Mar 26, 2018

Operation ARES, Chapters 7-8


I feel like a broken record reiterating how good these episodes are, and how much insight you are both bringing to a (frankly) third-rate novel I'd have long since put down. But perhaps for praise, as for libel, the truth may serve as a defense. At least I hope so.


A couple of quick thoughts:


• I forget in which episode, but you already raised the possible parallel between the structure of Operation ARES and Book of the New Sun: you were too modest to note it, but that was followed through here as JC becomes the leader of Ares, as suddenly & unexpectedly as Severian becomes Autarch — also also, I think, far less convincingly in several different ways. But the plot is clearly in Wolfe's head: he just got better at it.

• Another BotNS parallel: you mentioned the various ways in which people give up their humanity, become partly human, more primitive, etc: this is more fully developed in the zoanthrops (the people who return to beast-like status) in Sword of the Lictor.

• Another possible interpretation of the Russian brainwashing is as a crude metaphor for communism: SF works at the time often paralleled communism using fantastical means of total control (Heinlein's Puppet Masters, Invasion of the Body Snatchers): given that they're literally Russians, it's hard not to see that as one element of what's going on here.

• I thought a couple of theology-savy people like you might have something to say about "power dwells in the heart"; it certainly struck me. But I have no insights into it.

• I thought it was worth mentioning the moment of fairly stark racism (of the "yellow peril" variety on p. 131:

…"I could have a hundred divisions of semi-illiterate Orientals armed with burp guns and hand grenades if I wanted them and could find some way to get them here. You are no Earthman, and you're from this part of the country. Would you like to see a force like that turned loose here?"

John shook his head. "I'd almost rather go over to Fitzpatric Boyle."

"So would I...."

Maybe I'm over reading. But I thought the "rather go over" remark, especially since both of them made it, given their various political commitments, rather striking. Not to mention the whole "semi-illiterate Orientals" phrase (granted that at the time, it was less true that "Orientals" was not the preferred nomenclature (Asian-American, please)). But I found it jarring.


Finally, although you mentioned it, I believe, for the first time since your opening episode on the book in this episode, it still struck me that you might make more of the fact that Wolfe's original novel was cut by 40%. (Has anyone ever tried to get him to publish, or at least release online, the uncut version? Does it still exist? I understand that GW has disowned the published version, but presumably he'd at least think the uncut version was better, even if still bad.) Several moments in these chapters felt, to me, like scenes were cut: the transition of John talking to Lothrop to trying to make mental contact with Anna was jarring — there didn't seem to be even a line break (although it was on a new page, so maybe it was just a formatting issue). But I wondered if pages might not have been cut there.


But it then occurred to me: one of the difficulties with this novel is that many of Wolfe's signature techniques are doing things that might otherwise look like bad craft deliberately. Not knowing Wolfe, simply omitting a major scene from a novel (the crisis at the gate in BotNS, say) might be thought to be bad craft: knowing Wolfe, it's a subtle style of storytelling. In other Wolfe texts, apparent contradictions are signs that we're missing something. And so forth. One needs to really trust the author to understand that these are deliberate, and not simple sloppiness.


But how, then, are we to read here? After all, here — in his disowned apprentice novel, which additionally was drastically cut by an editor — an omission could be craft, could be sloppiness, or could be bad editing. It makes it very hard to read Wolfe in particular knowing that the sort of clues one looks for here have such obvious other alternatives. Not to say that Wolfe is infallible: Even Homer Nods and all that (remind me to tell you about the actual mistake, and not clue, in Lolita sometime); indeed, one of the reasons that I (for all I, obviously, love it) and still skeptical about what I'll call the Wolfe/Nabokov mode of writing is that people are fallible, and that it sort of assumes a level of control that is, in practice, not attainable. Nevertheless, Wolfe usually can be trusted, at least as a first, second and third hypothesis; the possibility of simple sloppiness comes up only after one has sincerely made a lot of attempts to find intentional meaning, and even then is always provisional. Here, it's hard not to make it the first thought. It makes reading the book hard, at least for me.


Hence my all the greater admiration at how well you two have done with it. On to 9 & 10!

Mar 26, 2018

Yes, you've quite eloquently hit the nail on the head here: it's difficult to tell what is Wolfe's pen and what is the editor's knife in Operation ARES. We've asked Marc about the possibility of seeing the uncut manuscript, but he believes that it is long gone (along with an early novel that Wolfe never sold). I'd love to see it, or even just to know where the cuts were made so that we can really assess the craft.


We just didn't know what to do with the Yellow Peril business. Perhaps this attitude derives from his Korean War experiences, but the racial make-up of President Chuck Huggins's bodyguard suggests that this isn't about racial identity but about national identity. It seems like we are meant to contrast the possibility of semi-illiterate Chinese soldiers taking over America with the possibility of robotic Russian soldiers taking over America -- they are both grotesque to our band of patriotic revolutionaries. Wolfe does a better job with the Russian threat because he shows it to us; with the Chinese, he mostly resorts to dialogue to explain the stakes, and I think does it poorly.


