May 22

'A Story' Part 4


Another superb pair of episodes. (I repeat myself, I know. What can I say? Make a really bad one — heck, even a mediocre one — and I'll be more original in how I open my comments, I promise.) I particularly liked Brandon's opening comment that this novella is harder than Book of the New Sun — because I think it's true. Not that the ultimate understanding of what's going on is harder in this case than that — it's really hard in BotNS! — but that BotNS gives you a lot of surface to hold on to, the adventure and the amazing world and the characters, etc. Here there is some of that, but there is, for me at least, less to hold on to (particularly in the first half; in the second half the mist clears a bit). It's one of his hardest works (in a good way, of course!)


Various thoughts, reactions, questions, quibbles & amens:


1. At the beginning of the episodes you say that the five shadow children Sandwalker meets might be the last shadow children; by the end you are assuming it, talking as if by killing those five they exterminate them (you use that word). Why do you think so? The plain evidence of the text is that there are others. For example:

“You talk to all of us when you talk to me,” the Old Wise One said. “Mostly to we five here; but also to all Shadow children. Though weak, their songs come from far away to help shape what I am.”

Obviously, they might still be the last—this is Wolfe, after all!—but you didn't make the case. Unless there's some reason to think otherwise, it seems to me the plain sense of the story is that there are more, just not nearby.

2. You said that when God sees that Adam & Eve are shamed he heals the shame, clothing them, and contrast this with Sandwalker, who thinks he would kill to end shame. But it's worth noting that God also kills them for feeling shame — not precisely, but for doing what they do that makes them feel shame. He doesn't kill them right away; but he sentences them, so to speak, to death — them and the world. I suspect that Wolfe, who knew that Christ was also a torturer, saw this.

3. You mentioned the famous Hamlet quote "nothing is good or bad except thinking makes it so". But you didn't distinguish the sense of the quote. I presume you both know this, but too often it is taken as the equivalent of the line from Milton's Satan, "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." Milton is straightforward mind-over-matter. Shakespeare is a lot trickier and (dare I say) subtler (than Satan, if not than Milton): Hamlet is saying that to him Denmark is a prison—his thinking makes it so. It is not a declaration, as Milton's line is, of power, but of helplessness. (And further complicated by his ironic sparing with Rosencrantz, of course.)) The question is: is what the Shadow Children believe in a Miltonic mind-over-matter — or a Shakespearean matter-shaped-by-mind-however-it-will?

4. You rightly point out that the Shadow Child Wolf is a reference to Wolfe. But it's also a reference to the first novella. In particular, note that the Shadow Child starts as one of a group of five — the fifth head of a single beast (in some sense, since they all go to make up the Old Wise One). Then they become three (the normal heads of Cerberus) then one (the normal heads of a normal dog). I think there's some connection to the first novella here. (Also, the whole "group norm" thing is interesting to think of viz-a-viz cloning, and Marsch (the author of our story!)'s insistence that the GW clones are all one individual.

5. I have a tendency to hear Tolkien references more than is warranted, but given that Wolfe is a fan of Tolkien, and that you have argued that this is a version of high fantasy, it seems that this might be a Tolkien reference:

"...But we walked among you in power and majesty and might, hissing like a thousand serpents as we splashed down in your sea, stepping like conquerors when we strode ashore with burning lights in our fists, and flame".... “We are taller than you, and stronger,” said the Old Wise One. “And wrapped in terrible glory. It is true that we no longer have the things of flame and light, but our glance withers, and we sing death to our enemies.

These certainly sound like Tolkien's elves: tall, powerful, majesty and might and glory, associated with fire and song and light. But remember the fate of Tolkien's elves: those who do not cross the sea (the stars?) will dwindle, becoming small, diminished — becoming a lot like the smaller elves of later myth or, say, the Shadow Children.

6. I wonder if some of the names of the hill people are holdovers from when they were shape changers: after all, they might really at some point have been like ceder branches waving, or like many pink butterflies (if they can be like lava!). Not that those particular individuals were ever like these things, just that their strangely physical names might be a holdover from when they would be called by the name of the form they have taken.

7. You mentioned Ignatius Donnelly as the author of Atlantis. The book I associate him with—because I was assigned it in grad school—was his SF novel, Ceasar's Column. Also: Glenn said "that was back when you had crackpots in Congress." I question your use of the past perfect there, Glenn. I really do.

8. You also mentioned the word translated as Dominus/Adonai/Lord. In talking about a slave master, that is a translation of the word in the Hebrew. But in talking about the name of God, it's a translation of a euphemism; the name isn't Adonai, the name is the tetragramaton, which is pronounced (in prayer) adonai to avoid saying it. (I hadn't ever thought about the fact that it's the same word for a slave master. Disturbing thought!)

9. I liked your comparison of this to Greek tragedy. It caught the spirit well, I think.

10. I also loved the idea that the Shadow Children are drugged-out communists. Hilarious & right.


I'm looking forward to the wrap-up episodes! (I'm going to assume you're going to do more with Marsch's role as author in the wrap-up episodes? Since so far that hasn't gotten much attention.)

Stephen, I'm glad you've enjoyed these episodes -- I think they're probably my favorite of all the episodes we've done.


4. This is a great observation. We did (including in the final wrap-ups about to come out) very little with a symbolist reading of "A Story," and I'm looking forward to more of these types of observations.


5. Haha, yes, this does have a kind of Silmarillion feel to it, doesn't it?


6. Given what we know of the names of the twins, I thought that the names all had something to do with the circumstances of the individual's birth. I'm not sure they can all fit that, though.


7. Haha, yeah. I should have said "different kind of crackpot." There certainly aren't enough legislators writing books about lost civilizations these days.


8. Yes, right -- it's a designation and not a name (title, maybe?). I've come to be really bothered by the way that we obfuscate this in translation.

Re: obfuscation in translation. Do you know Richard Elliott Friedman's translation of the Torah? He translates the tetragramaton with the letters YHVH, and tells readers they should pronounce it as their religious tradition does, i.e. say "Lord" if that's what you do. But that way the text replicates the experience of the original, i.e. seeing the name and then choosing how to pronounce it. It's just one thing he does in his translation which made it, to me, feel really fresh & interesting. (Others: he translates the genitive with the possessive — "Abraham's children" instead of "children of Abraham": Hebrew, like French, does only the latter, but the former is the normal way to do it in English; similarly, he translates the Hebrew grammatical structure that repeats a word for emphasis — the one usually translated as, e.g., "dying you'll die" — simply with italics: "you'll die". He puts contractions in dialogue, since he points out, correctly, that English dialogue without it sounds unnatural.) Overall, he tries to make it read like an English text, not like an English bible translation. Makes the text new for me. Highly recommended.

This is awesome. One of my first courses at Princeton was with a historian of late antique culture who emphasized translating for sense rather than for replication -- that is, trying to read the text the way a contemporary would have. It really changed the way I approach writing history -- and especially teaching.

New Posts
  • 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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