Brad Wilber and I have exchanged numerous e-mails about the pros and cons of tribute puzzles, particularly those with some kind of intellectual (scientific, literary, etc.) bent. Thus, I was excited to find out from Brad that he and Matt Sewell had collaborated on a puzzle for the Andy Kravis, Cruciverbalist at Law website, and eagerly solved it the same day it was posted. The remaining meditation is adapted from an e-mail that I sent to Brad with the subject line: "pRaGue-ress report puzzle for cruciverbalist at law now up." It's a real pleasure and honor that Brad, Matt, and Andy were all agreeable to my hosting a facsimile of the puzzle on our website.
In 1994, my son Michael and I walked right by the house in the Czech Republic where Franz Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis. It's near the central square with the famous clock. If only I could locate a picture, but you'll have to do with the a photo taken in Copenhagen as part of the same trip.
Solving their puzzle was quite an adventure, and even though I didn't quite get everything, I stuck with it without Googling. My first sigh of relief resulted from the realization that it wasn't a 40th SNL anniversary theme. At one point, after seeing F??M near the bottom middle (and the sneaky LENIN elsewhere) it occurred to me that the theme might be Animal Farm—but that was clearly written after the Russian Revolution, etc. It's really remarkable how long the theme was disguised, the mark of a great puzzle. The "meta" was, quite literally, The Metamorphosis.
I did not know CICADA—that's not a cockroach, though, is it? (and the last letter could just as easily been a U, as far as I'm concerned). I knew about Love Story but couldn't remember the year or the author's spelling, and for all I knew, Carl SAGAN could have had a best seller over that time frame too. BEEF_TEA was news to me, but kind of inferrable from the clue and needing the F. Ditto re HAWKBIT providing the K. I did think HOT_WATER rather than LOW_WATER, which is kind of ironic since Mike Shteyman and I used the latter in one of our puzzles. DINK was another thing to learn, since I'm more of a SITK. The HEIR clue was sneaky, since some might say HERO fits too. I know a lot about SEARLE and I've heard of Dramamine, but never connected the two. Searle was very early in "the pill" and accidentally discovered aspartame which eventually spun off as its own company, Nutrasweet. Fun to learn the trivia about Jamie FARR, who got you two theme letters, GEEK (no offense taken, since I'm only a four-eyed nerd), Both the ANGRY and the STETS clues gave me good grins. I couldn't completely workout SPIROGRAM (had the ... GRAM, of course), but it wasn't essential to figure out the puzzle. MARPLOT was new to me, and in a central region, but there the crossings and knowing the theme helped.
As for the downs, AMALGAM was interesting and for a while, I considered ANAGRAM, the clue for PHYLA was very sneaky but no complaints, ALITO could have been KAGAN, at least until some of the crossing letters emerged, and the ORANGE clue was very clever, never noticed that but obvious in hindsight. Somehow, I knew about DESK_SET. Small nit, 64-down clue uses 26-across LIME.
I had quite a bit of a mess on my hand-solving (in pen) so switched to a clean grid to work out what went into the circled squares.
It's always tricky to pick a title for a puzzle that gives enough of a hint to get solvers interested, but not enough to give away the theme. In that sense, Matt and Brad made a brilliant choice with "Crawl Space." The same considerations apply with respect to choosing a visual hint, which is a hallmark of presentations on our website. In a Google image search of Prague, we came up with this page. Lo and behold, a crawling baby (not yet metamorphosed into an insect).