Rendezvous with Rama.

A brief Insider piece where I rank the top ten prospects by position went up this afternoon.

I’m gradually working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, mostly concentrating on recent winners, but jumping back for a few of the classics I missed when I went through a heavy sci-fi phase as a teenager. Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama won the Hugo in 1974 (and the Nebula and a bunch of other significant awards in the genre) and remains highly-regarded four decades later, even though it’s extremely light on conventional plot elements, focusing instead on hard science and some philosophical questions around what an encounter with a superior alien intelligence might entail.

Rama itself is a giant alien vessel that enters our solar system on a parabolic trip around our sun in the year 2131, by which point humanity has colonized several other planets and bodies in the system (including, bizarrely, Mercury and the Neptunian moon Triton), and has also set up an early-warning system to detect possible threats to earth after a meteorite fell on northern Italy in 2077. This system identifies Rama first as a fast-moving asteroid or meteorite, but when it comes closer it becomes apparent that it’s some sort of extraterrestrial ship or device, larger than many asteroids, a giant cylinder spinning at a rate impossible for a natural object. The confederation of planets sets up a manned mission to Rama to explore it, assuming the world itself is dead, which sets up the bulk of the book as a description of what the mission finds once they reach Rama and make their way inside of it.

Clarke’s interests here seem to split into two areas – the internal construction of Rama as a self-sufficient entity with a sort of artificial intelligence powering it (Rama has been in transit for so long that no purely biological life remains, if it ever existed), and some of the moral and ethical dilemmas around the exploration of the world. Since its creators are not present, and could not have left any explanation of their intentions, how would the explorers balance scientific inquiry with the moral imperative to do minimal harm? At one point, the Mercury colonists (“Hermians”) – and let’s not even get started on the absurdity of that – decide to set up a preemptive strike, even though there’s no clear sign that Rama has been sent to attack anything in our system; again, where is the inflection point beyond which the proper response is self-defense?

Because Clarke moves everything so quickly, and sets up just the briefest tensions, there isn’t much discussion or even time for thought about these issues – he’s sort of throwing the questions out there for the reader, then moving on to whatever’s next. I’m not suggesting he had to go Full Tolstoy and give us 80 pages on the morality of space exploration, but a novel that wants to confront these philosophical questions probably should have a little more internal debate among the characters than Rama did. Clarke tries to include this by jumping from the actions of the crew on Rama to the conferences among the various emissaries from the various colonies across the solar system, but these focus as much on problem-solving as on ethical concerns.

I’ve read in a few places, including (but not limited to) Wikipedia, that filming Rendezvous with Rama is a longtime goal of Morgan Freeman, but I can’t imagine this book as a successful film without major script changes. There are no aliens, so there’s no antagonist. The explorers fight a little bit against time, a little against the “elements” within Rama (which is essentially a world turned inside out), but the standard sources of tension are simply absent here. Clarke creates narrative greed only by keeping the chapters short and the action quick, but once it becomes clear he’s not going to kill off a large section of the crew, we’re just watching the explorers peel back layers of the onion and racing a little bit against the clock. The purpose of Rama itself doesn’t become clear until near the very end of the novel, and the crew has little or nothing to do with the revelation. It would likely be a spectacular film visually, but it needs a stronger plot to be a commercial success, and I’m not sure that could happen without throwing the science out the window.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.

Rainbows End.

I’ve written an organization report for each MLB team, including a list of that team’s top ten prospects; you can find them on the full index of all thirty clubs. The Rays’ piece is free; the rest are Insider.

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End won the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Novel, beating out four books I don’t know by authors I’d never heard of (although one of them, Peter Watts’ Blindsight, also received high critical praise). In a world ripped straight out of the fiction of William Gibson, a plot to undermine humanity in the name of saving it ends up foiled by an 11-year-old girl and a virtual entity known only as the Rabbit. It’s a book so in love with its setting that the plot is unfortunately drowned in a sea of irrelevant details.

