Nov 26, 2017

House of ancestors genre


I had a chance to catch your House of Ancestors episode. I don’t view this story anywhere as negatively for a few reasons. one involves the genre - this is an internal landscape - there is no consequence of Joe’s time in the dna building because it has successfully erased his need to enter and be fixed in the first place, like psychological time-travel magic. Wolfe isnt writing a realistic SF story here but a genetic fable. The experience still transcends time and fixes whatever predisposition to the death wish Joe, his ancestors, and his baby would once have had. wolfe has some controversial views regarding lamarck that the field of epigenetics (like environment turning on certain genes) has brought to the forefront again. if there is a reality to Joe’s experience in the helix, its shape has a weird resonance with his own genetic material, an imitation whose ”damage” fixes the problem in Joe. wolfe uses oddly scaled models as weird literal stand-ins for what they represent in his fiction frequently. there is definitely some genre-blurring in this tale that I think makes complaining about its unrealistic components a bit moot.

Nov 26, 2017

Marc, thanks for your comments. So far, House of Ancestors is the only story that we both actively disliked. Actually, I think it's the only story that either of us has actively disliked.


My dislike of this story is far more rooted in the Freudianism than its Lamarckianism. I have never subscribed to it or even found much value in it as a lens, but I think in particular it brings me back to one of my awful high-school English classes in which we read every single text as Freudian. If it weren't for that class, I might have become a scholar of Latin poetry rather than a late antique historian.


I'm very interested in your comment concerning Wolfe's views about Lamarck. Where else does this come up?

Nov 26, 2017

Hi Glenn. Definitely something Lamarckian going on in The Fifth Head of Cerberus and in Short Sun, where the behaviors of the parent species far beyond selecting a mate influence the offspring significantly. Indeed, belief itself serves powerful enough to transform the entire abo population into "humanity" in Port Mimizon. I think it is a current that runs through Wolfe which also resonates with his take on imitation: imitate something long enough and you become it, for good or ill.

Nov 26, 2017

Wow, that's awesome. I will add this to my list of things to be on the lookout for as we proceed.

Nov 27, 2017Edited: Nov 27, 2017

Marc, thanks for this insight. I think the fact of the story opening with an objective third-party observer who is witnessing the events may undermine the argument that there is no consequence to Joe's time in the Helix or that there is something ultimately unrealistic taking place. I agree with Glenn that the psychoanalytic elements of this story are a bit too on the nose, especially because we've been spoiled be better and more sophisticated representations of this sort of thing later in Wolfe.

Nov 27, 2017

(It's not that nothing happened that is observable, it's that there is still something almost "magical" going on here - Wolfe's dualistic sensibilities are once again on display. Joe's experiences are real and observable but might transcend the physical laws of our reality. Wolfe often writes in this mode.)

Nov 27, 2017

I see. I suppose I'm caught up on amount of scaffolding Wolfe puts together in order to tell this story and make it take place in a material world. He seems to go to great lengths to emphasize the material world in this story, not to mention that Joe's psychological needs are resolved by an physical confrontation with his embodied Death Drive.

Nov 27, 2017

I think there is an atemporal suggestion in the two men struggling at the start, as if there is movement through time (backwards). I need to read it again, though - it has probably been five years since I looked at it. There is a weird blurring of mental states and physical ones in Wolfe - this is most obvious in the short story "melting" (and to be honest in Wizard Knight). I don't think it is incorrect to see some of his more radical metaphysics influenced by gnosticism and the kaballah.

Nov 27, 2017

Hmm. I, too, will have to go and check on that. Your suggestion that there is some radical metaphysics a la gnosticism and the kaballah is extremely interesting to me. This will have to be a new avenue of research I explore in the future.

Dec 8, 2017

Re: Wolfe and Lamarckism, see Castle of Days, "Son of Helioscope", p. 225: "…I also believe in Lamarckism, as it was put forward by Lamarck. (The Lamarckism presented in standard textbooks is actually Lysenkoism, a straw man set up by the opponents of Lamarckism, palpably false and easily disproved.) There is no paradox in that: Lamarckism and Darwinism are not mutually exclusive, except politically."


I would like to ask a historian of biology about this. From what I know, Wolfe is simply mistaken — but then, all I know is the standard textbooks, so if he's right I would think that. Still, my priors on Wolfe being right on this and the consensus history of biology wrong on it are low.

Dec 8, 2017

I'm very intrigued by this, and for much the same reason. Rest assured, the next time Lamarck appears, we'll do our homework, and I may even try to Freudianly wrestle one of my colleagues in the history of biology to come on the show and set us all straight.

Aug 20, 2018

Still working my way through the stories and podcasts. I would agree that this is the work of a Young Wolfe rather than a Mature Wolfe, but there's some interesting things in it. This story is from the era when I first began actively reading SF, and outside of the hard-edged pages of Analog, where I tended to reside, there was a lot of New Wave experimentalism going on in IF magazine, where this appeared.  



I'll read anything Gene wrote, even relatively lesser works, as I like to see the first intimations of themes and tropes that would appear later.  


I agree with Marc, though, as I don't think this is worthy of opprobrium and it's an interesting piece.


Some thoughts:


There's a quick reference to Joe's failed athletic career that (I thought) explained his anger and bitterness, to a degree - while riding the subway, he mentions trips outside the city and playing softball "in the high grass of the meadows and enjoyed it much more than the semi-pro which had occupied his weekday evenings since he had quit night school," which implies that the industrial accident ended attempts to improve himself both scholastically and through athletics.  


That nail in Joe's heart reminds me of that mysterious thorn in his side that St. Paul mentions in the Epistles, without further describing.  Whenever a Catholic writer mentions nails, however, I always expect to see torture, death, and ultimate rebirth, which seems to be the model of this story.


As this seems to be a Freudian tale, I wondered if Wolfe was wandering into Oedipan territory, as Lamarck is wearing a bandage over his eyes like a man who had put both his eyes out, but I'm not sure how that plays out or whether it is just a muddled reference.  I'd also note that his mother is named Mary and Joe is Joseph, of course, but again, I don't know if that was intentional.


Much of the shape-shifting robot technology seems so advanced that I wondered if the entire episode inside the Thing is Joe's fantasy, but the prologue relating to people viewing Joe's confrontation with his vandal robot self through a telescope belies that. That image of an open hole in the massive structure and the two Joes looking out and down into the street reminded me a little of the boy looking out the open window of the library in The Fifth Head of Cerberus.


The image of hundreds of his matrilineal female ancestors pursuing him through the conveyors and atom-rooms of the DNA display struck me as something like the scene in A Night at the Opera where the room is progressively overfilled.


Marc's perceptive comment above that "Indeed, belief itself serves powerful enough to transform the entire abo population into "humanity" in Port Mimizon. I think it is a current that runs through Wolfe which also resonates with his take on imitation: imitate something long enough and you become it, for good or ill." seems to apply to Wolfe's conception of robots and humanity, or even ensoulment, certainly. Ditto Marc's point about the blurring of subjective mental states and objective reality in Wolfe's work.


Re the overt Freudianism, the late 1960s were a time when Freudianism was largely accepted both by the psychoanalytic community, literary scholars, and the public at large. I think it began a gradual decline since then as competing worldviews arose. But certainly it was part of the creative zeitgeist at the time it was written.







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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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