Jun 20, 2018

Alien Stones

13 comments

Wow. What an amazing, rich story. And as good as your discussion was, I feel like you just scratched the surface. I will say that — with all respects to really amazing works like "Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories", "Toy Theater", "How the Whip Came Back" — this is the best of the stories you've covered yet, and the one that strikes me as the most characteristically Wolfean, somehow. As I've noted before, I feel like Wolfe does some of his very best work in his 70s novellas, and this is the first of those. (And The Fifth Head of Cerberus, of course, is three more; and The Book of the New Sun began as a novella intended for Orbit, too.)

 

Incidentally, minor correction: Orbit wasn't a magazine; it was a series of original anthologies, which were their own thing (some people in the 70s talked about them replacing SF mags), and they came out once or twice a year, as hardbacks. (IMS, later volumes were never even reprinted as paperbacks, part of why the series failed.) It had a few magazine-like features, but wasn't one.

 

Ok. Let's start with Wad. I can't buy, at all, Brandon's theory that he is on Earth, and doing some equivalent of skyping in. It just raises too many questions about why they don't otherwise contact Earth, or even consider doing so, throughout the story. This is, after all, a first contact situation. If their communications are good enough that they could have the sort of continuous streaming to allow for real-time interaction, wouldn't they, y'know, check in briefly with whatever their equivalent of Starfleet command is? (Also: it's unlikely that Wad deals with multiple captains, not only because he so closely mirrors Daw (not only looking alike, but the name), but also because Daw himself remembers the captain he trained with. There's no reason to assume the training system changed.)

 

Because of this — and because of the arguments you both made against the clone theory — I, like Glenn, take Daw's description of what's going at face value: Wad is a training program, run by Gladiator, gaining data to be used in training back on Earth. This presses the question: why is he (it?) in this story?

 

I think the answer is because of some of the themes of this story that you touched on, but which have further depths (this being Wolfe!): namely, simulation. What does it mean to simulate something? At what point is a simulation itself a person? (This is a question Wolfe will return to frequently, with the simulation of Thecla in BotNS (shan't say where, too spoilery), not to mention various things in BotLS, and the basic ontology of BotSS, etc.) Here, the questions of simulations are entwined with the question of communication, and with the question of data modeling (note how much time is spent on data models, such as the different ones Daw and Wad use to model the alien ship). On some level, of course, modeling, communication and simulation are facets of the same complex gem; or perhaps I should say that modeling is necessary for both communication and simulation, and that sufficiently advanced communication may be indistinguishable from simulation.

 

Some other ways this comes up: the numbers section, that you both were so eager to move past, is all about this: how do you communicate/model (it's some of both) numbers: what is going to be the same in this between aliens and humans. The fact that they find the equivalent to a decimal point and our digits is significant, suggesting that communication and modeling are going to be possible because aliens, and we, are going to be ultimately solving the same sorts of (linguistic, engineering) problems — note the comparisons made in this regard when Daw talks about how they too have handles on their doors, wires, etc. Note that while the simulation of Mr Youngmeadow says they don't know all the words (what the meaning of is is, we might say), he/it also does manage to communicate pretty clearly. Wolfe's story is, I think, both talking about how unbelievably difficult alien communication will be (in contrast to the breezing past this in Star Trek (not all of TNG, of course, but that hadn't come out yet)), but also one that holds out the notion that it is possible. And of course this is the title of the story: alien stones, i.e. the way aliens model mathematics (and the odd, marvelous little mythical notion that the physical stones themselves, wherever they are back in the dust of Earth, somehow matter).

 

And not just aliens. The difficulties of communications within species — humans' different ways of modeling/communicating come up with Daw and Mrs. Youngmeadow, for instance.

 

We haven't yet pointed out that the very first words of the story are spoken by a computer — something which is capable of running the ship itself (but not, interestingly, adapting/innovating — maybe why they miss it on the ship?) — and with obvious similarities with the aliens.

 

I also took — perhaps inaccurately — the quote about marriage at the end to be on this same topic: the questioners were misunderstanding (mis-modeling) heaven, assuming their words and concepts (marriage) apply when they would not (just as Daw cautions words like "robot" might not apply); in other words, heaven is an alien world, which needs to be "translated" (communicated/modeled/simulated) on its own terms, in its own way. Although Jesus also suggests that it will be able to be, and not just by dying and getting there: with sufficient knowledge of scripture and Power of God, they should know this (although maybe the latter is unknowable).

