Dec 12, 2017

Swanwick's The Scarecrow's Boy


I really enjoyed this episode. What I particularly liked about it (besides it getting me to pull down that collection from my shelf & read this story in it, which I hadn't yet) was the insight it gave me into the intellectual background you seem to have. You had come across, of course, as knowledgeable about Christian thought, but then one could hardly be a scholar of Augustine and not be, and it hadn't ever seemed as personal—to both of you—as it did here.


As an example of what you meant, when talking about free will you both went instantly to theology. As someone who is more grounded in analytic philosophy, my immediate go-to would not be Calvin, but the libertarian (not in a political sense), compatabilist and determinist schools of thought. I don't mean either is more important than the others; I just mean that for a basic explanation that would be my initial framework. So in that sense, it was great to get a sense of where you both are coming from. (I, too, was powerfully affected by Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men, by the by.)


(Incidentally, you have both been reticent about saying, outright, what faith traditions you belong to. If you are both being private about an area that doesn't need to be spelled out for the podcast, then I certainly would not want to pry. But if you simply haven't thought anyone would be interested, well, at least one listener is. After all, Gene Wolfe's Catholicism is central to so much of his fiction (and Swanwick grew up Catholic and left the church; I heard him discuss this at a panel once, and he definitely seemed to think it relevant to his work). So it would be interesting to know to what degree either or both or neither of you share it (either now, or growing up, or what have you) — if, again, you wished to. All I'm saying is, if you wanted to say, I, at least, would be eager to hear.)


As for the Swanwick story: the one connection I was surprised neither of you made was to the Wizard of Oz. It's hard to have a walking, talking Scarecrow in English-language literature and not think of that, and it seems clear to me that Swanwick was playing with the parallels, at least a bit. The young boy certainly seems like a Dorothy-like figure: without parents, thrown into chaos by a crash, trying to get home, or at least escape the wicked witches. One could see the former Young Master as the Wicked Witch of the West... or as Oz, who originally seems good, but is a fraud and not to be taken seriously. And an old car is not a bad analogue for a tin man, is it? And so forth. I don't know how much to make of this, but it seems worth mentioning.


One last intertextual note: not directly relevant to the story, but my favorite SF example of the sort of "getting-out-of-programming-by-reinterpreting-it" is in Greg Egan's novel QUARANTINE. If you've not read it, it's a lot of fun (not as literary as Wolfe, but enjoyable, and that one moment is worth the whole book).

Dec 12, 2017

Oh, and don't think I skipped or disliked episodes 6-9 just because I didn't blather about them. I just didn't have as much to say. "How the Whip Came Back" — one of my very favorite Wolfe stories and one I've long puzzled over — was one of the first episodes I heard, and it was the one that convinced me to go listen to them all in order, and to make sure I reread the story first no matter how well I thought I knew it. The other three were all good, interesting episodes — I think there's more to "Morning Gl0ry" that you might have gotten, and I am astonished and amazed at how much you did manage to get out of "Car Sinister". But no real Thoughts.


Oh, well, fine, one more intertextual note: "Morning Glory", with its notion of society as a metaphor for plant intelligence, and then perhaps vice-versa, appeared in the same year as Theodore Sturgeon's Nebula & Hugo award-winning story "Slow Sculpture" (one of my favorites) that also has tending a plant as a metaphor for tending society. I know Wolfe is a big fan of Sturgeon, but I doubt the timing is such that this story could have influenced Wolfe's (unless he read it right after it came out, wrote his quickly * got it published nearly immediately— seems unlikely at best). Still, an interesting coincidence, if nothing else.

Dec 12, 2017

Thanks for that note about "Morning Glory." That's a story that I felt like we should have gotten more out of, but I just could never put my finger on what we were missing. Still, it was one that I really enjoyed.


I can't believe we neglected to talk about The Wizard of Oz. Your analogs certainly make sense, and Baum's novel (if not the film) is very much wrapped up in contemporary politics and questions about the government's authority within the economy, so even on a thematic level there is an interesting parallel.