In 2025, everything and everyone is connected, constantly online and accessible via wearable technology, coding via hand gestures, with their movements and actions easily tracked by the government (okay, that last part might be closer to truth than I’d like to admit). A global intelligence investigation has uncovered a plot to make humans more suggestible via coded transmissions within ordinary broadcasts like commercials – a sort of ‘mind virus’ – that was in fact developed by one of the people supposed to be leading the investigation. He hires the Rabbit to unwittingly help him retrieve the technology before it’s discovered, only to find the Rabbit is more feline than leporine when it comes to curiosity and doesn’t stop where his orders end.

Meanwhile, Robert Gu, a once world-renowned poet who was stricken by Alzheimer’s, is miraculously cured not just of that malady but of old age, restored largely to the body of a teenager, but without the one thing he’d most like back – his ability to craft poetry. He’s approached by an earnest graduate student – virtually, as most meetings in this book seem to be – to help with the latter’s thesis, only to have that student’s online persona hijacked by another entity that offers him a Faustian bargain: help with this project (tied into the same investigation into the UCSD bio-research facility where the mind-control experiment lives) and you’ll get your muse back. Gu was a miserable wretch before his dormancy, lashing out with intent to wound at anyone near him, but after doing so once to his granddaughter Miri, the two end up with a tenuous bond that draws Miri into Robert’s endeavor, without his knowledge at first, and gives her a pivotal role in the attempt to stop a global takeover.

Vinge is himself a transhumanist who has written on the inevitability of the merger of man and machine known as the singularity – an idea first encapsulated by Ray Kurzweil in his non-fiction treatise The Singularity Is Near – and here he has created a world where the singularity is quite close, so much so that he can’t stop telling us about it. The story is overburdened with the minutiae of the operations of these net-enabled clothes, with their own lingo (either you’re “wearing” or you’re hopeless), and the same attention to detail turns the climactic passage, a battle waged on the ground as well as over the net from points around the world, into nearly two hundred pages of confusing, slogging prose. We get the conclusion we expect – did you really think Vinge would let the bad guy take over the world with a mindworm? – and a minimum of damage to the protagonists; the only way the resolution could have been more maudlin would have been to have Gu reconcile with the ex-wife who dumped him for his malicious behavior.

I think a big part of the appeal of such books is the predictions inherent in the writing – wearable technology is certainly getting closer, with the mild success of Google Glass, and our access to the Internet is becoming broader, which makes our movements easier for someone like the NSA to track. Vinge doesn’t seem to worry much about the enormous energy requirements of his near-future vision; virtual-reality remains stubbornly separate from real reality, we don’t hold meetings with overseas colleagues via projections or holograms; and the silent instant messaging he has the more sophisticated wearers use seems too much like the Red Herring telepathic-email device called orecchio, which was an April Fool’s hoax.

I’d recommend anyone interested in this particular branch of science fiction to read William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash instead. Both cyberpunk novels deal with the melding of man and machine in a more humanist light, keeping the narrative moving without the juvenile obsession with sci-fi trappings.

Next up: Going old-school with Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, winner of the Hugo Award in 1974.

Anansi Boys.

This will serve as your umpteenth reminder that my rankings of all thirty MLB farm systems go up on ESPN.com on Wednesday, for Insiders, with the global top 100 on Thursday and each team’s top ten and farm report on Friday.

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys takes one of the many pagan deities he invoked in his magnum opus, American Gods, and repurposes him as a peculiar Florida father who constantly mortifies his son, Fat Charlie, who isn’t fat, and then mortifies Fat Charlie further by dying in ignominious fashion. Flying back from a somewhat grim expat life in London, Fat Charlie runs headlong into his past, only to discover that he has a brother, known only as Spider, who appears to have inherited all of dear old dad’s powers – including the power of persuasion, which comes in rather handy in this story. Spider’s arrival turns Fat Charlie’s life inside out, costing him his job, his fiancée, and his freedom, eventually leading Fat Charlie back to Florida and the four crones who helped him bury his father and reconnect with Spider.

