Jul 1

Episode 71: the Slingshot


Edited: Jul 2


The notion of the "slingshot ending", which John Clute has appropriated as a critical term of art (see here), began in a thematically-appropriate small way as a remark by Kim Stanley Robinson in a blurb on a Wolfe novel (I believe Exodus from the Long Sun), about how a Wolfe ending seems, right at the end, to open up vast new vistas, to slingshot the readers out into new possibilities of story which are, however, unmapped.


The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast's marvelous series on The Fifth Head of Cerberus had a slingshot ending.


After carefully building a stunningly original reading — Glenn has called it conservative, but in some ways it is really quite radical when compared to the consensus readings — that the Annese never existed, that they are only a "new planet myth", used to explain and justify various things about the decaying, despotic and violent societies on the twin planets — you have, in your final episode, a radically different interpretation on, one which is only fleetingly compared with the GWLP consensus reading (which, of course, contains disagreements between its two major developers, and some admitted areas of uncertainty); and then we are left.


And Glenn said he can't imagine a fitter ending!?! Say, rather, it was a fitting middle: a prelude to rereading the novel, trying to sort out these two, utterly different, both brilliantly persuasive readings. (I am not, repeat not, seriously suggesting this; but I would love to hear it.)


All of which is to say that the narrative arc of this season of the podcast is structured like a Wolfe story. Like in a Wolfe story, we have many clues, but no final answers. The seeming complex interpretation is undermined, right at the end, but something which throws all we have learned into doubt. And the reader is left to do the work to make sense of it all.

I would like it to be like a Wolfe story in one further respect: that everything is true, that somehow we can create a reading in which everything claimed — in this case, both the GWLP consensus reading and Marc Aramini's reading — is all somehow true at once — all literally true, as Marc is fond of putting it. But unlike in a Wolfe story, I don't think this will be possible.


So what, then, are we to make of these two readings?


The first thing that strikes me is how different they are, not just in conclusion (although surely that too) but in methods. They start from such different places that it is hard to imagine how to even judge between them. If you start by looking for thematic unity, and focusing on evidence in a historical way (possibly my favorite bit of the entire podcast series was Glenn's going through the evidence for the Annese's existence with his historians' hat on), then the GWLP consensus reading will emerge. If you start by looking for symbolic unity and focusing on the way that parts reflect the whole, then Marc's reading will emerge. Entire categories of evidence will be treated differently: Marc takes "A Story" fairly straight, even while seeing it as about John V. Marsch too; GWLP takes "A Story" as the fevered product of a damaged mind, without, ultimately, any real historical evidentiary value at all.


How do we compare two readings, one of which starts with an assumption of universal literalness and symbolic shadows cast by the little upon the great (have they but courage equal to desire), and another which starts with an assumption that many of the characters are lying, that whole chunks of the text are not symbols but errors or delusions or self-comforting myths? How do we stack up Marc's subtle mis-en-scene's with Glenn's brilliant historian's catalog for the barely-existant myth of abos?


Both readings had very strong interpretations of parts of the text — Marc is, for instance, particularly convincing on the recurring symbolism of legs and the parallels to trees and butterflies; I found the GWLP consensus reading of Liev's postulate (at least what I took it to be from earlier: the way it was described in episode 71 was different than my memory of it, which was that it was the literal opposite of Viel's hypothesis: for Veil, the humans are actually abos pretending to be human; for Liev, the abos are just humans whom others pretend are abos) far more persuasive.


I am tempted to say that perhaps those who read the story as ultimately ambiguous were right after all. Perhaps, we might say, they had some presentiment of this ultimate predicament.


How else might we decide?


One way is to step outside. Marc, in private email correspondence, forwarded me excerpts from two Wolfe interviews (different from the one read and analyzed on-air in the podcast) that seem to weight in pretty strongly on his side — particularly the one where Wolfe asserts straightforwardly that Marsch is replaced by a Shadow Child. — But, of course, Marc also correctly notes that Wolfe interviews are not to be trusted. And ideally (as Marc would be the first to point out) a reading should be fully provable from the text alone.


Another way, however, is to look at what emerges. Which reading produces a better novel?

And here I must admit I am tending towards the GWLP consensus. To explain why will require a digression or two.


A great writer always has certain tendencies they must avoid — temptations to which they are prone, threats they must escape — which are shaped by the nature of their genius. Charles Dickens, for instance — to take a writer whose place in the pantheon of great English novelists is fairly undisputed, as well as a personal favorite of Wolfe's — continually threatens to topple over into sentimentality, into melodrama, and into propaganda. These don't make him less than a great writer: the way he is great involves dancing on the edge of those faults. But he does, at times, topple in. They are the failure modes to which his genius is prone. Similarly, perhaps, Proust's failure modes are purple prose and tediousness: but, again, those are the marks of his genius, not refutations of it.


