That was a terrific episode, and clarified a lot; I feel like the readings about empathy (Sonya's having it, Crane's lack), and about the story as a fable — you didn't spell it out, but presumably a warning to the granddaughter (to borrow Marc Arimini's reading) not to end up like *that*), were both great. The discussion was quite illuminating on many points. (And always bonus points for a Big Lebowski reference.)
At the same time,I can't help feeling like you're missing something — as is Marc, and as am I. So let me point out a few things:
1. Reading the story as about empathy leaves unexplained Wolfe's remark on the *liberal* politicians. You suggest at the podcast's end that politicians don't understand the plight of people like Sonya, which I suppose is narrowly true (if they think she's not making it), but it seems like what is going on with the liberals can only be called an *excess* of empathy. Why would the story, about empathy, point to excess as well as insufficiency? (Perhaps it is a typical—for later Wolfe, anyway—curmudgeonly "pox on both houses" comment, meant mostly as a joke. But if it's meant as meaningful it's puzzling.)
2. How they met: you point this out, and I have no ideas (unless it is to further highlight Crane's insufficient empathy: he doesn't even notice nothing's wrong), but it still puzzles.
3. Harlan Ellison: you pointed this out too. (And seriously, huh? Weird failure of tone.) But also combine this with not only the Debbie Reynolds/John-John reference... but *also* the casual allusion to Boswell. That is *not* something a celebrity-struck youngster would know. So is *that* the failure of tone? Or are we missing something?
4. What did Sonya say to the partner's wife? (Something about her being sick?) It's made a bit too much of to mean nothing, but what does it mean?
5. Tudor house, gas lamps, "estate"... does that all mean something?
6. Why is the apron *backwards*?
7. There are two, separate, young "men" (friends) described. The first is described in the exact language used to describe Kittee herself: "high cheekbones and an unexpressive face" (and they're both good looking). So a relative, from the same gene-line? But that's *not* the one CW points at when he suggests he's going to buy Kittee a friend after he dies. Why have two?
8. "the fine lines had spread across his face and the way his hand shook" — just a descriptive detail?
9. "Then, Sonya felt, he looked at her in a most significant way; but the last time she went he seemed to have forgotten all about it...". What was he implying? (That she was to be his executor, if he bought the friend for Kittee? Something about her emotional state? What?)
10. "mouton Sainte-Menehould": just a fancy dish? "Sainte-Menehould" is, according to Professor Google, where Louis XIV was recognized on his flight to Varennes; "mouton" is sheep, which has all sorts of connotations.
11. Is the small legacy just the pet to care for, i.e. a friend? Or is it more? (Is she going to eat Kittee? Have sex with her? Sell her?)
12. Are we sure we can glean nothing from Wolfe's introductory comment? If the prettiest things in the ads are the models — which in general are *not* sold — does that imply that the dog magazines were in some sense selling the people in them? Perhaps that was just the germ of Wolfe's idea. But is there anything to the idea that the friends are sold, but in some sense the people who buy them are being sold (people do work for their pets; and CW does end up as meat...)
Some of these points are probably overreading. But I don't think *all* of them are. I think this story is, as yet, unsolved.
Thanks again for the episode.
PS: Bonus 13th question, this time about the episode: why did you claim that the then-recently killed RFK's death would be a big blow to Wolfe, given his politics? RFK was a liberal icon, never more than in that last run for the Presidency. (Somewhat less before, I grant you, but that's what he had come to stand for.) I don't get that sense from Wolfe's politics at all, which seem to me to veer between fairly standard conservative and a particular form of Catholic-influenced politics, which tends to be traditional about (eg) gender roles, but shows some concern for the plight of the poor. Neither way does RFK seem like Wolfe's politics (although maybe he liked him — he was popular with catholics, for obvious reasons.) Anyway, I was curious about that.
Glenn, thanks for the kind comments. I was just thinking this afternoon about why Wolfe compared Sonya to Debbie Reynolds, and just remembered the reason she would be best known to his generation. The Gen Xers and millennials, if they know her at all, think of her as having been Carrie Fisher's mom, and perhaps saw her as an ingenue in the MGM classic "Singing in the Rain" in film class or on the TMC channel. But to Gene's generation, she was known for having married crooner Eddie Fisher in what was a sensation to the movie magazines of the time (and why Carrie Fisher had the last name she did). Even more sensational to the media of the time was when Eddie dumped Debbie in 1958 to pursue and marry her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor. The sheer number of stories devoted to the love-triangle in the press and on TV probably outdid any subject until the Kennedy assassination - the media was literally obsessed with the subject. My mom was still talking about it with her friends in the mid 1960s.