Anansi Boys – there’s a pun in there, in case you missed it – is two books in one: a madcap farce, and then a more serious meditation on dualism and the nature of identity. The shift is jarring; you’re laughing for 150 pages or so, and then you realize you haven’t laughed in a while, even though the pace of the narrative hasn’t shifted or slowed at all. The farce starts the moment Spider shows up, turning Fat Charlie into the straight man and the mark for no end of cons, with Spider using his apartment as home base for what looks like a long, unending con that also brings Fat Charlie’s unctuous, embezzling thief of a boss into the circle, a move that endangers Fat Charlie’s freedom and perhaps his life. Spider hones in on Rosie, Fat Charlie’s ill-matched fiancée, even trying to use his irresistible (because they’re magic) charms on her harridan mother, who has wanted Rosie to dump Fat Charlie since the moment they got together. Key to all of this is everyone else’s inability to distinguish Spider from Fat Charlie, even though they don’t look alike.

The eventual denouement comes about when Fat Charlie ends up in jail, accused by the sleazy boss of the embezzlement he himself undertook, triggering a come-to-Anansi moment for Spider that puts Rosie on a cruise to the Caribbean with her mother and without either man, the boss on the run with blood on his hands and money in various Cayman Island bank accounts, and Daisy, Fat Charlie’s one-night stand/arresting officer, going all Falling Down over the boss guy getting away with murder. One critical coincidence, where Gaiman has Rosie run into the boss on the fictional island of St. Andrews, speeds us towards a single climax that involves every character, one that forces Fat Charlie to cross over into the “beginning of the world,” the homes of all of the animal-deities, including Anansi himself, to undo the bargain he once made with Tiger and to finally understand who Spider is to him.

While American Gods had the feel of an epic, almost a great-American-novel attempt, Anansi Boys is a romp, both for the reader thanks to the Wodehousian man-in-trouble segments where Spider is screwing up Fat Charlie’s life, and for Gaiman, who gets to indulge in the sort of otherworld-creation that helped make American Gods particularly memorable. The inclusion of some (presumably Gaiman-authored) folk tales around Anansi slows the story down at times, although they tend to be short and I imagine Gaiman intended to give Fat Charlie’s deal with Tiger and subsequent attempt to unravel it more context. What Anansi Boys might lack in scope, it more than makes up for in narrative greed.

Next up: I’ve just about finished Vernor Vinge’s 2007 Hugo winner Rainbows End.

The Lowland.

I wrote about the Yankees signing Chase Headley, the White Sox signing Melky Cabrera, and the various signings of Jed Lowrie, Alex Rios, Brett Anderson, and others for Insiders.

Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999 for The Interpreter of Maladies, a scintillating collection of short stories that focused mostly on the experiences of Indian emigrants to the United States, beautifully crafted stories with empathetic characters and gorgeous prose. Her second collection of stories, 2008’s Unaccustomed Earth was just as impressive, but didn’t earn the same acclaim because it wasn’t her debut work and because in the interim, she only published one work, the 2003 novel The Namesake, a less well-received book turned into a mediocre film that starred Kal “Kumar” Penn in a serious role.

Lahiri’s second novel, The Lowland, came out late in 2013 and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award, with stronger critical reviews than Namesake received as well. It’s a melancholy, introspective book of lives destroyed by the ripple effects across generations caused by one seemingly small choice made in the passion of youth. It features Lahiri’s evocative prose and strong characterization, but with the longer form available to her, she takes the opportunity to grab your heart with both hands and wring it out like a damp towel, yet without the critical or philosophical payoff I’d demand of a novel that delves so deeply into personal pain.

The lowland of the title is a swampy area near the Kolkata home of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who are as close as any two friends can be despite very different personalities. Subhash, the elder brother, is shy, cautious, scholarly, and eager to please; Udayan is more daring, outwardly emotional, and, ultimately, politically motivated. As the brothers come of age in the mid- to late 1960s, Udayan gets involved in local communist movements, eventually joining the real-life Marxist-Maoist movement known as the Naxalites, which still exists today primarily as a terrorist organization with only superficial political aims. While Subhash is studying marine biology in Rhode Island, the Naxalites’ activities turn deadly, after which Indian security forces arrest and kill Udayan, leaving his barely pregnant wife Gauri living with in-laws who can’t stand her and pushing Subhash to sacrifice himself to save her from a miserable future and raise his brother’s daughter. That choice has far-reaching and unexpected consequences for all three of them, covering the last two-thirds of the novel, during which we also receive more details on Udayan’s actions and his murder by way of explaining Gauri’s alienation and depression.

