Oct 22

La Befana


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.






This story warms my heart -- this is something my wife and I do, too. Arguing about people arguing about books is a little meta, but we love it, and I'm glad we were able to provide you and your wife with a conversation starter.


Jessica is right, of course. There's so much more world-building that would have needed to be done to have this be an alien Christ rather than a human Christ, and Wolfe certainly is the master of efficient world-building.


I don't know if Wolfe was asked to write "La Befana" or if it was just something he was shopping around. That issue of Galaxy had some other Christmas-themed items in it, so it may have been commissioned -- or it may have been something Wolfe sold to them long before it was printed. But I fully believe that Wolfe could have seen this cover and written an amazing story and gotten it off in time for next January. I mean, this alien even has some animal-like qualities just as Zozz does. In either case, that's an amazing illustration, and we should do whatever Sturgeon story was published here.

I enjoyed the story & the podcast, as well.


Relevant to the story's interpretation is the afterward that Wolfe wrote for the story in The Best of Gene Wolfe. He wrote:

This story is based on playful theological speculation. If Jesus came into the world to save it, what about other worlds? Wouldn’t he have to come into those worlds too, if he wanted to save them? (I am misinterpreting world here in order to get a story.) Fine, and if the Savior is to be descended from King David . . .

This seems to solve several of the problems raised in the discussion. Why Jews? So the Savior is descended from King David. Does the other world need its own savior, or does Christ redeem all the worlds? Well, Wolfe said explicitly that he was "misinterpreting world here in order to get a story": presumably he believed that Christ entering the world (i.e. the universe) was salvation enough, but to make the story work he was pretending that each world (i.e. planet) needed a savior. — Perhaps GW is playing with us, and hiding his complex theological speculations with these light words, but on the sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar theory, i wonder if he didn't just write a straightforward story, making the theology match.


One comparison to make is "The Man" in Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, in which Jesus comes to a series of new planets, and a crew chases after him, missing him every time. Not saying it's a direct influence (although it could be; Illustrated Man was published in the early 50s), but it's an interesting story to read in parallel, I think.


It was fun having Mike Morrison guest on the show. He had a very different approach than the two of you — you talk about theology a lot, of course, but he sounded like the pastor that he (if I remember rightly) in fact is. He drops a lot more bible verses. He sounds less like he's discussing intellectual history and more like he's giving testimony. Interesting approach, and it certainly worked for this story!


Looking forward to the Death of Doctor Island — one of Wolfe's best novellas (which are, in turn, some of his very best work)!

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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/
  • 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.
  • I must admit this story puzzles me. First, I should say, I just didn't like the story that much (which I had never read prior to reading it for your podcast, and have now read twice). I didn't hate it; it just didn't stand out for me much, unlike several dozen Wolfe stories I could name. I certainly don't see why it would end up in a Best of Gene Wolfe collection. So maybe I am just not sympathetic enough to read it. I liked your discussion a lot — the hinge between the 60s and 70s is of deep fascination to me, and I liked the idea that this story was prescient about it. That said, I found myself wondering how much of that was in the story, and how much we see in the story because we've lived the past few decades (the story takes place about halfway between the time it was written & now). The critiques of business methods and business culture are there, to be sure. But other things — the switch of the American economy from a manufacturing to a finance focus, the absorption of the counter-culture by commercial forces, etc — I don't see in there. (FWIW, I don't see it as cyberpunk, either. Sure, the corporate-controlled dystopia was part of that aesthetic. But I don't think the focus on the digital world was as marginal to it as you implied. Further, several other very crucial parts of the cyberpunk aesthetic — the idea that technology does not always operate as intended, that "the street finds its own uses for technology" (in William Gibson's famous phrase), the idea of the human changing (in ways rare in, say, Campbellian-SF), etc — are all missing. It doesn't feel like a cyberpunk story, to me.) The biggest question for me is the story's politics. If your reading is right, then it sounds like a very leftist story to me — worlds away from the right-wing politics we've seen in Operation Ares and "Paul's Treehouse" and many other stories. I think I read it, however, as more condemning of both sides, rather than making the corporations out to be the bad guys as opposed to the harries. I think the harries come across as awful — wasteful, unorganized, without any coherent ideology or plan or anything, just a mass of craziness. I think that Wolfe dislikes them as much as the corporate culture. In which case this story is of breakdown — much more in line with the earlier stories, at any rate. But I feel less sure here than about other works you've read. There are, of course, ways from conservative thought to an anti-corporate critique. But those ways of thinking were very much not part of conservative thought around 1972. Traditionally, there has been a strain in conservative thought which is suspicious of big corporations, but the mainstream of conservative thought from the mid-50s up until, well, Trump (and in a great many ways through Trump) has been what's called fusionism: the fusion of three strands: religious/social conservatism, anti-communism and free market thinking. Thus Milton Friedman, although he was one of those three, was very much part of & embraced by the conservative movement. So was Wolfe that suspicious of him? I don't know. But given Wolfe, I think another possibility is that we're simply reading the story wrong. I think that the bit with the three characters bursting into flame (or the women bursting into flame & the man exploding) may be key, and I don't think I'm persuaded by your reading that it is simply symbolic/religious/mystical. Wolfe does that sort of thing, of course, but I'm not seeing any sign of it here. And he usually writes his stories to make solid SF/engineering sense, too. In which case perhaps it's a bomb. Marc Aramini reads this as the idealists killing Peters just as he was on the verge, perhaps, of doing something idealistic, making things better: which fits with my more 'damn-both-sides' reading. I took "Hour of Trust" to be a reference to the bit in the middle of the story when Lewis, admitting that he is seeking credit, says "Credit, as you know, is a matter of confidence, of trust." So this is the hour of credit — of seeking credit, anyway. I think it might also relate to the various types of trust of the harries — faith in human potential, faith in God — although that is a type of trust that reads to me as rather bitterly satirical. (Wolfe does not hesitate to satirize Christianity when it suits his stories, of course.) All this is rather unsatisfying, I know, but I don't know what else to do with this story, save that there is something that we're missing. And that unlike most other Wolfe stories, I'm not quite motivated to reread until I figure it out.

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