Stick to baseball, 9/2/17.

For Insiders this week, I wrote four pieces. I broke down the Astros’ trade for Justin Verlander and the Angels’ trade for Justin Upton. I put up scouting notes on prospects from the Yankees, Phillies, Jays, and Rangers. And I looked at five potential prospect callups for September. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

At Vulture this week, I looked at five major Game of Thrones-themed boardgames, not just reskinned games but several original titles like the excellent GoT Card Game. For Paste, I reviewed the Tour de France-themed boardgame La Flamme Rouge, which is light and good for family play. And here on the dish I reviewed the strong app version of the two-player game Jaipur, a steal at $5.

I’m trying something new this week, and if you find it useful I’d appreciate your feedback. I get a lot of press releases on boardgames from publishers, so I’m including the best of those at the end of this run of links along with boardgame-related news items. These will include Kickstarter announcements that look interesting to me, and if I’ve seen a game at all I’ll indicate it in the blurb.

This is your regular reminder that my book Smart Baseball is available everywhere now in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook formats. Also, please sign up for my free email newsletter, as my subscriber count is down one after I removed that one guy who complained about the most recent edition and called me a “tool.”

And now, the links…

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

My first AFL dispatch for Insiders covers Jurickson Profar, Alex Reyes, Ian Clarkin, and more.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is Philip K. Dick at his paranoid, mind-bending best, the kind of fiction he was doing long before it became somewhat mainstream with films like Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to play with layers of reality and imagination. There’s a mystical component here that also presages the outright religious overtones of his later work (notably V.A.L.I.S.), but with a more questioning and slightly cynical note to it, along with an absolutely bleak view of the near future of our species.

In the novel, PKD gives us an Earth so ravaged by environmental destruction that it is too hot for anyone to go outside unless they’re in one of the resort towns of Antarctica, while overpopulation has led the UN to undertake forcible migration via a draft lottery to various colonies scattered throughout the solar system, all of which involve living in underground “hovels” with only occasional glimpses of the surface. There’s also been interstellar travel to the (fictional) planet Prox, presumably around Proxima Centauri, from which the industrialist Palmer Eldritch has returned after a ten-year voyage, crash-landing on Pluto with a suspicious, unknown bit of cargo with him.

The colonists are all hooked on a drug called Can-D (say it out loud) that allows them to engage in a sort of group hallucination where they can inhabit, almost Being John Malkovich-style, two fictional characters, Perky Pat and her boyfriend Walter, whose environments within the hallucinations are determined by what layouts and miniatures the colonists have purchased. To put it another way, you buy the dolls, the dollhouse, the doll furniture and doll cars and doll whatevers, and then you chew the drug that lets you be the dolls. It’s big business, including the folks who sell the goods that get “minned” to be sold to colonists for their layouts.

Eldritch has brought back a new drug, called Chew-Z, that requires no layouts and is even more potent in the dream-states it provides to the users – but with an apparent cost in lost liberty, although exactly how that works isn’t revealed until later in the novel. But suddenly the users no longer control their hallucinations, and who exactly is controlling them and what the nature of that being is become the critical questions for the protagonists of the novel, none of whom is exactly operating with clean hands.

PKD touches on three of his most frequent and successful themes in The Three Stigmata: perception, paranoia, and mortality. What’s real is never clear in the book; we get layers of unreality, characters emerging from altered states unsure whether they’ve left the alteration or merely entered new ones, and the aforementioned questions of control of their perceptions. That plays into PKD’s paranoid themes, which also appear in the book’s greater structure – Earth in a sort of environmental ruin, the UN exercising a tyrannical hold on the world’s population, a free (or sort-of-free) market that enslaves its workers through their materialistic demands. As for the theme of our mortality, saying too much would spoil the book’s conclusion, but this book presages the exploration of the same theme in Ubik and also hints at the mystical conversion he underwent after what he believed to be a religious experience in the early 1970s.

PKD avoids the taut ending the reader might demand but that the story obviates – you can’t tie all of this up cleanly because the story is, by design, so messy. But it also fits the difficulty of addressing all of the metaphysical questions he asks in this book and in most of his works, about the nature of reality as we perceive it, about how much we cede our privacy and liberty to governing bodies, and of course about life and death and whether there is something beyond the latter. The Three Stigmata asks this sort of uncomfortable, unanswerable questions, just as PKD does in most of his best works.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Robert Sawyer’s Hominids.

A Scanner Darkly.

I love the works of Philip K. Dick, prolific author of science fiction novels and short stories that often dwelt in paranoia and paradoxes, unrespected during his lifetime but finding a cult following since his death in 1982, with an increasing interest lately from Hollywood. The upcoming Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle (based on his best novel) and the Fox series Minority Report (based on a short story) are both derived from his works, as were the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau. So you know PKD’s writing even if you haven’t ready any.

