Sep 13, 2018

The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Part 1


FHC is one of my very favorite Wolfe works. I mean that in both senses: the novel is, I think, one of his best (rivaled, in my experience, only by the various books in the Sun cycle — although I haven't read Peace, which I am expecting to be that good, nor read all of the Latro books). And my favorite part of the novel (as I insist on calling it, contrary to your practice)* is the first, separable, section, the Orbit novella of the same name. I've read the entire novel twice before, and the novella more often than that — and the opening pages still more often, since I love them. (Wolfe has never been better, simply as a prose craftsman, than he is in this novella; and never better in the novella than its opening.) I just reread it (the whole novella; too hard to stop after just a bit!) so it'd be fresh,


Given all that, you both saw so much that I didn't see. In particular, your explication of the various literary allusions was brilliant. I had never thought much about the fact that the epigraph comes from Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, never thought much about the fact that it is the Polyphemus episode David is reading, and had always taken the Proustian echo to be little more than a stylistic homage. Wow, did you prove me wrong. Excellent, excellent stuff.


I will say that it is always hard in this sort of thing — at least for me — to see where the actual, intended echoes end and where reading into the story begins. This has (ironically) an echo with a theme in the story which you brought out: Number 5 (not yet called that)'s archeology of his past, like the archeology of the abos, is always fundamentally unreliable: it is hard to know where reading what is there stops and reading what is there begins. Well, this is true for literary allusions too! — But it would be, I think, absurd to therefore claim that Wolfe was making a deliberate parallel between the archeologies of self and society, on the one hand, and that of our reading of his literary allusions, on the other. (Which is not to say that the complexity of the story's interpretation is unrelated to the complexity of the self & society's, just that making the tie to allusions specifically is a bridge too far.) For that to be the case he would have had to walk several mental steps that I just happened to go (following your footsteps, mostly); and it seems to be to consider too curiously to consider so. — So I am not yet convinced, despite the narrator's lupine nature, that he is specifically alluding to all his own stories. I see the parallels you have pointed out; but perhaps they are simply because the same author wrote all the texts involved, and all authors have recurring themes, images, interests. I'm open to the idea; not yet convinced. Similarly, while some of your allusion-tracing seems to be clearly meant, you follow it out so far — using the specifics of a parallel you articulated in a particular fashion to make a point, which would have required Wolfe to use the same terms in his thought about it — well, I don't know how far to be convinced. But, of course, modern literary theory would say the author is dead (killed by his own clone, no doubt), so it doesn't matter; and it may be right. The parallels are brilliant, in any event.


I will admit to a slight disappointment regarding your decision to read the story as if for the first time. Wolfe is so enriched by rereadings that it seems a pity to cram all the revisiting insights into a single wrap-up episode. Also, you do, therefore, follow some garden paths that a simple acknowledgement of (or reading ahead into) the rest of the book would put to rest. (For instance: you contrasted Mr. Million's general kindness with his interest in the slave markets; reading the whole work would make the latter pretty clearly an example of, rather than a counterpoint to, the former.) I see the reason for it; I can't deny that for the most part it's working; I wish, in many ways, that you had chosen otherwise (or taken up my earlier suggestion, and rather than dividing the two parts as recap/discussion, divided them as first readers/rereaders). Just throwing this in, less to criticize this time through, but to encourage you to revisit the issue when planning your future discussions, particularly of Peace (which I plan, dv, to read in its entirety at least once before listening to your first episode on it) and the various New Sun books.


A word on the library & names. You don't say this explicitly, but you bury how subtle Wolfe is in the names. He never actually says that he's in the W section. He refers (obliquely in two cases) to two authors whose names begin with W, but you have to look it up. He almost says it re: Vernor Vinge, but he never actually says W. It makes it just that much harder to pick up. And an analysis of the history of the story's reception suggests that it was much harder to pick up than it seems it ought to have been (given how obvious it is once it's explained). Kim Stanley Robinson, in his introduction to the UK edition of the Best of Gene Wolfe, says that he mentioned the narrator's true name to Wolfe a few years after the fact, and Wolfe mentioned that KSR was the first one to notice, or at least the first one to tell him. John Clute talks about a class he held in, IMS, the early 80s, where they came to the conclusion only slowly & tentatively (when Wolfe visited for a day, he said "of course" when asked if Nubmer 5's real name was ——). It seems now so obvious, and you are reading slowly enough to make it seem so, but it's worth remembering how subtle that was.


