the age of 18. On the other hand, the lyrics have several strong images and make heavy use of assonance with what I think is a spot-on message about dealing with depression or similar mental illnesses. My daughter would tab this as one of her top three rocks songs for the summer.

Foster the People – “Are You What You Wanna Be?” The lead track from their newest album, Supermodel, also serves as the transition music for Baseball Tonight this year, and it’s the best song on the album, with a loud, catchy chorus interspersed with Afro-Caribbean percussion lines and vocals that descend and climb stairs with unexpected rapidity. Foster tried for more experimentation outside of the two singles from the album so far, and this song is where he struck the perfect balance between art and mass appeal.

Sleeper Agent – “Waves.” I admit I’m getting a little sick of this song already, but it’s very catchy and probably going to cross over to the pop side soon enough.

Tove Lo – “Habits (Stay High).” Pronounced like the name of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu and not as a rhyme with “stove low,” Tove Lo is a Swedish singer whose pop rhythms belie the raw imagery in her lyrics. My daughter loves this song, probably her favorite song of the spring/summer, and fortunately she hasn’t asked me what “then I go to sex clubs/watching freaky people/gettin’ it on” means yet.

Knox Hamilton – “Work It Out.” A little lightweight but never twee, “Work It Out” is drive by the meandering twelve-note melody in its verses that feels like you’re wandering down an open-air staircase, with old-school soul influences and jangle-pop guitar lines behind the chorus.

Jack White – “Lazaretto.” I feel like White’s moment has passed, as there’s a broad backlash against his music and his behavior now, but that doesn’t affect what I think about his output, and the live jam-band feel of this first single from his newest album adds a new twist to his deep 1970s guitar lines. By the way, I had no idea what a lazaretto was – it sounds like a kind of Italian sports car – but ran across the word while reading Les Misérables and looked it up: “An isolation hospital for people with infectious diseases, especially leprosy or plague.” Oh.

The Dispossessed.

I answered questions from our fantasy baseball staff for a new Insider post today.

I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life, but often became burned out on reading when I was younger because I wanted to read something different from what was being forced on me in school. The drudgery of assigned reading in junior high school and my first two years of high school left me reading very little for pleasure, something exacerbated by a gift of a Commodore 64 around that same time that found me absorbed in games rather than pages. It was my chance discovery of a science fiction book that got me back on the reading track when I was 15, a spine that jumped off the shelf first because of the author’s name, Isaac Asimov*, and then because of the description of the book, which hooked me right away.

* I was familiar with Asimov’s name for a number of reasons, from the sci-fi rag that bore his name to the long out-of-print Realm of Algebra, which I used one weekend in sixth grade to learn the subject, because my school was switching me to a different math class. Any other famous sci-fi author’s name wouldn’t have had the same effect on me in the bookstore.

I wasn’t aware at the time that the book, Foundation, was an important work in the history of science fiction, or part of a long series. I saw what sounded like a cool story and bought the book, which prompted a stretch of reading for pleasure that ran right through college, through the entire Foundation series, then other Asimov titles, then the Dune series (pro tip: stop after book one), Lord of the Rings, the entire works of Kurt Vonnegut to that point, and even a dozen or so novels by Philip K. Dick, along with a handful of one-off works in the sci-fi and even fantasy genres.

There came a point in my early 20s, however, when that paroxysm of reading slowed to a near-halt. I gave up on fiction, for reasons I don’t even remember, and was only reading a book a month, if that. And when I gave up on fiction, I gave up on science fiction more or less for good. It wasn’t a conscious choice, nothing driven by disdain for the genre, but perhaps an association of science fiction with my own childhood that made me switch to more traditional, mainstream literature. There were exceptions, including the book that provoked my second wind as a reader, the first Harry Potter novel; I read that on a business trip to California in the fall of 2000 and have read over 600 novels since then because J.K. Rowling managed to reawaken in me the love of a great story, the desire to get lost in a dazzling plot with descriptions so vivid that I could be consumed by the words. (To this day, the only time I’ve ever had a dream that put me in a book was one where I was just a regular student at Hogwarts, witnessing the story as a classmate rather than a reader.) But even Rowling’s work didn’t push me to read more fantasy novels; I shifted to the classics, many of which appear to have been influences on the Harry Potter novels, and left science fiction almost completely behind me.

