May 27, 2018

Slaves of Silver


A superb discussion — as usual, although to say that devalues it: each one really is a treat. One highlight here was the description of the story of Susana from the apocryphal Daniel as a detective story, but there were a great many.


To address one question that was raised at one point: I will say that the politics of this story are hard to read as conservative, for me anyway. At least, they're hard to read as late-60s/early 70s conservative. I'm thinking of your comment that the critique here is almost socialist, and someone — Glenn, I think? I didn't write it down — mentioned a conservative view that people oughtn't to have to work, ought to be freed from that. I will say that's not in any version of conservatism that comes to my mind; the closest is classic European-style conservatism that supports aristocracy, and there it's only that certain people shouldn't have to work, not everyone. The closest thing to a version of this in American thought were some pro-slavery arguments, who understood American slaveowners as, basically, European aristocrats (incorrectly, but never mind), Otherwise this critique it certainly doesn't fit American conservatism. At the time this was written, the leading conservatism was based on "fusionism" (pioneered at William F. Buckley, Jr.'s magazine, The National Review), which combined anti-communism, free-market beliefs & traditionalism. A critique of work is opposed (to greater & lesser extents) by all three. Honestly, there wasn't really a conservative critique of slavery; conservatives were for it when it existed. (You mentioned Catholic views on slavery as if they were negative, but as far as I can recall there wasn't any particularly large or notable Catholic presence in US anti-slavery movements. Quakers, of course, were the early adopters there, and most of the white anti-slavery movement in the 19th century came out of the (Protestant) Second Great Awakening. African Americans, of course, were against slavery for other reasons, but I don't know if there were many Catholic African Americans at that point. Obviously one can come up with a contemporary Catholic anti-slavery argument, about the innate worth of people, etc, but that wasn't one made widely at the time, as far as I know. (I don't mean to rag on Catholics here; my people, the Jews, were not better — and a divine anti-slavery movement is the founding myth of our religion, so.))


All of which is to say that if this story represents a Buckley-ite view, I don't see it. Better, perhaps, to see it as Wolfe moving away from Buckley-ite views (as he said he did), particularly since this story was written a good half-decade or so after Operation ARES? (By the same token, however, I am not seeing any particular metaphor with the Civil Rights Movement here, either; one of you said Wolfe was making the connection, but I don't see it. (Worth remembering, of course, that conservatives were generally against the Civil Rights Movement (as, e.g., Buckley was at the time, although he later backed off from that view). Not saying Wolfe shared this view, just noting that conservative views of the Civil Rights Movement tended to see it more as threatened anarchy (as, for instance, in "Paul's Treehouse").


In sum: I see this as a humanist story (broadly speaking), sticking up for the value of humans (broadly speaking, to include (as is Wolfe's wont) robots), not specifically political in any but the broadest sense.


Otherwise, I don't have much to add. Great discussion, great story.

May 27, 2018

Thanks for these great comments! We loved this story, and I can't wait to get to the sequel (though tons of good stuff in between!).


As someone who isn't especially political in the news-oriented sense and as a historian who has only a vague sense of things that happened after Charlemagne, I'm finding it fascinating to use Wolfe's stories as a lens into the political thought of the 1960s and 1970s. He might not be the best source for it, but it's a fun exercise for me, and this story was especially thrilling for that.


As for Catholicism and slavery, I certainly wasn't thinking of American Catholics being opposed to American slavery, though Pius VII was a vocal advocate of abolition. Surely someone has written about American Catholic attitudes toward slavery, and I'd be interested in checking that out if you have any suggestions. But I was thinking more of 1) early modern priests who were opposed to the (then) new Transatlantic slave system, such as Bartoleme de las Casas (of course, their opinion didn't carry the day, either) and 2) Chesterton, who has quite a lot to say about job-slavery. There will be more on Chesterton in a few episodes.

