Mar 24

Episode 62 Part IV - discussion


Some thoughts after listening to the last podcast:

1) I missed a lot of the clues you referenced in "A Story" that would make it very likely that the story was by VRT, such as the issues of fatherhood and the oedipal conflicts, which point towards Victor as the author, or at least a Victor/Marsch hybrid. Also of interest were the clues that some artifacts of supposed Abo culture such as the massive tree observatory, were quite late in construction. 2) The St. Croix government seems kind of anomalous among the fascistic / socialist collectivist states of the 20th and 21st centuries in that most such governments with which we are familiar are cults of personality, whether Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Kim, Maduro, et al. But the leader of the St. Croix government is never referenced in the story. It seems to be based around an idea of government monopoly of power rather than an autocratic individual or even a ruling party. 3) I took the "Free People" name for the Hill People as a reference to their economy and their political structure, which seems minimal. They are quite clearly a hunter-gatherer tribe, occupying no fixed territory, with a minimalistic leadership. My understanding is that slavery does not usually exist in a human society at the hunter-gatherer level, as the need for each member to seek food for themselves and the frequent physical separation between tribal members would make it difficult to keep slaves from running off. It is not until a tribal group becomes an agricultural society with fixed territory, and which requires the kind of mind-numbing farm labor that tribal members would seek to avoid, that slavery becomes an institution. There's not a strong sense that the Marsh People have an agricultural society, but probably are largely a fishing society. They do take slaves, who are castrated and become their priestly sect. The Free People also do not practice cannibalism, which the Marsh People do, nor commit human sacrifice, which the Marsh People also do - in some ways, they seem similar to the Aztec culture of human sacrifice of captured prisoners. This is all based on what is probably Victor's idealized version of what he sees to be his ancestors, of course - although possibly based on folktales he heard as a boy from his mother, who may have been the shape-shifted cat who was following Marsch and Victor. 4) Abo culture as described in "A Story" combines elements of monotheism with animist beliefs (the beliefs about trees), which seems odd for the societies involved. To my understanding, hunter-gatherer cultures such as depicted are typically polytheistic or solely animist. Even the old con-man Trenchard appears to claim an animist/polytheistic religion for his supposed ancestors: "As my own ten-times decimated people would say, may the Mountains bless you and the River and the Trees and the Oceansea and all the stars of Heaven and the gods. I speak as their religious leader.” ("Ten-times decimated" is a clever phrase - to decimate is to execute a tenth of a military unit as Roman punishment, so to decimate 10 times would leave few survivors.)

Could this monotheism be a gloss inserted by Victor? His religious education as a boy seems limited, at best. The elder Trenchard says that his son is legitimate and that he and his wife were married within the Catholic Church at St, Madeleine's, but the story indicates that he was educated in a secular school (unless Neil Armstrong was canonized at some point in the past), not a parochial one. Victor seems have at least a favorable attitude to Catholic culture, when he hears the bells of the Cathedral while in prison: "At home there was no cathedral, but several churches, and for a time we lived close to that of St. Madeleine. I remember the bells ringing at night—I suppose for a midnight mass—but it did not frighten me as other sounds did."


