May 29

Episode 69


Thanks. Just some thoughts and questions.


1. Glen started by arguing (reasonably, I thought, but, for me, based on a different interpretation) that "A Story" was written after John V Marsch's release -- due to the overlaps between "A Story" and tFHoC. But by the end, you both seem to have rejected that reading for the opinion it was written in prison. Can you walk that conclusion again?


2. No abos? I don't agree but I appreciate ya'll going to such lengths to defend the hot take. I found that portion enjoyable in that it reminded me of the experts within Wolfe's stories that are there to offer a naturalistic explanation of some event that ignores the bigger picture (like Dr Marsch failing to recognize abos when they are all around him). "There's a column here that is designed to carry a lot of weight but it disappears into the darkness above us. There is therefore no evidence of any substantial structures above. The column is probably ornamental." I think Wolfe's argument (and CS Lewis's and Chesterton's) would be that the column is evidence in itself. In fact, that sort of architecture is what Wolfe's plotting is all about.


3. Regarding "Scandinavian pygmies", Wolfe was a happy consumer of popular speculative science. Stories about pre-columbian Egyptian/Phoenician/Greek discoveries of South America or ancient, lost high tech would have appealed to him without significant skepticism. I would not doubt there was a heterodox anthropological paper from the 60s or 50s arguing for the existence of diminutive Scandinavian tribes existing into the 19th century. This sort of "lore" (unsourced but widely credited and undisputed) was common in the Time Before the Internet. All that to say that "Skraeling" does mean "little man" -- or at least, so some have said.

Oh yeah, I remember all sorts of popular books and TV shows even in the 1980s that loved to look at pre-modern literature as evidence for a supernatural or hidden world -- things like ancient aliens and hidden hominids and so on. I loved that stuff, too (and I still do). I'd love to know if this is something that professional anthropologists ever took seriously, though I'd be surprised to find that they did (but then I would immediately go read all of those books).


I don't think that we end up dismissing the idea that VRT wrote "A Story" in prison. In fact, when I listened to the episode this morning I was annoyed with myself for complicating that idea and then proceeding as if I completely accept it (which I do, but I wanted to be a better foil to it than I was). I think that Brandon's solution to the aspects of "A Story" that bother me is perfect: these teenaged boys have a lot in common with each other, including a love of ancient alien and hidden hominid stories and so of course they think about the folklore of Sainte Anne in similar ways.

Hi James,


Thanks again for your engagement with our coverage. I've really enjoyed the way that you've challenged some of our conclusions about the text. I had hoped to respond much sooner, but I have been out of town for a little while.


I am totally open to the reading of the text that relies on the abos being "real" or having existed. However, the reason I'm more dedicated to the reading why abos have never existed has to do with the thematic elements raised by each of the stories. By the time we were closing out VRT, I became committed to reading the text in such a way that demonstrated why the characters who speak so much about the abos need them to exist. Both Aunt Jeanne and V.R.T (Dr. Marsh) use the abos as a way to explain and justify the traumas that have been visited upon them both. And you can even look at the abos, as a signifier, as a way that the societies use to explaining the corruption and societal breakdown between and within St. Anne and St. Croix. Part of my goal was to highlight a reading of the story that is really about dealing with these personal and social traumas rather than figuring out the physiology, biology, and sociology of a species that we may never encounter within the text.


I hope that, whether or not we're ultimately correct, we've been able to shine a new light on the text and a new way to approach thematic connections of the novels that doesn't rely on purely on solving the abo question.


Again, thank you so much for listening along and you're thoughtful counters. You've given me a lot to think about!

Brandon, thanks for your response. I respect a Wolfe theory that is, even if (heh, or "even though") wrong, is assiduously supported. So I truly enjoyed ya'll's coverage. I think Wolfes "puzzles" tend to be about the setting -- the sociological side of the story. The narrator's personal side is mostly right there in front of us, even if a lack of understanding about the setting makes us misinterpret what they mean. So I do appreciate your focus on the personal angle. The truth is, that listening to your discussion and some of the points you drew out led me indirectly to a vastly extended understanding of what I had before in quite the opposite direction: That "John V Marsch's" writings made him the political focus of a revolution on St Croix and led to his release and a to personal confrontation with Number 5, after which he wrote "A Story" (a secret autobiography). That Jeannine Veil was -- before the start of the first novella -- supplanted by Cedar Branches Waving, V's and Eastwind's (Mr Million's) mother -- that's why he came to visit her. That she was imprisoned not too long after Number 5's arrest. That Victor Trenchard is a St Croix clone -- therefore, in a sense, V's brother and Cedar Branches Waving's child, which V seems to have never understood until he came to St Croix. So there is a lesson in there about the power of discussion.

