Jul 19, 2018

Much appreciated wrap-up


I have to admit I was a little disappointed not to be jumping right into The Fifth Head of Cerberus this week. I've been waiting impatiently. That said, I was delighted by the wrap up discussion in Tuesday's episode!


I particularly enjoyed the discussion on GK Chesterton's influence. The passage Glenn read of his having to do with the dehumanizing effects of consumption really struck a cord. I've been confronting the reality of my own habits of consumption lately, and it's encouraging to have people like Chesterton and Wolfe lighting the way. At the same time, their eloquence is completely unnerving. Regardless, I can't wait to go back and read Sonya, Crane Wesselmen and Kittee.


I appreciated the recommended reading as well, I never mind knowing where to find more good work on a topic I'm interested in. Reading In Praise of Idleness now.


Thanks guys! Can't wait to start Fifth Head. Keep up the good work.

Jul 21, 2018Edited: Jul 21, 2018

I can't wait to have you reading along with Fifth Head. I think it benefits greatly from group reading and close reading. I remember reading it a few years ago and not being "wowed" by it and forgot so much of it that I was astonished when we read it again with fresh eyes.


Glen has a collection of Chesterton editorials and essays, kind of a greatest hits. It included a work called "Heretics". The Man Who was Thursday was also a favorite work of Chesterton's by Wolfe.


Wolfe has really emerged, in my mind, as a champion of a third way, much the way Glenn describes Chesterton as being. To me, this type of voice is essential in the kind of discursive climate we live in today. I'm so glad you're listening and reading along!

Jul 21, 2018

I, too, loved the wrap-up episode.


Let's see. My five favorites from this period... Well, of course "The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories". Also: "How the Whip Came Back", "The Toy Theater", "Alien Stones", "Paul's Treehouse" (partly because of the fun in listening & discussing it here). Also: "The Changeling", "The Blue Mouse", "The HORARS of War", "Eyebem" and "The Recording". Those are the five stories I am putting in my top 10, which I can do because I have a space expander like in "Slaves of Silver", which I also really liked, although not quite as much as you two. And oh hell, I left out "Trip, Trap", which was great. — What can I say? The man is too good.


I would like to flag a theme as either a subset of the robot theme or (I would argue) a related but not identical theme: that is, the question of a model of a person's intelligence (modeled in a computer, or in another's brain). Wolfe asks all the same questions about these as about robots — are they human? Are they souls? — as well as questions like, "Are they the original person"? We'll see this theme in Fifth Head, of course, and prominently in The Book of the New Sun (people in Severian's head, alzabo, to say nothing of multiple Severians, etc), as well as The Book of the Long Sun. But I wanted to note that we've already seen it a number of times: it's in "The Changeling", in "House of Ancestors", in "Alien Stones". A variation on it is the crippled or imperfect copy; we see those in "The Packerhaus Method" and "The Toy Theater" (probably). I think it's worth flagging. It's a different aspect of Wolfe's exploration of consciousness that goes along with his robots.


Another central consciousness related theme we see a lot in later Wolfe that has already arisen multiple times is memory. This is true in all the stories which are told as memories by a narrator (e.g. "The Recording"), but its flaws and uses are particularly prominent in "The Changeling" and a number of others I am forgetting. This, too, will get a workout in future books.


Finally — related to politics — I think we should keep an eye out for themes about the justifications for violence. This is central to New Sun, of course. But it's been a big theme in multiple stories.


A few other responses to the episode:


— I liked your discussion of "Paul's Treehouse", and will accept gratefully your compliment on my discussion of it (assuming that you were referring to mine — I thought so...)

— Like Brandon, I am a big fan of Borgesian — or, I would say, Menardian — backwards reading. But I would suggest that, unlike what Brandon says (that it's a good place to start), that perhaps it's a good place to end: after one has carefully read a work in historical context, to help understand the story as it was meant when written, and then see what it can mean in other, later contexts. — Or, as a compromise, a good middle place: start with the free-associative out of context readings, nail down some historical grounding, and then return to anachronistic readings with firmer footing.

— Brandon: You said Wolfe is one of the three writers you give to people who have doubts that they either have time to read or doubts about the worthiness of genre literature. So: who are the other two??

— You all made a much better case for "family values" than its proponents have made for at least a generation. I would suggest avoiding the phrase; what family values means now is basically hatred of gays and lesbians, and similar things. If you want to complain that the term has been hijacked, well, it happens.

