Dec 5, 2018

"A Story" by John V. Marsch


Edited: Dec 5, 2018

Great series of podcasts on this novella so far. I binge-listened to them while on a long car trip, and thought I'd chime in with some thoughts, mostly pretty disjointed. I know you're doing a closed reading, but forgive me if I jump ahead to some issues from the rest of the story. If anyone on the forum hasn't finished the story and wants to avoid spoilers, you might want wait to read this.


One of the mysteries (and I haven't read "V.R.T." yet) I can't quite figure out is exactly how many waves of colonization have hit St. Anne and St. Croix - we know there was at least one French one, and some kind of English speaking one, and from comments by the Wise Old One, one that perhaps brought the Shadow Children's ancestors from a supercivilization in ancient or at least antediluvian times, either Atlantis or Lemuria (Mu), or Gondwanaland before it split up, or Cabell's Poictesme or "The Country of Friends" - which I take to mean Texas, as the state's name comes from the Caddo Native American word "táyshaʼ "(friend), with the "S" added by Spanish colonists to make it a hispanicized plural. Texas is the only U.S. state that was once an independent republic (as Texans will often tell you, ( I've visited the site of the former embassy of the Texan Republic in London, not far from Churchill's War Chambers - there is a small plaque on the site), so Texas is literally the Country of "Friends". Or maybe the Shadow Children's ancestral memory, or the shared racial consciousness that the Wise Old One taps into from the spacefaring humans recalls the space base at Houston, when the Shadow Children dream of departures from the planet Earth. Oddly, Number 5 even suggests this antediluvian theory during the lesson with Mr. Million and David, when he says the Abos could be the "descendants of some earlier wave of expansion...even predating the Homeric Greeks." Although Mr. Million notes this as implausible, Number 5 glosses on the Etruscans, Atlantis, and the tenacity and expansionist tendencies of a hypothetical technological culture occupying Gondwanaland." That the Wise Old One should express the same idea as Number 5 in John Marsch's story is puzzling- the notion of interstellar colonizing missions launched from Atlantis or Gondwanaland (or even the Republic of Texas) is a fairly unusual idea, and how would John V. Marsch, the author of this story, be aware of the concepts espoused by Number 5 during this childhood lesson? One possibility is that (jumping ahead to the end of this novella), in the same way Eastwind either assumes the identity of Sandwalker or that Sandwalker and Eastwind are reunited in a single body after the Shadow Child bites him, in a similar fashion John V. Marsch, as an Abo assumes some aspect of the identity of Number 5 - which could be the significance of the (Roman numeral) middle initial. I don't know if that idea will be supported by the final novella, though. Or is the Wise Old One tapping into the human clone Number 5's theories as part of the human consciousness stream? If the first wave of colonists came from prehistoric Earth, as Number 5 and Marsch reports the Wise Old One as saying, and possibly carrying the ancestors of the Shadow Children, was there a later (Christian, monotheistic) one that imparted the monotheism (a religious concept that is rare in early civilizations on Earth) and the Christian names of John and Mary, and the "Go with God" salutation common to Germanic and Spanish Earth cultures - "Geh mit Gott" and "Adios") to the Abos before the events of "A Story" and the colonists who arrive at the end of the second novella? Does the German salutation of "Go with God" and the sort of rudimentary Calvinistic predestination that Sandwalker seems to profess indicate a German colonization wave?

Like Glenn, I thought that the descriptions of the Shadow Children could just be the description of baseline Humans, as viewed from an outsider's perspective, which would probably tell us more about the Abos (or at least Sandwalker's Hill People - there obviously could be more than one race or species of indigenous, or near-indigenous people). If I describe an average-sized man as very tall, that will imply to others that I am short. The frequent descriptions of the Shadow Children as having short legs strongly indicates that the Abos are a very long-legged people - and this seems a strong clue why the women of the Maitre's bordello are so frequently described as long-legged. I would guess that the mimicry skills of the Abos are not absolute - they are basically bipeds and have two arms and two limbs, and can alter their facial features and perhaps skin color to resemble settlers but could not physically assume the shape of, say, a ghoul-bear. So in their "natural" state, they have similar body structures but are extremely long-legged and taller than us, a fact which is hard to conceal. The Shadow Children's description as having heads and necks with the mobility of owls and their "too-supple necks" might simply be normal human neck range of motion, implying that Abos have thicker, less mobile necks. Their "claws" and "talons" would simply be the long nails that humans grow if they are untended. The Shadow Children's faces, "dark and weak, huge eyes above sagging flesh, the cheeks sunken, the nose and mouth, from which a thick fluid ran, no larger than an infants" would imply that the Abos are lighter-complexioned, strong-featured, high cheekboned, with large mouths and big noses. The thick fluid running from their mouths might be simply snot or saliva.


