Apr 18

Marc Aramini in about the novella "Fifth Head"


It is always such an incredible delight to hear Marc on Wolfe, I am so glad you had him on. His reading of the symbolism is extraordinarily compelling, as always.


I had one (possibly stupid) question — for Glenn/Brandon, or for Marc, or anyone else. Marc seems to be assuming that Aunt Jeannine is an abo (on the assumption that Veil's hypothesis is true, and that the inhabitants of Sainte Croix are all abos). The only argument for that — which, IMS (although I haven't gone back to recheck), is introduced first as a possibility and then becomes simply asserted towards the end of the episode — seems to be the idea that she is an outcrossing, like David. (She does, it is true, implicitly compare herself to David — "your father has a sister, why wouldn't you?" — but then, at the time she assumes David is Number 5's half-brother ("he must have used one of my girls")). But surely the evidence that she is *not* is greater? Number 5 says she looks like his father; she herself refers to Maistre as her brother. And of course her name — Jeannine — is presumably the feminine of "Gene". (Actually, is there any other evidence for Number 5/Maistre's first name? There's a lot of evidence about "Wolfe" — the library, the name of the house, etc — but the only bit of evidence I can recall that the first name is Gene (apart from the name of the author, which I don't think is quite enough) is the name of Aunt Jeannnie. If she's an abo, that evidence is no longer valid.) I assume the story is that Maistre's father tried a female clone, as well as the usual clone, and that Maistre himself, trying something different, tried an outcropping instead.


Relatedly, I am not convinced that David is an abo — or, at least, more than half abo — even assuming that Veil's Hypothesis is true. It simply seems to make more sense for Maistre to be testing a half-brother rather than some random person (who would then, in fact, be an abo). Now, if he did, as Aunt Jeannine speculates, "use one of my girls", then, if Veil's hypothesis is true, David would presumably be half abo. But I think that I've not seen any evidence to persuade me that he isn't, as the surface reading is, Maistre's son. (There is the comment about finding no proof of David's kinship — but I read that as simply a reflection that Maistre, breeding with one of his own sex-slaves for the purpose of creating an experiment, is hardly going to register the birth or anything like that. Would they use genetic testing? Well, if the story was written today, it would be a question; but the notion of genetic testing is raised nowhere in the story, and wasn't (AFAIK) a common notion in 1972, so I suspect the only evidence consulted was legal.)


I, for one, am not yet convinced, just from the first novella, that Veil's Hypothesis is true. (I did like the speculation in the episode, which got inadequate consideration I think, that the abos might have replaced the French colonizers but not the subsequent American ones. Worth further pursuit, I think.) But I suppose more evidence will be forthcoming in my upcoming reread of the last two novellas, plus the episodes recorded.

Hi Stephen. I think Wolfe provides closure through symbolic patterns. When you see the legs of these girls and of the Abos in a story as one of their defining characteristic and the floating down the staircase Jeanine does while looking at Number Five as a symbolic representation of her manner of genetic maturation, it is also useful to think of Five’s certainty that she is a black queen who has replaced a white queen he will never know in one description; in parallel structure as soon as she meets him, five dreams of Abos. There is a causal relationship there. her assertion of veil’s hypothesis is ironic because it is literally true: this is Wolfe’s favorite kind of irony. An abo who doesn’t realize she is an abo WOULD come up with that explanation As a Joke. Also, the no new buildings in 200 years, the scars on the heads of the people in port mimizon who arrest marsch, the name port mimizon being based in mimicry, and the shape of the city as a hand when we are looking for useless hands are all overwhelming indicators to me. That’s how Wolfe provides narrative closure. five Is human. in The final episode with Glenn and Brandon I will go into the myse en abyme symbolism of the central novella which include shadow children riding marshmen and the switching bite, but in that sandwalker is associated with his legs and stride and eastwind with no testicles.

And we're so close to FINALLY releasing that episode!

