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.