Later, Sandwalker describes the Shadow Children as too small, unhealthy-looking, ears too round and not enough hair - implying, perhaps, that the Abos have pointed ears. But later, the Old Wise One says the Shadow Children looked like the Abos look at the time of "A Story" - did the Abos initially mimic the Shadow Children, then the Shadow Children devolve over time? That seems to be what is meant; the use of the narcotic fiber that is chewed, like Dune's melange, seems to have reduced them in stature and health, as well as in corporeality. The essential weirdness of the Shadow Children, though, with their group mind and not-quite-solid presences and possibly venomous saliva doesn't seem to comport with an earthly Adamic origin, though. They might also be, literally, the Fair Folk who pop up regularly in Wolfe's work, from "Cabin on the Coast" to "Peace", who mounted their own space expedition in ancient times? Yet another possibility is that the Shadow Children of the story never existed, and that John V. Marsch is another Wolfeian unreliable narrator. (They do, however, seem to make an appearance again in Citadel of the Autarch.) In looking at any text forensically, we have to ask who the author is, who the intended audience is, and what the message is. I'm still trying to figure that out. Did John V. Marsch's name represent the "John" Christian first name of Sandwalker, and "Marsch" the Marsh-people of Eastwind's adopted tribe, and is John Marsch the twins, reunited in a single body, still alive? I have to read the final novella this week to see if any of this is supported.


Re "Eastwind", I note that "Westwind" was Gene Wolfe's CB radio handle, and of course the title of one of his best-known short stories, but I don't know if that has any relevance.


Going all the way back to the beginning of "Fifth Head", when David and Number 5 are getting a lesson in the library from Mr. Million, what is the source of David's (and 5's) knowledge of Abo history and culture. David seems especially well-informed about some aspects of Abo culture that show up in the second novella - has he read this story at some point, or as the naturally-born son of a prostitute (possibly the woman in pink) who is Abo or part Abo, has he obtained this information from some kind of racial memory? I'm thinking particularly of his statement that "they killed their sacrificial animals with flails of seashells that cut like razors," and how Sandwalker and Eastwind together flog Lastvoice to death, using the limbs of a tree with "little shells that slice the white flesh" of Lastvoice's back. Was there an even earlier, less-human form of the Abos before adopting the partially human template seen in "A Story"? I remember one passage saying the Abos lived in holes and were "longer" (but can't find it).


Again, jumping ahead in the story past your close read (sorry), to the concept that the Shadow Children take different names based on how many are in the group - I'm trying to think about what significance the names chosen for each-sized group have, although of course, if there is only one in the group, that Shadow Child becomes (the lone) Wolf. I have a sneaking suspicion that the seed of that concept (name-by-number) may have somehow come from Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo, of which Wolfe is a fan (as am I) - in his collection of "Letters Home" from the Korean War, he thanks his mom for sending him some Pogo strips, and asks her to send him some of the Pogo books. In Pogo, three little bats (themselves creatures of the shadows) are recurring characters. They don't possess individual names, but decide who they are going to be each morning by who wears which pair of pants - they have their three names stitched on the backside of each pair. Collectively, their names are Bemitched, Bothered, and Bemildred (sic, a take-off of the Rogers and Hart song) but like the Shadow Children, their identities of course are fluid.

Contemplating all this has made my head hurt, but in a good way. (Thank you, Mr. Wolfe.) I'll post more later as I think on all this...


Again, a great series of podcasts!

Dec 5, 2018

Mick, thanks for the kind words. Hoarding podcast episodes for a road trip is my whole MO, and it really makes me happy to know that someone has done that with my own work.


If we were to make a documentary of our process of covering this book, we'd have to call if CSI: Sainte Croix. These questions you raise are addicting but also befuddling and then ultimately frustrating, and our studio walls are covered with head shots, maps, sticky notes, and string tying it all together. We do our best to answer these questions (especially in the two-part wrap-up episode), but the evidence is so tricky. In the end, we revisit all of these questions when we finish V.R.T., too. I'd never heard of Pogo, but this seems relevant as well to a scene you'll get to in V.R.T, so thank you for pointing this out.