 

All these rambling thoughts add up, I think, to the idea that this is a story about communication, and about how data is modeled, and what simulation is, and how these are all aspects of the same question, which unites communicating with aliens, and how they understand math, and what Wad is, and how they use Youngmeadow to simulate communication, etc. I don't pretend to know how it all adds up. (My own modeling is inadequate here, obviously.) But I think that's where the story points.

Jun 20, 2018

Ok, a few more thoughts.

 

1. I felt, even more strongly than the two of you, "cringey" (to use your marvelous word) about the gender portrayals/politics in the story. You point to a few bits of it — the use of the word "girl", the fact that Mr. Youngmeadow seems to be assumed to be primary — but there's a lot more than that. Ms. Youngmeadow comes across as a damsel in distress a lot; she is also is being lectured to a lot (by Daw), and while you say she gets a lot of things right, she gets a lot of things wrong that he finds obvious, too. Here and there she seemed to anticipate Diana Troy in the fifth-wheel-emotional-drippy-useless aspect that she had (especially in the early seasons), as well as in other ways. I don't want to overstate this — Wolfe does good things with her character — but it was there.

 

There's also the assumption that there is only one woman aboard; and that of course every man on the ship falls for her (note that we're told explicitly that Moke, too, has the hots for her, and there's the "everyone falls for empaths" bit, too). These, also, fall into sexist (we would say now) tropes of the time. I don't mean to take this too far — I really like the story, I don't think these things damn either it or Wolfe to sexist hell or anything. But I think the story participates in some gender assumptions that are, today, in 2018, very alien to us.

 

In some ways, we are as alien to Daw — very much a man of the early 1970s, and not one from San Fransisco or SoHo, either — as the aliens he encounters.

 

2. A failure (I think) of Wolfe's worldbuilding. We are told that all the ships they meet are — or turn out to be — human. The implication is that some have evolved away from our familiar human form, and are from truly strange, developed cultures that have developed on their own for a long time. If that's so, though, why is our familiar culture so present still? Enough that Daw is quoting British imperial training tactics, as well as the bible (twice). The contrast here with BotNS — where our culture is really all-but-forgotten, surviving in a few distorted myths and a painting of a figure in a suit of armor, but not as much as it seems to in this story, is striking. And even the far-future of BotNS is probably not enough time for different subspecies of humans to develop, as seems to be implied here.

 

3. Wolfe-politics watch: not much, here, obviously. But if one takes the ideas about the proper training of captains to be Wolfe's, then it definitely has a fairly 19th-century-conservative feel to it: the idea that people are naturally fitted for some ranks, that some command and some for following, its opposition to the idea of rising through the ranks (an inherently democratic, which is to say progressive, idea). It's not quite the oldest of old-fashioned conservatism — we can assume that there is carrier-open-to-talents, that Jeffersonian natural aristocracy is found through whatever psychological profiling is done. But it doesn't rise to 19th century democratic values, certainly. I'd also note that, as far as I know, actually-existing commanders, both of ships and armies, etc, have mostly come up through the ranks in most armies. Which is to say, it seems like it's wrong.(I'm also curious what you two, with military experience, make of the claim.)

 

...On a related note, y'all flirted with some pro-imperialist views there at the end, despite the fact that Wolfe is (frequently) rather anti-colonial in other writings. (A non-conservative bit of his politics, I suppose.) I don't take it that these were your considered views, nor that they are Wolfe's, for that matter. But let's remember, please, the horrors of colonialism; the degree to which the Christianizing of the conquered was so often the thinnest of excuses for plunder; and note that if anything about Christianity says there is anything good about colonialism, then, well, so much the worse for Christianity, I say. — But again, I don't think it does. The "La Befana" model is sort of the opposite, isn't it? Other cultures will develop their own christs; they don't need ours. (There's a bit of that, too, in New Sun, IMS.)

 

4. Finally, I wanted to appreciate Brandon's point about the importance of the stories' themes and emotions over the puzzles. I fear, myself, getting too caught up in the latter, and thinking that they are what the stories are About. But ultimately if the stories don't resonate, don't mean on their own terms, then the puzzles don't matter. (This is said of symbolism — that Moby Dick doesn't work as a symbol unless he works as a whale; well, mutatis mutandis, the same is true of puzzles, too.)

