A great discussion of a Gene Wolfe story that is one of my favorites — if by "favorites" you mean "I'd include it in a best-of volume", not, say, top 3. Still, I'm surprised it didn't make Best Of. I think you did a very good job on the story's politics: far less standard conservative than we've seen before, seeming both anti-war and environmentalist, although of course those are two areas where we've seen Wolfe have leftier-than-on-other-things views in the past. Still, the overall effect was a critique of American imperialism, both in Vietnam and in the natural world.
You didn't mention one of my favorite bits of humor in the story: the way that Wolfe described what makes the gestures, and then later just describes the gestures; thus, the superb, free-standing line: "Dondiil parted the hair on his body horizontally." Incidentally, one of you mentioned (in analyzing the ending) that the story is largely from Quoquo's point of view; but the explanations of these ("the conventional way of implying...") indicates a more distant-third person than that suggests. Given Wolfe's utter willingness to inhabit the world of his characters—and not explain—when he wishes, I think this is possibly significant.
Overall, I had a far more literal reading of the story than you did. First, I saw nothing in the story to indicate that Dondiil is pranking Quoquo. I get that it sounds like an army prank to you, but I just don't see it. They're not in the army (as far as we know), first of all. Second, Dondiil comes across as slightly subservient, even obsequious, to Quoquo — and while you could read that as motive to prank, I also assume he wouldn't dare. So I took it straight: the tigers escaped.
Then there's the last line. This, I admit, is more ambiguous than their escape. But led me adduce one piece of evidence you didn't mention: a seemingly-casual, but possibly-important early simile: "the skyacht would have looked surprisingly like a phoenix as the flame from its rockets washed backward over its own indestructible skin, had there been any eye watchin to which the phoenix was known." First, this is another example of distant third, not Quoquo's pov-third, in the story, But more importantly, the phoenix — shoe-horned in in a way that both highlights the absence of humans and the simile itself — is both a mythical beast, and one that returns from the dead. The former could be taken as implying the eyes at the end are simply Quoquo's imagination, I suppose, but I find it much more likely that the simile implies the opposite: that the humans have returned from the dead (not always survived, as you speculate), and that it is because of some mystical connection between them and their land's mythical symbol, the tiger, being returned from the dead. I think this story is, in its own small way, a "Frankenstein' story, about people whose technology come back to haunt them — as well as people who are messing with forces that they don't understand. All this, of course, synchronizes nicely with both the narrow Vietnam-war angle on the story and the larger critique of American (really, broadly capitalist) imperialism.
I think this fits well with Wolfe's environmentalism. It's unlike him to just give a pessimistic vision and leave it there without offering any guidance about how to avoid it. So by showing us that some humans have survived -- but only those who lived in harmony with their environment -- the story then has a real moral to it.
I second @stephenfrug in having a much more literal reading of this story than Glenn and Brandon.
In particular, I want to support the reading that the eyes at the end belong to people, and not to tigers or to Quoquo's imagination*. Consider the final sentence of the piece: "...dark eyes, timid but bright with an intelligence not found in any animal, followed him from the depths of the a thicket of yellowing bamboo."
Wolfe's use of "yellowing" convinces me that these eyes belong to the People of the Yellow Leaves, who are called this because they come down from their hiding places in the hills only "when the leaves turn yellow for want of moisture--particularly the bamboo."
When a writer as careful as Wolfe inserts that detail about yellowing bamboo, and then ends the piece with a reference to yellowing bamboo, he surely must want us to make that connection.
Haha, I love the third reading. Someone needs to write the Stephen King version of that story!
It really just comes down to how you read the last line, doesn't it? For what it is worth on my first read I thought that the tigers had in fact escaped, but I think you guys may have convinced me that it was a prank even though I do not think the text necessarily supports it.
The eyes at the end I can see going one of three ways:
1) They represent the spirit of the people who once inhabited the jungles. Quoquo got a lesson in respecting what went through their minds when they thought of the Feather Tigers. Perhaps he will become a better researcher and a professor after this experience too?
2) The humans are in hiding. From what exactly? Probably the machines if you ask me, I do not think this is so unlikely. The bunnies in this story draw the wrong conclusions at every turn and the machines just don't clarify that they fought a war against humans.
3) It is actually super intelligent big house cat tigers and this is a horror story.
I really liked this story, the gestures of the bunnies were indeed a nice little detail that Wolfe thought up too. I could see the ending coming with Quoqu's paranoia overtaking him but the execution was great.
Michael Frasca: that's a great story. Thanks!
I very much enjoyed this episode. The description of kittens as "impressive purveyors of violence" was well worth the price of admission!
I learned very early on that asking Gene about a story or book was like asking a magician how they do an illusion. They smile, chuckle, and wave their hands a bit, but you never really find out. Gene was like that.
If you listen to him VERY closely, Gene might OCCASIONALLY let slip a little nugget of information to give you a clue about one of his stories. A great example was the February 31st prank at college becoming The House of 31 February in The Island Of Dr. Death and Other Stories. (see my comment under "The island of doctor death and other stories, redux”)
I read Feather Tigers for the first time a few weeks ago. I immediately recalled a story that Gene told us about an experience he had in Korea.
We would have Gene over for dinner on occasion. One time, after a most enjoyable repast, the talk turned, as it inevitably does, to the Korean War. Gene told us this story.
Gene fought at the tail end of the Korean War. After the fighting ceased, Gene’s unit was stationed close to the newly established Demilitarized Zone (DMZ.) The DMZ is a 160 mile long, 2.5 mile wide strip of wild, undeveloped temperate forest that separates North and South Korea.
Nobody dared enter the DMZ, Gene said, and not just because of the land mines. You see, he explained, all the wildlife in the area naturally fled the battlegrounds for the sanctuary of the DMZ. And where the deer and boar go, the apex predator follows. At night while sleeping in his tent, he could sometimes hear the coughing of the tiger as it patrolled its territory. His Republic of Korea compatriots would tell stories about the ferociousness of the cats.
There are no longer any tigers in South Korea and no one knows about North Korea. The mines have been removed from the DMZ, but no one is quite sure whether tigers still prowl there. So watch the shadows closely.
I bet that Gene’s experiences at the DMZ inspired Feather Tigers. I wish I were able to ask him, but he would probably just smile with that twinkle in his eye and enigmatically say “Perhaps.”
As always, it's great to have your thoughts on this story (and we're very much looking forward to your thoughts on Hour of Trust, coming up).
The technical descriptions of the skyacht and the process by which housecats are bred into tigers led me to think about the other parts of the story from a technical perspective rather than a mystical one, and so I didn't take very seriously the idea that humans would mystically return once their local megafauna also returned. But you make a great case for it, and it's hardly as if Wolfe isn't a mystic -- especially about environmental issues. We'll see some of this in The Island of Dr. Death, too.
I hope we'll hear from more people about whether the tigers really escaped. I'm not sure that either of us ever believed that they had really escaped, but I think perhaps we've just been pranked too many times.