Dec 23, 2017



I finally got around to your latest episode, and I wanted to say I enjoyed it, although I hesitated because I don't have answers to *any* of your questions! I feel like a kid who hasn't done his homework. Ah well.


Still, I do have a few, almost entirely all minor, notes.


First, just to note, the traditional age at which Christ was crucified was 33, not 32 (or 31.8, as the story's math implies), so I'm afraid that doesn't work. (I always think about it in terms of the Thomas Kinsella poem, "Mirror in February": Now plainly in the mirror of my soul/I read that I have looked my last on youth/ And little more; for they are not made whole/That reach the age of Christ.")


Second, one little detail you didn't note was the (I think we would say today) sexual assault on Eyebem when he's in the plane to his assignment: "a human girl with inquisitive fingers came and strapped me to my couch, giving herself a lesson on how our anatomy differs from theirs." Interesting in thinking about what the story has to say about dehumanization, robot humanization, and the like.


Third, when you spoke of humans living always in cities and never venturing outside, particularly in the context of robots, I personally thought of Asimov's The Caves of Steel. Worth noting, perhaps, since you say this is the story where Wolfe goes beyond the Asimovian robot (I personally think he was already there in HORARS).


Fourth, one small ironic note: recently, decades after Wolfe wrote his story, Kivalina, Alaska, (a largely Native American town) has been in the news as a town that *might* have to be abandoned due to global warming — they tried to sue Exxon over the issue, and plans have been drawn up. I don't know what Wolfe had in mind when he spoke of the "abandoned city of Kivalina", but this has turned out to be prophetic in a rather horrific way.


Fifth and finally, I think the one aspect you slightly underplay in Eyebem is the character of Mark. Why, for instance, is he given that name, that name that robots and humans share? The easy answer is to ask if he's possibly actually a robot, but I think that is clearly wrong. Rather: I think it's not his name, and he gives it to try to make the other robots feel comfortable, as Eyebem suggests ("to put us at our ease"). What I think this points to is how Mark is always trying to be kind to the robots — he worries about them after he's gone, the name he gives, his response to Eyebem's anger at the end. Whereas Eyebem, while having moments of feeling sorry for Mark, also has a huge amount of anger towards him. This is how I took the "eyes burning" comment, by the by — as Eyebem projecting his own anger onto Mark, and imagining (he can't actually see it!) Mark as angry. When actually, as even Eyebem at times admits, he has done everything he can for him. (There, I guess I weighed in on *one* of your questions after all.) I'm not sure where to go with this, but in this story Mark ends up being more humane that Eyebem, in contrast to the human robots that Wolfe tends to create.


Thanks for the episode, as always.

Dec 24, 2017

Stephen, thanks as always for your great comments and critiques.


I love your understanding of Mark and of Eyebem's description of his burning eyes. I agree that Mark is probably not that character's given name, and that he has chosen it (as Eyebem suggests) to make Eyebem feel more comfortable. I also would like to read it as invoking the Gospel of Mark in some way -- I don't know what that way is, but I'd love to hear ideas. I think names are always full of meaning for Wolfe, and this is a particularly interesting feature of this story in which all of the names are false in some way.


That's a great reading of the sexual assault scene, and we should have discussed it. I don't mind saying that I (at least) have been a little uncomfortable with the way that Wolfe deals with gender in his early work. It's no surprise, of course, and the discomfort is mild compared to what I feel watching many episodes of Star Trek -- which explicitly is a socially progressive sci-fi story. My co-host on our Star Trek podcast has worked on gender in Renaissance Italy, and I've been thinking about asking her to visit The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast in that capacity if we encounter a story that really addresses gender. We'd be grateful for suggestions.


Gosh, I haven't read Caves of Steel since high school! But, depending on how our vote goes, we may be covering Wolfe's "Slaves of Steel," which is about a robot version of Sherlock Holmes. I might need to revisit some Asimov (and some ACD) before we do that one.


