Oct 10, 2018

The Fifth head of cerberus - WRAP UP PODCASTS


Edited: Oct 14, 2018

I really like the in-depth treatment you've given TFHOC, which has given me a lot to think about and sent me back to the novella numerous times to re-read section in light of some of the questions you've raised. I can't wait for this in-depth treatment of The Book of the New Sun. Thought I'd start a fresh thread on issues raised in the final few episodes devoted to TFHOC. A thought occured to me today that there is an early tip-off to the theme of genetic stagnation - I can't remember if this was brought up in the podcasts or other scholarship, but in the first couple of pages, the Narrator describes the iron shutter that covered his bedroom window, and notes that it was overgrown with a silver trumpet vine (since dug up). He writes that, "I used to wish that it would close the window entirely and thus shut out the sun," but that David would break off the twigs of the vine and make panpipes out of them. The ancient Greek word for "twig" is "klon" from which we get the word "clone" (from the ability to grow a new plant from a twig of the original plant). Wolfe has studied Attic Greek, I think he intended the metaphor for the genetic stagnation of the family, growing over and shrouding the windows of the house, which the Narrator welcomes at some level for the darkness it provides, whereas David finds a way through art/music to find a path out through that.

Oct 11, 2018

Nice bit of information on “klon“ there and possibly an insight into the impetus for some of the tree imagery we are getting throughout. I really don’t think David escapes in a transcendent or moral way and have a very different assessment of his character, given his own enthusiasm for thievery. I take the allusion to the Polyphemus scene as more literal in its plot implications - “I am no man” boasted Odysseus in that scene. The Aeneid chronicles Trojans coming and taking over the Latin tribes but Virgil and the Romans ARE actually the Latin tribes and were never displaced by the asiatic Trojans - that’s a myth and an affectation. So, too, humanity in this system.

Oct 14, 2018

Mick, this is a fantastic observation. Plant imagery is at work everywhere throughout this novel, and now that you've pointed this out I can't help but be reminded of the characterization of the Pope as a gardener in "How the Whip Came Back." When that metaphor appears in the late antique sermons that I study, it is often in the context of healing branches and twigs of trees and other plants. But also (jumping ahead) this works nicely with the fact that the whole book ends with optimistic trumpet imagery, a call-back to this opening. Marc, for me the fact that David draws the line at murder (or at least tries to) suggests that he stands apart from Number 5 and Phaedria. I think you are right to suggest that we might not find him especially moral or virtuous in our own society, but aside from Marydol he seems to be the most moral person we can find in Port-Mimizon.

Nov 4, 2018

One of the questions that was touched on in the podcast that I think is especially interesting was _why_ the protagonist was given the name (apparently) of Gene Wolfe. It was suggested (I think rightly) that Wolfe may have been taking the unwelcome aspects of his own character (as he perceived it) and imagining what would happen if each clonic iteration would maintain and repeat those unwanted aspects.

It could have just been intended as a genial (so to speak) in-joke like some of the titles of the books in the port-memizon library, but i don't think so. the references are repeated far too often not to have greater thematic significance. In personalizing the storyline in this fashion, I think Wolfe was likely influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, who frequently used himself as a character in his stories, although not in as discreet a fashion.


I'm trying to think of other writers in the SF / Fantasy genre who did this contemporaneously with Wolfe, and the only ones who come to mind are Fritz Leiber, who used analogues to his name for protagonists (like "Franz Westen" or "Stirf Ritter-Rebbil") in some stories, before inserting his actual identity into his short story "Catch that Zeppelin!"; Phillip jose farmer, who also used name-analogues (like "Peter Jairus Frigate" in the Riverworld cycle); and Phillip K. Dick, who appeared under his own name in (I think) "Valis", where "Horselover fat" is revealed about halfway through the novel as phillip Dick himself (for whom "Horselover fat" is a rough translation from the greek and german.) I think Wolfe is using this trope to different effect or purpose in "Cerebrus", though. I'd be interested in hearing anyone else's thoughts.

Nov 28, 2018

I discovered the podcast in August and have finally caught up! I can now listen in semi-real time.


I am enjoying the in-depth close reading and learning a lot about the stories.


When I first read Fifth Head, I was struck by the parallel with The Island of Doctor Moreau:


- Dr. Moreau flees England because its antivivisection laws prevent him from pursuing his experiments into the nature of being human. He re-establishes his laboratory on an out-of-the-way island, where he can conduct his research in peace. Monsters are created. Are they human? Are they people?


- Dr. Cerberus flees Earth because its anti-cloning laws prevent him from pursuing his experiments into the nature of being human. He re-establishes his laboratory on an out-of-the-way planet, where he can conduct his research in peace. Monsters are created. Are they human? Are they people?