A Scanner Darkly is one of his least speculative novels, hewing very closely to reality other than its depiction of a war on drugs that has gone even further than it ultimately did, using some futuristic technologies (and yet still relying on payphones) and putting its protagonist narc, Fred, undercover with suspected drug dealers where he ends up a user himself. The drug in question, Substance D, is a highly addictive, synthetic, psychoactive drug that has become hugely popular while stymieing attempts by the feds to discover its manufacturer. Fred, posing as the low-level dealer Bob Arctor, tries to learn the source via another low-level dealer Donna, for whom he also has unrequited feelings. His adoption of these dual roles is exacerbated by his use of Substance D, which can cause the hemispheres of the brain to stop working together and start competing with each other, so that he’s no longer aware of what his other persona has done. When this occurs, the story shifts into high gear, as Fred/Bob’s real role in this charade becomes apparent and he has a chance to carve some meaning out of his experience in addiction.

Dick’s paranoia is still present in A Scanner Darkly, with the government using increasingly invasive methods and technologies to investigate Substance D’s distribution; the novel, written in the mid-1970s, foresaw much of what our government now does in the name of fighting terrorism. But the focus of the novel is on the effects of the drug itself, the terrible spiral into which it sends addicts, with Fred/Bob’s descent into cognitive failure taking over from what appears for the first half of the book to be a demented detective story. Dick even concludes the novel with a postscript that discusses drug addiction and laments the many friends he lost to death or disability as a result of their use of drugs, although he argues that drug “misuse” isn’t a disease but “a decision,” a position on to which modern medicine has at least cast some doubt.

Whereas many of Dick’s novels offer incomplete resolutions or deliberately unsatisfying endings, A Scanner Darkly ties up its story in a neat and clever fashion, but in a bait-and-switch manner that leaves that first half to two-thirds of the novel feeling like it was irrelevant. Perhaps Dick meant for the the structure of the novel to mimic the timeline of a drug addict’s (bad) experience – you’re fine for a while until you’ve gone too far, when everything goes pear-shaped – but the result is a novel that feels disjointed, and not in the good way that many PKD novels feel disjointed. We also don’t get to know any characters, least of all Fred-Bob, in any depth, although characterization was not a strength of Dick’s overall – his greatest attribute as a writer was his ability to craft unnerving settings and scenes that often struck at the heart of metaphysical matters like consciousness, perception versus reality, and privacy. A Scanner Darkly veers away from those strengths, and the result left me somewhat cold.

The novel was also adapted into a 2006 film by Richard Linklater, but I haven’t seen it.

Next up: I just finished Dorothy Sayers’ second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Clouds of Witness, and have begun Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Foreign Affairs.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

I somehow fell out of reading the works of Philip K. Dick over the last ten years or so, partly because I abandoned sci-fi for classic literature and detective novels, but also I think because I’d gotten the sense that I’d read his main works. Dick was highly prolific, with numerous additional novels appearing after his death in 1982 (shortly before Blade Runner, the film based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was released), but his product was uneven, ranging from pulpy sci-fi works to serious novels of ideas like The Man in the High Castle, which was #95 on the first edition of the Klaw 100 and won the Hugo Award. Returning to his novels has reminded me of what I enjoy about Dick’s writing – his paranoia, his clarity of vision (despite a rather muddled personal life), and his willingness to dispense with the rules of narrative.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said fits all three criteria, a dark, dystopian novel that deals in questions of identity, privacy, and, in classic Dick form, the nature of reality. Jason Taverner is a world-famous TV star with a weekly audience of 30 million for his Tuesday night program on NBC until he wakes up one morning to find that there is no longer any evidence of his existence. In a police state where citizens can barely move a few city blocks without government-issued identity cards, this makes Taverner a criminal, robbing him of everything that he uses to define himself while also destroying his freedom. His agent, his lawyer, his on-and-off girlfriend all seem to have no idea who he is. He has to deal with a teenaged forger just to get the documents he needs to head into the city, only to find himself swept into a police apparatus reminiscent of our NSA and Homeland Security, where suspects check in but they don’t check out. The truth of Taverner’s missing identity turns out to be far more bizarre than he or we could have imagined, and solving the problem becomes more complex when a dead body shows up in his path.

The paranoia of Taverner’s situation probably seems a bit old hat now – there was a short-lived network series called Nowhere Man in the mid-90s that borrowed the premise – but for 1974 it was fairly new. Dick magnifies the disastrous effect it might have on the victim’s sense of self by having this happen to someone who is world-famous, confident in his celebrity to the point of arrogance. But Taverner is also a “six,” one of a few remaining products of a government genetic breeding program aimed at creating people of extraordinary beauty and intelligence, giving him the wherewithal to respond to his crisis with alacrity (with a bit of overconfidence mixed in). While Jason’s six-ness doesn’t play a huge role in the plot, it does at least somewhat level the playing field for him after an unknown force or entity has effectively de-created him.