(The Jennifer Anniston / Brad Pitt / Angelina Jolie triangle seemed to be a strange replay.) Debbie was widely popular and seen as the lovable, nice, All-American girl next-door type - much as Sonya is portrayed. Elizabeth Taylor was seen as darker, foreign - perhaps even a little cat-like in her predatory amorous affairs.
I think Gene sometimes likes to use these kinds of things as, not strong clues to what is happening in a story, but as subtle, almost subliminal foreshadowing of events to come within the story. It lets him sketch in characters and events without the need to spell out the particulars.
Wonderful comments, Mick! I'm embarrassed that I didn't do the research on the economics of microwaves even though I suspected they were considered fancy in the 70s. I still recall when my family got our first microwave in the late 80s and it was a BIG DEAL. And of course Wolfe would use food engineering as a way to convey all sorts of social and cultural information to us. Awesome catch!
And I really love your observation about the conspicuous "consumption" in the story. There is perhaps a sort of "man cannot live on bread alone" sardonic tone to this reading that I think is great.
I also think that you've hit on something that we missed in the podcast. Wolfe makes a point of bringing up Hollywood beauties in this story -- women whose beauty (body, even) is a commodity -- and this surely must be to underscore that this is what Kittee is also, and perhaps is something that Sonya doesn't possess because she is no longer young.
Re the Harlan Ellison reference, his novella “A Boy and His Dog” won the Nebula the year before this story was published. This could just be a friendly hat-tip to a colleague, or it could be a playful tip-off to the reader that the story would end with an intelligent mutated animal eating the remains of the protagonist’s love interest.
The narrative structure is quite odd - normally you tell a fable to a young person about something that happened in the past, not something that will happen to another person in the future. There is a mention early on that Sonya thought that if she and Crane had met when they were young (i.e., the present time of the story’s narration) that things might have been different…implying a change in people’s idealistic natures as they age, perhaps (The unusual framing device could also be just an experimental form of narrative Wolfe was trying out to see if it would work.)
The narrator almost seems to be somewhat of a time-traveler. I doubt Wolfe intended the narrator to be a time-traveler, but if he (or she) was, who has all the knowledge necessary to tell the story? Sonya, apparently, who is the viewpoint character throughout. The narrator has access to her interior thoughts. Some of the description of her as a young woman sounds exactly like the way an older woman would describe her looks when young. I have no idea how would work in the story, though. I just throw it out as a possibility.
The mention that Debbie Reynolds will attend John-John Kennedy’s inauguration seems bizarrely specific (and again, almost the kind of thing a time-traveler might know).
It is probably just an ironic political side-comment, though - after JFK’s assassination, there was a strong appeal for many on the left in believing that other men in his family would follow him into the White House - an idea many of the right found abhorrent, just as many rued the idea of a Clinton or Bush family political dynasty more recently. But JFK's brother Bobby was also assassinated two years before this story was written, and brother Teddy killed his own chances for the presidency, along with his passenger, at Chappaquiddick just one year before this story was written. I think Wolfe was commenting that in light of the last couple of years before, the next Kennedy you would see in the White House would have to be John-John - that is, John F. Kennedy, Jr., a young boy at the time who would actually die in a plane crash just three years after he was legally eligible to hold the office of President.
I always take a look at names in a Gene Wolfe story, and we only have Sonya, Crane, and Kitteh mentioned by name at all, other than celebrities. (And what does that fact tell us? That personal identity itself becomes a commodity?) “Sonya” is a variation of the Greek “Sophia” or “Wisdom”, but I’m not sure where that takes us, unless it means that her empathy gives her a sort of natural wisdom. There’s an obvious pun in that a crane is a type of bird and birds frequently get eaten by cats. Wesselman gives me nothing, Wessel is an old Anglo-Saxon name, and Wessel is a variation of Werner. The only association I draw from Wessle, or Wessel, is Horst Wessel, the Berlin head of Hitler’s SA stormtroopers. There is a Wessleman Nature Preserve in Indiana.
