Jul 27

How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion



The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast is about to discuss “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion.” I promised that if it was selected, I would share Gene’s story about how he came to write it.


Gene lived a few blocks away from us and would come over for dinner on occasion. One time after enjoying the meal, the talk turned, as it inevitably does, to World War II. Gene told us about the time he was commissioned by Ben Bova to write a story for Analog based on an illustration by Frank Kelly Freas. There was one little problem; the illustration showed Hitler trying to sell a car to Churchill.



Analog May 1973 - page 83



Gene agreed to take on the challenge and wrote “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion.” The story went on to be nominated for a 1974 Nebula.


Later, Gene asked Bova why he was selected to write the story. Bova said that because of the subject of Freas’ drawing, he was having problems finding someone to agree to do the writing. So Bova got out the directory of SFWA members, started with the A’s, and worked his way down…

Wow, that's a great story, and it speaks volumes to Wolfe's ability to win any writing-prompt challenge, because this tale is a real masterpiece of political commentary.

Although I haven’t had the opportunity to read this story, I greatly enjoyed the podcast. Your discussion about diplomacy makes me think of the naval treaties that were enacted between the world wars. In this era ships, especially battleships, were the super weapons of the day. A number of treaties were signed amongst all of the naval powers of the time to try and limit the number of ships to prevent an arms race. All of these treaties were written in favor of the British and Americans much to the disgust of other powers. The idea that diplomacy is designing the game to win the one race is an apt comparison when the long term consequences are not considered.


The idea of America using its money to rebuild destroyed economies has always been controversial. I believe that the main argument for doing this was to prevent the same economic situations that existed after WW1 that directly led to the rise of Nazism and Facism. Although an argument can be made that these countries economicaly outdid the US, a case can also be made they are our main partners in resisting being overtaken by the emergent Chinese economy.

And around the English-speaking world our political discourse is now back to debating protectionism, tariffs, and free-trade zones (and universal basic income, which Wolfe also wrote about in these early political stories). It's been fascinating to me how relevant these trade and labor questions are again as we try to navigate America's post-industrial economy, and I'm glad that Wolfe is able to help me think about them precisely by decontextualizing them and spinning them into an SF story. And there's more to come in this batch of stories, too, though my sense is that after this period Wolfe never really gets back to writing stories like this.

Great story, fascinating discussion.


What struck me about it, and the story, were basically political points so, trigger warning: politics.


I would like to dissent, slightly, from your discussion of protectionism. I agree that that's a large part of what the story is about, but in real life the politics of it are kind of muddled, and I think your discussion didn't quite untangle it. What's complicated is that the issue of protectionism doesn't line up along right/left lines as do (these days) most politics; there are critics of free trade on both sides, albeit for different reasons. You say that "protecting the worker" sounds leftish, which is true (including in 1973) if you mean workers' rights, but protectionism for economic reasons can be found on the right, largely in a herrenvolk mode, "America First" (the slogan not only of Trump but of the largest right-wing isolationist party before WW2, with strong Nazi sympathies). And I think it further muddles the issue of the 1970s economic slump to talk about it as either we do protectionism or we let the steelbelt rust. The politics are just... more complicated than that. The main issue in the 70s was inflation, which was most fundamentally caused by the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979. But it was also the moment when neoliberalism in the Thatcher/Reagan mold began to take over, unions began to be hard hit, etc. There was a lot going on beyond protectionism. (There is a rich & growing body of historical work in this area; on this issue in particular I'd recommend Judith Stein's Pivotal Decade.) Perhaps the best way to put it is that in certain sectors of the right — particularly the social/religious right that Wolfe identified primarily with (and which is ascendant under Trump), as opposed to the free market right, protectionism often stands instead of worker's rights, not as workers rights: it's a business-friendly (at least American-business friendly, and moreso in the 70s, before globalization made business even harder to do under protectionist regimes and parts were made everywhere) that helps workers through trickle-down.


