Apr 17

Fifth Head of Cerberus: Novella Wrap-Up Episode & Two Thoughts It Inspired


Reminded, by the loss, that I was really overdue for returning to this podcast, and I skipped a few of the detailed episodes on the novella and went ahead to the wrap-up novella, and jeeze, it's great to hear two people talking Wolfe. I most especially loved the ending of the episode, when each of you picked a passage whose prose you really liked to read aloud. So much of what is great about Wolfe is simply his amazing prose, and I think that we — and I definitely include myself here! — can get too wrapped up in the puzzles and allusions to always fully appreciate that. I really hope you do that again in future episodes on other works — maybe even make it a tradition for every longer work you discuss.


A few brief comments, and two longer comments.


• You describe David as important because he's the ancestor of Jesus. I'm trying to think of an appropriate analogy for how that sounds to a Jew. Perhaps this: it's like saying that the Declaration of Independence was really important because it formed the prototype for Elizabeth Candy Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls in 1848. I mean, it did; and that latter event was really also important; but to describe it that way tout court is just *bizarre*. At least from a Jewish point of view.

• At some point one of you (I'm sorry I forgot to note who!) says that we "may be living in a world with people with identical DNA some day", or words close to that. I have to point out: we already are! Identical twins have the same DNA. A fact which is good to remember when talking about what clones might mean: they exist! We know! And they're all very different people.

• You said, IMS serves, that Mr Million built the Maison de Chien. Isn't it possible that the first generation of clones was made into Mr Million on Earth, and then he was brought out to Sainte Croix by the second, who then was the one to build the Maison? We don't know (I think?), but that's what I sort of assumed. Is there a reason to think it's one way or the other?


Ok, two longer points.


First, on the name of the narrator. You talk about some of its significance, including (most importantly, perhaps!) that it's a fine joke. But I think that it has two levels of significance which I don't think you mentioned — which may have never been mentioned, but of course may well have been, I don't know. Anyway, they are:

1. It's a parallel to the situation with Aunt Jeanie & Veil: like V/AJ, Wolfe is not giving his name, misleading the reader (parallel to Number 5) into thinking that the author is someone else, and only later disclosing that it is, in fact, them.

2. It's another form of Proust reference! In A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust's narrator is a first person, who tends to avoid giving his name with the same sort of tricks that Number 5 uses ("I told him my name"). In Proust, I believe, he gives his name once, so it's not quite the same. And, of course, Proust's novel traces his life rather more closely than Wolfe's novella does his. But I would guess that this is what gave Wolfe the idea — like Proust, he'd use "I", like Proust, he wouldn't give his name — and then he left clues because, since the biographies are different, one wouldn't otherwise know.


Second, a question I don't recall ever seeing discussed. From Wolfe's comments it appears that he wrote the novella first as an independent work, and then later added the other two novellas to make a larger work (call it a novel, call it a collection, call it a series, it's still a work, albeit composed of smaller ones). But, in the original novella, why did he pair the issues of the clones (central to that story) with Veil's Hypothesis which, although it is central to the novel/collection considered as a whole, is clearly secondary to the novella? If he wasn't originally planning the other two, what role did it serve just in the first?


I claim that it's a thematic parallel. The issue with clones is what is the nature of identity: what is the nature of copying? Do the copies become original, or are they totally different people? Are they fated to reproduce what they copy? Well, that's the case with Veil's Hypothesis. Like the abos (maybe, potentially) copying the French colonists, and eventually killing them out, Number 5 copies his father — and kills & replaces him. And, perhaps, will do so so thoroughly he will forget — not literally, of course, but forget in the way that his father forgot: enough to torture another as he was tortured.


Maybe this is so obvious that no one else bothers to point it out. Maybe it's old news. Or maybe we're so used to thinking of the entire work that we forget that the novella was originally intended to (and does!) stand on its own. But it seems the connections, just in the context of this work, are worth noting. I always wondered why these two things were put in the same story. Until, thinking about your fine episode, I thought of this; and, like so much in Wolfe (most especially including Number 5's name!) it seems, in retrospect, utterly and completely obvious.


I'm delighted to be listening to this fabulous podcast again. So as not to feel too far behind, I'm going to skip, for now, the individual readings of parts of 5th Head, and move on to the Marc Aramini wrap-up, and then the 'A Story' episodes — particularly looking forward to those since it was always the most mysterious part of the novel to me, and I hope you can help me make sense of it!

Stephen, it's great to hear from you! I'd been planning to write to you when we finished the book (still two months away!).


And, wow, it's been almost a year since we recorded this episode, and so I must confess that my memory of what we said will be wholly unreliable. But I definitely think that Mr. Million is already loaded with the original (?) Gene Wolfe consciousness when he leaves Earth with a clone. I think the question of who had the Maison du Chien constructed is a question of who we think is in charge in this relationship - and I think it's an open question. I'd definitely read some fan-fiction about this.


Well, it's a bizarre understanding of David for a historian, too -- but reading Jewish scripture and Jewish history as both a literal and symbolic prefiguring of Christ is often fashionable among Christian thinkers. This isn't how we did it in my Protestant Christian church in the 80s, but I'll confess that I don't know what would have been taught in Catholic Christian churches in the 60s and 70s (or what Wolfe would have learned as a child in Texas). Ultimately, though, I think this reading of David doesn't matter for The Fifth Head of Cerberus as we never get a redeemer.


We do offer a thematic interpretation of Veil's Hypothesis as it matters in the context of the first novella alone. It's in one of the recap or discussion episodes, but I don't remember which. But, I feel confident (not certain) that we revisit it in the forthcoming two-part wrap-up of the entire book because it's important to how we answer the question of whether there are any aliens in this story. (And we're excited for that conversation!) We certainly agree with you that a central theme of the entire book is whether we are determined by our nature, our nurture, or both -- and whether we can escape them and be someone else entirely.


We can't wait for your comments on "A Story"!

Yeah, I got overwhelmed and missed a few, and then there were even more, and I got into a delay cycle. I'm sorry it took GW's death to snap me out of it! But I am looking forward to "A Story" a lot.

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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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