Dec 6, 2018

Yeah, just got to that scene, which is really darkly funny. I would guess the influence of the 3 bats was in there. If you ever have some free time (ha) check out some of the Pogo collections. Walt Kelly, who started as a Disney animator, was genius as an artist and writer.

Dec 6, 2018

Hi Mick. I'm glad you're enjoying the podcast so far. A Story By John V Marsch is one of the most difficult stories I think we've covered so far. I think a lot will be filled in when reading V.R.T. More than anything, A Story and V.R.T. are really of a piece and work very well together.

Prepping to do these episodes often left me feeling bewildered and really working hard to solve some puzzles in the text and figure out what is going on.

I'd hate to say anything more and color your reading of V.R.T. I'm sure that we'll have a robust discussion about these stories when we get to the end.

Dec 6, 2018Edited: Dec 6, 2018

There seems to be biblical parallels in this story with St. John the Baptist as well, who ate a diet of honey and locusts, and John Sandwalker shares a meal of honey and larvae with Seven Girls Waiting. As I noted earlier, St. John baptized his (possible) cousin Jesus by submersion in a river, while John Sandwalker murders his brother Eastwind by submersing him in a river, but I'm not sure where this leads us.

Dec 6, 2018

That's a fantastic catch. I never felt fully satisfied with any of our attempts to sort-out why GW used "John" rather than "Edward" or "Glenn" or "Mick;" or which biblical "John" he had in mind. But I think you've tipped the scales well in favor of John the Baptist.

Dec 7, 2018Edited: Dec 7, 2018

There was some discussion in the last podcast of the meaning of this conversation between Sandwalker and Seven Girls Waiting: --- “Will you,” she asked hesitantly, “make this your sleeping place tonight?” He knew what she meant and answered as gently as he could, “I have no food to share. I’m sorry. I hunt, but what I find I must keep for a gift for the priest in Thunder Always. Doesn’t anyone sleep where you sleep?”


“There was nothing anywhere. Pink Butterflies was new, and I could not walk far … We slept up there, beyond the bent rock.” She made a wretched little gesture with her shoulders.


“I have never known that,” Sandwalker said, laying a hand on her arm, “but I know how it must feel, sitting alone, waiting for them to come when no one comes. It must be a terrible thing.”


“You are a man. It will not come to you until you are old.”


“I didn’t mean to make you angry.” “I’m not angry. I’m not alone either—Pink Butterflies is with me all the time, and I have milk for her. Now we sleep here.”


“Every night?” The girl nodded, half-defiantly.


--- In context, my read on this was not that it was sexual nor referred to parenthood, as was suggested, but that the small nomadic hunter-gatherer Hill People tribe of which Seven Girls Waiting had been a member abandoned her after she gave birth, and she was left without a tribe - essentially, leaving her to die because she could not care for herself post-childbirth and could not keep up with the tribe, and because she had produced another mouth they could not feed.


Left behind by her tribe while they went out foraging, one day they did not return for her.


The comment that the feeling would not come to Sandwalker until he is old, refers to aging members of the tribe, no longer able to hunt or fight for the tribe, being abandoned to die. Seven Girls Waiting is asking him to stay with her and begin a new tribe which will help provide for her and her child - essentially an offer of domesticity, which as you noted, is one of the obstacles a hero must avoid on his quest in the Hero's Journey monomyth.



Dec 7, 2018

I certainly don't see anything that contradicts this reading, but if it's true it really breaks my heart. I don't want to believe that the Hill People abandon women who've given birth, but we may see something similar even at the beginning of the story when the women are alone and seemingly unprotected. And this is, after all, a harsh world -- possibly purgatory and definitely adjacent to hell. The one phrase in this conversation that still bothers me is "it will not come to you." Wolfe uses a similar construction ("it came to her") at the opening of the story to describe some physiological change related to ageing, and it seems to refer to something similar here. I still have no idea what the "it" is (and there will be much arguing to be had about this next month, I think), but your interpretation neatly solves this.