The resulting book covers four generations of this family, from Subhash’s traditional parents to his daughter (in all but the biological sense) Bela, who is nearly 40 at the end of the book and has a daughter of her own, with an especial focus on Subhash, Bela, and Gauri dealing with the holes left in their lives by Udayan’s death and in particular Gauri’s emotional withdrawal after it. I found it almost impossible to process Gauri’s lack of connection with Bela and eventual decision to leave her family to pursue an aimless academic career; that her sudden widowhood destroyed something in her is realistic, and Subhash would certainly never replace what she had lost, but for her to bear and raise Bela without forming an emotional bond or attachment just didn’t compute for me.

The ultimate problem with The Lowland its lack of any clear direction or point; it’s an engrossing, tragic story of people broken by history, carrying the fractures across an ocean and through generations, but what is Lahiri trying to get across? She is one of the preeminent writers of immigrant fiction, yet with her second novel, she has only added a good story without saying anything new about the experience of Indian-Americans coming here and returning home after the United States has changed them.

Next up: I’m nearly done with China Miéville’s Hugo Award-winning novel The City & The City.

American Gods.

She smiled at him, looking suddenly, and for the first time, vulnerable. She patted him on the arm. “You’re fucked up, Mister. But you’re cool.”
“I believe that’s what they call the human condition,” said Shadow. “Thanks for the company.”

Author Lev Grossman (The Magicians) also serves as arts critic for TIME magazine, helping assemble their list of the top 100 novels from 1923 with Richard Lacayo. In early 2011, Grossman also put together a list of the ten best novels from the first ten years of the century, of which I hadn’t read two, Lush Life (which I read in 2012 and loved) and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. This was my first encounter with Gaiman, whose reputation as a fantasy writer seriously undersells both his erudition and his ability as a crafter of plots.

Shadow is just about to get out of jail after serving three years of a sentence for nearly beating two men, who cheated him out of his share of a robbery, to death. He finds out that his wife has been killed in a car crash, and on a much-delayed flight home for the funeral, encounters a strange man who calls himself Wednesday (a nod to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and knows more about Shadow than any stranger should.

Wednesday is no ordinary stranger, though; he’s a small-g god, a modern incarnation of Odin, the Norse god and “all-father” who ruled Asgard. It turns out that immigrants who came to the United States and brought their pagan beliefs and superstitions with them brought their gods with them as well – and those gods are about to go to war with the new gods of America, gods of television and computers and other things we worship today. And Wednesday wants Shadow’s help in preparing for the battle, a story that turns out to be as tangled and complex as any culture’s mythology and that involves gods from numerous pantheons, a dead woman who can’t quite stay dead, a lakeside town in Wisconsin, a tree in Virginia, and Rock City in Tennessee.

Gaiman’s assembly of all of these gods and myths into one coherent story by distilling them each into single human characters is brilliant and imaginative, to the point where the novel felt like nothing I’d read before. It’s not magical realism because it’s almost too realistic for it, aside from the whole gods walking around thing; Gaiman plays it all so straight that it’s easy to accept them as regular people, even when they shapeshift or defy the laws of physics. It’s an ensemble cast, with Shadow at its center but not the central character, as his personality matches his name; the plot revolves around him, but he’s never the most interesting man in the room.

As the plot develops, both sides are fighting for Shadow’s allegiance, which allows Gaiman to move Shadow into various orbits and introduce a widening array of his god-characters without creating multiple plot strands. American Gods is mostly linear, which helped make it a quick read, as did Gaiman’s fluid prose and frequent use of dark humor (especially from the mouth of Wednesday, who turns out to be a bit of a cad).