Still on the name issue: you more-or-less say, based on the library scene and the Maison du Chien, what Number 5's last name is. You don't speak as if it's clear what his first name is. I presume this is deliberate coyness; and if it's not, I presume you've long since found it out; but on the off chance anyone reading this doesn't know, here, in rot-13 to prevent accidental spoilers, is the name & evidence: Jr xabj, svefg bs nyy, gung Ahzore 5 unf gjb anzrf (ur fnlf, yngre ba, gung uvf anzr pbafvfgf bs gjb jbeqf); jr xabj gung vg vf gur fnzr nf uvf sngure, jub pybarq uvz. Gur vzcyvpngvba vf gung uvf nhag vf n srznyr pybar (inevbhf pyhrf — fur ybbxf yvxr uvz, rgp); cerfhznoyl fur, gbb, vf tvira gur fnzr anzr, bayl va n srzvavmrq irefvba. Jryy, ure anzr vf Wrnavar: tvira gung Ahzore 5'f ynfg anzr vf Jbysr, uvf svefg anzr vf cerggl pyrneyl Trar. Nyfb, juvyr jbyirf ner gurzngvp va guvf grkg (nf va znal bs Jbysr'f grkgf), vg fubhyq or abgrq gung trarf, gbb, ner n erpheevat vagrerfg bs uvf, naq ner cnegvphyneyl ncg va n abiryyn nobhg pybavat. (Go to, paste this in, and read.)


(A few footnotes, still on that same scene: when this story was published, Vernor Vinge hadn't yet published a short story collection; he apparently arranged (I've not seen the book, only heard it) to have the spine read "V Vinge" and have the kerning slightly off, to fit that imagined misprision. You note that Wilhelm was the wife of Damon Knight, Wolfe's friend & mentor & the dedicatee of FHC, but don't note (explicitly) that he was also the editor by whom this story was first published — presumably, the first editor to see it. Rather than imagining that as a joke the three of them cooked up, I suspect it was a private joke Wolfe stuck in for his friend & editor.)


One extremely minor point: you say that Wolfe uses the word "primitive" because it echoes the Odyssey parallel. (Does Homer use the Greek equivalent of "primitive"? If so this point would be — slightly — more persuasive.) But this explains something which, I think, doesn't need explaining. Viewing some peoples as "primitive" and others as developed was, still, common practice in 1972 — probably not in the academy by that point, or at least it was already being heavily questioned; but in the public at large. I suspect that Wolfe used the word, as it were, innocently. — Although, of course, I would be interested to hear argument otherwise! But in making such an argument, bear in mind that our attention to the problems of teleology inherent in the term, to say nothing of its general rudeness and sense of being condescending, are historical developments, one that were, at best, just beginning in 1972. I am not sure the choice would have raised eyebrows, back then.


Finally, a word about structural similarities between FHC and BotNS. Both began as novellas for Orbit: FHC was published as such, BotNS was begun as such (as Wolfe says in The Castle of the Otter). In both cases he prolonged them into longer form. But too, in both cases he went still further at an editor's suggestion: here, an editor suggested he make it book length; for BotNS he added Urth of the New Sun because his editor, David Hartwell (זצ״ל) wanted clarification. These parallels suggest two points to me: first, that most of Wolfe's finest work came out of novellas in Orbit (both "Forlesen" and "Seven American Nights", two other of his finest works, were first published there, as were many of his best stories, e.g. "Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" (which, come to think of it, is another work that began in orbit and then sprawled)). But secondly and more importantly, it makes me wonder to what extent the relationship between BotNS and Urth parallels that between FHC the novella and FHC the novel. Reading Urth, one can see hints of its developments in BotNS — but only hints; if Wolfe expected them to be discovered, it goes to show, to quote the title of Michael Andre-Druisi's essay on the topic "what Wolfe expects of his readers". How much of the developments of novel FHC can be seen, however dimly, in the novella? How much did Wolfe actually expect people to get?


Although here, of course, I urge, in question form, a return to the format which above I questioned as leading, possibly, to readings-in rather than readings-of. So perhaps this is a good place to end.


I look forward to Part 2, and beyond.