Wolfe's major failure mode is the writing of mere puzzles. (It's not his only failure mode. I suspect his other failure mode, one he approaches less often but to which his genius shows a basic temptation, is that of the catholic propagandist.) I think there is something greater about a novel than a crossword puzzle: partly its expandability, its inexhaustibility — and it's applicability, to use Tolkien's term. Crossword puzzles, at some point, are solved. A good novel has more depths than that. But Wolfe's temptation — and, like the above examples, this is not a refutation of his genius, but rather the way in which his genius manifests itself — is to make his stories and novels sovleable. The threat is tipping over into something can be simply solved in the way that a puzzle is solved. In the way that no solutions to puzzles will ever finish off David Copperfield or In Search of Lost Time.


For all that some details are better read by GWLP than by Marc, I think that, on the whole, Marc is better at making sense of all the little clues and details, his hints and shadows.* I think this symbolic readings probably fit best with Wolfe's spirit. My guess is that it is along the way to the reading that Wolfe ultimately intended.** (I don't think he's all the way there yet, as evidenced by the fact that there are still issues about which he is fuzzy: the best reading will, presumably, have more solid answers for (e.g.) what Liev's post-postulate is.) But I think he's on the right track.***


Glenn and Brandon's reading, in contrast, does not explain all the clues. But it leaves us, I think, with a richer novel. (Themes, ultimately, are richer than puzzles.) The Fifth Head of Cerberus, in their reading, is a novel not about the lifecycle of an (ultimately imaginary) alien, but about the violence humans do to each other and the excuses they invent (and believe) to enable them to do it.


Perhaps it is simply that I want the GWLP consensus reading to be true. It seems to make it a more interesting story. The lifecycle of imaginary aliens is, in the end, not as interesting as the tendency of humans to cruelty and self-delusion and myth.


Now presumably Marc would say that, since the abos copy our tendency to cruelty and self-delusion and myth, that his reading does not exclude this; but it makes it, I think, a pale and less interesting shadow. (The perfect metaphor for this exists, but it is itself more complex than this situation. Nevertheless, for any readers of 80s X-Men comics out there: Marc's reading is like the later retcon about Phoenix copying Jean Grey, and the writer's insistence that this retcon loses nothing; and it is as unconvincing as that defense of that retcon, too.)

Now there is one aspect that I think Marc makes richer than the GWLP consensus: the second novella. For all their marvelous attention to the details of "A Story" in their close reading of it, it mostly drops out of their final reading of the novel, which focuses on "Fifth Head" and VRT. The second novella, in their reading, threatens to become a mere settling of scores and patching together of myths.


But the novel I am rereading (right now) is the GWLP version: because it feels like a better book.


Again: both readings are incredibly powerful. I don't think that any reading of The Fifth Head of Cerberus is going to be persuasive without fully confronting both of them, on their own home grounds of the approach and natures of evidence that makes them persuasive. And I do hold out a hope that there is some way to preserve the best of each these two readings, even if I don't, now, have it. Ironically, if there is such a reading, I suspect that it will coalesce on the "standard" reading to which both Marc & the GWLP take exception: that there are some abos still around, but that Veil's hypothesis is not true; that Marsch is replaced neither by a shadow child version of himself nor by a human VRT, but simply by an abo. Perhaps, in some uniquely triparte Hegelian way, both Marc and the GWLP consensus are antithesis to the thesis of the standard reading, which can all merge into some synthesis.


But that they have left as an exercise for the readers; and I, myself, have no solution to it. If one exists at all.


* Marc's reading does, however, tend to omit, dismiss or explain away the larger, more obvious clues. Often Marc does this by appealing to a proposed two-level reading, in which a mystery contains a (more) obvious as well a hidden solution. But this, of course, threatens to simply ignore the most basic and powerful of the clues.


** One tendency I routinely push back against is the tendency of Wofle interpreters to act as if he is infallible: as if all his clues always add up the way he intends them to, as if he never goofs and weaves in a hint that he does not mean to point the way it actually points. Along these lines, my guess is that something like Marc's interpretation is what Wolfe had in mind, but that he — as an error — did not foresee, and thus did not sufficiently block, the GWLP consensus reading: that the latter is a more-or-less plausible reading of the text, even though Wolfe didn't intend it to be. Because he's not perfect; and, as modern literary theory holds, authors are not in complete control of the meaning of the texts they create.


*** Although it's worth noting that symbolism is ultimately very fuzzy: and that historical evidentiary practices of the sort Glenn brings to bear on the work are specifically designed to guard against the primary failure mode of symbolism, namely, the tendency of humans to see castles in clouds.