May 27, 2018

Yeah, as a (probably-overly-parochial) US historian, my mind tends to go to the U.S. antislavery movements, not others. De la Casas is a good example — although, as you note, an outlier. As for sources on the U.S. anti-slavery movement, the antebellum US isn't my period — I've taught the survey a dozen times, but I don't have detailed knowledge of the scholarship; so I don't know of any sources on U.S. Catholics and the anti-slavery movement. I just know the most famous parts of it, and those are Quaker and evangelical, for the most part.


Wolfe's politics are really interesting, and there's a essay to be written about them. (I can even imagine myself taking a whack at it after the process of reading/rereading all this stuff along with you all — although if anyone else wants to do it, I'd gladly be just a reader of it.) I will say that, while there are definitely recurring conservative themes (being pro-gun, for instance), I think his self-description as "eclectic" seems pretty apt.

May 27, 2018

I'm hopeful that we'll be able to put together an edited volume of Wolfe scholarship someday. I mean, we could fill one with just topics from the stories we've read so far and we haven't even gotten to The Fifth Head of Cerberus yet.

May 28, 2018

Glenn: I hope you do! I'd love to be a part if that, if and when it happens.

Sep 2, 2018Edited: Sep 3, 2018

Still happily working my way through the stories and podcasts. Sorry I'm so far behind...


This was obviously a very enjoyable story for all of us.


Re Wolfe's political views on work and leisure being conservative, as stephenfrug brought up, I would guess that they are more traditionally Catholic than conservative.


The traditional Catholic view is that work is necessary and noble, through which we become "co-creators" with God and exercise legitimate stewardship over creation - and that the worker must be protected. Enslaving another or defrauding a worker are among the four traditional peccata clamantia, the Four Sins That Cry to Heaven for justice from God - including murder, sodomy, oppression of the poor (including slavery), and interestingly, defrauding workers of their just wages.


Under the Catholic perspective, the virtue of diligence, or zeal and integrity in one's job or vocation is considered a very good thing - man has to work, and provide for his family. However, an excessive devotion to one's work - what we would call workaholism now - is just as much a bad thing as sloth.


There is a deep Catholic philosophical tradition concerning Leisure (through theologians such as the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper) which is seen as a good thing, an otium sanctum, a "holy leisure" which is distinct from one's job but which in itself requires a sort of diligence or effort to work on one's relationship with God and personal spiritual growth. Thomas Merton referenced this in The Other Side of the Mountain: "I, for one, realize that now I need more.  Not simply to be quiet, somewhat productive, to pray, to read to cultivate leisure--otium sanctum! There is a need of effort, deepening, change and transformation."


The leisure the state provides to humans in this story appears closer to F. Scott Fitzgerald's "idle rich" or Thorstein Veblen's "leisure class" - a perversion of the Catholic idea of leisure.


The state, in "Slaves of Silver", mandates leisure time for the vast majority of the young by paying a lavish stipend to the humans at the expense of a mechanical servant class and the unclassed humans. I think Wolfe was pointing out that the state, by usurping the individual virtue of Diligence and the nobility of making one's living, makes a mess of things. In a similar way, in the Catholic view, state-provided charity will never be as efficient, as effective, or as ennobling to the giver and the recipient, as charity provided at the lowest possible level of human organization, as in the Catholic political philosophy of Subsidiarity, championed by G.K. Chesterton. With leisure, the state providing too much can be as bad as giving too little.

Wolfe, in this story at least, also seems to be arguing an anti-Marxist idea: against state control and planning of the means of production - which are not, ultimately, factories, but the laborers. With humans being told to be euthanized or be cast out of the social security network under which they have lived their whole lives and the use of the robot servant class to support this vast human upper economic class, I don't think Wolfe intended it as a depiction of a good or just society.


The only people we meet in the story who are active players are the robots, Street, and his landlady - those making a living.