The denouement is just as imaginative as the rest of the book, defying convention and expectations while deftly tying up the various threads of the novel, without short-changing the novel’s themes of mortality, clashes of culture, and the importance of myth. Gaiman’s prose, imagination, and embrace of these big ideas reminded me in parts of Fforde, Vonnegut, Dick, and García Márquez. Grossman’s list turned out to be a tremendous collection of modern fiction; even the titles I didn’t love were worthwhile reads, and the best books on the list rank among my all-time favorites.

Motherless Brooklyn.

My annual “guys I got wrong” piece is up for Insiders.

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s bizarro paranoid detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, which felt like a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick with a dose of Jasper Fforde added like the bitters that completes a cocktail. At least one of you recommended one of his other detective novels, the equally strange but more straightforward Motherless Brooklyn, in which the lead detective isn’t really a detective, but a flunky working for a half-assed detective agency. The boss is killed on a mission gone wrong, and the protagonist and narrator, Lionel Essrog, begins to investigate the murder – in part because he’s involved, but even more so because he has to, as he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD.

Essrog’s tics are minor, and his coworkers at the L&L Car Service, a front for the detective agency run by Frank Minna, all treat them as a fact of life, mostly ignoring them or bestowing unkind nicknames on him (like “Freakshow”). The four underlings, including Essrog, were all at the same orphanage together, from which Minna plucked them first to work as day laborers on suspect jobs like moving what appeared to be stolen goods, then later on to be his team of lookouts and stooges while he played detective. When Frank dies on what at first looks like a normal job gone wrong, with Lionel and dim-witted colleague Gilbert serving as his backup, Lionel starts an independent investigation of sorts, one without a lot of direction at first but that he can’t stop once he gets enmeshed in it – just like he has to complete his series of taps or work out vocal tics that come out of his mouth like random attempts at anagrams and wordplay. (Lethem credits the work of several neurologists in his acknowledgements, including Oliver Sacks.) But Lionel isn’t any more a freak than anyone else – his eccentricities are just more visible.

The case itself is more convoluted than that of your standard hard-boiled detective novel, and the resolution is less clean and partially happens off-screen, but Lethem nods to the conventions of the form, perhaps a little too much so, with Lionel getting knocked out and waking up somewhere else, and sleeping with one of the only female characters in one of the book’s most improbable but funnier scenes. Making Lionel the narrator allows Lethem to draw humor from his condition without ever seeming to mock him for it, and in some ways the obsessiveness that often accompanies Tourette’s is an asset for a would-be sleuth. Some of his conversations with suspects would come off as unrealistic if he didn’t have the condition; Lionel’s tics and utterances punctuate the interrogations in such a way that his blunt questions don’t come off as starkly, which makes the suspects’ candor easier to believe.

I could have done without the stereotyped Italian wiseguys, particularly the older mobsters who are straight out of central casting and would have to inhale just to be two-dimensional, even though they probably had to be Italian to fill those roles in a book set in Brooklyn. They’re secondary, at least, playing limited on-screen roles, as Lionel himself is truly the star – and will apparently be played by Ed Norton in the upcoming film version. If you read this as an amazing character study first and a detective story second, you’ll find the book much more enjoyable than you will if you’re just looking for a good crime novel.

I picked up another detective novel, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat, because the author’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote one of my top 100 novels, A Grain of Wheat, a seminal work of Kenyan colonialism and the struggle for independence. Nairobi Heat is a detective novel that takes its protagonist, Ishmael, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Kenya to investigate the murder of a white girl whose body was found on the doorstep of a hero of the Rwandan genocide. The book itself is a mess of detective-novel cliches – including the knock on the head, waking up bound to a chair, sleeping with the unbelievably good-looking woman who plays an important role in the investigation, and lots of needless violence – but the resolution evoked a powerful reminiscence of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, my favorite hard-boiled detective novel by any author. And perhaps that fits: the violence and lawlessness of Hammett’s book certainly seems to apply to modern Kenya, at least in wa Ngũgĩ’s rendering. He could use a lot of help with his characterizations and needs to craft a fresher plot, but at least his influences seem to be the right ones.