As for our theological bent, I'll defend Brandon here by saying that on this episode at least, I'm the one who wanted to dig into the theology. There a number of reasons I wanted to do that: foremost is simply that it's where this question resides for me (and was a real thorn for me growing up); but also because of Wolfe's Catholicism* and his readers' interest in theology; and finally because the Scarecrow's programming comes from a direct and knowable creator it seemed like the religious parallel was significant. But I'm certain that we'll revisit this topic again before we're done! And Brandon and I have just finished an episode in which we go through all the arguments in Plato's Crito dialogue.


Thank you also for your interest in our own religious backgrounds. I talked a little about discovering Wolfe during a phase in my life when I was reading a lot of Jesuits-in-Space stories, and that was also a period when I was spending a lot of time walking around Denver talking to clerics of various religions, and even once spoke on the phone with the anti-Pope in Australia. I'm certain that before we're done, there will be more stories about my childhood church antics and my own theological interests and questions. In my free moments before bed, I've been reading some of Chesterton's essays about converting to Catholicism, so you can definitely expect to hear that creeping into a lot of our episodes.

Dec 12, 2017

*I hadn't known about Swanwick's faith. That will be something to keep in mind if we cover any more of his stories (and I hope we do). He lives in Philadelphia, as do Brandon and I, and we're keen to interview him about Wolfe, but also about what it was like getting started as a writer in Philly in the 70s and 80s -- something he writes a little bit about in the introduction to Not So Much, Said the Cat.

Dec 12, 2017

Stephen, thanks again for your great insight and further reading suggestions. I want to address your question about Christianity, at least on my behalf. My interest in philosophy stemmed from an interest in theology. For a long while I considered becoming a theologian of some kind. I grew up in an evangelical environment and am now, when I can manage it, somewhere between a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian. I became a little turned off by theology while studying philosophy as (as was also the case with studying literary criticism) I found many theologians to be bad interpreters of philosophy and maybe two hundred years behind issues that I was concerned with. That changed a bit when I started reading some of the Union Seminary folks like the Nieburh bros., who seemed to be concerned with vital contemporary issues and how Christianity could speak to them. From them I made it to Stanley Hauerwas, who I still truly love as a theologian. The only other major theologian that has stuck with me is Josef Pieper, a German Thomist.


In this Swanwick story, I'll agree with Glenn that the parallels to how religious structures function w/r/t robots and creators was too much to ignore. Ultimately, though, I think Glenn and I enjoy talking theology. I especially like it if I get to talk about justice, wholeness (flourishing), or mercy. I think you'll hear more of those topics come up in our stories.

Dec 13, 2017

Brandon, I hope you understood that I was *not* complaining about the theology; I find it fascinating. (I know Glenn has seen me tweet out my currently-being-serialized graphic novel, which is largely composed of people thinking and talking about religion in probably over-intellectualized ways.) NOr was I saying that it was an ill fit to the Swanwick story; I find the former fascinating & was grateful to you both for engaging in it, and thought the latter made sense. I look forward to more theological discussions (particularly once in Book of the New Sun, when you get to some of Severian's theological musings...). Anyway, thanks for filling in more details of your background. It's all very interesting to hear about.

Dec 13, 2017

No worries, Stephen. I didn't take it that way. Now I have to check out your graphic novel!

Dec 14, 2017

Yes, I've been reading along and it's awesome.

New Posts
  • As I try and catch up with podcasts and stories I missed I am constantly impressed with your ability to talk about religion in fiction that is insightful and nuanced. It is so refreshing to hear, thank you. You both got way more out of this story than I did. I thought the analogy was kind of clunky and this more of a complaint about university uinstitutionalism than a wider story. A favorite podcast moment for me, 30 minutes into a 35 minute podcast: Glenn: "Is Smythe Jesus Christ?" Brandon: "WHAT?!?!?!" Way to bury the lead Glenn, bravo. As a side note, when I read the introduction to Storeys From the Old Hotel Wolfe commented on one of the stories was his obligatory Holmes type story. Also we could thank him that he dropped an idea to do a Nero Wolfe story with Nero being a robot. I would have loved this as a story. Gene Wolfe writing Nero Wolfe has a pleasing symmetry to it. Frankly Gene Wolfe could definitely write a hell of murder mystery, does anyone know if he did so?
  • 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.

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