— It was interesting that Chesterton was talking about the destruction of the family in the 1920s and 1930s — long before the golden age fantasized by the actually-existing family values proponents of the 1950s. It's not entirely a surprise — there'd been a huge effect from the 20s, from modernism, from rise in divorce (there's a terrific short history book on the rise in divorce between 1880 - 1920 in the U.S. called Great Expectations) — but he put it more strongly than I'd have guessed.

— Interesting you say that Bertrand Russell was sounding themes similar to Chesterton and the search for a third way; Russell was, of course, a socialist. He was an anti-Bolshevik socialist — which is to say, an anti-communist socialist. But a socialist still.

— Oh and, by the way, anti-communist, democratic socialism is the third way. Just sayin'.

— You cited the longing for a third way and anti-modernism as synonyms, but I think there's an important difference: the third way is a third way to live in a world whose shaping by modernism is taken as irreversible; anti-modernism — which tends to be more an aesthetic and a source of incoherent political gestures than a well-thought out political position — is, well, against modernism, and tends to include a lot of fierce, impotent nostalgia.


As for what I am looking forward to: Fifth Head, and Peace, which (like Brandon) I have never read and which I feel is a huge hole in my reading as a Wolfe fan. (I'm tempted to try and read it twice: once before the podcast, in a gulp, and then again, with y'all. We'll see if it happens.) And also "Forlesen" (I'm interested if Brandon changes his views — I, like Wolfe himself & most fans, think it's one of Wolfe's very best stories), "Seven American Nights" (also), and "The Death of Dr. Island". And a bunch of others. Many of Wolfe's best short stories are in this period; getting rid of half of them will lead some gaping wounds in the project. I get the necessity; but I am not looking forward to those!


In the meantime: Fifth Head ho!

Jul 21, 2018

It's going to be even harder to pick favorites from this next phase, I think, and it will be a lot of fun when we're all done to put together a desert-island bookshelf.


I'll confess that I had this notion of modeled intelligence wrapped up in the umbrella category of robots. It shouldn't be -- or rather, modeled intelligence should be the umbrella category under which robots exists with computers and uploaded consciousnesses, etc. We'll probably steal this term from you!


Since we recorded this episode, I've gone on to read another volume of Chesterton's work in the Ignatius Press series. While he's quite eloquent in his criticisms of everyone else on the planet, it strikes me that he is something of a clever nay-sayer. He complains and bemoans, but doesn't offer solutions, at least not in what I've read so far. In short, his anti-modernism is precisely that type of aesthetic nostalgia without a real political philosophy. There's a real yearning for the high Middle Ages that he has invented from reading romance and hagiography and not reading charters and law codes.


We've got our eye on the violence now that we are going to be getting much more of it. There's a surprising amount of it in "A Story," by John V. Marsch (which we're wrapping up this week) and it's going to give us a chance to talk about Wolfe's whip theology that you pointed out to us.


As always, thanks for your great comments!

Aug 6, 2018

Another great episode - and I owe you guys thanks for all the kind words. Luckily this kind of stuff can't possibly make my head any bigger, but I do appreciate your effort and the chance to be involved with such a wonderful and well-executed project. One thing that I think might easily be explored involves a comment Brandon made involving the humanity of flesh creatures subject to manipulation - I do think that one of the things Wolfe does is give many of his characters the ability to engage in persuasive casuistry - when you get to later works I might chime in on the forums here about that theme again.


Also ... when I wrote on Peace (which I am not truly happy with, though, ironically, I have gotten far more positive feedback on it than on some of my other work that I am VERY happy with - looking at you, Short Sun and Home Fires), I read the book five times in a row from start to finish to make sure I was picking up on the patterns, though there are plenty of quality resources available to consult on Peace. I strongly recommend that Brandon read it at least twice in rapid succession - it's just that type of book. Keep up the awesome work!

Sep 13, 2018

Hey Brandon! I just realized you never answered my question about this episode: you mentioned Wolfe as one of the three writers you give to people who have doubts that they either have time to read, or doubts about the worthiness of, genre literature. I'm really curious who the other two are!

Sep 13, 2018

Stephen! It's good to see you back on the boards. I can't wait to dig into your Fifth Head comments. I'm sure I was thinking of George Saunders as one of the other writers. Other potential candidates for the second are probably Dan Simmons, John Crowley, and I'm sure more will come to me throughout the day. I can be certain I was thinking of George Saunders though.

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.

Claytemple Media is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.