One of the books we gave out as wedding favors was A Wrinkle in Time, also a deeply Christian SF book from this same phase of the Cold War, and Communism as roboticization or lobotomization is at the core of that story, too. Indeed, we can probably say that some of this is even in The Lord of the Rings. I also recently reread Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which doesn't really have this), and I think I'd really like to do a project on SF and the Cold War at some point.


And, yes, we did perhaps drop the ball on "power dwells in the heart." This makes me think of Ephesians 3:17, where Paul talks about Christ dwelling in hearts -- but it does also make me think of Mao saying that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Perhaps Wolfe had this contrast in mind as well, holding up the Church as the real defense against Communism (which is an idea all over Chesterton).


As always, thank you for your comments and your encouragement. I'm excited to hear your thoughts about the end of the book, but REALLY excited to get to the excellent stories after this third-rate novel.


Mar 26, 2018

I like the combining of Ephesians and Mao: I don't know if Wolfe meant that or not, but it makes the phrase interesting in a twining, doubling way.


I have to admit I never read A Wrinkle in Time: I didn't realize that that was part of that.


What interests me in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is how its model of revolution separates itself from every revolution post-1776: imagine a Latin American revolutionary using only the US as a reference point!


I will say I don't think that The Lord of the Rings is related to communism. People tend to analogize it to WW2, but I think Tolkien is convincing in his claim that the story was set years before that. There are other ingredients there. The hoards of orcs come partly from a need for faceless soldiers one can slaughter without pausing the plot to worry about it, and also, sadly, partly from racism. (Much as I love & admire LotR — one of my favorite books — there are unquestionably some very problematic aspects of it.) Mostly, though, I think LotR comes from the mythological sources Tolkien was an academic expert in; from his own particular understanding of Christianity (notions of divine providence, mercy, etc); and from his own experiences in WW1 (Mordor is, clearly, the no-man lands from Great War battlefields).

Mar 26, 2018

Oh yes, I was thinking of the Scouring of the Shire, which is very much taken up with communism (or socialism or perhaps Fabianism) as a viable set of political principles in the UK of the 1920s and 1930s. For Tolkien, this is wrapped up in his story of "going home again" after the war, which is why this is also connected to Frodo's inability to feel at home again. This also is the world in which Chesterton is writing about the Catholic Church being the last best hope for humanity against Communism, Capitalism, and Fascism. So, certainly not a Cold War context, but a Catholic fantasist's anxieties about Communism nonetheless. And I think all of this shows up in Wolfe during this period (as I'll say on the air in July).


And, yes, there is a lot going on in Heinlein's very strange mythologizing of America, his interest in exploring how technology can offer alternative forms of government, all the while ignoring most historical alternatives. Also, there are like a hundred pages of Heinlein's position on the correct number of people a terrorist cell should include, such that it feels like Heinlein was actually preparing to have to overthrow JFK.

Mar 26, 2018

Scouring of the Shire: of course, you're right. — Doubtless it's connected to the different context you discuss, but it's interesting that most SF representational versions of communism make them a huge, almost-undefeatable enemy: whereas the Shire's problems are blown over by four hobbits coming home & getting everyone back to their senses.


"it feels like Heinlein was actually preparing to have to overthrow JFK.": Ha! Well put.

Apr 2, 2018

I am only one episode behind now. I think Brandon hit on something very important in this episode regarding the structure of the novel, and I don't remember if we actually talked much about it in our closing conversation. Creating meaning through position, juxtaposition, and context, whether it be the application of an embedded scenario or symbol to the greater whole or some even more complicated metonymy, is one of the ways that Wolfe insures that his theme is expressed even if the surface text of the novel remains inconclusive. Wolfe doesn't stop that after this novel, though on occasion he is much more subtle with it, and many of my personal readings are in large part determined by these small microcosmic patterns that extend outwards. I really enjoy the context of spirituality and even the metaphysics and ethics you guys are bringing to the discussion - much of my writing on Wolfe is actually concerned with plot and theme. Overall I think you guys did a great job with what is definitely the low point in Wolfe's novelistic career. I don't know if I told you, but I think your treatment of "How the Whip Came Back" was far superior to my own exploration, and it is nice to see that brought up again. I build most of my later analyses of Wolfe off of principles I see in "The Changeling" and "Trip, Trap," which seem to have far less of the complex social examination that pervades Wolfe's 1970s short stories. so I reserve the right to mention those stories again in illustrating a point or two ...

Apr 2, 2018

That's very generous, Marc -- and we hope we're clear enough on the air how important your work is to what we do. For some reason, "How the Whip Came Back" really spoke to us, and it's become something of a reference point, at least for this early period; but "Trip, Trap" and "The Changeling" are going to bear fruit for longer, I think.

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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. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.
  • 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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