Apr 10, 2018

operation ares wrap up


Edited: Apr 10, 2018

Thanks again for having me on the show! I wanted to wait until this came out to repeat something we touched on in personal correspondence after recording - the significance of the Noah imagery ... given what we have to work with, that deal with Boyd at the end for UBI almost seems like a New Covenant, as was made with Noah, so that the people would not be destroyed again. Otherwise I dont know what else we can do with that Noah imagery- it might have been more present in the original draft in the second half, but then, who can straighten what editors have made crooked?

Apr 11, 2018

Anytime, Marc! We look forward to our conversation about Fifth Head a lot. It really is a travesty that we have lost so much of this novel that we can only guess what the payoff of some of the symbols and imagery that are developed early on are. I still like the idea that Japhet may go on to be the progenitor of a race of mutants.

Apr 11, 2018Edited: Apr 11, 2018

One thing that Wolfe does develop as a trope is that space exploration changes people in bizarre ways, almost affecting their very nature (Lief in the Wind, The Other Dead Man, The Seraph from its Sepulchre, Silhouette, All the Hues of Hell, The Most Beautiful Woman on the World, Thou Spark of Blood, and The Sea of Memory are all examples of that - going out from Earth seems to introduce something truly alien which may or may not be communicable or passed on to future generations, and at the very least challenges humanity in strange ways.) Japhet's transformation is I think in line with some of the things happening in these other stories, though he could very well represent a "next" step of literally awakened indivudals who will not simply sleep passively through their lives, though this might cost them dearly. Is even the "wakey" disease a symbol of a state of mind?

Apr 14, 2018

I love the idea of the UBI as a New Covenant, perhaps even as an explicit alternative to the Great Society.


Marc, I'd even add Alien Stones to that list. The changes that space and space-faring force on both individuals and the species is a part of the world-building of that story, and perhaps even there in the background of some of the themes.

Apr 15, 2018


What a great episode! I trust (no, really, I do trust) that you will have Mr. Aramini on again.


I have a problem approaching Mr. Aramini's criticism that mirrors (imperfectly, I suppose) a problem I have with approaching Wolfe's fiction. In Wolfe's fiction, he is so good, so subtle, that one can read everything as symbolic and intentional, and be cast into reverberating Cartesian doubt about anything one sees as problematic or flawed in his work: perhaps one is just missing it? But, of course, no text & no author is perfect. (Or anyway no human author: there's a wonderful line of scholarship from James Kugel about how what makes scripture scripture is precisely the imposition of the notion of infallibility, of infinite intention: he does a reading of "She'll be Coming Round the Mountain" as one would read it if it were scripture that is not to be believed. There is always the tendency with certain authors — Shakespeare, Joyce, Nabokov, and, yes, Wolfe — to forget they're human, and that some things may just be mistakes or flaws. Yet at the same time they're good enough that one must always be skeptical about such interpretations, too.) Similarly, Mr. Aramini's readings are so good, that I find myself hesitant to disagree, thinking that the fault must not be in his readings, but in myself.


All of which is a long-winded way to say that I don't have that much to add. I loved Aramini's symbolic interpretations — he made the novel seem even richer than the two of you did going along, and that's saying a lot. The chess connection is quite interesting & I wish that Wolfe had (in Aramini's terms) brought it further to fruition. I also enjoyed the many parallels with, and connections to, other Wolfe works. (You all mentioned that Petra Silk, like John Castle, injured his leg in a fall... but then, Severian also injured his leg, although not in a fall, admittedly.) It's all splendid.


The one area I would be tempted to push back on is in your treatment of ideology. Yes, Wolfe says he's ideological eclectic — in a much later interview. I think more headway could be made thinking about how this novel does (and doesn't) fit with a more strict Buckley-ite ideology as Wolfe said that he (at the time) had. I am suspicious of this because, in particular, people denying that they have a standard ideology, and describing themselves as politically unplaceable, is a very common thing in recent American politics; and quite often it's simply self-deceptive; people often have more consistent ideologies than they realize. I'm not saying that this is necessarily true with Wolfe; not at all. But I don't think that we should take his protestations of ideological eclecticness at face value, even if he means them straightforwardly (which he often does not with interview statements, as Aramini mentioned), and even if they were about the time this novel was written (which, again, they weren't).


I don't really feel up to going back through OA and analyzing it; I'd rather focus on future Wolfe works. But I think we should, at least, keep the issue in mind in the context of going forward reading his fiction. For while I agree that Wolfe is not an ideologue , he definitely has stances on issues that leak (sometimes in uncharacteristically clumsy fashion) into his fiction. One example is gun control. He's pretty dogmatically against it in this novel — returning people's guns is one of Castle's demands at the end, the earlier lack of guns is bemoaned, etc. This stands out for me, because Wolfe also harps on this in later books. In Book of the Long Sun — which of course you already connected with Operation ARES in many ways — there is a few-page section (I believe in v4) that reads like pretty straight NRA propaganda to me. (In really threw me out of the book the last time I read it.) We'll deal with that when you get there, I suppose. A second, related issues is the issue of violence; while some of Wolfe's work deals with the complexities of violence, he also (as we've discussed in earlier threads on this forum) at times seems to have a fairly apologetic attitude about some violence. Just something to think about going forward.


One minor nitpick: someone (I forget who) said there are no real evil characters in this book. And I suppose that's true — of the Americans. But the Russians, off-stage, are presented as pretty straightforwardly and uncomplicatedly evil. And the Chinese, while slightly more complex, are still pretty villainous. Just a minor point.


Again, great episode! I look forward to resuming the short stories next week.