 

Fabulous episodes as always, guys. I look forward to the next!

Jun 21, 2018

I love your enthusiasm for Alien Stones. The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories was the second Wolfe book that I ever read, and this story stood out to me. I've always regarded it as a major work, but I'm not sure that anyone else does (and I do less now, myself). As it was, I think we left about thirty minutes of discussion on the cutting-room floor, and, as you demonstrate, there was so much that we (shamefully) didn't consider at all.

 

You point to Wolfe's different approach to deep time in Alien Stones and The Book of the New Sun. This is a great observation, but I wouldn't call it a failure of world-building. The story is so clearly a response to Star Trek, and in order to engage with popular sci-fi on it's own terms Wolfe has to give us protagonists from a recognizable society. This, of course, is both a flaw and a feature of Star Trek itself. The original series is far, far cringier than Alien Stones, and Kirk is very much a man of the 1960s. But we need that if the writers are going to be able to ask us questions about ourselves and to ask us about what it would mean to be different than ourselves. That's necessary here, too, where at least part of the point of the story is to show readers that creatures vastly different from us can still also be like us. I'll also defend the world-building (just for fun), by suggesting that it's not the length of time that has caused some humans to become distinct -- rather, it's the different environments on the colonized planets. So, this is likely not the (super) far future, but something much closer to the near future (like Star Trek itself).

 

I wouldn't characterize Wolfe's views about naval training here as conservative, or even political at all. Certainly he's not suggesting that some people are naturally suited for command -- it's the opposite. These young men are suited for command entirely by nurture, by having been trained specifically for it since they were children. Wolfe here is probably thinking about the same experiences that Brandon and I had with terrible commanders who were only commanders by virtue of their seniority and not by any suitability for the job. It's frustrating when the chair of an academic department isn't good at the job; it's perilous when the battalion commander isn't. (My chair is awesome, for the record). I see where it feels undemocratic to have separate classes (and our military still does), but I don't think this belies the sort of dangerous notions of eugenics that plagued the first half of the twentieth century. But, also for the record, I'm not in favor of sending eight-year-olds to be midshipmen on aircraft carriers. Unless we're attacked by bug-like aliens, in which case we should definitely build a special military training school in space and send all the brightest children there.

 

Also on the note of the Wolfe politics watch (I love this), I think it's important to make a distinction between conquest in the name of religion and missionary work that takes advantage of a military hegemony. One might still find proselytizing distasteful or even immoral, but it is not the same thing as imperialism, even if sometimes it can take advantage of such imperialism. Christianity is inherently a proselytizing religion, so I think for Wolfe (or anyone else) this has to be separated from colonialism, and the poor record of Christian priests and missionaries in colonial settings has to be regarded as a failure of the mission and not a feature of it (as does the clerical call for conquest in order to facilitate proselytizing, or the invocation of scripture to justify putting children in concentration camps). If I was certain that I knew the secret to living forever in an eternal paradise, I would find it immoral to keep that secret to myself and I would make it my mission to tell everyone I could. Whether we should do that with space aliens was a question very much on the minds of SF writers in the 60s and 70s, and perhaps on the minds of priests as well, and I look forward to exploring it more if we get to cover La Befana (which brings a human Christ to an alien planet). With the significance of Wolfe's own conversion, my instinct is that Wolfe is in favor of proselytizing while not being naive about or blind to its political and military contexts. We are very quickly approaching The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is explicitly about colonialism, and this is also wrapped up in religion, so we'll get to see more of Wolfe's views on this subject soon. One more note on this because in the past you have pointed to Wolfe's views about violence and Christianity. Pre-modern Christianity is mostly on board with using violence to force people to behave "morally." Augustine wrote some pretty big books about exactly this, and I would love to know what Wolfe thinks about this belief.

 

Finally: wow. Communication and simulation is precisely the theme that ties everything together in this story, and we just didn't see it (I didn't, at least). There's an article to be written there -- or a talk when we get around to hosting WolfeCon. As always, thank you for your critique and commentary -- it's a huge part of what makes this fun for us.

 

 

 

 

Jun 21, 2018

So much good stuff, here Stephen. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. While I'm not married to my notion of Wad as "skyping in", I'm still puzzled by how the whole simulation works and the connection to the training Daw champions. The notion that the story is about simulation only occurred to me an hour and 25 minutes into our recording of this story and so it was an undeveloped point of conversation as a result. But I think you're completely right in pointing out that it, along with communication, are the themes of the story.