Both stories ask the questions - Am I human? Are you? Are we both people?


And now, onto Marsch's story!

Nov 28, 2018

That's a great catch! Brandon and I clearly need to revisit Dr. Moreau as soon as possible. I'm glad you're all caught up and we'll look forward to your comments and insights -- the hardest parts of this book are still ahead of us!

Dec 12, 2018Edited: Dec 12, 2018

Something I noted (as I'm re-reading all 3 novellas) just today about "Aubrey Veil," which is the pseudonym used in Aunt Jeannine scholarly pursuits: "Veil" of course connotes concealment - "Revelation" literally means the dropping of the veil that conceals reality. However, "Aubrey" itself is now a fairly uncommon name, certainly in America, but probably less so in the British Isles, where I would think it is more popular. It is a sexually ambiguous name - I can only think of 3 Aubreys of whom I know, all males: the actor Aubrey Morris who was in "A Clockwork Orange" as Mr. Deltoid, Aubrey Huff who played for the San Francisco Giants. and of course, Aubrey Beardsley, the Art Nouveau illustrators whose decadent, erotic, and sometimes grotesque art would seem to fit right in with the goings-on around 666 Saltimbanque. I looked up the name, and found there's quite a few young female Aubreys who are currently in film, TV and music. The ambiguity of gender in the name would certainly fit Aunt Jeannine's motives, but it's an uncommon name, and I don't think Wolfe picks names out of a hat at random, so I checked the etymology. It means "Fairy Ruler" or "Ruler of the Fairy People" - per Wiki, "The name is a Norman French derivation of the Germanic given name Alberic, which consists of the elements alf "elf" and ric "power", with the meaning of "Fair Ruler of the Little People". The Annese, the subject of Veil's Hypothesis, certainly conform closely in manner and action (especially the Shadow Children) to the medieval conceptions of the Fair Folk, who appear frequently under different guises in Wolfe's fiction. Both the 7 year old Number 5 and the Wise Old One in "A Story" suggest that the origin of the Abos in general and the Shadow Children in particular might be prehistoric or at least from classical antiquity; and (the presumably authentic) Marsch later in V.R.T. makes the curious comment that he would be "disheartened if it were not that the parallel with those paleolithic, Caucasoid Pygmies who came to be called the Good People (and who survived, as was eventually shown, in Scandanavia and Eire until the last years of the eighteenth century) were not almost exact" - which is not exactly orthodox anthropological theory (at least now), but has been claimed by some cultists as the origin of the fairy and elf folklore of middle Europe.

Dec 13, 2018

I think we even connected the etymology of Aubrey with taking the name Phaedria from Spenser's poem The Faerie Queene. It's really masterful stuff Wolfe is doing here. And, Mick, I'm eager for your input on our reading of V.R.T. Also, by the way, Wolfe does something similar with The Good People in "Mountains Like Mice," which we published on Patreon about two weeks ago. If you haven't checked that out yet, it's well worth doing -- the parallels with these two Sainte Anne novellas are great fun.