We are finding quite a lot of ecological concern in Wolfe's work. I guess we all know this from the Solar Cycle, of course, but I've been delighted to find it lingering in the background of a lot of these early stories, and it's (sometimes) a feature of Operation ARES, as well. On a larger note, I've really enjoyed seeing just how prophetic Wolfe was in the 60s and 70s, though we also find some instances in which he was really wrong (mostly about the Cold War).


You are quite right to point out my goof. 32 is the age at which Christ began his ministry, not the age at which he was crucified -- but Brandon's understanding of Ceedeesy's age paralleling Mark's age is more convincing anyway. It's just that I have a reputation to maintain as the guy who is always searching for a Christ figure.


And, on that last note, we hope you have a marvelous Christmas.



Dec 25, 2017

Merry Christmas to you as well!


I don't think I am knowledgeable enough about the synoptic gospels to pick out what Mark would mean as opposed to Matthew or Luke. (I like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about Christianity as far as Jewish atheists go, but that only goes so far. (Though I always did get a kick out of having to explain New Testament references to my putatively Christian students in class...))


On gender: I don't think it's only early Wolfe; I think it's all Wolfe. I've been revisiting New Sun (via the audiobook: I wouldn't recommend it to anyone as a first experience with the book, and some of the line readings are wonky, but nevertheless having been through the books more than once I am benefiting from it: audiobooks force you to read every part of the text at every speed, which lets me notice things I haven't previously), and boy, the sexism is *all over* those books. I know the traditional answer is that it's Severian, not Wolfe, who is a sexist: but given the persistent pattern throughout Wolfe's work, I don't think that that can be maintained. It's throughout. I know one serious reader (quoted in Lexicon Urthus) who stopped reading Long Sun because a female character spent a long time nude for no reason & they simply found it too off-putting. And I recall one of his later novellas — The Ziggurat, I think, but I'm not sure as I never read it—causing a huge uproar on gender grounds.) I think Wolfe is, simply, a serious traditionalist when it comes to gender; which translates, in Twenty-First Century terms (including mine) into being a sexist. I certainly don't think this means that Wolfe ought to be ignored, nor that he is a moral monster, etc; but I think it's a persistent flaw in his work, and I can understand why some readers simply won't be able to read him for that reason, and certainly can't fault them for it.


How should you all deal with it? My suggestion would be dual: I think it's worth mentioning throughout, and not just in a special episode— don't beat it to death or use it to dismiss him, but confront it as a persistent issue. And then, also, perhaps devote an episode to it later on — I know New Sun best, so I'd like to see you talk about it there, but I suppose you could do it any time. — Obviously, your call, but that's my suggestion.


Looking forward to "Sonya, Crane Wessleman and Kittee" in the new year.


Dec 27, 2017

These are wonderful suggestions, Stephen, and I'm most grateful for them. I'll start treating this as a phenomenon worth commenting on when we see it rather than something to hide from.


Gosh, yes, even the church-going students tend to have very little knowledge of scripture, church history, or theology. But I had one student in my medieval survey course last semester who was able to quote or at least paraphrase most of the Gospels on command, which always made my day.

Aug 30, 2018

Another great podcast!


My first take on this story was that Eyebem shows all the hallmarks of what we call human consciousness - He shows a sense of community with his kind, he feels friendship for other robots, he has a sense of humor and appreciates in-jokes, he feels empathy and compassion for the imagined discomfort of Mark at being excluded, he feels some jealousy at the outdoorsky skill of the human Mark, he can appreciate the beauty of the outdoors, he recognizes hierarchical relationships, he aspires to be recognized as a human, he can commit a kind of falsehood at pretending to eat and drink, he can recognize a complex social situation (the cafe owner's willing suspension of disbelief that there are robots in her business) and finally at the end of his lifespan, he experiences bitterness and rage against the dying of the light. My initial takeaway was that humanity created robots in the image of themselves, yet they lack any sense of personal immortality. Humans - most of them, statistically = are comforted by the idea of an hereafter, or at least some kind of afterlife, which will be denied to the creations we made. Eyebem and his fellow robots know that for them, life's a bitch, and then you die. I think Wolfe saw this as a tragedy, and may be likening it to the end-of-life process for a non-theist. I'm not sure.