Stephen, you've wonderfully described the scholarly tension here, and you've essentially outlined a program for a really great conference on The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I want to give Marc (and others) some time to chime in (since we've said plenty), but I want to say that we've been commissioned to do a kind of process episode. We're planning to talk about the different ways that Brandon and I read (especially speculative fiction), and we'll certainly be talking about my historicist approach and the inherent tension that has with a symbolist approach. I don't think we're doing that for a few months still, but I'm very excited about it.

Stephen, thanks for outlining your thoughts here and really digging in to the two different readings of the story. I do hope others will reply with their own reader responses. One of the reasons I do this podcast, and one of my favorite things about discussing anything english or philosophy related, is to broaden and open discourses. I feel like, for better or worse, we accomplished that with this series on Fifth Head, and I'm really happy about that.


Really enjoyed the podcasts and analysis of Fifth Head. I've always sided with the standard reading, that VRT is an abo impersonating Marsch. I've also always understood Liev's Postpostulate to be that humans replaced abos and now believe themselves to be abos.


That said, Veil's hypothesis is such a tantalizing concept it's hard to imagine Wolfe using it as a throwaway idea. My reading of Veil's hypothesis was that it was Wolfe's way of setting up VRT's eventual identity theft of Marsch. I know Marc's reading has probably been hashed out endlessly on the mailing lists, but as interesting as it sounds to have Number 5 being a true human surrounded by abos, I just think that an abo society would look very different than what we see on St. Anne and St. Croix, even if we accept them to be somewhat dilapidated. Another thing, if I'm remembering right, is that VRT's handwriting is recognized to be bad; but if everyone is an abo than everyone's handwriting would be bad, right? Is there any indication that such might be the case? There's also the problem of David, and all the clone slaves about in Port Mimizon. Can humans interbreed with abos?


Marc's take on the Shadow Children is a little strange, but the Shadow Children are themselves a little strange and there's no easy way to figure out what's going on with them.


I think Marc has talked about the Dollo's Law reference, but it occurred to me that Wolfe might have brought it up to address one of Aunt Jeanine's objections to her own thesis, that if the abos perfectly mimicked humans they would lose the ability to shapeshift. Perhaps the abos have lost their old ability, but have also adapted a new way to imitate others?

Anyhow great analysis by everyone involved.

Thanks for listening. We had so much fun talking (endlessly) about this book, and I'm glad you enjoyed listening to it.


Your observation about the handwriting is great, and it is a real wrench in the idea that everyone is an abo.

The whole comment is great, but I agree that the handwriting point is particularly good. It seems to me that similar points could be made in other areas, e.g. what does it mean to say that VRT's father's hands went bad if he was always an abo? And even if you say abo hands deteriorate, his hands became bad compared to what? (Wouldn't it not be noteworthy if everyone was an abo?) And how could anyone have passed the Bloody Sands shovel test? etc.

Only briefly- The useless hands, the larger issue of the handwriting, are the big huge red herring we spend all our time looking for. this is a far more metaphorical ailment: port mimizon, departement de la main, is structured on a hand. These are those symbolic details in Wolfe that are not at all ambiguous to me, like the street names: street of maggots (which have an adult stage) etc. I ask the question - what is the hand that doesnt work as it should In the text? My symbolic answer is Port Mimizon. so the handwriting materializes only in part with Marsch and we look in vain for it elsewhere, as its textual application is too big and too small to see.

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I am having some difficulty copying some of my response here, so I am instead going to leave a pastebin link to it. I think the big question involves why the theme of a monstrous humanity requires any mention of aliens at all. If anything, the second novella shows how human the abos can be, and how monstrous, just as people are. Anthropomorphized? Perhaps. Here is a longer response, which might be somewhat patchwork, and does contain spoilers for other works which are by and large mentioned at the start of the relevant paragraph. https://pastebin.com/C1y1eQUk