 

Perhaps we cut it, but it's worth pointing out that, by the time Wolfe gets to Fifth Head, he is engaging in a critique of colonialism. This story, in my mind, does flirt with some of the virtues of colonialism, but also some of the damage it causes as well (the exploration of the "ship" is very literally a destructive attack on the species), but many planets seemed to have been colonized at some point and no comment is made on this. It is simply a fact of the world. While it may be the case that only humans have evolved to adapt to the conditions of the various planets, we are not told whether or not intelligent life (or other life) has been discovered. The notion of other intelligent life is subsumed by the dominance of humanity. This is a question Wolfe explicitly picks up in Fifth head, and within the first 10 pages to boot.

 

I think we were trying to tie Wolfe to one of his literary heroes, Kipling, who also has a complicated relationship with Colonialism and Imperialism.

 

Again thanks so much for engaging on this level with us. I learned a hell of a lot from your approach to the story.

Jun 21, 2018

You didn't cut the mention of Fifth Head as anti-colonial — a reading that accords with my memory of the text (I've read the novel twice — the first third more than that, I think — and am looking forward to reading it again with you both). It was precisely that that made me raise my eyebrows at the notion of "Alien Stones" as pro-colonial — not how I saw the story, and to be frank, not how I'd hope to see the story, so perhaps I am blind to it. I also felt that you two — probably not quite meaning it, just in the heat of the conversation — drifted more towards the pro-colonial side of things than you ought to want to do. Cringey because of sexism is one thing — even if it does make one cringe, it's pretty hard to avoid, given the times in which Wolfe was writing. But Cringey because of colonialism is something else!

 

I agree that the missionary impulse can, in principle, be a noble one; in practice, however, it is usually otherwise. Certainly in the American context — where it has served as a justification for slavery (not to deny that, of course, the anti-slavery folks were also religiously motivated), and for various different parts of the prolonged Native American genocide/ethnic cleansing/forced cultural assimilation. I think the question of how one can be a moral missionary — what to do if one real does believe you're saving people from hell (which, granted, would be immoral not to attempt, if that was how the universe was) — is a really interesting & complex one. We'll see if Wolfe gets to it.

 

As far as the world-building: I can accept Glenn's suggestion that this is to enable Star Trek references; I find it harder to buy it as straight worldbuilding. In Star Trek, they just handwave away aliens who look exactly like humans (e.g. on the planet which is all gangsters, or the one which is Roman, etc). But Wolfe is too careful an SF writer to do that. I think the implied level of evolution — and to be fair it's only implied — does conflict with the level of memory of recent Earth history. Unless, as you say, it's a reference.

 

Brandon, the way I'm imagining the training working is that they have a simulated captain on all the ships, whom the captain is obliged to interact with; this is then used as raw data to create a simulation (that isn't just replaying the real events, but uses them as a model) which packs far more incidents into a few years than is realistic (as is explicitly said). The problem with this interpretation, of course, is the last lines of the story: Daw claims to have had a real captain whom he studied with; if my interpretation were correct, he'd have had a composite. I don't know what to do with that. But I don't see the skype interpretation being an answer, even if mine isn't right, either.

 

Glenn, I will bow to your expertise about the choosing of commanders. It still sounds at least vaguely anti-democratic to me. As I understand it — from book learning; I have no personal experience in this area — one of the glories of the modern American military is that people of talent from all sorts of backgrounds can work their way into really high positions; that it is one of the more effective American meritocracies in practice. I can image that in the midst of it this it might be hard to see; but think about what one is comparing it to. I find the idea that command is so separate from being a subordinate to be certainly counter to most of our experience (not only in the military, but throughout society, heads of institutions have worked in lower positions, usually (our current president being a notable exception, but not one that speaks to the desirability of abandoning this rule)). Anyway, enough said on this.

 

I look forward to seeing what you do with the Recording — I remember it as a slight story, but Wolfe put it in his Best Of, so I presume I missed something.

Jun 21, 2018

I forgot to say that I'm reading an edited volume on Lamarck and Lamarckism. My understanding so far is that Lamarckian evolution would permit for relatively rapid changes to a species in response to sudden environmental change, such as moving to another planet, so I'll still defend Wolfe's world-building here (if not his science?). But, really, it just makes me yearn for a Gene Wolfe space-opera universe. Of course, we've just had an announcement that there are going to be several Star Trek shows running simultaneously again, so maybe we can get Wolfe brought on as a writer.