What Eyebem describes as the result of a total losss of battery power (in what seems to us now a very antiquated data-storage model) seems much like death - "the total erasure of my personality as well as the loss of all my training [memories]." If we presume consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of the physical brain, and that there is no dualistic consciousness or soul, this is what death is like for organic as well as mechanical brains. (Although nowadays one would think that a robot brain could be periodically backed-up and downloaded, stored as a back-up copy or in the cloud, and uploaded into a new body, the robotic equivalent of reincarnation.)


Looking at the story again after a few years, I wonder what else may be going on as well. That first, blanket admission that Eyebem is lying could not, I think, be unintended by Wolfe.


If so, what is he lying about?


The repeating loop for the last hour, like a flight recorder, is an odd detail that jumps out, as does the unexpected burst of anger at Mark on the last page.


There is something I think about Glenn's observation that the consumption of the seal may have invoked horror in Eyebem, raised to be a game ranger. There also seems to be some deep hostility at Marks' greater organic adaptability and likelihood of survival. Does he kill Mark, or is he about to, as the story ends? We know there is a gun inside the igloo (from the oblique reference to Mark shooting the seal.) Is this why Eyebem refers to a search team looking for "me" and not "us"?

In re stephenfrug's question about what differentiates Mark from the other Gospels, I'm not sure if Wolfe intended the Marcan references but a) it probably is the first written and oldest `Gospel; b) it is centered to a greater degree than the others on the passion and the death of Christ. It's been described as a text about the death of Jesus, with an extended introduction concerning His life. Eyebem's story is thanocentric as well, as it opens and ends just before his "death", circular like the cyclic loop inside him.


Eyebem's outburst of anger at Mark also has something of the nature of Christ's cry on the cross, the last words recorded by Mark (although the other Gospels expand on those), "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Eyebem's last recorded words to Mark: "Why don't you help me?" Mark's Gospel also ends apruptly, with the appearance of a young man at the opened tomb who announces the resurrection to Mary, but does not include any post-Resurrection appearances. One of the keynotes of the Marcan Gospel is that events are not always protrayed in chronological fashion, but by category of event, grouping events linked by theme even if not in the order presented in the other Gospels. This story begins in the igloo, flashes back to Eyebem's time in the creche, before taking us back up to meeting Mark and going to Alaska. Could there be some repetition of theme here, which is why events are out of order? (Other than the helpfulness ofthe flashback trope to storytelling) I'd have to look closer. Mark's particular presentation of Jesus to the reader is also, to be honest, somewhat Wolfeian. Mark's Jesus tells stories (parables) to the listeners, but conceals the true meaning or significance from the audience, only sharing it with his apostles afterwards. Jesus seems to want the audience to decipher the true meaning of his stories on their own.

Aug 31, 2018

What an awesome reading of Eyebem as The Gospel of Mark. I'm certainly convinced that Wolfe was playing around with the Christ story here, which of course we will see him do again at greater length. I've never really thought about the Wolfeish nature of the gospel text before, but you point to some good places where Wolfe would notice narrative technique and perhaps also think about the relationship between Mark and the other gospels and how they often relate the same episodes but emphasize different details. I think we'll want to revisit this story before we cover The Book of the Long Sun.

Sep 28, 2018

Anybody else note the parallels between Eyebem and Jack London's To Build a Fire?


In London's tale, the Man takes on nature and fails to survive, while the looked-down on Dog has the skills to survive.


In Wolfe's story, Eyebem dies because he has no access to a high-tech power source. Eyebem considered Mark and humans to be "passe," but Mark is able to survive because he has the skills to kill and eat a seal.



Sep 29, 2018

Oh, this is great. I love Jack London and I can't believe I missed this parallel. We were already planning to talk about Jack London in our V.R.T. episode tomorrow, so I'll mention this as well.

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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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