Apr 15, 2018

PS: I swear that when I wrote the first line of the above, I had not yet seen that Marc Aramini was scheduled for another recording session already! But I went over to check what the next story was, read down, and saw it. I am delighted to see my trust was not misplaced. Also very happy that "Fifth Head" will get a five full episodes before that: seems well justified.


One idea: your discussion with Marc Aramini brought out a huge number of themes and parallels and things to look for — it made me wish I'd heard it before reading the novel (or made me want to reread it, except that in this one case I don't really feel like rereading this particular Wolfe story). What about some time having him on and hearing his take on themes and then go through the story, to see what you can add? (Maybe you can do this with the latter two novellas of "Fifth Head"?) Just a thought.


PPS: Did you hear Marc Aramini say that "Seven American Nights" is one of Wolfe's best works? Because I agree. Something to bear in mind when you choose what to podcast about!

Apr 15, 2018

Glad you enjoyed the episode, Stephen. One of the things I absolutely don't want to do, however, is keep Brandon and Glenn from exploring the work in their own way. The problem with my basic assumption (that Wolfe's works are puzzles which can be solved logically or symbolically) is that it can be pushy and it focuses my attention on plot, theme, symbol, structure - Glenn and Brandon do a great job of bringing up things that I would never go into because of the rather narrow focus of my goal - answering "what happened?" If we were ever to do something where my reading was presented first, I would want it to be a minor work/ short story and a "one off" kind of episode - not for something as absolutely important as Fifth Head (though I will be discussing other readings in our wrap-up.) Their areas of expertise are very different from mine and I think they are doing a great job incorporating some perspectives I have little knowledge or interest in (like, say, the medieval color associations). As far as apophenia and symbolism ... I am going to talk about why I think symbolism can be precise on the Fifth Head episode and how meaning can be created through repetition and juxtaposition with extremely precise examples. Wolfe creates an association between trees and death in Peace quite deftly, but he also expands this in ways that are clear once we have context (ie - the marid Naranj in Peace who forces ben Yahya to work for him in one of the embedded stories - In the text, we have the son of John (ben Yahya) working for the orange magnate Julius Smart (naranjo means orange) - those are *allegorical*, perspicuous symbols, not open ones. There are several in Fifth Head. I don't think symbolic readings work for every author, or even for most; I do think that Wolfe employs symbols for thematic closure as a regular feature of his writing, and that they often show a one to one correspondence with the things they represent. You'll hear me say this again, no doubt, with a bit more explanation. Thanks again for listening and your comments. As far as politics, you might be right, though I don't think Wolfe has anything to apologize about given the way that he treats people individually. Some of his views, even religious ones, are certainly eccentric, however.

Apr 15, 2018

Oh yes, one more thing - I don't remember if anyone mentioned this over the course of the episodes, but some of John Castle's movement tracked Wolfe's: born in New York, growing up in Texas, fighting in Asia - I think we see Castle in New York, Texas, and China rather than Korea, but still ... if I got the details wrong, in this case, oh well ...

Apr 15, 2018



I didn't mean to imply — Heaven forfend! — that your readings should swamp Glenn and Brandon's, I think Glenn & Brandon's readings are quite fabulous, as I hope they know by this point, and would not want to hinder them in any way. On the contrary, — and with all due respect for your work which (as I hope you know full well) I also have enormous respect for and have learned greatly from — I thought that having you go first might be a way to move beyond your view. Having you come in at the end — particularly given the "strength" of your readings (in a sort of Harold Bloom-ian sense) — can feel like you coming in to give The Answer. Your readings are powerful enough that they can feel like the last word, whether presented as that or not. But if instead you came on first, Glenn & Brandon — and possibly even their humble forum commentators — could absorb your reading and move on from it, seeing what else we can see in the work. Now, maybe it's a bad idea, and (I hope it goes without saying) totally Glenn & Brandon's call — I mean it merely as a suggestion, to be set aside if it doesn't suit their image of the show. But I did want to clarify that I didn't mean to suggest it so your reading could dominate at the expense of theirs; in fact, quite the opposite.


That said, I do love your readings, and do really look forward to hearing your take on the symbolism in "Fifth Head". My one complaint with your book was that the few central works you began with — Fifth Head, Peace & BotNS — got far less attention (both measured against their length, and measured against their quality and centrality to Wolfe's oeuvre) than the shorter pieces in the rest of the book. So it will be great to hear you say more about Fifth Head, especially the symbolism.


As for politics — I don't imagine asking Mr. Wolfe to apologize at all, and I have no doubt he is exemplary in his personal conduct. But I think it's interesting to think about how politics shape a work of art, as long as one does not say that that reductively is all that needs be said about it, or can be gleaned from it. Just as part of the larger conversation. I take it for granted that neither the ongoing, enduring value of Wolfe's work, nor any questions about our evaluations of him as a person, is at stake here. Just our enriched understanding.


I hadn't noticed that about mimicking Wolfe's own biography (and didn't mention it on the show); that's a great little tidbit.



Apr 16, 2018

Definitely - I just think a particularly focused interpretation at the start kind of forces what comes after to respond to it. For the next two volumes I have fixed that: the writeups on Latro, Short Sun, and even Sorcerer’s House are ridiculously long. I also learned how to write those long essays with better organization - they have to be focused around the plot for people to follow. Also, I knew that Peace, Fifth Head, and New Sun would always be talked about, so I had less incentive to attempt something “definitive”. My publisher insisted I write something on New Sun. In hindsight, how did I think a book on Wolfe would ever do well without a section on New Sun? Crazy.

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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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