Marc: I don't argue with Wolfe's use of symbolic patterns. I would, however, argue that since those are so easily read into a story, they need to be particularly strong to overcome a strong surface reading.


Now, I think you are conflating in your answer the question of A) whether the *other* people in Port Mimizon being abos, and B) the question of Aunt Jeannine specifically being either an abo or simply a female clone of the Gene Wolfe line (since you admit there are some genuine humans on the planet, number 5 specifically, that could be true even if Veil's hypothesis is (largely) true). Point A, as I said, I'm not yet convinced of; but I can see why one would think so, and would like not to argue the point. But I assume that some of your evidence — e.g. the lack of new buildings — addresses only A, not B. Wht is the evidence for A narrowly? That you've cited, there's her floating, the black queen line, her lack of legs which are associated with other girls, the the dream of abos, the irony of an abo asserting Veil's hypothesis. I guess I'm still not convinced by this — enough to counter the fact that she's said to look like #5's father, that the notion of a female clone is a very logical outcome of the story, and that she provides a key piece of evidence for one of the key jokes in the story (GW"s name). Particularly since a lot of what you cite can be read otherwise — surely it's just as possible that #5 dreams of abos after meeting Aunt Jeannine because she brings up Veil's hypothesis as the fact that she's an abo? If the other girls are defined by their legs, but they are (by hypothesis) abos, then doesn't that argue that Aunt Jeannine, who lacks legs, is not like them, i.e. not an abo? And he doesn't say she replaced a white queen, just that "Black only as distinguished from some White Queen I was never fated to encounter." Anyway, I am finding the argument thin. No reason you have to try again, of course, but I would be interested if you cared to.


(Also the issue of David, which strikes me as a third separable issue from both A) most of the population, and B) Aunt Jeannine)).

What it really boils down to for me is using the most possible details from the text. One of the street names is translated as Street of Maggots. While this might suggest rot and death, when coupled with the imagery of "many pink butterflies" and the idea in a story of a larval stage (we were long and lived in the branches of trees) suggests an adult form that is like a butterfly. Nerrisa, Phaedria, etc are named after such moth or butterfly-like creatures. Port Mimizon (suggesting mimicry) and its hand-like structure are not explained, nor are the strange street names, unless we assume that the abos have actually proliferated. I suggest an entire life cycle. My readings have to take into account every name, from Bloodyfinger to sweet mouth to cedar branches waving, and make sense of cryptic details like the burying of Sandwalker's mother's feet in sand to soak up the nutrients and the lack of mobility of the female abo (seven girls waiting?) compared to Sandwalker. The legs of jeanine are long narrow useless protrusions; the abo girl seven girls waiting stumbles around and says that it will not come to Sandwalker until he is old (immobility). Basically, Veil's hypothesis is like Checkov's gun. My reading uses it. It uses all of the names in a story, the tree imagery, the leg association with abos, explains why the men who arrest Marsch in the third novella have the same face and have scars on their foreheads (certain abo groups are scarred ritually), and it explains the dystopia of Port Mimizon as well as its name and the idea that the streets are named after maggots and the girls with odd legs after butterflies. I'm sure you have access to my entire writeup using the central novella in my book, but here is a link to my video on Fifth Head and the essay. https://youtu.be/esAjkChAy7M, https://www.youtube.com/redirect?v=esAjkChAy7M&event=video_description&redir_token=HB8E3V4oAmI2Hrtag3TMFuimAe18MTU1NjAwNDQ2MEAxNTU1OTE4MDYw&q=http%3A%2F%2Fultan.org.uk%2Fvariance-reduction-techniques%2F


I know you are suspicious of apophenia. I approach these texts holistically and with the idea that every detail must fit. Readings that do not take the possibility of Veil's hypothesis seriously are not using the material directly stated in the text.