Re the cheesiness of making dinner in a microwave oven, I don’t remember even _knowing_ that microwave ovens existed way back in 1970. I did some online research into the history of microwaves, and learned that the first home microwave oven was sold in 1967, 3 years before this story was published, by Amana, a huge countertop model, for $495 - which in 2018 dollars, is about $3,515.00! So although the microwave oven conjures up the image of a bachelor loser heating a frozen meal in a lonely condo to us now, in 1970 it would have been considered technologically exotic, like owning a wall-sized TV screen now. Gene the Engineer would have been a lot more knowledgeable about those kinds of emerging technologies that I was at the time. Even 6 years after the story was written, in 1976, only 4% of U.S. families owned one.
In “The Hero as Werwolf”, we also see animal species that have been genetically altered to human form to serve human needs, as with the police officer / dog hybrid we see in the story. Other than Dr. Moreau's island, the trope of gene-spliced cat women was also used in the very creepy 1952 novel "The Sound of His Horn", by Sarban, a dystopian alternative history novel where the Nazis won and have turned most of Europe into a giant hunting preserve for their half-human, half-animal creations.
My initial take on reading the ending years ago was that Sonya, who as the companion of a wealthy recluse might naturally expect to receive some kind of an inheritance (perhaps he asked her to empty the litter box), has moved from a vaguely romantic intention to a more monetized interest in his estate, and would probably expect to receive custody of Kittee - and as Wesselman told her that he had arranged for his executor to supply Kittee with a male chimera companion, my darker initial reading was that Sonya expected to have a good-looking male sex-cat for her own use around the house. I doubt Wolfe intended that, though.
Your reading of the story as being about empathy, and the lack thereof, is right on target, I think. Great explication of it on the podcast!
I think that this story is also about competing economic systems, the commodification of human relationships and identity, and - especially - loneliness. Sonya, a young beauty who ultimately remains single and childless has something of Laura Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie" about her, spending her life alone and thinking of what might have been. She survives, barely, on the government stipend, but seems lonely and mostly friendless in what we are told of her (she borrows cloths for their dinner date from "distant friends". Crane lives what appears to be an agoraphobe’s life, now that his business partner has died.
As (Thomas) Wolfe wrote, in his essay “God’s Lonely Man”, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people -- not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul…we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.”
This is a story where it appears Wolfe compares Sonya’s lonely, meagre Socialist existence and Crane’s lonely, comfortable but spiritually empty Capitalist existence and finds both wanting. Socialism claims to be able to supply enough material needs that one can survive, if not thrive. Capitalism offers some, like Crane, the possibility of a more comfortable life with luxuries such as futuristic microwave ovens and the purchase of sex-cat companions but neither address the real human needs for connection and love (with other humans and with God), in Catholic terms the universal desire to (as St. Paul said) know and be known. Initially, Sonya and Crane appear to be seeking that out from each other; but then things fall apart and they move gradually into another kind of more utilitarian relationship, damaged by the physical poverty of socialism and the spiritual poverty of capitalism. Neither supplies the spiritual needs of mankind.
Despite a meet-cute mistaken-identity introduction that blossoms into what appears to be a mutual attraction, everything sours when she comes to his home and finds he has purchased what can only be presumed to be a sexual companion - a commodified partner that can be purchased to end loneliness. (And if the cat-creature looks like a nude Julie Newmar, I think its obvious Crane purchased her as a sex partner.) And he has even put her name on the brass plaque out front. In modern terms, this would be like Sonya showing up and finding a Japanese sex-robot answering the door - pretty crushing. Yet she continues to see him.
As Kittee fed on the corpse of Crane, Sonya may be thinking about taking as many material goods as she can from his estate, like the meat she feeds Kittee, and that this is the legacy she left him. Once thinking of him in romantic terms, she has now moved to seeing him not as an end, as a husband, but as a means to obtain resources after his death - a kind of commodity, who will enable simple survival under a repressive economic system. Just as Kittee fed off Crane, so will Sonya.
That was my reading, but I think yours is the more hopeful and kinder.
This is definitely not something that I thought to be on the lookout for in Wolfe, but now that you've raised it with some interesting evidence, I'm going to be paying more attention to it, so thank you for that.
I haven't noticed anything about homosexuality in Wolfe's other stories I have read, but I've only read maybe ten of his stories and two of his novels. In general, Wolfe seems very compassionate and "Christian" towards all his characters and not at all accepting of religious dogma, especially regarding suffering. (But I know basically nothing about religion.) Also, I meant human-shaped cats above, not cat-shaped humans.