Dec 7, 2018Edited: Dec 7, 2018

@Glenn - I understood the "it" in the phrase to mean the sense of abandonment and loss that she feels, as the statement is in response to the preceding comment from Sandwalker that "It [i.e., the feeling of "sitting alone, waiting for them to come when no one comes"] must be a terrible thing." It could also be that her small group did not abandon her, but was wiped out or captured by the Marsh People or killed by an animal. As you said, it's a very harsh world. The "it" in the beginning of the novel remains mysterious.

Dec 10, 2018

@Glenn - I'm rereading through the 3 novellas collecting some cites for a theory I'm working on, and noted there is another reference later in the story to her tribe having abandoned her when Sandwalker is returned to the pit after the two men are sacrificed by the Marsh Men - "Seven Girls Waiting herself seemed more happy than frightened, having found in the pit substitutes for the companions who had deserted her."


Wolfe, Gene. The Fifth Head of Cerberus: Three Novellas (p. 131). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

Dec 7, 2018

I take a more biological and sexually dimorphic view of the It here and see it as the onset or near-onset of the sessile and non-motile stage of the abo life cycle, when planting becomes more necessary and female legs are fragile. If they can’t find suitable soil to sleep in the implications are dire. I also view almost all of the names in the second novella as highly allegorical (bloody finger - a bite, Etc - more later) I do think that the name of one shadow child being Wolf is a big metatextual hint about authority - everything was written by a wolf(e) here.

Dec 8, 2018Edited: Dec 8, 2018

A thought occurred to me in comparing the first two novellas: there is a significant contrast in parenthood between the two cultures on St. Anne and St. Croix. In 5's clonal family, there is no place for mothers, other than as wombs for the genetic material provided solely by men. Although Maitre isn't anyone's idea of a good father, and 5 probably will not be either. But on St. Anne, child-bearing among the Abos is exclusively the role of the mothers, with fatherhood attributed to trees. The males and females obviously have sexual relations, but there seems to be no awareness that children result from the act - if they do not, in fact, reproduce by a kind of parthenogenesis. It's likely that at some point, Wolfe read the influential anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski's writings about the Trobriand Islanders in Melanesia, who told him that they thought conception was caused by spirits entering the mother's body while bathing in the lagoon. They seemed to have some idea that intercourse also played some kind of role, but felt that it was of lesser importance. Reportedly, some Australian aboriginal tribes held a similar belief (that the father's "spirit child" entered the mother), but later this view became controversial, and some writers (like Carl Sagan, in Broca's Brain) have felt that the islanders were just enjoying trolling Malinowski. The comment that "It came to her" early in the story could refer not to the onset of menstruation or the breaking of water and the beginning of labor, but could also refer to the quickening - the first stirring of movement of the child within the womb as felt by the mother, which is felt in some societies (such as the Australian aboriginal culture) to be the official "beginning" of pregnancy.

Dec 9, 2018Edited: Dec 9, 2018

I read a little more about Australian aboriginal birth practices, and found the following in : (citing the Minyamaku Kutju Tjukurpa, a 'women's business' manual for aboriginal women's health centers), which states that in the outback, post-birth the birth attendant, or even the mother herself prepares 'warm ash or sand to pack onto her stomach, between her legs and the base of her spine. This relieves pain and helps to stop the bleeding.' ...which sounds similar to the description of the grandmother packing sand around her legs.

Dec 9, 2018

Oh, wow, this is a great find. It's clear that Wolfe had some (or several) book on aboriginal Australian culture (as it was understood in the 60s). I'd love to know specifically what he was reading at the time. I'm convinced by your understanding of the second "it," but I always took it the way Marc does, as well -- that they are talking about some physiological development.

Dec 9, 2018Edited: Dec 9, 2018

@Glenn - If I were to make a guess as to Wolfe's research (and he has said he does a lot of research for his books) for this, I would guess one research source was probably a book by Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist who was coming into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s as a popular science writer for his books on gender and sexuality and race. His 1936 Columbia University doctoral dissertation (under the supervision of another well-known cultural anthropologist, Ruth Benedict) was published as a book by George Routledge & Sons in 1937, Coming into being among the Australian Aborigines: A study of the procreative beliefs of the native tribes of Australia, and was likely to have been a book Wolfe could have found in a well-stocked public or university library. It was dedicated to Malinowski. It was also probably one of the few commonly-available books on aboriginal sexuality and procreative beliefs books available in America at the time Wolfe was writing. I haven't read it in its entirety, but an on-line version is available at


The Aboriginal peoples of Australia clearly aren't fully the models for the Anneian Abos - In Australia, there are tight family structures where both parents take extensive efforts in educating and caring for the child, every girl marries at puberty, and after that a "Spirit Child" can come into her, although as I said, it's controversial as to whether they believe sex caused pregnancy, or whether the Spirit Child is transmitted spiritually at some time after menarche. In the original aboriginal belief, sex is not linked to the pregnancy, the ceremony of marriage (coincident with the onset of puberty) is. Montagu discusses this at length through his book.