Re Glenn and Stephen's question about sources on the Catholic opposition to slavery in the modern era, there is a good collection of primary source documents entitled "American Catholics and Slavery: 1789 - 1866 - An anthology of Primary Documents" by Kenneth J. Zanca. There's an interesting letter in there from the head of the Roman Inquisition, no less, chastising an American southern priest who wrote a newspaper editorial supporting slavery. (To his credit, the priest recanted, opened a home for freed slaves, and devoted himself to supporting the underground railroad.) I think the Catholic involvement in the anti-slavery movement, which began from the beginning of European contact with the New World, was more muted in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries because of the comparative lack of political power (and even hostility) in most parts of the U.S. (as well as Britain during their own battle against the slave trade) compared to the Protestant population, although there were certainly Catholic priests, nuns, and laity who fought for abolition and the rights of the enslaved.


Sep 2, 2018

Re whether slaves were Catholic. most African slaves were not, but the largest American slave rebellion - the Stono Rebellion in 1739 - was led by Catholic slaves who had formerly been soldiers in the traditionally Catholic Congo (which had diplomatic relations with the Vatican). They kicked off the rebellion on the day after the Feast of the Nativity of Mary and carried handmade religious symbols, such as crucifixes. They had been trained in the use of firearms and basic military tactics, and used them fairly successfully as they freed slaves from local farms and led them toward Florida, where the Spanish government offered freedom and land to anyone who could escape from the British colonies. The rebellion finally ended in a bloody battle near the Ediston River in South Carolina, where there is still an historical marker for the event.

Sep 3, 2018

I really appreciate these comments. I'll let Brandon have first dibs on responding to your comments about leisure, since that's one of his philosophical passions. I didn't know about this Zanca book, but my university library has a copy and I'm going to use it the next time I teach our survey course on the world since 1500 -- so thank you for that. You've probably heard me say something about reading Chesteron alongside Wolfe, but I'm interested in broadening my exposure to the modern Catholic intellectual tradition. Is there a particular work by Piepr that you recommend?

Sep 3, 2018Edited: Sep 3, 2018

Well Pieper was a Thomist, so he should fit in nicely with Wolfe's work. His "Guide to Thomas Aquinas" is excellent, and his "Leisure: The Basis of Culture" is the modern classic in this field and would certainly apply to this story. (T.S. Eliot wrote the introduction.) (When you tell people you're studying "Leisure", be prepared for some funny looks, by the way. They will imagine you taking a nap in yoiur office with your feet up on the desk.) Pieper also wrote a lot about C.S. Lewis and translated him into German.

Sep 3, 2018

Mick, these are some awesome observations. And thanks for bringing up Pieper. I am a massive fan of his work and writings, particularly "Leisure: The Basis of Culture." It is truly a horrifying idea for the state to control a societies' leisure time and it's a great catch that Wolfe is possibly critiquing this notion in Slaves of Silver. As a capitalistic society gets deeper and deeper into consumerism and trying to find ways to consume more while doing less work, we can predict (as Wolfe does) that the government will have to make adjustments on how the ordinary citizens operate under its rule. The catholic or maybe even Aristotelian answer to this problem would be to try to teach people to desire the proper things and aim for good, which would simplify the lifestyles of its citizens so that contemplation becomes an appropriate use of ones time. The horror of Slaves of Silver, is that people continue to demand more and more where less and less is available. They import space from the cosmos to enlarge their living quarters while an ignored underclass takes up all of the work that has potential to provide fulfillment for them. In other words, the society wants the wrong things and gets them. That is its own kind of hell.

Sep 3, 2018Edited: Sep 3, 2018

Thanks for the kind thoughts, Brandon. I listened to an interesting interview with Max Brooks, the author of "World War Z" (and Mel Brooks' son), in which he discussed the social perils China will face in the near future. Due to their previous "One Child" policy and the high rate of gender-selective abortions, they have a huge disparity in gender demographics - there are about 130 males for every 100 females, which is enormous in demographic terms. They have shifted from a primarily agrarian economy to an increasingly high-tech one, which employs a lot of the bachelor male population in industrial manufacture and provides them a wage, but (and here's the Wolfeian twist) the high-tech and industrial (and even agrarian) economies are increasingly shifting to robots for the coming years will see a large, unemployed, single male population which will be out of work, has an increased desire for consumer goods and experiences, and will find it increasingly difficult to marry and form families. And as couples are far less likely to marry and have children in hard economic times, this will likely further depress the birth rate, at a time when the Chinese government is trying to do a hard demographic U-turn and encourage women to have 2 kids (a difficult sell, after decades of relentless propaganda to have only one, and in a culture in which women are still required to be the primary caregivers for children and still hold a job.)


