May 31

Eps 55 & 56: Karel Čapek, "From the Point of View of a Cat"


I kid, I kid. Still I utterly loved that story, and I loved that you read it online. It's really quite an amazing set of connections (RUR sounds like it fits terrifyingly well too). A superb bit of literary sleuthing & sharing, there.


The thing that most surprised me in the episode was your surprise at the colonial violence. Glenn correctly points out a few of the historical precedents, but you both seemed surprised to find it portrayed in the future, in space, explaining it as due to the cold war. I guess I find it all=but inevitable, should people ever actually colonize other planets. (Incidentally, you mentioned Vietnam as a parallel to the first French & then English colonialism; it's worth bearing in mind that the Vietnam war was still going on as this novel was written — it came out in 1972 & the last American troops came home in 1973. It would have been a very live example for Wolfe at that time.)


You correctly point out that the theme of bodies, of the physicality of minds, is a theme of all these stories, and raise Mr. Milton as an example. But in a different way the clones are examples, too. Marsch speaks as if Number 5 and his father are the same person. That is both a recognition of the role of the body in the mind (what they have in common is the physicality of their DNA & the body it produces), but also a denial of it (they are, after all, in separate bodies). So it ties in with the "copying" too. To ask how physical a mind is is to ask whether minds can be copied. (Also relevant to the abos, of course.)


Why is the story written as it is? You mention some good reasons, although I would stress the "it's damn fun" even more than you did. But here are two other reasons. First, it allows for partial documents: the army officer is constantly picking up & putting down things at random, reading a bit, starting in the middle, etc, in a way that would be artificial and strained if it were just the documents given. Second, it draws (even more) attention to the fact that all we have so far are documents: one a memoir by Number 5, one "A Story" by John V. Marsch. In fact, the only "objective" (if they are that) facts in the entire book are the bits about the army officer!


In cataloging the 'objective' evidence for the Shadow Children — apart from "A Story" and the rumors — and list as one piece the stone tools in a museum on St. Croix. It only at that moment occurred to me what an odd piece of evidence that is. After all, as you yourselves noted in this episode, the inability of the Abos to use tools is referenced regularly, and is one of their defining characteristics. Whence the stone tools, then? They presumably were either made by Shadow Children, or other humans. It's a puzzle. And I wonder what light it casts on Veil's Hypothesis?


You mentioned that wonderful throwaway that "those paleolithic, Caucasoid Pygmies who came to be called the Good People (and who survived, as was eventually shown, in Scandanavia and Eire until the last years of the eighteenth century)". But it made me wonder if those weren't perhaps the origin of the Shadow Children. After all, since it looks like it was the French arriving at the end of "A Story", maybe there was a third wave? Maybe the Good People vanished in the 18th century because they somehow found a way to travel in space? (It would fit the "here for a long time" reading, of course.)


A few quick notes:

• You mentioned the sentence it appears in, but didn't mention one of my favorite Wolfe phrases ever: "Gutenberg courage". God that's perfect!

• Have you yet thought about Le Guin's story "Nine Lives" as a possible influence on Fifth Head — or, perhaps, a story he's reacting against? Mostly the first novella, as Le Guin's story is about clones. It came out in 1968, and was nominated for a Nebula award, so presumably Wolfe would have known it. Just a stray thought.

• I found it ironic that Glenn got the Ides of March wrong on air (even while recognizing that such slips are easy to make & inevitable in podcasts), not because he's a historian and probably knows it better than I, but because it's precisely the one everyone gets right usually, due to Shakespeare. Usually people erroneously think that, because of Julius Caesar, the Ideas is always the 15th, not realizing that 8 months of the year it's the 13th. But I've never heard the opposite before!

• Glenn: "I want someone to make me a play tower." Someone did! His name is Gene Wolfe. He made you a lot of them, actually.

PS: I found it helpful to read (as well as hear you read) Čapek's story. In case anyone else might find it helpful too, here's the version I googled up:


Ha, yes, I always forget there are months when the Ides are the 15th. Of course, the whole scheme of Roman dating is crazy and awful to begin with. Half the work my field does is just about trying to get dates right because there are five concurrent systems of dating years and it's not always clear which one a given chronicler is using. One cheer to modernity!


We've definitely both read this story through a post-Cold War lens, having been told that history has ended. I'm a soldier and also a military historian so it's not as if I have any illusions about humanity's propensity for violence, but I still find the notion that an Earth society that looks so much like ours would have colonial space violence of this sort. I mean, do you really think that we would go to war with France over controlling Mars? Or, to think about it more akin to what is depicted here, can you imagine yourself or your neighbors or even your potential great-grandchildren volunteering to kill people and take over their farms? I have a hard time envisioning such a quick and sharp turn towards violence as a means of property acquisition. I'll say, too, of course, that I have many of the same qualms about the return of slavery, but this is something that Wolfe also writes about quite frequently, and I take them to be cautionary tales. Because of course we could return to these things if we let our guard down (and I think we have already).


We'll be releasing our first Le Guin story as a bonus episode in a few months, and I'll be the first to admit that I have now only read four works by her. But look for "Nine Lives" as a Patreon episode in 2020.

It would be a wonderfully Wolfean touch to write a story — maybe one with multiple documents à la VRT — using five concurrent dating systems, and forcing the readers to untangle them. But I suppose this is simply saying that Wolfean ambiguity mimics how life often is, especially in your job. (As an American historian, we mostly evade that one complication, at least!)


I guess I would say about colonialism that I find it much easier to imagine us doing it if you allow a little hypocritical naming on top of it. You seem to agree that America's role in Vietnam was a colonial one (flowing directly from French colonialism in that case), but I think that a lot of post-cold war American actions can be best understood as varieties of colonialism. Sure, we call it liberation or self-defense or whatever — then again, so did most of the modern colonials. (You would know better than I, but my sense is that this requirement for pretense was less intense in, say, Roman times than in the classical age of European colonialism.) Now, we're not killing people to take their land, but at least plausibly to take their oil. And I bet we'll see wars for water this century (alas). Perhaps the problem is that we don't get a depiction of events on Earth during 5th Head: I think something would need to change for precisely this sort of colonialism to take place (more authoritarian militancy, more desperation viz-a-viz land and food, or something), but I don't think we learn anything about Earth that sounds inconsistent with such developments. I can't imagine myself or my neighbors killing someone to take their farm; but my great-grandchildren? It depends on how badly things go. I guess cautionary tales is the right category, but I find it far more of a live threat (if not an immediate one). Even Francis Fukiyama is now admitting that the end of history was a bad call!


I look forward to the patreon episode on "Nine Lives". And Le Guin is wonderful, so you have some real treats in store for you!

Oh, I don't doubt our capacity for colonialism. We're still fighting a forever war in Afghanistan right now. But what I doubt will come back is fighting other polities with whom we share common identities in order to take their colonial possessions. I would be not all surprised if we invaded Venezuela tomorrow, but sure would be if we invaded Martinique.

PS: What are the five dating systems in the period you work in? I'm suddenly quite curious.

Well, there's the consular dating system (e.g. the year when Brandon and Glenn were both consuls or during Stephen's second consulship); there's the indiction system (fifteen year cycles); there are several biblical systems that date from the creation of the earth ... but which disagree about when that was; there is also, though only near the end of my period, the dating scheme we use now; and in Iberia and some adjacent areas there's another "year's from" system that is about an important moment for Iberia. This isn't actually too difficult, but what can become really problematic is the question of whether your writer is counting inclusively.

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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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