Montagu also noted that Aboriginal women know exactly the point when the Spirit Child enters them, as they feel the movement of the child and a sharp pain, and believe pregnancy began at that moment (p. 345), which could related to the "It" that came to Sandwalker and Eastwind's mother - the quickening. The Spirit Child waits in a Totem Abode and when a married woman approaches near it (like the trees of the story, perhaps.) This entry of something like a spirit child from a tree could have been the "It" - it is doubtful from context that Wolfe's Abos believe a tree physically has sex with a female (although the use of the word "tree" for Sandwind's phallus complicates this.)


On p. 347, there is an account of a woman who realized she was pregnant while a wild wind was blowing through her head that she had encountered in her dream, which could have had an influence on Wolfe's account of the naming of Eastwind. The spirit children are linked to various animal totems, including animals like kangaroos and emus, and interestingly, witchetty grubs (p. 32-33), the larva of Cossos Moths (there is a photo of a man's hands holding a handful of the grubs - they are about the size of an adult's finger.)


The various tribes have different beliefs, of course, and in a discussion of the Arunta, Montagu quotes a missionary who stated in 1891 "These natives believe the souls of the infants dwell in the foliage of the trees, and they are carried there by the good mountain spirits...The nearest tree to a woman when she first feels the first pain of parturition [quickening] she calls ngirra, as they are under the impression that the gurunna, or soul, has then entered from it into the child. Such a tree is left untouched, as they believe that whoever should happen to break off even a single branch would become sick." (p. 50) I haven't read the entire book, merely skimmed it, and didn't find any specific mention of the sand-packing (although it may be elsewhere in the book - the one section on actual childbirth kind of skimmed through the process, so Wolfe probably was referring to other sources on the aborigines), but the references I noted above lead me to believe that some of the aboriginal beliefs discussed in Montagu's book were fuel for Wolfe's creative engines.





Dec 10, 2018

@mickjeco I think the fact that Dr. Marsch earned his doctorate at Columbia and that Columbia has funded his expedition nicely ties him with Montagu, too. If you decide to really delve into Montagu, it certainly seems like there's a whole article to be written here about Wolfe's use of the text.

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Dec 14, 2018

Last podcast, examining the theological implications of the story and the opening quote from St.John of the Cross (who was martyred this day in 1591) was really good.

Dec 14, 2018Edited: Dec 14, 2018

I missed the implications of Lastvoice's dissection of women, showing his desire for greater scientific knowledge (so to speak), and that as a father-figure to Eastwind, he is killed by Eastwind (and Sandwalker). Those are some pretty strong parallels with Maitre. the Oedipal (and possibly Dostoevskiian) father/son homicides occur in the first two novellas (and Marsch references Freudian theory at one point). I'm seeing some hints that may have occurred yet again with VT and VRT in the 3rd novella, as VT drops out of the narrative without comment, seemingly. The more I think about it, Dostoyevskii seems to be a strong influence on the 3 novellas, with the recurring themes of imprisonment and patricide. The "sponger" Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov seems a likely model for VT. Fyodor's illegitimate son, Pavel Smerdyakov, who has some parallels with VT, was also a cat-killer. Another thought: Lastvoice was murdered with razor sharp seashells attached to the branches, I wonder if Wolfe intended any parallels to Hypatia?

Dec 14, 2018

Oh, a reference to Hypatia would be really interesting. If we are meant to think about her in this scene, what do you think Wolfe wants us to do with that? Or what is he pointing to?


I'm so grateful for this comparison of Lastvoice to Maitre -- I'm afraid that we never did much with this but it really reinforces some of my own conclusions about V.R.T. as well.


And you're right -- V.R.T. seems to almost out-Russian the Russians!