The closest I’ve come to sci-fi in the interim, aside from the two titles on the TIME 100 (Neuromancer and Snow Crash), are dystopian novels, those that depict an alternate society, sometimes set in the future, but nearly always incorporating some element of science into their visions of authoritarian regimes or personal struggles for identity and freedom. My interest in dystopian novels also dates back to that first fling with sci-fi in high school, when I read 1984 and Brave New World and Wells’ The Time Machine, but has never stopped even though the genre includes its fair share of solipsistic duds. (Its sister category, utopian novels, is even worse in that regard.) Reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We earlier this year made me seek out other highly-regarded titles in the catgory, which led me back into sci-fi and to The Dispossessed, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel by acclaimed sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Not only was it an excellent representative of what a good dystopian novel can accomplish, it balanced the fiction and the science beautifully, reminded me of what I once enjoyed so much about the genre.

Le Guin’s setup in The Dispossessed differs from those of all of the dystopian novels I’ve read previously. She’s set up two sibling worlds with antithetical societal structures, neither of them clearly utopian or dystopain. Shevek, the physicist and lead character, was born on Anarres, the large moon orbiting the planet Urras. Anarres was colonized by dissenters nearly 200 years before the events of the book, dissenters who called themselves “Odonians” and practice a form of true communism they refer to as “anarchy,” using the literal sense of the term (without government) than the colloquial one (chaos). Over several generations of isolation from Urras, the people of Anarres have organized into syndicates to allow for fundamental economic activities, but within those syndicates, there exist cliques and fiefdoms that stymie Shevek’s attempts to develop his science further (and his friend’s endeavors to develop his art), resembling authoritarian regimes in their denial of anything deemed subversive or unnecessary. Shevek chooses to become the first person from Anarres to visit Urras since the Odonians’ departure, hoping to expand on his research into “temporal physics” and to find the freedom the people of Anarres had lost.

Most dystopian novels focus on tyranny by a single, usually totalitarian government, but Le Guin doesn’t take sides between Anarres and the pseudodemocratic regime Shevek visits on Urras. (Urras also has a Soviet-style regime, Thu, and puppet states where the two superpowers fight proxy wars.) Anarres has a social safety net, no inequality, and a high degree of mobility. Urras has an actual government, with poverty, conspicuous consumption, disease, and waste, but offers a kind of liberty that Anarres lacks – until it becomes clear that Shevek’s ideas may challenge the government there, at which point he encounters the limits of Urrastian liberty and has to make a choice that will affect the histories of both worlds.

Le Guin succeeds so well here in crafting a philosophical treatise within a novel because she focuses more than anything else on the “fiction” part of science fiction, notably the plot. There are science aspects to the work, primarily the settings – and her imagining of an inhospitable world of Anarres is superb, to the point where you can feel the dust on the pages – and the many references to Shevek’s physics work and its importance for interstellar travel, but those details are superficial, laid on top of a very serious work about freedom, especially that of choice. What does it mean for a human being to be free? Is it intellectual freedom? Freedom from want, unless others are also wanting? Freedom from envy? Freedom to choose one’s work, one’s partner, one’s abode?How petty can one despot be and still despoil one man’s freedom?

The Dispossessed won both of the major awards for the year’s best science fiction novel, although the correlation between the Hugos and the Nebulas is so high as to render the two redundant. I did pull the list of Hugo winners and found a number of interesting titles, including the most recent winner, the comic novel Redshirts, which I’ve already picked up based just on the description. With only ten read out of 62 total winners, I imagine this will help keep me busy even as I’m winding down my sojourn through the classics.

Next up: I’ve only got about a thousand pages to go in Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables).

Saturday five, 6/14/14.

It’s been a light week for me at ESPN, by design, but I did write one follow-up draft post about which teams drafted their new #1 prospects, and conducted a Klawchat on Thursday. If you missed my draft recaps, you can find my AL and NL posts from last week.

I’ll be at Lakewood tonight for their game against Hickory, and at the Carolina-California Leagues’ All-star Game here in Wilmington on Tuesday, the 17th.

If you live in the area, I’m going to be a “guest bartender” at a charity event at Ulysses Gastropub in north Wilmington, at the intersection of Marsh Road and Silverside, on June 26th. More details to follow as I get them.