Jun 8Edited: Jun 8

I really liked the episode 69 of the podcast, where you guys took the bigger questions of the novel into consideration. Here is my few take on those


1. A Story


I think this my favorite novella from all the three, we get so much detail regarding the abo life in this novella. We get their weird belief systems, and marsh people's beliefs makes no sense to me whatever, while the hill people tend to be worshiping the nature around them in ways of trees and the river.


The biggest question regarding this novella is who wrote it, and my belief is VRT never got out of the prison to write it, because I read the angels trumpets imagery at the end of the third novella in a pessimistic interpretation.


Also I don't agree with Brandon's conclusion that A Story is an extension of VRT(novella), and it is the officer who is reading it, I don't think the officer so much cares about the case as a whole, and he just wants to end the investigation, and the conclusion of VRT(novella) is the same, he does not pass any judgement on VRT, but rather suggests to Constant to keep on doing the same torture to VRT until he breaks. So for me VRT never gets out of the prison.


Then who actually wrote A Story and who managed to publish it ? We don't get any timeline regarding where A Story fits in the three novellas, while we conclusively tell that Fifth head happens before or at the same time with last novella.


If we consider for a time that VRT actually wrote A Story, but it has so much detail that I don't think Victor actually has that much knowledge to write it and then he definitely encountered some abos in the back of the beyond, but there is no evidence in text that this happened, and Glen rightly pointed it in the podcast that VRT never discusses anything regarding the faith of abos, while there is so much going in A Story regarding faith and religion of abos.


We never come across any evidence in text as to how abos physically appeared, what we get is always that they looked like animals or they looked like trees or they looked like children.


But in the fifth head when five and David descend in the warehouse, they actually encounter a being who has four hands and who has an triangular shaped face? I think that may be actually an abo. what do guys think?


For me existence of abos is very tightly bound to A Story, if A Story is just an fan fiction written by VRT, then we can say that there never existed any sentient species on Saint Anne.


But as my conclusion I don't think VRT wrote A Story, and it was written by Jeanine in collaboration with VRT, when they had multiple visits together, and then Jeanine published this article, to maybe get VRT out of the prison.


Also if we don't assume existence of abos there are so many questions left unanswered


1. On Saint Croix there is an existence of cloned population which suggests to us that there may be issue with people having an offspring, and due to this massive cloning we have colony face existing on Saint Croix.


Now this we can answer by the fact that the abos did not have the same reproductive system as humans, but when they came in contact with humans, they transformed or got inspired to take human form, and as we previously discussed this created a confusion for them where they started worshiping trees as it resembles to the image of human reproductive organ.


So this can only be explained when we introduce the abo factor in this situation.


2. There no new structures getting built on Saint Anne and Saint Croix.


We always get this Victorian image whenever we are on Saint Croix, and people are using the old buildings, and there no new structures or anything new getting built there, this same thing Marsch notices on Saint Anne.


Now maybe the abo myth regarding hands has gone out of control, but there maybe some fact in this myth regarding that the abos can use their hands only for their survival, but may be they are not able to build something new like tools with it.


Doesn't this explain lack of new buildings or any absence of industry on this planet systems?


3. The War


There is so much less information regarding why the war took place between the English&French, and as you guys rightly pointed out, we don't know why the human race has become space faring and planet colonizing in first place.


Also from the text we don't know about any valuable metal or any such thing found on these planet systems.


Now when the first war could not be explained, we have a war like situation existing between Saint Anne & Saint Croix now, and this cannot be explained, but if we take into account that if abos have taken over this planet, wouldn't it be logical that they will start imitating the war too ?


These are just three reasons which I can think at the top of my head, which do not make any sense, unless we introduce the abo factor in it.

I think we'll address some of these points further in our next episode on the Themes and Motifs, which will be out in just two days.

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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? 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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.
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  • 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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