Dec 14, 2018Edited: Dec 15, 2018

@Glenn - I don't think there are any really strong similarities between Hypatia and Lastvoice, except possibly that she was an astronomer and concerned with the heavens, as Lastvoice was. Theologically, could a case be made the the Marshmen's attempts to control God's actions and to see as God sees, would mean to become God or a god? Could Wolfe have meant the Marshmen as an analogue for the pagans (as Hypatia was), or the gnostics? Certainly, some of the pagan emperors achieved the status of divinities. I doubt that Wolfe would accept the idea that Hypatia was some sort of martyr in the supposed War of Church vs. Science paradigm, which I think has been pretty well debunked. It may just be an odd parallel In re Maitre and Lastvoice, Wolfe really loves him some Mad Scientists, searching for Knowledge Man Was Not Meant to Know. They show up everywhere in his stories, and why not, they're always fun!

Dec 16, 2018

@mickjeco Haha, yes, it's an archetype I'll never tire of. I think there's more to be done with the the Marshment, but I agree with you that Wolfe isn't thinking of some kind Science vs. Religion paradigm here. Maybe Plato vs Aristotle in some sense, but even that might be stretching it.

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  • Damn that was a good story. I last read it in the 1970’s before I went to medical school (I am now an internist and geriatrician). It didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but it sure does now! I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but am looking forward to doing so. I will share my thoughts about the medical aspects of the story. There are some spoilers, so read the story first. Medical schools are adding close reading of literature and patient narratives to their curricula. (1) This would be an excellent source for that. I’ll show how that might be done. Page numbers are from the 1st Orb edition of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. Page 80 - ‘a stubble of brown hair threatened to erase the marks of the sutures; with dilated eyes…he paused’ The boy has had head trauma and/or brain surgery. A drug or toxin is likely responsible for both eyes being dilated. A unilateral dilated eye would indicate acute brain damage. Page 86 - ‘his head swaying from side to side as he walked, like the sensor of a mine detector.’ He probably has a visual field defect, possibly related to the brain surgery/trauma. Page 86 - “I set fires to things.” Could the surgery have been a lobotomy to control his behavior? Page 88 - “and cut all the way through my corpus callosum.” Nick’s brain surgery was a corpus callosotomy. (2) This surgery is usually done in patients with difficult to control seizures. The main side effect is problems with speech and alien hand syndrome—control of the non-dominant hand. (3) Nowadays, newer medications and other neurosurgical procedures have mostly supplanted callosotomy. Page 88 - “I only see what is on the right of what I’m looking at, and the other side…only the left.” This is known as a hemianopsia (4) and is a result of the callosotomy. The ‘I’ is the speaking half of Nick—the left side of his brain -or- “left-brain Nick.” Page 89 - “He had uncontrollable seizures.” “Did you?” the girl asked. “I had visions.” We find out the reason for Nick’s callosotomy. He had visual auras before the seizures when he would “see things.” Nick seemed to enjoy these auras and was probably upset when they ended. Page 91 - “there’s something you ought to know about Diane, she gets confused sometimes, we’ve had her to doctors, she’s been in the hospital…try not to get her excited.” Diane has some major Issues. The most likely conditions to cause a 19 year old to be hospitalized would be major depression, a debilitating anxiety disorder like OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Although Diane is skinny, anorexia nervosa is unlikely because the treatment certainly wouldn’t be stranding her on an island with no food! Page 92 - Diane said, “I feel better when it rains.” “That should help you to understand yourself.” Is Dr. Island using cognitive behavioral therapy? (5) Although this is a rather expensive way of doing it! Page 94-95 - “Sickness is…relative” “Diane was not functioning…you were not functioning either.” This is a major motif of the story; illness, specifically mental illness, is defined by society. In our society, a schizophrenic person may take a night job at the post office working alone, then go home to their one bedroom apartment and pull the shades to keep out the world. They would watch TV, eat dinner, go to sleep. They are content and even happy with this routine. They are contributing to society. Are they mentally ill? Page 96 - “We have treatment for disturbed persons…but we have no treatment for disturbing persons.” “Disturbing persons” - people with personality disorders? The best you can do is place limits on people with personality disorders and teach their families/friends how to cope with them. If they become unmanageable, societies tend to place them in prison. Could Dr. Island be a prison? Page 97 - ‘He noticed…that she was looking at him oddly, then realized that his left hand had risen to touch her right breast.’ Alien Hand Syndrome! (3) “Right-brain Nick” is acting inappropriately. Page 98 - “They kept me locked up because I kept burning stuff…I bite people.” Again, “right-brain Nick” is causing all these problems. Page 98 - “Then they stuck me full of Tranquil-C.” That is why Nick’s eyes were dilated. Page 98 - “I still think you’re angry somewhere, deep down.” Taking away Nick’s auras (visions) could be the root of his anger. Perhaps the visions occurred in “right-brain Nick” and that’s why he burns things? Or is "right-brain Nick" just frustrated at his lack of control? Page 101 - “My knees are rough…when I came here they were still smooth…I used to put a certain lotion on them. Because my Dad would feel them…Mum wouldn’t say anything but she would be cross after.” I don’t know Diane’s diagnosis yet, but we have a good idea what may have caused her decompensation. Page 104 - ‘There was no reply. The girl sat staring at the ground in front of her…she did not move when he touched her. “She’s catatonic isn’t she,” he said. “Catatonic schizophrenia.” We now know Diane’s problem; she has schizophrenia. Catatonia is no longer consider a subtype of schizophrenia and is more a part of the symptomatology. (6) Schizophrenia affects young adults and is a chronic condition. Some do well, but many others have major disabilities and suffer from problems with functioning and socializing. It seems that Diane is quite disabled and has a poor prognosis. It is possible that her decompensation was caused by an abusive father. Page 104 - ‘The doctor had been a therapy robot, but a human doctor gave more status. Robots’ patients sat in doorless booths…and talked to something that appeared to be a small, friendly, food freezer.’ I have never heard of Amana being involved in cognitive behavioral therapy. Page 104 - “What is the cause? I mean for her?” “I don’t know.” “And what’s the treatment?” “You are seeing it.” “Will it help her?” “Probably not.” With all their space bending technology, it seems that the prognosis for schizophrenia hasn’t changed much in the Wolfe-ian future. Page 113 - “Your record shows no auditory hallucinations, but haven’t you ever known someone who had them?” “I knew a girl once…she twisted noises.” Auditory hallucinations are very common in schizophrenia. Ambient background noises are screened out by the normal brain. People with schizophrenia are unable to ignore them and experience the noise as voices saying bad things to/about them. The voices could also be internally produced by the brain.(7) Page 115 - “Let Ignacio tell you a story…” After unpacking Ignacio’s tale, it seems that he is a feral child. Unlike other feral children, he was taught language and self-care skills. His only lack was human contact and learning how to interact with others. Feral children have a lot of problems becoming socialized and integrating back into society. They usually aren’t homicidal. (8) Perhaps being a “high-tech” feral made him violent to others. Page 119 - “Did I tell you about the bird, Nicholas?” She had been not-listening again. “What bird?” “I have a bird. Inside…She sits in here. She has tangled a nest in my entrails, where she sits and tears at my breath with her beak. I look healthy to you, don’t I? But inside I’m hollow and rotten and turning brown, dirt and old feathers, oozing away. Her beak will break through soon.” Okaaay, as Nick would say. This dispels any doubts that Diane has schizophrenia. She has a somatic delusion, which, while not as common as paranoid delusions, are frequent in schizophrenia. “Usually the false belief is that the body is somehow diseased, abnormal or changed.” (9) Page 119 - “I have been trying to drink water to drown (the bird.) I think I have swallowed so much, I couldn’t stand up if I tried…” Diane has psychogenic polydipsia, which is common in schizophrenia. They can drink gallons every day—so much so that they disrupt their electrolyte balance and develop very low serum sodium levels. (10) Page 125 - “About 100 years ago, Dr. Harlow experimented with monkey’s who had been raised in complete isolation.” Harry Harlow is a real person who did indeed perform these experiments as Dr. Island has carefully outlined. Harlow was a Professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (11) Many of those experiments are now considered an unethical treatment of animals. I suspect that the inspiration for The Island of Dr. Death came about when Wolfe read about Harlow’s research. You might consider Dr. Death to be a 2150 version of Harlow. ================Major Spoilers================== Page 129 - “Nicholas, you are upset now because Diane is dead—” “But you could have saved her!” “—but by dying she made someone else—someone very important—well. Her prognosis was bad; she really only wanted death, and this is the death I chose for her.” This is the death I chose for her. Those