Unless China willingly forgoes the huge economic advantages of a robot work force in order to provide jobs and reduce social unrest, and/or provide the kind of living stipend (and leisure) Wolfe presents in this story and "Sonya, Wessleman and Kitteh", they will be facing significant social unrest in the near future - and societies with depressed economies and large groups of unemployed young men with no family ties are historically prone to military adventurism.


I suspect that authoritarian and communist countries are deeply suspicious of a high leisure rate in the young, which they see as offering too many opportunities for encouraging counter-government organizing, and which removes them from the Party oversight that is present in the plants, the collective farms, and the universities.

Sep 5, 2018

Oh, this is great. I'm going to use this in class tomorrow when we're talking about how scholars in different disciplines view the Roman Empire.

Mar 28Edited: Mar 28

I think there are two (related) historical contexts that have been missed in these discussions about "Slaves of Silver" that are especially relevant to Wolfe, as a Republican, responding to the recent Civil Rights Movement. First, for any Republican in 1971 wanting to associate with the right side of history, there were still champions of civil rights in the party, most famously Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, and (before '68) Jackie Robinson. As long as the Democrats relied on a large bloc of southern segregationists (as they would into the mid-90s), there was still the possibility that the GOP wouldn't travel further down the road of the southern strategy. If Wolfe in 1971 hoped the GOP wouldn't permanently abandon what was (until the 1960s) actually a pretty decent history of championing civil rights, he may have been drawn to explore the ideological origins of his party's opposition to slavery.


Whether directly or indirectly, Wolfe may have been aware of Eric Foner's landmark book on this topic that was published in 1970 entitled "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War." This was the motto of the 1850s Republicans, and it bears a very close resemblance to the motto "Free markets and free robots" on which Wolfe's society is founded. The GOP motto led to the passage of the three civil rights amendments during Reconstruction--just as "Free markets and free robots" led to the passage of the Civil Rights law in Wolfe's story. Note that these parallels make sense chronologically too: Wolfe's story is set in a neo-Victorian era with a neo-civil rights movement in its recent past, just as the real Victorian era (or Gilded Age in the U.S.) came on the heels of the Civil War and Reconstruction.


What does this do for our thematic interpretation of the story? From OPERATION ARES, we know Wolfe was concerned with the dignity of work. Well, so were antebellum Republicans--in fact, that's the thesis of Foner's book! Foner shows that, unfortunately, vanishingly few Americans were *moral* abolitionists. Most anti-slavery voters supported the Republicans precisely because they believed slavery undermined the dignity of their work:


"[Foner] also shows how northern ideas of human rights--in particular a man's right to work where and how he wanted, and to accumulate property in his own name--and the goals of American society were implicit in [Republican] ideology. This was the ideology that permeated the North in the period directly before the Civil War, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, and led, almost immediately, to the Civil War itself."


In Wolfe's world, robot slavery had squeezed out free labor (just like Lincoln's Republicans feared it would) and thus the dignity of work had been taken away from (almost) all humans. However, the robot Civil Rights Act allowed robots like Westinghouse to achieve dignity (exceeding that of most humans, even) through their work.


I've only read the story once, and I'd need to spend some more time on it to fully work out these parallels. The most notable difference between the antebellum era and Wolfe's story is that one exists in an era of scarcity, and one exists in a world of abundance. What are we to make of free labor ideology in a post-scarcity world of universal basic incomes? Important differences aside, I'm pretty convinced that Wolfe had the Lincoln-era Republican Party on his mind while he was writing this.