* We have already discussed, in an earlier comment, whether this is properly called a novella or a novel. I won't relitigate it, except to point out that your own treatment of it belies your discussion of it as a collection — novels you do automatically; collections you put to a vote of your readers. If you really felt this was a collection, you would have asked your patrons, and accepted it if, say, "Fifth Head" and "V.R.T." were voted up, but "'A Story' by John V. Marsch" was not. — But I will correct you on one factual matter: you said, in one of these two episodes, that it is always referred to as a novel, not a collection of novellas. It was originally clearly published as a collection. I have the 1976 Ace edition, which is labeled "three novellas" — and an afterward by Pamela Sargent which suggests that that labelling made it receive less attention than calling it a novel would have, contrasting it with Asimov's The Gods Themselves, which is similarly structured in a lot of ways, but which was marketed as a novel — and won the Hugo and Nebula. This difference, Sargent argues, was not only due to "Asimov's personal charm and popularity as an author, but also because it was treated as a novel rather than as three novellas, thus encouraging readers to see the work as a whole. Perhaps more readers read the work, at least in part, because it was called a novel." Later editions, I take it, have taken Sargent's criticism to heart? I certainly grant that achieving larger readership is hardly dispositive; that people ought, in utopia, to be as willing to read novella collections as novels; and that in any event truth in labeling ought to trump any concerns for good advertising. That said, it is worth bearing in mind — especially if one thinks, as I do, that it is accurate to call it a novel. (C.f. Michael Swanwick's essay "A Nettlesome Term That Has Long Outlived Its Welcome", online here:



Sep 13, 2018

PS: One note from my reading of these pages, relevant to a point you bring up. You mentioned Wolfe's brilliance at working in the details of his worldbuilding as things characters would actually notice, not doing the "As you know, Bob, this telephone will allow me to connect by voice..." thing that poor SF writers do. This is often one of the secrets to his subtlety — or, better, say it's one of the kinds of subtlety he routinely employs: key elements don't get spelled out, simply because Wolfe's narrators wouldn't spell them out. I agree that he does this; I agree he does it well in this story; I agree it's one of the genuine joys of reading Wolfe.


Which made one sentence in the middle of the classroom scene stand out for me. I quote the entire paragraph for context:


"David answers, “From Sainte Anne.” Sainte Anne is the sister planet to our own, revolving with us about a common center as we swing around the sun. “The sign said so, and the aborigines made them—there weren’t any abos here.”"


— What is the in-story explanation (the Watsonian explanation, as opposed to Doylest explanation, to use the incredibly useful terms of Holmes fan lingo) for the middle sentence? Why would Number 5 assume that this needs to be explained? I suppose one could read this as signaling that he thinks his audience might be elsewhere — back on Earth, say. But I would suggest that this would be over-reading; and that this is one of Wolfe's very rare failures of craft.


Anyone have a better theory?

Sep 16, 2018

Ah, what a catch, Stephen! We overlooked that line, but it is so out of place and will be even more so when we get to the final pages. I would love to know if that was Wolfe or if that was an editorial intrusion, and perhaps Marc will know.


Thank you (as always) for your thoughtful comments here. Brandon and I have both said (in different places) that the title novella is the story that made us Wolfe fans rather than just New Sun fans. I found the story about a year after I'd read BOTNS. It was in Modern Classics of Science Fiction, an anthology edited by the great Gardner Dozois, and this story had me going to my local library to get whatever they had (The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories was first up). You aren't wrong to label this is best prose, but my memory of Peace is that it too has this mesmerizing memoir style. I'm looking forward to getting there with you, and with Brandon (for whom this will be a first time, too).


I'm surprised that people glossed over the joke embedded in the library scene. Years of reading Lovecraft & friends (and desperately trying to prove that The Necronomicon is real) had primed me for stopping at a list of books and looking into what they are. In fact, at this point on my first read, in part because of the title, I thought this was going to turn out to be a monster story along the lines of Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, and so I thought these books were going to come back at the resolution and I wanted to figure it out before the investigator did.


I agree with you about the question of whether something is a literary allusion or merely a recurring theme. Certainly Wolfe was working on many of these stories simultaneously and it's likely that he was recycling images and motifs that were important to him, and he may even have actually written this before "The Recording" (for example). Both stories, of course, are dealing with a similar circumstance: a narrator returning to the home of a dead male relative for the first time since that death and reflecting on his own childhood. But, as you say, death of the author, and we're finding a lot of joy in reading these as purposeful allusions, and especially as little jokes. I'll be interested in having you revisit this question when we get to the end of the first novella in about a month.


I do also want to address your suggestion that we do a combined first-time reading with a spoiler-filled rereading. We talked about it and we would love to do it, but we just couldn't find the time for that extra work. Each episode takes 10-20 hours of work per person, and to add another layer of work to that would require some kind of time machine or a pill that keeps us fit and healthy without exercise, sleep, or meaningful relationships with our wives. But there's no reason not to start a separate thread here on the forum for exactly this kind of a discussion before we get to the wrap-up episode. Just put the word "spoiler" in the title so that our first-timers (hi, Mom) will understand the risks.



