Apr 8, 2018

Operation ARES, Chapters 9-10


Edited: Apr 9, 2018

I have a lot of thoughts here, although my basic thought about the podcast is "wow, I can't wait until the Aramini wrap-up"; this was, structurally, a prelude to that. I do love when you guys do a whirlwind tour through philosophy — and speaking as someone who did take a one-semester course just on Hegel in college, I gotta say, that as five-minute summaries of Hegel go, that was really quite good — but I thought that you didn't deal with the sheer strangeness of the book's direction and philosophy enough. But I suppose that will come in the next episode, and I must just be patient.


My basic thought on the novel: God, that's weird. It seems really strange on any level, what with its thematic incoherence, its odd plot balance, its adding things in at the end, etc. (I really wish we'd been able to get our hands on the uncut version!) One thing I did like, just reading it as an adventure story, was its unpredictability: over and over, some battle starts to happen (when the Martian lands besides the prisoner convoy, the battle in Arlington Cemetery here, lots of others) when Wolfe goes in an odd direction, usually in the direction of a loss.


On the other hand, I found the romance at least as unconvincing as you both did. And I thought that the politics of the novel are weirdly incoherent — or at least not well presented. But I will certainly wait until I hear your next discussion until I finalize my judgment on that score.


A number of briefer thoughts:


• You never brought up the possibility of the novel being, in any way, a Vietnam metaphor. Given the use of the US as a proxy war by two sides towards the end, and the fact that the novel was written in 1967 or so, I find it almost impossible to believe that that wasn't part of what's going on. But then, I'm not sure what to do with that notion. I can't make it work as a metaphor.

• You mention that the Universal Basic Income is a leftist idea. It certainly is usually heard about in those circles today. But, as you may well know and just didn't mention, it has a long history of support on the right — Milton Friedman favored it, for instance. I believe Charles Murray has come out in favor of it also. (I would add, as a leftist, that the left and the right versions tend to be very different: the right tends to want to use it to replace all current social insurance, and to keep it at a level that work would still be required; leftists think that it either needs to be a genuine living wage, or to supplement existing programs without replacing them.) I think Wolfe, at least filtered through your interpretation, had some interesting things on why it's better than welfare — things, FWIW, that a leftist might agree with!

• On the riots: in addition to the Watts riots of 1965, there were major riots in the summers of 1966, 1967, and in April 1968 after the assassination of King. (Maybe 64 too? I'd have to double-check.) At the precise historical moment that Wolfe seems to have written this book, it wasn't a bad extrapolation for a social collapse. Although by the time it was published it was already out of date on that score.

• I could not make sense of how the gold-theft plan was supposed to work. Why would that have gotten Castle a meeting with the PG's head? Or had any other significant bad effects?

• There is some imagery/symbolism in the novel that you pointed out, which I like, but which doesn't seem to cohere for me. You pointed out the Lee/Grant imagery, and I really, really liked that (and that it was just slightly hidden by the "Lee" being the Chinese name (often spelled "Li")). You also pointed out the imagery of fighting on the graves of dead soldiers, which I also liked; you might have further pointed out that they were specifically Civil War soldiers (at least initially), and that the cemetery itself used to be Robert E Lee's plantation (seized in wartime by the government and made into a cemetery). It feels like it should add up to something. But I'm not sure what, or even sure that it does — at this stage in his career, maybe Wolfe is just flinging things at the wall to see what sticks.

• One small note that I have to assume is unintentional, although if it occurred in a later Wolfe work I'd assume was intentional: General Lee mentions "Kuo-yu, the national language", But "the national language" — "Guóyǔ" in the currently common transliteration system, pinyin, but "Kuo-yu" is how it was written in Wade-Giles transliteration, which was common in the U.S. when this novel was published — is the Taiwanese name for Mandarin. In Communist China — the one that turned into the one in the book — it's called Pǔtōnghuà, or "Common Speech". Probably Wolfe just looked it up and saw the Taiwanese name? That's what would probably have been available in the U.S. in 1967 (Communist China, of course, was still closed to the West then; Chinese materials were from Taiwan or Hong Kong). But I thought I'd point it out.