Butcher’s Crossing.

My post naming Cubs 3b Kris Bryant the 2014 Prospect of the Year is up for Insiders.

John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing was one of three novels the National Book Award-winner published, just republished earlier this year by the New York Review of Books after the unexpected success of a reissue of his novel Stoner last year. Butcher’s Crossing takes the American western and turns it inside out, reimagining it as Shakespearean tragedy and morality tale rather than hewing to the standard formula of adventure and inevitable conquest.

Will Andrews arrives in the rural trading post town of Butcher’s Crossing direct from Boston, where he’s left Harvard (of course he has … it’s always Harvard, never Dartmouth or Williams or SUNY-Oswego) after three years in search of something different, a less comfortable life than the upper-class upbringing he’s had among salons and scions. The town is little more than a street, a half-dozen buildings, and a regular flow of hunters and trappers, mostly trading in buffalo hides. Andrews hooks up with the grizzled Miller, who knows of an enormous, untapped herd of buffalo that promises a tenfold return on Andrews’ money, with some risk involved due to the distance to get to the herd, which Miller hasn’t actually seen in a decade. The two set off with a driver and a skinner, and they do eventually locate Miller’s quarry, but when Miller becomes so focused on killing off the entire herd, the quartet stay too long and become trapped all winter by a blizzard, forcing them to fend for their lives against hunger, cold, and the madness of isolation.

Williams makes it clear from the start that this is a novel of failure, of the protagonists’ refusal to heed sound advice and clear warnings in search of high and likely unattainable goals. The inability to contemplate that failure, like the invincibility that powers the teenaged mind, dooms Andrews and Miller from the start. Miller is the driver who won’t ask for directions, and leads the team even though Andrews, as the bankroll, should have a say in major decisions. Once he begins the killing, Miller is unable to stop, whether due to bloodlust or greed – or a blend of both where neither can be distinguished – is unclear. Picking the entire herd clean leaves them out in the hinterlands of the Colorado Territory too late in the season, and the blizzard comes quickly, trapping them for six months while taking away much of their stash of hides. They lose some of the remainder on the way back, only to return to Butcher’s Crossing to find that the buffalo-hide bubble has burst, leaving a ghost town behind and the prodigal sons left with nothing to show for their sufferings.

The typical western imagines the old American West as a tableau of vast plains that lead to opportunity, adventure, and the inevitability of manifest destiny – his land and its fruits are ours for the taking, consequences be damned (or fracked). Miller, who has been trying to recruit a money man for this mission for several years, can only see hides as dollars, and appears unconcerned with the consequences for man or beast. Andrews arrives out west with a romantic ideal of the pioneer country in his mind, only to discover after one day on a horse that the physical reality bears no resemblance to the vague pictures he had in his mind. He’s running away from something, but running to something he hardly knows. Charley Hoge, the driver, has already lost one hand to frostbite on a previous hunt gone awry, and now clings equally to his drink and his religion to see him through any crisis. The hired skinner Schneider is the pragmatist, always looking to turn back when the odds seem too long, taking his salary instead of a share of the profits, but even his wiser outlook can’t earn him a better end than those of his mates.

Butcher’s Crossing can be an arduous read because the entire book operates under a shadow. You know none of this is going to end well, not just because the blurb on the back of the book tells you so, but because Williams slathers his brush with a heavy dose of foreshadowing and paints it all over the first part of the book. He takes mercy on the reader by avoiding too much detail of the caravan’s temporary shortage of water and later their miserable time when trapped in the mountains by snow, but this book remains the doom-metal equivalent in the western genre – lugubrious yet menacing, a book designed to trigger your anxiety more than your sense of adventure. There’s a brief passage where the group encounters a small gathering of Native Americans, but rather than giving us the hackneyed kind of interaction – usually outright conflict or a temporary partnership built on mutual distrust – Williams has our heroes pass the group by, with no bullets or arrows fired or words exchanged. The natives appear to have no interest in contact with these white men; perhaps they figured the men were foolish enough to head to their own deaths without any assistance.