The greed of Phaedria and Aunt Jeanine are something I mention in the episode (I believe) - they are bound and determined to get Maitre's estate and money in general. Phaedria has a cast on her ankle when we meet her, and the legs of Aunt jeanine, long, thin, dangling things, resemble the staff-thin legs of the girls and the heron legs of the abos as described at least once in a story as Sandwalker and his lookalike stride. The elderly population in VRT keep being described as crippled, immobile - one "guy's" grandfather stopped walking but then would go out once again towards the end of his life. I do not think these are different in kind. Jeanine's dangling legs are not a contraindication at all. Female abos are simply stricken more quickly; whether only men can put down roots and develop a barklike carapace is never clear, but the description of the legs as lombardy poplars and the planting of the legs of Sandwalker's mother to get nutrients from the sun and soil would suggest women can do it too.

Also, the key explanatory moment for me is Jeanine floating in the middle of the helix and looking at Number Five the whole way, who is his father's image. That's how the abos imitate and why she looks like him. Perhaps there was another Jeanine once, but there is no evidence that David is actually Maitre's child at the end; Jeanine winds up occupying the same position as Phaedria will when she returns with the child in the final page of the first novella. the symbolism of the floating staircase scene IS my reason. The novel isn't important, but once Wolfe told me something about one of his books that most people disbelieve. The primary textual evidence of that is this passage:

When [we] were real little we used to play in the pools up above your mill. … One time we found a really pretty one, that had a lot of pretty little fish in it, and spotted frogs. Green with blue spots, I think. … Well, while we were looking at them we saw this one leech, a red one. It was pretty big. It was swimming right at one of the frogs, and me and [my brother] yelled for it to look out. … Only the frog didn’t pay attention, and just about the time it opened its mouth I figured out that it thought the leech was a fish, and it was going to eat it. … The frog got it in its mouth and spit it out, and it swam around in back where the frog couldn’t get at it, and fastened onto the back of its head. When we came back there was a dead frog, only the leech was gone. What I was thinking of was they don’t look enough like fish, not really, to fool us. But that one fooled the frog, he thought it was a little fish, and it probably fooled the fish, too. [A woman in the text] fooled me the same way until you told me. I thought there was two women in the house, an old one and the young one, but they were both her.This passage is the primary expository means that Wolfe "explains" that a red planet in the plot with parasitic life has taken the place of a green satellite. This is a metaphorical expansion on what happened to the solar system in that novel. I won't explain that here, but that is the upshot of a textual detail directly revealed to me by Wolfe. In comparison, the genetic strand of the helix staircase in Fifth Head is downright overt: Number Five is natural, Jeanine's inheritance is based on looking at him and does not involve the typical use of the genetic helix. Aubrey's name means elf queen. She has the inutile legs and the avaricious natures of a species that sees no problem in taking identities wholesale as it serves them. The butterfly and larva imagery of the girls and streets in Port Mimizon are also, in my mind compelling. It is not random, nor is the name of the city and its structure. Why haven't there been new buildings in 200 years? I'll tell you why with certainty.

Marc: I don't think it's quite fair to say that it's not taking Veil's hypothesis seriously simply to doubt if the otherwise true hypothesis applies to Jeannine! But that aside, you do add a lot of reasons to think that she, too, is an abo. I will mull it over (as I continue to reread with the podcast). One question: is your reading that there was an (actual, clone-derived) Aunt Jeannine whom the present (abo) Aunt Jeannine replaced? I assume there would have to be, or otherwise how could Maistre (who is human in your reading, right?) think of her as and refer to her as his sister.

By the by, I don't see why you are being coy about what novel you are talking about — I get that it's SS2. I'm curious — possibly for another forum — precisely which part of your theory about IGJ that GW confirmed. I was always under the impression he dodged questions about his work from just about everybody, refusing to confirm or deny anything. (He even let Pamela Sargent publish something wrong about The Fifth Head of Cerberus in her afterward to the ace edition... which to be honest I found rather cruel: it's one thing to let someone not know informally, but if someone is kind enough to write an afterward for your book, you might prevent them from making dramatic interpretive errors in it!) So I'm interested he commented on your theory at all. Can you share precisely what he said?

New Posts
  • 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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