Sep 16, 2018

It's hard to recapture what people thought about the book list; all I know for sure is that Number 5's real name was not widely discussed in the first (roughly) decade after the story's publication. Which is to say, that the embedded name is obvious in retrospect (as so many things in life are; to paraphrase Nabokov, who can unsee the hidden items in a "find what the sailor has hidden" puzzle?), but it was experienced as hard at the time. Perhaps one possibility about this specific incident of overlooking is that Wolfe hides his joke with jokes: that people chuckled over the misreading Wilhelm as a textbook and V Vinge as Winge, and forgot to look past that for the larger meanings. (And the doggyness of the house's title is hidden in French; only on rereading do you focus on the Aunt's name, since only then do you know her relationship to number 5, etc). But who knows. I do think that if someone is primed to try and find the name, it's not hard to find; but discovering that it is discoverable is something else. I've occasionally thought that it would make a good way to introduce Wolfe: get someone to read the novella, ask Number 5's real name, have them reread it... and that would prepare them for the sort of reading that Wolfe expects, demands, and rewards.


I understand about the extra work involved in a rereading podcast — to say nothing of the more limited audience (hi, Glenn's Mom). Ah well. If I stumble on a time machine I'll have it sent to you before you record these episodes.


I will keep my eye on the allusions question. But yes, it's fun whether they're intentional or not.


Here's a question: which books/stories of Wolfe's people think have the most gorgeous prose, regardless of their other aspects? E.g. my memory (although I intend to rereread it when you cover it & maybe I will change my mind) is that Long Sun, marvelous as it is in other ways, is not as poetically rich as New Sun. But on any such list I would definitely include "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories", Fifth Head and BotNS, at the very least. I'm curious about other people's thoughts.

Sep 16, 2018

I don't know that I've ever heard this mentioned as one of the literary allusions in the story (probably, by someone), but I think it is likely that "Port-Memizon" is a hat-tip to E.R. Eddison and his "A Fish Dinner in Memison". From past interviews, I know Wolfe holds Eddison in high regard.

Sep 16, 2018

Oh, that's really interesting, Mick. I've only ever read The Worm Ouroboros by Eddison. Do you know if the reference goes any deeper than that?


Stephen, yes, please. I've got a long list of things I'd like to do with that time machine. I agree with your assessment of Wolfe's prose, though I will say that Silk's manner of speaking really captivated me on my first read of Long Sun. And I do think that Short Sun also has some dazzling writing -- certainly it moved me to tears at points.

Sep 16, 2018

You know, I read Eddison's Zimiamvian Trilogy wa-a-ay back in grade school, when Ballantine released them with the same artist and similar cover art to their Tolkien's LOTR series and a laudatory quote by Tolkien (Eddison is sometimes considered a fellow Inkling) on the cover. I picked it up because of that. I'd have to read it again (and probably should). aI recall the plot switches between a couple on post WWI Earth and their counterparts on Zimiamvia. I know Neil Gaiman as well as Wolfe is a fan of Eddison.


Sep 17, 2018

Oh, wow, that does look exactly like the same artist who did Tolkien covers in the 70s. I won't have time to read this before Brandon and I finish recording our episodes, but it seems like it will be worth doing before we get to BOTNS, at least.

Sep 17, 2018Edited: Sep 18, 2018

There's three possible reasons why Wolfe might have included the Eddison reference that I can think of, the first being that he was simply paying a quick homage to an author he admired. (It's likely that he had read the Ballantine re-issues of Eddison several years before this time, as the enormous publishing success of Ballantine's Tolkien editions in the late 1960s/early 1970s led to a publishing boom in adult fantasy, including not only Tolkien and Eddison but James Branch Cabell, Robert E. Howard, etc. I think the Ballantine reprint of "Memison" whose cover I linked above was published in 1968.) (Gene told Marc Aramini in an interview ( "I haven’t found the unique eccentric voices in modern SF that writers like Lafferty, Cabell, E.R. Eddison, Mervyn Peake, and Dunsany naturally had...", so he obviously held a pretty high opinion of Eddison.) The second is possibly thematic - a central conceit of the dinner conversation that the title references is that our life on Earth may be a fantasy conc0cted for the amusement of the Zimiamvians themselves, which in some fashion creates the actual world itself (I'm basing this off memory, here.) The discussions of the nature of the aboriginals on St. Anne, which Number 5 and David have with Mr. Million seem to have, maybe, some relationship to this kind of fantasy world-building which bleeds over into the real world. (I say that as a rough guess, as I have yet to read the 2 novellas linked together with this one.)


The third I think is the strongest linkage between Eddison and Wolfe, but one we see less in The Fifth Head of Cerebrus but which we see quite evidently by the time of The Book of the New Sun: Eddison's love of archaic and arcane English vocabulary, so unfamiliar that the words seem like neologisms - a technique of "making strange" that Wolfe also obviously loves to use.

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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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