words are the core of the story; did Dr. Island have the right to sacrifice an individual for the greater good? In medical ethics, this encapsulates the conflict and tension between the ethical models of deontology and utilitarianism. (12) It seems that Dr. Island is a firm believer in the later. This is why The Death of Dr. Island would be a great source for a close reading of literature. It is a natural jumping-off-point for a spirited discussion of medical ethics. Page 130 - “Nicholas, who was the right side of your body, the left side of your brain, I have forced into catatonia.” Dr Island has essentially killed “left-brain Nick,” the person who has been our view point for the entire story. This is the death Dr. Island has chosen for Nick. Did he have the right to do so? REFERENCES 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.
  • My wife and I listened to this episode on the long drive back from a music festival this weekend. The podcast caused great discussion in the car, making the miles go that much faster. Jessica thinks that Wolfe didn't have the new messiah being born to one of Zozz's people because it would have overly complicated and lengthened the story. I agree. It got me to thinking about what Wolfe's inspiration might have been. Then I remembered that National Lampoon had an infamous cover of an alien crucifixion done by Frank Frazetta. The question is, when did it appear? A little research showed that it it was probably on the streets in May 1972. La Befana appeared in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy; probably too soon after the Nat Lamp issue for it to have been an inspiration--unless Frazetta let Wolfe see it before publication. Nah. Here is the National Lampoon cover.
  • Hello, from indecisively sunny Tasmania! This is my first post, so I'd just like to say first and foremost that I am really enjoying the Wolfe podcast, which I started listening to after The Fifth Head of Cerberus enraptured me (It's quickly become one of my favourite books), and which I'm now darting in and out of as I read his Book of Days . Anywho, I can't fully recall the episodes on 'A Story by John V. Marsch', so forgive me if you mentioned it and this is a redundant post. But I was just paging through Jack Vance's Dying Earth , which is a known inspiration for BotNS, and noticed that in the chapter on 'Mazirian the Magician' the title character spends some time trifling with 'Thrang the Ghoul-Bear', and it struck me as intensely likely that this inspired the creature in the aforementioned novella, not just for the name but a particular sentence within the passage he appears. The passage reads thusly, though of course this spoils the Ghoul-Bear in that story, not that he plays a large role: "Thrang's lair was an alcove in the rock, where a fetid pile of grass and skins served him for a couch. He had built a rude pen to cage three women, these wearing many bruises on their bodies and the effects of much horror on their faces. Thrang had taken them from the tribe that dwelt in silk-hung barges along the lake-shore . Now they watched as he struggled to subdue the woman he had just captured. His round gray man's face was contorted and he tore away her jerkin with his human hands. But she held away the great sweating body with an amazing dexterity. Mazirian's eyes narrowed. Magic, Magic! So he stood watching, considering how to destroy Thrang with no harm to the woman. But she spied him over Thrang's shoulder. "See," she panted, "Mazirian as come to kill you." Thrang twisted about. He saw Marizian and came charging on all fours, venting roars of wild passion. Mazirian later wondered if the ghoul had cast some sort of spell, for a strange paralysis strove to bind his brain. Perhaps the spell lay in the sight of Thrang's raging gray-white face, the great arms thrust out to grasp. Mazirian shook off the spell, if such it were, and uttered a spell of his own, and all the valley was lit by streaming darts of fire, lashing in from all directions to split Thrang's blundering body in a thousand places. This was the Excellent Prismatic Spray-many-colored stabbing lines. Thrang was dead almost at once, purple blood flowing from countless holes where the radiant rain had pierced him." I personally think Thrang comfortably shares the same attributes as Wolfe's Ghoul-Bear: huge, thick-limbed, and stinking (sweat rarely smells pleasant). Maybe I'm reading too deeply, but a tribe that dwells in silk-hung barges along a lake shore sounds at least superficially similar to the Marshmen. Further, the specific lake they dwell next to is called 'Sanra Water, the Lake of Dreams', which you could perhaps posit has something in common with the plan to kill Sandwalker and have his soul flow into the sea and out to the stars. I'm no literary buff, but I think there's enough textual evidence to cite a clear connection between the two, especially as Jack Vance so influenced Wolfe's later work. In any event it made me feel very big-brained.

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