Next up: Nairobi Heat, a modern detective novel by Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ, the son of the world-renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose novel A Grain of Wheat is among my top 100 novels of all time.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up, as is my newest boardgame review for Paste, on the deckbuilding game Valley of the Kings.

Alton Brown mentioned Steven Sherrill’s novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break twice on podcasts I listened to this spring/summer, once on his own and once on the Nerdist podcast, saying it was his all-time favorite novel, one he re-reads regularly. That was good enough for me to check it out – especially once I saw it wasn’t some thousand-page monolith – and it is indeed a fabulous book, clever, compelling, and incredibly warm-hearted, which is funny since the main character is quite literally a monster.

That would the capital-M Minotaur, spawn of Pasiphaë, devourer of virgins, bane of Minos, half-man and half-bull, now five thousand years old and working as a line cook in North Carolina. That’s Sherrill’s one nod to unreality, as everything that comes after that fact of the Minotaur’s existence, the peculiarity of which generates no remark from the non-monster characters in the book. (He does encounter a couple of other immortals – Daphne the Naiad appears briefly toward the end of the book, and we see Medusa in most unfortunate circumstances as well.) With that one given, Sherrill treats the Minotaur as a very human character, at least emotionally, since the guy does have the head of a bull, but other than that and some difficulty speaking, the Minotaur is a protagonist with whom most readers will easily empathize.

Working in the kitchen for a traditional American restaurant, the Minotaur is a diligent and precise worker, getting along with most of his co-workers, mostly because he has the patience of a creature who’s lived five thousand years and seen all manner of unkindness from the humans with whom he’s interacted. He lives in a trailer park, apparently the latest in an endless string of short-term residences, and is an expert at diagnosing and repairing problems with car engines, a skill he trades to his landlord in place of rent. He has a crush on one co-worker, Kelly, but flirts with Cecie, is one of the few who respects the gay expediter David, and tolerates (to a point) the juvenile behavior of Mike and Shane. But he has a pervasive sense of unease that a change for the worse is coming, and eventually his habit of going along to get along lands him in a situation where he has to choose between being proactive and letting history continue to drag him along for the ride.

Sherrill builds his story around largely mundane events. He has great feel for the rhythm of a restaurant kitchen and the repetitive tasks that go into preparing hundreds of identical meals over the course of a few hours, a tedium that the Minotaur actually enjoys. He goes into similar levels of detail on the workings of combustion engines, which I’ll assume is all accurate because I know little more than that you turn the key to start the motor. The twin emphases on specific aspects of these endeavors and on telling the story of the Minotaur’s quotidian life without requiring any Big Events to move the plot will make you forget that the main character is a mythical beast. And he infuses the Minotaur with profound understanding of human behavior and emotions – not supernaturally so, just enough that he becomes the ideal lens through which to watch the actions of the people around him, many of them screwed up in one way or another, the remainder busy screwing themselves up as fast as they can.

The Minotaur barely speaks, finding it difficult to articulate clearly given his bull’s tongue and a clear bout of self-consciousness because of this, so much of his dialogue comes out as grunts that his coworkers all understand – which also puts them in the position of doing most of the talking. That puts the Minotaur roughly into the everyman/observer archetype, sort of a bull-headed Nick Jenkins, someone who watches the action for us but isn’t completely neutral or uninvolved. (The bull-headed bit is a dash of irony on Sherrill’s part, as the Minotaur is neither stubborn nor decisive, but is quite thoughtful and even aware of his habit of sometimes making bad decisions.) He’s the title character, and ultimately it’s his decision and his choices that shape the conclusion of the novel, but the real interest here is the diverse side characters, who are eccentric and flawed and whose real natures are reflected in their interactions with the hero. He’s deeply empathetic toward them, the result of his complex origins and five thousand years of watching humans be human, and most of them are similarly empathetic towards him.