Victor also notes, correctly, that "For all the time I lived in the city I cannot remember how often the cathedral bells rang, except that I know they did not strike the hours like a clock." Civic/secular clock towers often do strike the hour, but Catholic churches typically strike only at 06:0, 12:00, and 18:00, calling the faithful to recite the Lord's Prayer or the Angelus, which is a meditation on the Incarnation - which relates directly to St. Anne, I think. (The noon observance of ringing the bells was established by Pope Callixtus III to pray for, and later honor, the defenders of Christendom and their victory at the Siege of Belgrade against the forces of the Ottoman Empire in A.D. 1456, a practice which continues to this day. Among those defenders were the Hungarian nobleman Janos Hunyadi, St. John of Capistrano, and the historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes, who was one of the few European noblemen who answered the Pope's call for aid and whose forces prevented the resupply of the Janissaries in brutal fighting in the mountain passes. I doubt this has much to do with the story at hand, but I am always tickled by the fact that when I hear the bells of St. Mary ring at noon when I am downtown, they are partially honoring Dracula...) What could have made this reference more relevant to the story is that reference to "the bells ringing at night - I suppose for a midnight mass..." Wolfe always makes me a trifle suspicious when a character says "I suppose" or "possibly" or "maybe" - that always makes me want to dig a little deeper. Midnight Masses really only occur on one occasion in the Catholic Church - at midnight as Christmas Eve transitions into Christmas Day - again, Wolfe is signaling a reference to the Incarnation. There was, however, one other occasion when church bells were rung at night, at least before the Reformation - the practice in Catholic countries of ringing the church bells all night long (either from sunrise to sunset, or from midnight to sunrise) to signal to the souls in Purgatory that they were not forgotten, and that their loved ones were praying for their release. This occurred on All Hallow's Eve (Hallowe'en), the night before All Saints Day and All Souls' Day following the next day. Traditionally, the men of the village or town would take shifts pulling the bell rope, while the other men would fortify themselves for the next shift by drinking ale, usually supplied by the parish priest. There was usually a bonfire as well, and it was by all accounts a very festive observance, with the Church Militant reaching out towards the Church Penitent. It really sounds like something I would enjoy doing. (It also might have been an influence on the traditional use of noisemakers at Hallowe'en, a practice which has kind of died out, although I remember Hallowe'en noisemakers being commonly sold in the dime stores when I was a boy.) These observances linked to the doctrine of Purgatory became illegal after the Reformation in many countries, with Protestant authorities suppressing the celebrations which, being both heartfelt and fun, were pretty hard to suppress and kept re-appearing for decades before finally dying out. The bonfires continued to burn among the secretly faithful, and you can still find isolated fields named "Purgatory" on maps of Germany and England, I'm told. With St. Anne being linked to both the Incarnation and Purgatory, I think one or both of these references were probably intended by Wolfe.


There are far less direct religious references in the first novella. In keeping with the Hell-like nature of St. Croix, the word "God" is used 32 times in the 3 novellas; it does not appear at all in "Fifth Head", has the most uses by far in "A Story", and is used only six times in "VRT" - ( two generic reference to the small-g gods/deities Victor claims to have seen in the outback, a specific invocation by the elder Trenchard (who immediately adds that he is not a Christian), a reference to the seat where acts are said to be invisible to God; and two off-hand (maybe) references by Marsch - "God knows how long he would be stuck in a tent , waiting for a storm to abate, and a final reference to the "God-forsaken hills" of St. Anne) (I bought a copy of the book on Kindle, which makes searching references much easier.) 5) #5's clonal father Maitre is described as wearing a red dressing robe; Victor's father Trenchard is repeatedly described as red-haired, red-bearded, and wearing a red-scarf. 6) It occurred to me today, when I thought about the narrative structures of the 3 novellas (First Person / Third Person / First and Third Person Epistolary) that a coherent reading of the 3 novellas as a whole could include the possibility that even as "A Story" could have been written by Marsch, Victor disguised as Marsch, or a Victor/Marsch hybrid, that the same could be said of the first novella. As readers, we have no evidence that the story could not have been concocted by Marsch/VRT, with the protagonist's nomen - "Number 5" - as a tip-off that it was written by John V. Marsch and/or Victor Trenchard, with the 5 being a sly reference to the Roman numeral V. From the "outside" information provided in the 3rd novella, the Maitre de Maison du Chien existed and was an intelligence operative of the ruling government, and a son was arrested and later released for his murder. And that's about it. It would easily explain why the second novella incorporates elements of David's comments in the lesson in the library regarding Abo culture, and #5's comments about prehistoric Earth expeditions to St. Anne. It could also explain why Dr. Marsch is such a Mary Sue character in his appearances in "Fifth Head" - expert on everything about which he is asked, brought in by the Maitre to reveal to #5 that he is a clone, romantic rogue with the Demimondaines... I don't think this was actually intended, though, from our knowledge of Wolfe's original intent to write the first novella as a stand-alone piece (and writing the two other novellas as part of a book deal) and in a literary sense, because "Fifth Head" is such a dense and rich and well-written story that I don't think Marsch/Victor could have written it. The references above, though, could be a Wolfeian head-fake. (I think Mark Aramini may have discussed this elsewhere, but are there major differences between the first appearance of "Fifth Head" in the Orbit anthology and it's appearance in the omnibus with the two other novellas?) 7) Re your comments on Wolfe's analysis of government and slavery, particularly the very creepy discourse by Constant about why St. Croix's form of government is so superior to any others. I agree with your observations, but also think that Wolfe is taking the Augustinian view that any human form of government, or any human-created organization, must ultimately fall short of perfection because it is a creation of fallible, fallen humans - as opposed to the Pelagian view, which seems to have informed most of the spectacular failures of modern nation-states, that we can make the state perfect if we just tweak it enough, and conform human will and dignity towards the need of the perfect state. A perfectly efficient political system, which is what Constant is claiming for his government, would not be perfectly desirable, but would likely be creating Hell on Earth, Or St. Croix. Wolfe also seems to be showing that one cannot develop an ideal society, or set of ethics, by reasoning ones way to them, as with Constant's claims of the perfect society. If we look at what we consider to be the most heroic examples of human virtue - as with those gentiles in Nazi Germany who placed themselves and their loved ones at risk of torture, mutilation, enslavement and ultimately, execution for hiding Jews - their rationales were never that their actions seemed "reasonable" or "logical", but that their actions seemed to be the "right" thing to do. Correct action does not seem to be achieved through logical analysis or man-created ideology, but through a Kierkegaardian leap of faith towards moral action.