• You mentioned Wolfe's "Hey, I thought you were my friend" comment; that might have been from me — at least, a friend of mine told me that Wolfe said that to him when he mentioned OA.


Well, to paraphrase what Jews say at the end of the seder: "Next Week With Aramini!"!

Apr 8, 2018

PS: You mentioned there not being statues to suicide bombers. Well, they weren't bombers — I don't know if that makes a difference — but in WW2 Japanese kamikaze pilots certainly did suicide attacks. According to this site — http://www.kamikazeimages.net/monuments/index.htm — "Japan has many monuments dedicated to special attack force members who died in suicide attacks during World War II". Some of those memorials are to statues of pilots (as opposed, e.g., to plaques). For what it's worth.

Apr 9, 2018

Yes, we must have gotten that story from you! I'm sorry that we forgot and didn't credit you properly. That story really colored my reading of the whole text, and the extent to which Wolfe dislikes it was always on my mind.


"Strange" is definitely the right word for how this book ends. "Wait, what?" was my immediate sentiment. I really thought that I must have accidentally skipped something. I'm certainly glad to be leaving this behind and I'm excited to get to the great stories that are coming up.


Just some quick comments on your excellent points:


Vietnam: Of course, but I wonder if Wolfe wasn't thinking also of his own experiences in the Korean War. Like you, though, I'm not sure what to do with this other than to say that he was skeptical of proxy wars.


I really don't know much about the intellectual heritage of American political ideologies, so I'm grateful to hear about Milton Friedman et al. Frankly, I'm not really sure that I've heard or read anyone involved in politics or government discuss this as a matter of public policy, and have largely encountered it in SF where it has always seemed like a progressive idea. And I certainly agree with you that it feels progressive here when Wolfe promotes it, and did for me as well in "Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee." That said, Wolfe's fundamental premise is that a bureaucratic state is a parasite.


Yes, I feel like the gold plot was written specifically for Ron Paul and will only make sense to him.


That's an awesome reading of the symbolism of Arlington Cemetery. I had no idea that Lee had owned that land. These Kamikaze memorials are also really interesting. The commemoration of war in the early Middle Ages is part of my research. While we don't have any of the monuments left, I'm fascinated by how other cultures remember their wars and what monuments they erect.


This is a very cool catch about Chinese languages. I wonder if, as you say, Wolfe simply didn't have access to the best information because of Cold War politics, or if he did this intentionally. It would seem strange for it to be intentional given that China's communist ideology is a part of the novel, but he might have been playing a bit of a game there.


As always, thanks for your insightful comments. I look forward to getting back to Wolfe at his best!

Apr 10, 2018

Hi Stephen. As always, thank you for your kind words and incredible insights. It was very difficult for me not to belabor how this book is all over the place during the chapters 9 & 10 episode. I still struggle with what John Castle is really about.


We really do often miss important cultural events when we discuss context of Wolfe. I'm always grateful for your knowledge of our recent past. I'm often so focused on Wolfe's experience as a soldier in the Korean war that I completely missed the potential for this story to have something to say about Viet Nam.


Thanks also for bringing up the differences in Universal Basic Income as it's understood by the left and the right. It's a very helpful elucidation. Though I don't always respond, I eagerly read your comments on our episodes.


Finally, I think you're going to enjoy our conversation with Aramini. He is able to make sense of this novel in a way that neither Glenn nor I was fully capable of because of its being so out of step with much of what Wolfe writes later. The next batch of short stories we cover are also fantastic.


Apr 10, 2018

And thanks for your kind comments about my comments — I always worry I'm posting too much, not reading the room right, etc. I hope not.


The thought that Wolfe must have been thinking about Korea, but also can't have avoided thinking about Vietnam, makes me wonder if anyone's written about what Korean vets, specifically, thought about the Vietnam war. If not someone should.


Really quite looking forward to the Aramini conversation — and, yes, to more first-rate stories coming up!

Apr 14, 2018

Oh, you've just come up with a great dissertation project for somebody, Stephen!


And you're definitely not reading the room wrong. We love getting your comments. If anything, we feel bad that we're taking so long getting to the stories that people actually want to talk about so that you aren't the only one here! But at least we're counting down to The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

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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/
  • 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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