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  • Damn that was a good story. I last read it in the 1970’s before I went to medical school (I am now an internist and geriatrician). It didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but it sure does now! I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but am looking forward to doing so. I will share my thoughts about the medical aspects of the story. There are some spoilers, so read the story first. Medical schools are adding close reading of literature and patient narratives to their curricula. (1) This would be an excellent source for that. I’ll show how that might be done. Page numbers are from the 1st Orb edition of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. Page 80 - ‘a stubble of brown hair threatened to erase the marks of the sutures; with dilated eyes…he paused’ The boy has had head trauma and/or brain surgery. A drug or toxin is likely responsible for both eyes being dilated. A unilateral dilated eye would indicate acute brain damage. Page 86 - ‘his head swaying from side to side as he walked, like the sensor of a mine detector.’ He probably has a visual field defect, possibly related to the brain surgery/trauma. Page 86 - “I set fires to things.” Could the surgery have been a lobotomy to control his behavior? Page 88 - “and cut all the way through my corpus callosum.” Nick’s brain surgery was a corpus callosotomy. (2) This surgery is usually done in patients with difficult to control seizures. The main side effect is problems with speech and alien hand syndrome—control of the non-dominant hand. (3) Nowadays, newer medications and other neurosurgical procedures have mostly supplanted callosotomy. Page 88 - “I only see what is on the right of what I’m looking at, and the other side…only the left.” This is known as a hemianopsia (4) and is a result of the callosotomy. The ‘I’ is the speaking half of Nick—the left side of his brain -or- “left-brain Nick.” Page 89 - “He had uncontrollable seizures.” “Did you?” the girl asked. “I had visions.” We find out the reason for Nick’s callosotomy. He had visual auras before the seizures when he would “see things.” Nick seemed to enjoy these auras and was probably upset when they ended. Page 91 - “there’s something you ought to know about Diane, she gets confused sometimes, we’ve had her to doctors, she’s been in the hospital…try not to get her excited.” Diane has some major Issues. The most likely conditions to cause a 19 year old to be hospitalized would be major depression, a debilitating anxiety disorder like OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Although Diane is skinny, anorexia nervosa is unlikely because the treatment certainly wouldn’t be stranding her on an island with no food! Page 92 - Diane said, “I feel better when it rains.” “That should help you to understand yourself.” Is Dr. Island using cognitive behavioral therapy? (5) Although this is a rather expensive way of doing it! Page 94-95 - “Sickness is…relative” “Diane was not functioning…you were not functioning either.” This is a major motif of the story; illness, specifically mental illness, is defined by society. In our society, a schizophrenic person may take a night job at the post office working alone, then go home to their one bedroom apartment and pull the shades to keep out the world. They would watch TV, eat dinner, go to sleep. They are content and even happy with this routine. They are contributing to society. Are they mentally ill? Page 96 - “We have treatment for disturbed persons…but we have no treatment for disturbing persons.” “Disturbing persons” - people with personality disorders? The best you can do is place limits on people with personality disorders and teach their families/friends how to cope with them. If they become unmanageable, societies tend to place them in prison. Could Dr. Island be a prison? Page 97 - ‘He noticed…that she was looking at him oddly, then realized that his left hand had risen to touch her right breast.’ Alien Hand Syndrome! (3) “Right-brain Nick” is acting inappropriately. Page 98 - “They kept me locked up because I kept burning stuff…I bite people.” Again, “right-brain Nick” is causing all these problems. Page 98 - “Then they stuck me full of Tranquil-C.” That is why Nick’s eyes were dilated. Page 98 - “I still think you’re angry somewhere, deep down.” Taking away Nick’s auras (visions) could be the root of his anger. Perhaps the visions occurred in “right-brain Nick” and that’s why he burns things? Or is "right-brain Nick" just frustrated at his lack of control? Page 101 - “My knees are rough…when I came here they were still smooth…I used to put a certain lotion on them. Because my Dad would feel them…Mum wouldn’t say anything but she would be cross after.” I don’t know Diane’s diagnosis yet, but we have a good idea what may have caused her decompensation. Page 104 - ‘There was no reply. The girl sat staring at the ground in front of her…she did not move when he touched her. “She’s catatonic isn’t she,” he said. “Catatonic schizophrenia.” We now know Diane’s problem; she has schizophrenia. Catatonia is no longer consider a subtype of schizophrenia and is more a part of the symptomatology. (6) Schizophrenia affects young adults and is a chronic condition. Some do well, but many others have major disabilities and suffer from problems with functioning and socializing. It seems that Diane is quite disabled and has a poor prognosis. It is possible that her decompensation was caused by an abusive father. Page 104 - ‘The doctor had been a therapy robot, but a human doctor gave more status. Robots’ patients sat in doorless booths…and talked to something that appeared to be a small, friendly, food freezer.’ I have never heard of Amana being involved in cognitive behavioral therapy. Page 104 - “What is the cause? I mean for her?” “I don’t know.” “And what’s the treatment?” “You are seeing it.” “Will it help her?” “Probably not.” With all their space bending technology, it seems that the prognosis for schizophrenia hasn’t changed much in the Wolfe-ian future. Page 113 - “Your record shows no auditory hallucinations, but haven’t you ever known someone who had them?” “I knew a girl once…she twisted noises.” Auditory hallucinations are very common in schizophrenia. Ambient background noises are screened out by the normal brain. People with schizophrenia are unable to ignore them and experience the noise as voices saying bad things to/about them. The voices could also be internally produced by the brain.