Wonderful observations about the bells at night. I just assumed these were Matins (the morning bells), which are usually rung before sunrise and must be a huge irritation to anyone who isn't a monk (well, probably to the monks, too, but they have to get up and go pray), but I think you are right that Wolfe is thinking of other types of nighttime bells. The one instance of the bells in Fifth Head was also quite significant.


We do ultimately settle on the reading that VRT wrote "A Story," but I'm not sure that we ever do enough to come back to the question of why the heroes of this work are theologically orthodox Christians and the villains are heretical Christians, and no one is an animist. This will be fun to reconsider when we get to the end.


Regarding the cult of personality of twentieth-century totalitarian states, I suspect that there probably was one immediately after the war -- it was the general Constant talks about -- but much like the Soviet Union and the PRC, successors didn't initiate a cult of their own personalities. Of course Wolfe is also thinking of 1984 -- it's an Orwellian police state and the complete lack of any personality at the top of the state is part of what is terrifying about it.

Mar 26

Glenn: "We do ultimately settle on the reading that VRT wrote "A Story," but I'm not sure that we ever do enough to come back to the question of why the heroes of this work are theologically orthodox Christians and the villains are heretical Christians, and no one is an animist. This will be fun to reconsider when we get to the end." Good question. My guess would be that on the reading that VRT is the author, and the "Story" narrative is a rejection of his father's claims about the Abos, and his father in general, we have the statement from the elder Trenchard to Marsch stating that the Abos were polytheistic and animist, and his rejection of Christianity. By creating a narrative where the Abos were strict monotheists, it is a repudiation of his father's claims about the Abos, and much of the story seems to be a reimagining of Abo culture, and a repudiation of his father's beliefs, which he also contradicts in front of Marsch on their sight-seeing trip: the great shaman Eastwind from which his father claims descent is both a castrato and a murderer; the seat where God does not see perversions is, instead, the birthplace of the hero of the story; the forged artifacts Trenchard sells as "weapons of the Abos" are rejected, as the Abos only fight in hand to hand combat and as the last page of "A Story" reminds us, "His people had never known weapons," and so forth.

@mickjeco This reading is fantastic, and I think reinforces our interpretation of the meta-textuality of "A Story."

Mar 27

@G.L. McDorman - In some ways, the St. Anne of "A Story" could be read as a world awaiting the coming of the Messiah. John Sandwalker consumes a diet of honey and larva with Pink Butterflies, while John the Baptist consumes a diet of honey and locusts.

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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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