This is a reading that never occurred to me, but I find it interesting. I don't know that we've seen homosexuality in any of the stories we've covered so far, but perhaps we just aren't noticing it. I'd be interested to know if this is something you see in other stories as well.
Here is my take:
James Boswell met Rousseau on his Grand Tour. A quote of Rousseau's is, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” I'm confidant that Sonya is going to feast on Crane, then call the police and blame Kittee.
About number 6. Animals don't need toilet paper, but humans do. Kittee can not talk or open the fridge, so I doubt she can use toilet paper. The backwards apron is to hide this fact and fits in with Crane's general slovenliness. “There was an odor Sonya attributed to Kittee,”... “and plates dried with smears still on them, put aside and forgotten.” And the one of the things the handbill she passed around when younger complained about was, “the excretory function.”
If there is a point that the narrator is trying to make to the “you” of the story, it is that passive acceptance of immorality is immoral. Same point as in “How the Whip Came Back.” (The type of slavery being voted on in that story is, in real life, still legal, commonplace, and widely considered morally acceptable. Check the 13th Amendment.)
This is not the immorality Wolfe is talking about, but Crane is gay. His partner is mentioned twice, not business partner. After his partner leaves for Bermuda, he falls into a depression and doesn't even call Sonya for 4 months.
Julie Newmar and Debbie Reynolds are gay icons. Reynolds “admitted in 2014 that 'everyone' she dated during her Hollywood heyday was gay, and that she would fake relationships with closeted leading men to hide their sexuality from the press.” https://attitude.co.uk/article/hollywood-legend-and-gay-icon-debbie-reynolds-dies-age-84/13250/. Kittee is Crane's beard. Why else advertize to passers-by on the street that you have a sex slave?
When Crane shows her the first male “friend”, during dinner, like he couldn't wait til afterwards, Sonya notices “how the fine lines had spread across his face and the way his hands shook. The second time he shows her a male friend, “he looked at her in a most significant way.” Next time she visits, he shows her a selfie of “himself with Kittee sitting beside him very primly.” He believes Sonya is wealthy. He wants Sonya to buy a male “friend” so she can bring him to visit him, but can't ask her directly, likely because the society they live in is OK with humans having sex with cat-shaped humans, but not humans of the same sex.
They are both using each other solely as means to an end. She wants marriage and a better life, but only gets some drinks and meals once a week, and a feast after he dies, and he wants a male “friend” available to him, but only gets an old lady. Everyone is always hungry in this future, in some way. And human life is messy, even if we don't like it or pretend it is not.
Yes! Of course! What an awesome observation, and it brings us back to Wolfe's use of such people in "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories." I didn't think much about that at the time, but now that you point out this connection, it seems that Wolfe really is thinking quite a bit about animal-people in this early phase of his career.
And thank you for the kind words. We also are very excited to get to Peace and the Book of the New Sun, and there are some really awesome stories from that period, too.
Gentlemen, let me congratulate you on a fantastic series of pod casts. I'm really enjoying each episode and anxiously awaiting the day when you cover Peace, and the Book of the New Sun.
In regards to this story, I was immediately reminded of "The Island of Doctor Moreau". Kitty is the Puma woman fulfilling the role Moreau had in mind. The concept is still quite jarring, although not quite so much as it was in the late Victorian era.
Oh, that's a great reading! There's certainly a sense of irony in that sentence, and this reading is a pretty Wolfe-ish joke.
Sorry I’m very late to this conversation, but I’m just catching up on the select episodes I skipped earlier. I’m not sold on my reading, but one interesting ambiguity I observed was the use of ‘her’ in the last sentence. While this is cleary meant to indicate that perhaps CW left an inheritance of sorts to Sonya, after listening to the episode and picking up on the explicit empathy theme, I thought that perhaps it was a joke that instead of buying Kittee a ‘friend,’ CW left her Sonya.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to the new episodes but I still have a few older ones to complete, so it’s all exciting!!
Thanks Michael. It's a lot of fun sitting down and trying to puzzle out these stories. I'm glad you're reading along!
No real comments, but your discussion really helped me understand and even like this story, which merely had confounded me to that point. Thanks!
