May 16

"A Story" Parts 2 & 3


I continue to love these episodes. What I love in particular are the pacing — going through the story this slowly & carefully draws our attention to all sorts of details we missed, which is fabulous & vital. I also love the wild speculation, the basing it on only the material read so far — it gives a sense of the play of possibilities, the false leads, the sheer overwhelming meaningfulness in these texts.


I continue to worry — as usual, I suppose — about (to use Marc Aaramini's term for it) apophenia. The texts are richly suggestive; it is hard to know what suggestions are meant, and what we are seeing in the clouds. But I love the seeing in the clouds, so for the moment it doesn't matter. (I think I will at some point write up a longer essay about Wolfe and reading, with invocations of other writers, etc — but some other time.)


A few random thoughts:

- You talk, interestingly & persuasively, about the parallels between various Christian ceremonies/symbols (baptism, the eucharist, etc) in the story. But it's worth remembering that Wolfe also includes grotesques of these symbols: he has said in interviews that the Thecla/alzabo bit is not a symbol of the eucharist, but a dark, twisted version of it (not his words, but something to that effect). So maybe the Shadow Children's devouring is like the eucharist — or maybe it's a twisted version of it? Particularly given the fact that (IMS you mention) elves are, in the tradition, not only mischevous, but often cruel & wicked as well. (By the way, I loved all the background about the shadow children & elves, particularly the mentioning of particular early texts. I also appreciated the name-drop of Susana Clarke's JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL, one of my favorite fantasy novels!)

- The elements reading was very persuasive.

- Brandon, I think it was, at some point described the epigraph as a renunciation of the physical (ie desire) in favor of the non-phsysical — not, at that moment, just the spiritual, though, because that was what brought me up short. It is not only the desire for the physical world that John of the Cross is renouncing: he renounces the desire for *knowledge*, which is not physical! (Ok, a modern neuroscientist might claim it is, in some sense; but that can't be how John of the Cross saw it.)

- While we're at it, you assume throughout your discussion that the epigraph that it was placed by John V Marsch. I always read it — without, I grant you, much thought — as being placed by Wolfe, i.e. as Wolfe's comment on Marsch's story. Certainly in other cases Wolfe uses epigrams that do not seem to be by the first-person narrators of the texts — the Book of the New Sun is an obvious example, but there are others, too (he likes both epigrams and first-person narrators!). Do we have a reason to ascribe the placing of the epigram to Marsch not Wolfe? There is the placing after the title, but I don't see that as dispositive.

- You mentioned in the recap the eye and the other eye, but not the reason they might be called that: if the river is the nose, and the delta the mouth, then they would *look* like eyes... from space. Which implies that the Marschmen (it was they who named them, right?) have seen the view from space before. Which is interesting.

- I think you're correct in reading the abilities as real, and not just theological/mythical/symbolic. But one of the joys of the story is that we can't know! Most of us encounter religious beliefs (our own or others') with a firm sense of whether the metaphysics are true or not. If we read a historical report where people saw the future in dreams, we don't think that maybe they really did; we think they believed false things. (Well, most of us do.) But here we can't know: because of the SF elements, the theological beliefs are, at least initially, ambiguous as to where the theology ends and the description of the world begins, which makes us take the theology more seriously. I love that.

- You don't make as much as I thought you would of the idea of the Marshmen that the river is *holier* than God — an idea that would be heresy in nearly every religion that i know of. Are there *any* monotheist religions that think something is holier than God?

- Glenn (I think it was) defined "holiness" at some point as "specialness". In Judaism, holiness — 'kadosh' — is traditionally understood as separation, made distinct: the shabbath (Shabbat) is made *separate* from other days, the Jews are separate from other people (Leviticus 20:26), etc. It's about distinction.

- While I'm at it, Glenn mentioned the change in way God is seen in the Hebrew Bible from early to late, the withdrawal. Let me again plug Richard Elliott Friedman's book The Hidden Face of God on just this point.

- And on the Jewish beat: Glenn mentions Islam as one of the religions which absolutely refuses the Christian Trinitarian notion (along with some Christian sects). You should add Judaism to that list! The *oneness* of God is central — probably the most important prayer in Judaism is the Sh'ma, which in its short form is a single verse, Deuteronomy 6:4 (Hear, Israel! Hashem our God, Hashem is one.) (Hashem = "the name", the tetragramaton, which in prayer, but not casually, is pronounced "adonai", "lord"). The Rabbis were divided on whether Christianity counted as monotheism: the ones living in Islamic lands said it wasn't, those living in Christian lands said it was — presumably because they'd have been killed if they said otherwise. But the trinity is a notion very foreign to Judaism.


Looking forward to Part 4 & beyond.

Hi Stephen,


Thanks so much for these insightful comments. We definitely need to improve our approach to Wolfe as purely catholic (or worse, generically "Judeo-Christian"). I'm so glad you continue to challenge us on this notion because I think you're right to point out that there is more to Wolfe than a christian-theological reading of his texts. I'm especially grateful for your explanation of "holiness."


The John of the Cross business is very challenging. I can't believe I missed that knowledge is "non-material". I suppose I read the renunciation of knowledge as short hand for something like "worldly knowledge" rather than knowledge per se because the end goal of the dark night of the soul or ascent of mt. carmel or maybe even any ascetic/christian mystic practice is deeper knowledge of the spiritual realm (though that might be sensitivity to, or awareness/understanding of the spiritual).


We'll have reasons by the time we get to V.R.T. to suggest that it is the writer of A Story by John V Marsh who placed the epigram rather than Wolfe. In fact our reading of all of Fifth Head seems to go against the conventional readings provided thus far, primarily through Marc Aramini, who we get to interview about his position on the novel.


Also, I think I read somewhere that Susannah Clarke has had some health problems, but I really hope we get the sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell some day.


Thanks for continuing on this journey with us and giving us so much food for thought!

Fantastic comments about my favorite section of the entire book. "Separate" is far better than "specialness" (and this is implied in the idea of sacred vs. profane) and I appreciate the book recommendations, too.

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.

Claytemple Media is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to