Jun 21, 2018

Well, let us know if you see any support in the volume for Wolfe's contention that Lamarckism is true (and consistent with Darwin). As I said before, I don't believe it, but then, if Wolfe *was* right, I wouldn't know it, since he is precisely critiquing the consensus view.

 

Interesting to think about Lamarckism in the context of Fifth Head, now that I am musing on it. Hmm...

 

As for Star Trek: I have a vague memory of Wolfe saying, in an interview, that he would take the assignment of doing a Star Trek novel (that was the question) if offered, but he thought he'd never be offered it, because he's not what they're looking for. I fear he's right about that latter point; and I wonder if, at his current place in life, he'd still be willing. But God it'd be a kick, wouldn't it? (I don't think he's ever written a screenplay, has he?)

Jun 22, 2018

Fifth Head is the reason I grabbed this volume. I'm not sure how much discussion fodder we'll really get from it, though. There seems to be a real dearth of recent scholarship on Lamarck.

 

I'm going to spend all day imagining Gene Wolfe's Star Trek.

Jun 22, 2018

I'm not going to get into colonialism, imperialism, or my critique of democracy (which can be extrapolated from Sturgeon's Law for the curious). However, I wanted to tell a possibly relevant story here. This must have been in 2003, before the publication of The Knight. I had the chance to meet Wolfe privately for the first time, having dinner with him and his wife at Port Edwards near Chicago. The servers knew his name there, and another guest, Mr. Foxx, was told, oh gee, we have a Foxx and a Wolfe here tonight. Mr. Foxx came to our table to talk, saying he heard that Gene was a writer. Wolfe was polite, but Mr. Foxx was incessantly annoying. He grabbed the Easton Press edition of Shadow I had brought for Gene to sign, and was flipping through it. Then he started free-word associating. "Gene ... Gene ... following in the footsteps of Gene Rodenberry, eh?" The look on Wolfe's face was worth it. All he replied was a sharp, "No!" (You sould have seen his eyebrows). Later in an email he wrote, "I tried to shake Mr. Foxx but he wouldn't shake!" While Wolfe is certainly humble in his interaction with fans and in speeches, it was quite clear he didn't see himself as in a circle which would include Rodenberry.

Jun 22, 2018

Glenn, you might have more luck looking up epigenetics in a modern context: environmental factors turning on introns that would otherwise never be expressed. While not exactly Lamarckian, it certainly shakes up some Darwinian assumptions.

Jun 22, 2018

You can find articles about how your grandmother's or father's experiences might affect your development or personality, etc. - way closer to Lamarckian ideas.

Jun 23, 2018

Mostly, I'm interested in what Wolfe thought about Lamarckism in the 60s and 70s, but the volume I have (some published conference proceedings) has a lot to say about epigenetics. I'm not sure how useful the volume will be for thinking about clones and shapeshifters, but it's interesting.

 

I love this story about Mr. Foxx. I would love to know more about Wolfe's revulsion at being compared to Gene Roddenberry. I mean, I wouldn't really want to be compared to him either -- he treated his creative partners very poorly and didn't even create very many of the things we think of when we think of Star Trek.

Jul 31, 2018

I barely remember that David and Bathesheba question but there was one thing I was proud of from my Alien Stones writeup that’s stuck with me and I don’t remember if you guys mentioned it. They were trying to figure out what the alien symbols meant ... and it was just the alien representation of themselves, the space they occupied as they approached the alien ship. Being able to see yourself from a completely foreign point of view seems to be a repetitive milestone for Wolfe’s characters, and the way that they often fail (though, through their lesson, we don’t have to fail in that way.) I don’t even remember if that was a puzzle in there, but it felt extemely important.

Jul 31, 2018

We've not done much with that idea at all, though it's all over The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It's a theme that we should ask you about when we talk at the end of the book. Certainly, it's even in Operation Ares a little bit and of course it's the basic premise of "House of Ancestors."

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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? 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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. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4721945/ 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_callosotomy 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome 4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemianopsia 5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy 6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizophrenia 7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auditory_hallucination 8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child 9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delusion 10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_polydipsia 11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Harlow 12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4778182/
  • 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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