Just the Packerhaus Method and then a surprise (and surprisingly fun) bonus episode that a patron asked us to do, so the first Operation ARES episode will appear on January 30th. We used my winter break to race through it, but it'll be spring break before we're done publishing them. Even with all the cuts, it's still a big book to tackle.
As for revisiting, I've thought about this as well. Perhaps after Cerberus, we might think about doing a meta-episode, and I think we'd look to you for some advice or suggestions.
1: that seems like it's on the right track, perhaps. It would combine a concern for the poor, and a pro-charity bent, with a bias against government aid, which seems right.
5: Intreaguing. Quite possibly.
6: I think you're right on this one.
9: Hmm. Didn't read that way to me. I still think there's more going on here — which, granted, isn't satisfying, since I don't know what!
11: Again: I feel like we've not solved this.
Thanks for the episode! Really enjoying the podcast. How many more stories are you doing before you dive into Operation ARES?
Stephen. Thanks again for your awesome insight and engagement! I’ll go through the questions you pose and answer or clarify what I can (if it’s even possible).
1. I should have explained my use of ‘excess’ and ‘lack’ better with regard to the politicians view on Universal Basic Income. Excess and Lack are technical categories in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that both hinder “the good life.” It is a lack of balance on either side. I think that I was trying to point out how both of these political positions are detrimental to the good of the citizens. But an idea I’ve been noodling with (especially as Glenn and I have finished reading Operation:Ares, and also looking towards Wolfe’s later fiction) is that, in Wolfe stories where there is no Church represented on the page, and there is a government who is trying to take over to works of Mercy and Charity, the government solutions are always full of shortcomings. My thoughts are that this is because Governments are looking at categories of people (this is explicit in ARES), but the Church encourages individuation, and the meeting of individual needs. Perhaps in S, CW, &K, the future government is struggling to understand what a person needs because they are looking at net wins/losses in terms of people groups.
2. You and Glenn have covered this well.
3. It’s just an odd intrusion and I’m not sure what its for. Perhaps if we were more familiar with the catalogues of these writers there would be some flash of insight regarding the stories predecessor or something like that.
5. Perhaps there is something to the Tudor House and Gas Lamps being some sort of affectation of Crane Wesselman’s wife. Perhaps she was trying to hold back the tide of technology that was sweeping throughout society. Perhaps as soon as she dies, CW buys a Kittee, which he was not allowed while his wife was alive.
6. I think the apron is backwards to highlight the obscenity of the creature. The backwards apron is a literal perversity of convention.
7. I’m not sure about this one.
8. Or this one.
9. I think the syntax indicates Sonya’s longing for CW to be giving her significant looks. The fact that he forgot about it could imply his continued lack of awareness of the situation and empathy.
10. I did a bit of research on this as well but had no idea what to do with it for the discussion so I left it out. Perhaps there is something more here.
11. What indeed is the small legacy? I’m still unsure about this. Perhaps she will become a cat lady in some respect. She will have companionship and be forced to contribute something to society in order to care for it.
12. This is a great insight as well. Definitely something to chew on.
13. I think we made more of Wolfe’s connection to catholic politicians than was necessary. Wolfe does seem to bring the Kennedy’s up a lot in his early fiction. I, for one, don’t know enough about American History to draw deep connections in this area.
This is probably not the story to do it with, but given our conversations — and with the hope that more readers/listeners will join in! — to say nothing of you both doing rethinking on your own in light of later works, it would be fun to have a "rethink" episode down the line, revisiting an early story about which you now have a lot more to say.
I look forward to hearing more about GW's politics in the ARES section. I'd like to think his politics were Catholic Liberation Theology, as that's a viewpoint I have a lot of sympathy with (although it's not mine). But they're interesting and hard to piece out.
I won't reply to every reply of yours, but a few—
1. If Sonya's *not* making it—and I agree with you that she isn't—then that *further* undermines the equivalence between the two political views rather than cementing it: if she's not making it, then the liberal politicians are simply correct, and the narrator (who says the halfway point is right) is wrong. I don't know what to do with this, though.
4. I like the idea that this is characterization; whatever else is going on, it's definitely that. (Although one can read it as not purely altruistic: if she thinks her faux pas, whatever it was, separated her from CW, then perhaps she feels bad in part because of the missed opportunity.)
5. I'm not sure whether it's in the story or you're reading it into it, but the idea of a Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe reference is so perfect, I love it.
7. Yeah, you're probably right about the new issue.
8. Again, you're probably right about the illness.