Grub, the amusingly-named owner of the restaurant where the Minotaur – called “M.” by all his friends and colleagues – works, hires a new waitress named Kelly, who is revealed to be an epileptic when she has a grand mal seizure during a shift. The Minotaur’s affection for her seems to go beyond a mere physical attraction; he sees in her some kind of kindred spirit, another lonely soul wandering through life without a clear destination and with too much awareness of her own differences. The story ends with an unexpected sequence of events that force M. to finally be proactive and make a real choice to shape his own destiny, but he needs a little help from an unexpected deus ex machina and a lot of understanding to get to the point, where Sherrill leaves the reader in ambiguity, but with the possibility of hope, which seems to be all the Minotaur is asking the world to give him.

Next up: John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing.

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.

The Locusts Have No King.

I didn’t realize Paste posted my review of the largely terrible Downton Abbey boardgame, a game for which I had low expectations that it still couldn’t meet.

“Man of integrity, Mrs. Caswell,” Strafford nodded toward Frederick with a deep sigh. “That’s what I admire – integrity. But it does make people hard to get along with.”

I’ve praised Dawn Powell a few times around here, praising her masterwork A Time to Be Born (#21 on the Klaw 100) and just generally arguing that she’s an under-read American author. I seem to have failed to take my own advice, however, having read five of her novels in a twelve-month span from December 2009 to December 2010, then nothing since. She wrote fifteen novels in total, thirteen of which are currently in print thanks to Steerforth Press, mostly satires of the in-crowd in Manhattan in the periods just before and after World War II.

The Locusts Have No King finds Powell aiming her derisive lens at the literary set, both writers and the simpering publishers who see them in terms of dollar signs, during the tumultuous period right after the end of the war. Drawing its title from Proverbs 30 (“Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise … the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank”), Locusts is loosely centered around the affair between Frederick Olliver, a struggling writer who refuses to compromise his principles to write something more commercial, and his married lover Lyle Gaynor. Lyle’s successful career as a playwright suddenly hits the skids right as Frederick finds his didactic works picked up by a benefactor who sees commercial potential in them, a shift in fortunes that drives the two of them apart.

Ah, but the burst of energy that upsets the momentarily stable particles at the heart of the book is the perfectly-named Dodo, a sexually rapacious young woman who uses her physical charms to try to sleep her way into higher and higher circles of literary society. She latches on to Frederick, who is guileless enough to fall into her clutches, while his roommate Murray, of uncertain vocation, seems to have more lovers than he can handle and desires to handle none of them save his controlling ex-wife Gerda. Dodo becomes the willing pawn of several of these women as they too seek to entrap more powerful men, mostly for reasons of career advancement rather than sheer gold-digging (Powell had no problems satirizing women, but never puts them down as a class in that stereotyped way), while she herself tries to ingratiate herself into the circle of the Beckleys, the folks with the money to fund or prop up the writers’ various projects.

While Powell’s incisive wit may have been more precise than ever in Locusts, given her three decades (by that point) in the publishing and dramatic fields, the novel also feels more insular than her other works because the archetypes she lampoons are not easily recognized by those of us on the outside. There is certainly humor in her dialogues, including nearly every time Dodo opens her mouth but also the fatuous ramblings of the publishers who push Olliver’s work without understanding it in the least, but characters who satirize unfamiliar targets can feel flimsy rather than funny. Other than the Beckleys – and I wondered if the name’s similarity to the word “feckless,” which described them well, was a coincidence – none of the characters clicked for me as parodies of people or types I knew. Even the witless publisher Tyson Bricker seems a bit harmless as satires go; if he’s funding Olliver for the wrong reasons, at least he’s funding something worthwhile, right?

Frederick and Lyle return to center stage as the novel starts to wind toward its conclusion, after first Lyle keeps Frederick at arm’s length and then realizes by doing so she’s left him vulnerable to the likes of Dodo. Yet Powell ensures that their slow dance back toward each other’s arms is unsatisfying to the reader, capturing both the fragility of the success Frederick is suddenly enjoying and the rise in anxiety over the nuclear age. The novel ends at the time of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, an event she incorporates into a closing scene that provides the ambiguous closing note a novel of this tenor deserves.

Next up: I’m about three books behind in reviews, but right now I’ve just started Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.