(And now for some wild speculation: when the robot in the TRI-D utters "DREAD," which is such a particular word, this could be an allusion to one of the most famous enslaved man of the antebellum era, Dredd Scott.)



This is an awesome observation, and I think the parallels couldn't be more clear. We've just recorded our episodes about Wolfe's novella Hour of Trust, which is perhaps even more political than Operation Ares. Wolfe scorns corporations, and a big part of his critique is that there is no dignity in the work that corporate drones do. We don't use the phrase "dignity of work" in those episodes, but I wish we'd had your comment already so that we could have, because it is clearly what Wolfe had in mind.

Mar 28

@G.L. McDorman I can't wait to listen! My dissertation actually touched on antebellum attitudes toward the corporation, and the "free labor" advocates I discuss above scorned the corporation for similar reasons as Wolfe. There was a great deal of overlap (sometimes cringeworthy to us today) between their critiques of slavery and their critiques of the corporate economy.

@CEG That's fascinating, and I will be very excited to hear more about that when we get those episodes out. We're going to be recording episodes about Forlesen in the next few months, as well, and we've toyed with the idea of doing a discussion episode about Wolfe's attitudes to work and jobs in his two "Office Space" stories.


My very first graduate course was on ancient slavery, and although it's not what I work on I continue to be highly interested in it. When I'm assigned our World Since 1500 survey course, I always do a unit on modern slavery, but I want to revamp it the next time I teach the course. I think I've only got pre-modern courses for the next academic year, but when I get back to teaching modernity I'd love to bounce some ideas off you.

Mar 28Edited: Mar 28

Reading "V.R.T." and the interrogator Constant's rationalization of the slave state on St. Croix, and Glenn's comments above on critiques of the corporate economy, I was reminded of the writings of George Fitzhugh (1806-1881), a Confederate pro-slavery socialist who saw slavery as part of the social compact, much as Constant does in V.R.T.. Fitzhugh, who may have coined the term "sociology," critiqued the inequities of the emerging Industrial state, the free market and free labor for creating social inequities, and felt that a slave class, not only of blacks but also poor whites, was the best way to protect the interests of black and poor white workers: "...the unrestricted exploitation of so-called free society is more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery."


He wrote two books and a series of articles that were wildly popular among the plantation owners and political leaders of the antebellum South, and argued against the concept of natural rights and for the supremacy of the state, writing that Man "“has no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society...whatever rights he has are subordinate to the good of the whole,” and that slave owners provided for their slaves better than for workers, as they are property. Fitzhugh felt that everyone but a societal aristocratic elite had a natural role as the slaves of someone else, as wives were slaves to their husbands, and he felt socialism, at least in his first book, was the system best designed to assure the purported familial care that a master owes a slave: "Socialism proposes to do away with free competition; to afford protection and support at all times to the laboring class; to bring about, at least, a qualified community of property, and to associate labor. All these purposes, slavery fully and perfectly attains." "'It is the duty of society to protect the weak;' but protection cannot be efficient without the power of control; therefore, 'It is the duty of society to enslave the weak.'" These sentiments, absent the socialist link, were probably not uncommon among proslavery advocates, but I wonder if Fitzhugh's writings were an influence on the arguments Wolfe puts in the mouth of Constant.

Wow, this is awesome. I wouldn't at all be surprised if Wolfe read this -- or at least something based on it -- in high school in Texas, which only in the last year has allowed public high schools to talk about slavery as (one of) the cause(s) of the Civil War. Per my wife, who is both a Texan and a historian of medieval slavery, American slavery was taught in some very bizarre ways in her high school.


I'm also really grateful for this for my teaching. I've just posted above that I want to rethink the way I teach The World Since 1500, and one of the activities I want to add is a student debate in which they take on the persona of someone living during industrialization and have to argue about the ways it is changing society. I'm going to check out Fitzhugh and see if his work is accessible for this activity, so thanks for this!

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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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