Beyond his ability to terrify the reader by placing his characters in situations like Taverner’s, Dick also defied or just ignored conventions of narrative fiction so that predicting resolutions or outcomes would just be a waste of the reader’s time. He was the true Unreliable Author; he wrote entire books where characters were merely figments of someone else’s imagination (Eye in the Sky), or were constructed realities (Time Out of Joint), or seemed to play with the many-worlds theory of quantum physics (Ubik). You can’t accept anything in a Philip Dick novel as real except the dystopia itself. I won’t spoil Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said‘s particular deviation from realism, but wish it had been further explored within the novel once it was revealed – by that point, the cause has ended, and the explanation of why Taverner was the main victim was unsatisfactory. However, Dick mitigates that weakness (and the slightly tacked-on feeling of the epilogue) by continuing to probe the same issues of identity after the irregularity has ended, this time shifting his focus more to the police commissioner, Felix Buckman, who has come into contact with Taverner and ends up facing his own crisis of self as a result.

I knocked off four books on vacation, including this one, William Gibson’s Count Zero, Dawn Powell’s The Happy Island, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Young Men in Spats. I’ll write reviews if time allows it; in the meantime, I’ve started Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness.


Those of you on the fence about buying a Kindle from may be interested to learn that they’ve cut the price to $189. Competition is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Philip Dick’s novel Ubik made the TIME list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005, one of the few genre novels on the list (and, I’m guessing, a book for which Lev Grossman stumped). I’d read nine other Dick novels, putting The Man in the High Castle – the least sci-fi of any of the books I’ve read from him – on the Klaw 100, but hadn’t read any of his work in close to a decade before picking up this title.

Ubik is typical Dick in that it involves reality turned on its head, where he changes the fundamental conditions of our physical existence, then inserts relatively ordinary people and sees how they act and respond. This time around, there’s a new scientific process that allows people who have died to be placed in a state called “half-life,” where they remain physically dead but their brains can continue to function when they are, in effect, plugged in, a period amounting to a few hours in total between physical death and brain death. So Glen Runciter, who runs an anti-psychic operation, can communicate with his dead wife for a few minutes when he has to make a critical business decision (how terribly romantic), although he runs into trouble early when one such session is interrupted by a neighboring half-lifer who manages to invade the signal.

Joe Chip is one of Runciter’s employees and he, Glen, and ten other employees embark for a highly lucrative mission that goes very wrong when a bomb explodes and somebody dies. What is not clear to the reader is who has died: to the employees, it appears that they all survived but Runciter died, but their world begins acting oddly and they receive messages from their old boss that indicate that they are in half-life and he was the only survivor. The primary mystery of the book is whether or not Joe and his dwindling team are actually alive or in half-life, and they try to chase Runciter’s clues and figure out what they need to do to (half-)survive, with a secondary thread surrounding who is actually controlling their new, unpredictable environment. And the title, a play on the Latin word, ubique, meaning “everywhere” (present in our word ubiquitous or in the Spanish verb ubicar, “to be located”), turns out to be a substance that combats in the rapid physical decay that starts to overtake the members of Joe’s team.

The chapter intros, advertising all manner of products under the Ubik name, usually with comical product warnings, reminded me of the epigrams and fake quotes before chapters in Jasper Fforde’s novels, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear Fforde was a Dick devotee. (Stop laughing.) I also thought the idea of a world being created to order for the person(s) experiencing it has been reused a few times, including The Matrix and one episode of 1980s revival of “The Twilight Zone,” at the least.

Dick uses a few early misdirects to keep you guessing about the real explanation behind the bomb and the weird possibly-half-life world, although the result does leave a few plot strands hanging. I also thought the final chapter, barely over a page in length, felt like a cheap add-on, one that undermined a fairly strong if slightly conventional conclusion in the prior chapter. And it takes a good 20-25 pages for Dick to set up his universe, explaining in often dry terms the various forms of psychic abilities in use as well as the whole half-life phenomenon, a section that took up about 10% of the book. Overall, though, it’s a clever, mind-bending novel, and following Joe (the main protagonist) through his confusion about the changing world and then his attempts to save himself, if not others on his team, was compelling.

The question I have is whether this merited inclusion as one of three true sci-fi novels on the list (along with Neuromancer, a decent novel worthy for its prescience; and Snow Crash, a good read but a poor selection for the 100), along with a pair of fantasy novels and a comic book. I’m not an aficionado of the genre, but I could make a case for the Foundation trilogy (they did give The Lord of the Rings a spot, as well as A Dance to the Music of Time), and would argue for Dick’s alternate-history work The Man in the High Castle as more literary and seemingly more serious. And there’s a separate debate over whether six entries out of 100 is too much for the combined sci-fi/fantasy genre, not including works like Never Let Me Go, A Clockwork Orange, or Animal Farm that used elements of altered reality to tell much more serious stories. I liked Ubik and would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind a little sci in his fi, but as a top 100 candidate it fell short for me.

Next review: I don’t usually review Agatha Christie novels, but Taken at the Flood interested me enough that it’s worth a few grafs.