(I have drifted off topic but I want to add one note before moving on: you mention the decline of manufacturing jobs. One might ask why manufacturing was so important specifically. And there are two (complexly interrelated) answers to that. One is that manufacturing jobs are, traditionally, union jobs: they come with good pay, benefits, a dignified life. Often when people miss "manufacturing" what they are missing, without knowing it, is unions. Those unions, of course, were largely destroyed by the neoliberalism just beginning its rise in 1973, and were viciously (and successfully) fought by the right. The other answer is more complex, but it has to do with a particular cultural image of manufacturing which is coded working-class, white and male. Many new jobs — which, if unionized, might be good jobs — are coded non-white and/or female: service jobs, care work, etc. Another reasons unions failed were their internal racism and sexism, which hindered their ability to think about the working class as more than plant manufacturers. (On this, see Jefferson Cowie's superb Stayin' Alive.) A very different sort of conservatism, but one which has linked with religious conservatism in today's politics. Unions, meanwhile, have finally gotten the message on expanding to women and non-whites (non-whites have been in unions for a long time, and in white unions broadly since the CIO in the 1930,s of course, but I'm talking cultural perception here, not reality), but possibly too late. We'll see.)


The other political angle on this story which I want to talk about, and this is one you didn't cover in your discussion, is Hitler. I found the story oddly and slightly disturbingly normalizing of Hitler. It's simply weird for me to see talk of Hitler without any single mention of his antisemitism, which was fundamental to his outlook and politics. (It's in his writings and speeches in the 1920s.) Imagining him as simply a head-of-state seems a bit... whitewashing. The Nuremberg laws were promulgated in 1935; are we to assume they happened in this alternate reality, or not? If not, how are we imagining Hitler not pursuing those policies? It would be easier to swallow if we were shown some altered event that had changed Hitler fundamentally which caused the alternate timeline, but we aren't. Even more, it would be easier for me to imagine a Germany doing the sort of thing Wolfe shows it doing if someone else were leading it. Of course this wouldn't be as fun and striking as this story, which is I assume why Wolfe did it. (Well, that and the origin story in the illustration that Michael Frasca talks about above!) But the result of that genuinely innocent process is a story that reads, to me, oddly and even as a bit disturbing. (While I was listening to the episode I saw a reference to Pat Buchanan's book Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World, which sort of suggests to me why the political effect of normalizing Hitler & imagining away the war is disturbing.)


A few more random thoughts:

• The main worries about Japan taking everything over, IMS, were in the 80s. I think Wolfe is being prescient.

• One question that jumped out at me, which you didn't address, was why the USSR and the US were left off of the list of countries assigned to Landsbury early in the story. I suppose this is simply because in real life the US and the USSR entered the war later, but does Wolfe ever mention a mechanism for adding countries to one's side?

• If you're going to point out, via Stalingrad, that the USSR was fighting very differently from the US, you ought to also mention they were doing so under very different conditions: they were invaded by the bulk of the Nazi army, they were nearly conquered, and their losses were unthinkable, far more than any other combatant. Lord knows how the US would react under similar circumstances.

• Also, I don't think it's true that the US ignored Russian crimes after the war. We did during the war, certainly, but the anti-communist atmosphere returned immediately after its end (some historians argue it came back before its end, tracing the use of the atomic bombs to post-war positioning vis-a-vis Russia; I wouldn't go that far, but it was definitely on people's minds). It was a big issue in the 1946 elections.

• I had the same thought that Glenn did, that we live in the board game; but I found Brandon's argument against it convincing.

• While I'm critiquing the politics of the story, I should mention that making the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki an intrusion from beyond the game-world (rather than, say, an innovation (as allowed in the game) which won it) is, while admittedly funny, quite the whitewashing of what was arguably a terrible war crime committed by the U.S.

