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.
The 1950s SF movie "Red Planet Mars" (based on a play) also revolves around whether the Incarnation would have occurred on Mars (thought in the that era possibly to be habitable), and the effects that radio communication about that between Earth and Mars have on our society - although there is a twist in the plot.
I'm just getting caught up on the podcast after a hectic winter, and La Befana is one of my favorite of Wolfe's many Christmas stories - a lighter one than several. I would love to see a small-press publisher do a collection of them all, perhaps with a different illustrator for each story - I would certainly buy a copy of A WOLFE CHRISTMAS. Like Michael, I too thought of the Frazetta painting on NatLamp and like Stephen, I thought of the Bradbury story while listening to the podcast before reading the notes. The great SF and mystery editor and author Anthony Boucher, who was like Wolfe also a practicing Catholic, wrote a short story ("The Star Dummy", which appeared in the Fall 1952 issue of "Worlds of If") where the Incarnation also happened on an alien planet from whence a koala-like ET arrived. As the alien and the human narrator, Paul, become friends, he learns the aliens have similar beliefs, and even similar prayers: ("Yes, I do believe in God in a way—if less devoutly than Paul, or at least than Paul being devout. Many do on our Earth; not all, but many. There was once a man, or possibly more than a man. We argue about that. His name was Hraz, and some call him the Oiled One.” Marcia smiled and Tarvish added, “It refers to a ceremony of honor. I am not quite a follower of Hraz, and yet when I pray—as I did, Paul, shortly before you found me—it is in words that Hraz taught us:
"Lifegiver over us, there is blessing in the word that means you. We pray that in time we will live here under your rule as others now live with you there; but in the meantime feed our bodies, for we need that here and now. We are in debt to you for everything, but your love will not hold us accountable for this debt; and so we too should deal with others, holding no man to strict balances of account. Do not let us meet temptations stronger than we can bear; but let us prevail and be free of evil." Boucher's story "The Complete Werewolf" would be a good addition to The Elder Sign, BTW. But the question of why the Messiah on Zozz's planet would be a Jewish human rather than one of his species is interesting and one I wondered about when I first read the story. It could simply be, as Wolfe suggested in his introduction, that as Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, "Salvation comes from the Jews" (John 4:22), and that salvation for other planets must wait until Jewish settlers arrive...which would certainly indicate an important or primary place for humanity in the cosmos. (Although there could certainly be a non-human Moses and non-human Jews on other worlds, as Harlan Ellison and Avram Davidson suggested in a story in the anthology "Wandering Stars"). Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit brother, the head of the Vatican Observatory, and a self-confessed science fiction nerd, has discussed the issue of whether each planet would require their own messiah on several occasions, while admitting it's all just interesting speculation, God will work how He wants to work: New Zealand Catholic: If an alien life is discovered, do they have to be redeemed or is our redemption applicable to them?
Br. Guy: The redemption of Jesus is universal. That is a fundamental statement. The best example we can use is what happens when Christians first encountered non-Christians whether it was in the bogs of Ireland or in the new world. Redemption already applied to them, but the fullness of a relationship with God comes to us through the sacraments, through the knowledge of actually what this God is like through the great things that the Church can give us. Will that be the same with an alien race? I . . . Don’t . . . Know. But, if you tell me that we should not talk to them about religion, you are not treating them seriously because religion is one of the important things about us. And if you think we are not going to talk about religion, you don’t know what it means to be intelligent. Inevitably, it will happen. Will we find that they’ve already experienced the Second Person in their own way? That will be fascinating to find out. But if they have intellect and if they have free will, if they are free to make decisions, then sure as shooting, they’ll probably going to need some form of redemption. Whether it has already arrived there or not, I don’t know. But it’s not like they are condemned until we show up. Br. Guy also brings up that curious phrase Jesus used in John 10:16:
Br. Guy: There’s an English poet, Alice Meynell, who wrote a poem in 1918, Christ in the Universe. And I think it is a brilliant summary of the joy that some day, in some infinite time in the future, maybe even in heaven, we can compare notes and show to the rest of the universe what the Second Person was like when he was here on earth. And that represents probably the most common answer that people expect, which is: There’s one second person but the Incarnation occurs . . . maybe the Word of God who is from the beginning is spoken in different languages, in different places, in different times. There’s even a hint of that in the story of the Good Shepherd where in John’s Gospel version, Jesus ends by saying “I have other sheep” [that do not belong to this fold. John 10:16]. Most scholars assume he is talking about the Gentiles. That’s probably right. But merely listening to that phrase reminds us that we are not the only ones that God is in a relationship with.
The other issue the podcast got me thinking about is the issue of slavery, or bondage, as an aspect of colonization in human history. While we normally consider that indigenous people have been frequently enslaved by the colonialists, the costs and effort to transport the colonists themselves across an ocean to a new frontier often requires that they be held in some sort of thrall, lest they take off to the hinterlands, away from the control of the colonial authorities, and thus wasting the investment in the transport and the need for their labor. Either you are already in slavery or servitudeb or prisoner status, as Africans were brought to America or the Irish to the Barbados under Cromwell or criminals were sent to Australia, or you agree to place yourself into debt bondage as many early colonists had to to travel to the New World. The other option is to be a member of a strictly structured military unit, religious group (like the Pilgrims, fleeing the secular society of Amsterdam), or other political group that can exercise control over its members. Should Earth ever reach the point where we send colonists to other inhabitable worlds, or worlds in need of terraforming to fit our needs, it seems likely based on our history that one or several of the above systems will be required, even if it would just be "if you don't work, you don't eat (or get to breathe oxygen"). In the latter stages of colonization, when the need for economic growth and possible political claims to the land, there could be less of a requirement for social control on colonists. But is slavery, or some form of servitude, a requirement for the early stages of colonization?
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 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)!
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.