Jul 4Edited: Jul 4

Marc, thank you for posting your response. (I strongly encourage everyone to click through & read it — extremely interesting.) As I said above — and as I've said in correspondence as well — you make an incredibly strong case. And if I had to guess, I'd guess that Wolfe meant something along the lines you suggest. In particular, I appreciate your second paragraph (from the linked document), about the thematic power of your reading. You make a very strong case. All that said: I don't think this is the final word, even if the further words involve a more detailed rebuttal of what I'm calling the GWLP consensus reading. You make a few general points against it; but it is itself strong enough that it deserves, at the least, a specific and detailed rebuttal. They also have answers to at least some of the questions you ask. They also forward their own answers to questions you don't address, such as (to pick one that you said on the show you were uncertain about) what Liev's post-postulate is. As I said (at some length) in the post above, the two interpretations start from such different places that it's hard to know how to chose between them. Your invocation of other Wolfe works is convincing, but not (to mind) dispositive. And a very different approach would be to say, which reading makes the works stronger? This is not to deny that the reading has to fit the text, although I would say doing so doesn't necessitate being able to explain every detail (no text is able to fully account for every detail; to do so is to treat the text like scripture (I will again here, as I have done in the past in this context, wave in the direction of biblical scholar James Kugel & his sense of the way of reading (what Samuel R Delany would call a reading paradigm) which is what creates scripture). But if both readings can account for many details, and neither can account for all... then it seems that other grounds of choosing might be adequate. I also share the concern which tbrumley42 put so well above: "If it is metaphorical, as you say, it seems that it would only exist as a metaphor, erasing the underlying reality from which it derives its meaning." It seems to me like Wolfe's metaphors are best read in ways that support rather than erase the details. I will admit partiality: I have a deeply ambivalent relationship to the centrality of puzzles in Wolfe. As I said in my original post, they are, without a doubt, one of the marks and methods of his genius; but I think they can be one of its central failure modes, too. (The same could be said with symbolism.) I recognize this bias, and try to guard against it. That said, I think the centrality of puzzles is an aesthetic threat for Wolfe's texts, a trap which they dance about and sometimes fall into: that of being, ultimately, merely solveable. I am drawn to the GWLP reading because it makes it more than that.

I am aware I am largely repeating myself from the OP (not to mention from our private correspondence on this matter). But let me say this: you add a bunch of details which strengthen your reading. But what they don't do is directly address the GWLP consensus reading at its strongest points: Glenn's discussion of the evidence of abos in terms of historical evidence, Brandon's reading of Liev's post-postulate, their joint reading of the characters of Number 5 and VRT. I think if you want to really sell your reading, at least from my point of view, you will have to do more than elaborate it: you will have to address, more directly, the other readings, which, even if they are not correct, are still substantial and well-grounded and deeply engaged with Wolfe's texts.

To repeat: if I had to bet, I would bet your way. — But I don't have to bet: I can keep rereading, and talking it over with other readers. I think your reading is powerful and can't be ignored. But I think that of the GWLP consensus reading, too. So there is more to say, and more to discover. If a solution is what is needed, I don't think any of us have solved this yet.

As far as Liev’s post-postulate, I am now inclined to think it is merely that something has taken the place the Abos once occupied in the St Anne wilderness just as they took the place of humans. This must be the shadow children. (I am liev and I have left)

The shadow children are so amorphous and their powers so fantastic, it's a tempting conclusion. Still, I feel like there's something more to it than that. The explicit reversal of Veil's hypothesis implies some kind of reversal based on a similar lack of awareness (the abos replaced the colonists and now think they are human; who are the Free People now and who were they originally?).


If Veil's hypothesis is supposed to answer the question, where did the Annese go? Liev's post-postulate should answer the question, where did the colonists go, right? Or it should just explain who the Free People are in the present day; meaning the people described as "abos" and the behavior attributed to them in the present.


(I really appreciate all the work you've put into this, btw. Even *my* autism can only get me so far with Wolfe! Your arguments are compelling to me because they are so well presented and sourced. But there's always that suspicion to me that something more is out there....)

Tbrumley42, I wasn’t sure if you had access to my original writeup on fifth Head or not, which spends a little more time on the wind association. https://ultan.org.uk/variance-reduction-techniques/ We should probably keep in mind that the shadow children ARE chewing leaves, which are linked to an aboriginal life stage.

I think I've read it, yes. Although it had been a while since I re-read 5HC when I did. I'll go through it again. You might address this elsewhere, but what do you think the origin is of the humanoid shape on St. Anne? Is everyone of the same stock from Earth or did some humans really get copied before the French arrived?

of Course, the tools with which the Abos are handiest are all degradable: vine nets and ropes. The “counterfeit tools” are also symbolic of my reading of the counterfeit utility of the entire culture: they look like they once did something but they never did. I hope it is not insensitive to bring up something that lack of tangible evidence reminds me of in literature - Ida Fink’s treatment of evidence and fallible memory in The Table. In that play, prosecutors are trying to ascribe guilt through evidence of a widespread massacre event in WWII years after it happened. There is no remaining physical evidence, only completely conflicting accounts. No one agrees who pulled the first gun and started firing or the shape of the table or where people sat. But at the end of the day, hundreds of bodies were left behind, and all agreed that the snow was stained with blood. The event happened even without physically verifiable accounts - the heart of every testimony was true even as the details were wrong. Who is to blame? Is it collective? If there is no physical evidence, there is still a memory, and I feel that so much of Wolfe is invested in taking some things by faith which are completely intangible that sometimes it makes little sense to ask for physical evidence. There is a heart of objective truth behind things, though it might be poorly apprehended. I think Wolfe loves to make irony come to life, and Aunt Jeanine proposing a theory she does not believe in which describes her perfectly is a paragon of that Narrative tendency.

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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. 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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