Although I also was convinced by Brandon, I think the downplaying of Second World War atrocities that you point to is strong evidence for a relationship between our world and the board game. It seems like the world of the story is a better world than our own -- it's a world at peace, and a world that seemingly hasn't experienced the Great Depression, either. Perhaps we might see it as a world in which the First World War really was a war to end all wars. That's not at all true in our world, of course, but I think that Wolfe here is emphasizing just how horrific the twentieth century was by pointing to the ridiculous absurdity of it all -- a kind of black comedy in which using nuclear weapons against civilians only makes sense if it's some kind of cosmic joke and not really something that our world had any agency about. Because what kind of person would choose to do that.


We've got a lot more stories coming up about the politics of American business (Hour of Trust and Forlesen are the real highlights), so we'll get a greater sense of Wolfe's views about corporations, workers, and the role of labor in society. But even with just this story and "Car Sinister," I think it's pretty clear that Wolfe is not a protectionist on behalf of owners but on behalf of workers -- that at least in the early 70s he wouldn't have found much value in voodoo economics. But I'm actually much more interested in trying to understand how he felt about the cultural component of competing against German and Japanese industry as himself a former soldier who saw combat dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War. Certainly, for me growing up in the 80s, I heard adults talking about these issues constantly -- but they were never talking about class politics. All that mattered was whether it was right for Japan to have turned around and secretly won the war after all, and I recall conversations about this getting rather heated when, say, someone wanted a Walkman for Christmas, or when someone at church bought a Honda. I suspect that Wolfe, too, had this on his mind much more than class politics when he wrote this story given his own (possible) emotional connection to the issue.



Sep 27Edited: Sep 28

Thanks for the podcast, which was enjoyable and thought-provoking as always. I think this might have been the first Wolfe story I read, back when it originally appeared in Analog in 1973 - I was a regular reader of Analof, F&SF, and Worlds of If back then. A lot of the political jokes and historical references went over my 15 year old head, but I remember enjoying it. One of the gags that you probably noticed but didn't have time to comment on is that the journal "All New and Logical, Original Games" to which the narrator is writing is, of course, an acronym for ANALOG. Analog was one of the most "hard SF" pro-technology magazines of the era, especially under John W, Campbell, and would have seemed a good fit for Wolfe, who combined literary skill with a professional knowledge of technology and engineering. But I don't think he actually had many more stories in there - I will have to check the ISFDB to see if he published anything else there. The podcast's comments on the current debate between globalism and protectionism, internationalism and nationalism is spot on. I was curious as to who "Lansbury" was meant to be, and suspect it was George Lansbury, the head of the Labour Party in the 1930s. Lansbury was strongly pacifist and opposed British rearmament in the face of the developing German threat (and in fact advocated for unilateral disarmament for all nations), so it was cheeky of Wolfe to make him the narrator's avid wargaming colleague. Re stephenfrug's comments above, I agree that it always a little disconcerting to see references to Hitler in pop culture, and alternative world stories in particular, that don't reference his antisemitism and the Shoah - but such references would have felt out of place in this story, which has a lighter humorous tone for all its darker humor references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fritz Leiber dealt with this in an interesting alt-history short story, "Catch That Zepellin!" I have a hard time considering Truman's escalation of WWII into our first (and I hope last) nuclear war as a war crime. My father was a young sailor on one of the Navy ships that were preparing for an invasion of the Japanese mainland, after the Navy and Marines had already suffered heart-breaking casualties in the earlier campaigns against Japanese-held territory, and no one expected amphibious and airborne landings in Japan, as well as naval and aircraft attacks, to involve anything less than massive loss of U.S. military personnel and both the military and civilian personnel of Japan. Arguably, it is likely that my dad would have been killed in the planned attack, and so neither I, nor my sisters, nor my children would ever have been born. I appear to owe my existence to the atom bomb.

Wow, we totally missed the Analog acronym! It's a great gag, but also maybe a good trick for selling a story, so I'm going to steal it.


We have also just finally begun reading Wolfe's Letters Home. We're going to take a long time to go through them, but, among other things, I'm very interested in getting a better sense of Wolfe's views about violence.

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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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