And now the links…

The Checklist Manifesto.

I learned of Atul Gawande’s brief business book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right through a positive mention of it in Daniel Kahneman’s fantastic book on cognitive psychology, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Gawande, a successful surgeon in Boston, wrote two books on improving medical care through optimizing processes (rather than throwing money at new equipment or drugs). His third book is aimed at a more general audience, extolling the virtues of the checklist as a simple, effective way to reduce the frequency of the most avoidable errors in any complex system, even eliminating them entirely, saving money and even lives at a near-zero upfront cost.

When Gawande discusses checklists, he’s using the term in the sense of a back-check, a list that ensures that all essential steps have been taken before the main event – a surgery, a plane’s takeoff, a large investment – occurs. This isn’t a to-do list to get you through the day, the type of checklist I make every morning or the night before to make sure I don’t forget any critical tasks, work or personal, from paying bills to making phone calls to writing a dish post. Gawande instead argues for better planning before that first incision, saying that key steps are often overlooked due to a lack of communication, excessive centralization in a single authority (the surgeon, the pilot, etc.), or focus on more urgent steps that detracts from routine ones.

Gawande illustrates his points about the design and use of checklists primarily through his own experiences in surgery and through his work with the WHO on a project to reduce complication rates from surgery in both developed and developing countries – a mandate that included the requirement that any recommendations involve little or no costs to the hospitals. That all but assured that Gawande’s group would only be able to recommend process changes rather than equipment or hiring requirements, which led to a focus on what steps were often skipped in the operating room, deliberately or inadvertently. Several common points emerged. For example, other medical personnel in the room saw surgeons as authoritarian figures and wouldn’t speak up to enforce key steps like ensuring antibiotics were being delivered prior to incision, or critical information wasn’t passed between team members before the operation began. To solve these issues, Gawande needed to devise a way to increase communication among team members despite superficial differences in rank.

The group took a cue from aviation, with Gawande walking the reader back to the creation of preflight checklists and visiting Boeing to understand the method of developing checklists that work. (There’s been some backlash to Gawande’s recommendations, such as the fact that surgeons can “game” a checklist in various ways, detailed in this NEJM subscriber-only piece.) A checklist must be concise and clear, and must grab the lowest-hanging fruit – the most commonly-missed steps and/or the steps with the greatest potential payoff. The checklist also has a secondary purpose – perhaps even more important than making sure the steps on the list have been followed – which is increasing communication. Gawande fills in the blanks with examples from medicine, aviation, and finance of how simple and perhaps “stupid” errors have helped avoid massive mistakes – or how skipping steps or hewing to old hierarchies of command have led to great tragedies, including the worst aviation disaster in history, the 1977 runway crash of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife North Airport in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people. (This isn’t a great book to read if you’re afraid of flying or of surgery.)

Gawande reports positive results from the implementation of pre-surgery checklists in both developed and developing countries, even in highly challenging conditions in Tanzania, Jordan, and India. Yet he also discusses difficulties with buy-in due to surgeons being unwilling to cede any authority in the operating room or to divert attention from what they see as more critical tasks. Acceptance of checklists appears to have been easier in aircraft cockpits, while in the investment world, Gawande presents a little evidence that checklists have made virtually no inroads despite a few investors finding great success in using them to override their emotional (“fast thinking”) instincts.

Even if you’re in an industry where checklists don’t have this kind of immediate value, it’s easy to see how they might apply to other fields with sufficiently positive ROIs to make their implementation worth considering. A major league team might have a checklist to use before acquiring any player in trade, for example – looking at recent reports and game logs to make sure he’s not injured, talking to a former coach or teammate to ensure there’s no character issues, etc. A well-designed blank scouting report is itself a checklist, a way of organizating information to also force the scout to answer the most important questions on each player. (Of course, having pro scouts write up all 25 players on each minor league team they scout runs counter to that purpose, because they’re devoting observation time to players who are completely irrelevant to the scout’s employers.) The checklist is more than just a set of tasks; it’s a mindset, a way of forcing communication on group tasks while also attempting to avoid high-cost mistakes with a tiny investment of time and attention. If the worst thing you can say about an idea is that people need to be convinced to use it, that’s probably a backhanded way of saying it’s worth implementing.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian/dystopian novel The Dispossessed.