(7) Page 115 - “Let Ignacio tell you a story…” After unpacking Ignacio’s tale, it seems that he is a feral child. Unlike other feral children, he was taught language and self-care skills. His only lack was human contact and learning how to interact with others. Feral children have a lot of problems becoming socialized and integrating back into society. They usually aren’t homicidal. (8) Perhaps being a “high-tech” feral made him violent to others. Page 119 - “Did I tell you about the bird, Nicholas?” She had been not-listening again. “What bird?” “I have a bird. Inside…She sits in here. She has tangled a nest in my entrails, where she sits and tears at my breath with her beak. I look healthy to you, don’t I? But inside I’m hollow and rotten and turning brown, dirt and old feathers, oozing away. Her beak will break through soon.” Okaaay, as Nick would say. This dispels any doubts that Diane has schizophrenia. She has a somatic delusion, which, while not as common as paranoid delusions, are frequent in schizophrenia. “Usually the false belief is that the body is somehow diseased, abnormal or changed.” (9) Page 119 - “I have been trying to drink water to drown (the bird.) I think I have swallowed so much, I couldn’t stand up if I tried…” Diane has psychogenic polydipsia, which is common in schizophrenia. They can drink gallons every day—so much so that they disrupt their electrolyte balance and develop very low serum sodium levels. (10) Page 125 - “About 100 years ago, Dr. Harlow experimented with monkey’s who had been raised in complete isolation.” Harry Harlow is a real person who did indeed perform these experiments as Dr. Island has carefully outlined. Harlow was a Professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (11) Many of those experiments are now considered an unethical treatment of animals. I suspect that the inspiration for The Island of Dr. Death came about when Wolfe read about Harlow’s research. You might consider Dr. Death to be a 2150 version of Harlow. ================Major Spoilers================== Page 129 - “Nicholas, you are upset now because Diane is dead—” “But you could have saved her!” “—but by dying she made someone else—someone very important—well. Her prognosis was bad; she really only wanted death, and this is the death I chose for her.” This is the death I chose for her. Those words are the core of the story; did Dr. Island have the right to sacrifice an individual for the greater good? In medical ethics, this encapsulates the conflict and tension between the ethical models of deontology and utilitarianism. (12) It seems that Dr. Island is a firm believer in the later. This is why The Death of Dr. Island would be a great source for a close reading of literature. It is a natural jumping-off-point for a spirited discussion of medical ethics. Page 130 - “Nicholas, who was the right side of your body, the left side of your brain, I have forced into catatonia.” Dr Island has essentially killed “left-brain Nick,” the person who has been our view point for the entire story. This is the death Dr. Island has chosen for Nick. Did he have the right to do so? REFERENCES 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4721945/ 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_callosotomy 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome 4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemianopsia 5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy 6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizophrenia 7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auditory_hallucination 8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child 9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delusion 10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_polydipsia 11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Harlow 12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4778182/
  • My wife and I listened to this episode on the long drive back from a music festival this weekend. The podcast caused great discussion in the car, making the miles go that much faster. Jessica thinks that Wolfe didn't have the new messiah being born to one of Zozz's people because it would have overly complicated and lengthened the story. I agree. It got me to thinking about what Wolfe's inspiration might have been. Then I remembered that National Lampoon had an infamous cover of an alien crucifixion done by Frank Frazetta. The question is, when did it appear? A little research showed that it it was probably on the streets in May 1972. La Befana appeared in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy; probably too soon after the Nat Lamp issue for it to have been an inspiration--unless Frazetta let Wolfe see it before publication. Nah. Here is the National Lampoon cover.
  • Hello, from indecisively sunny Tasmania! This is my first post, so I'd just like to say first and foremost that I am really enjoying the Wolfe podcast, which I started listening to after The Fifth Head of Cerberus enraptured me (It's quickly become one of my favourite books), and which I'm now darting in and out of as I read his Book of Days . Anywho, I can't fully recall the episodes on 'A Story by John V. Marsch', so forgive me if you mentioned it and this is a redundant post. But I was just paging through Jack Vance's Dying Earth , which is a known inspiration for BotNS, and noticed that in the chapter on 'Mazirian the Magician' the title character spends some time trifling with 'Thrang the Ghoul-Bear', and it struck me as intensely likely that this inspired the creature in the aforementioned novella, not just for the name but a particular sentence within the passage he appears. The passage reads thusly, though of course this spoils the Ghoul-Bear in that story, not that he plays a large role: "Thrang's lair was an alcove in the rock, where a fetid pile of grass and skins served him for a couch. He had built a rude pen to cage three women, these wearing many bruises on their bodies and the effects of much horror on their faces. Thrang had taken them from the tribe that dwelt in silk-hung barges along the lake-shore . Now they watched as he struggled to subdue the woman he had just captured. His round gray man's face was contorted and he tore away her jerkin with his human hands. But she held away the great sweating body with an amazing dexterity. Mazirian's eyes narrowed. Magic, Magic! So he stood watching, considering how to destroy Thrang with no harm to the woman. But she spied him over Thrang's shoulder. "See," she panted, "Mazirian as come to kill you." Thrang twisted about. He saw Marizian and came charging on all fours, venting roars of wild passion. Mazirian later wondered if the ghoul had cast some sort of spell, for a strange paralysis strove to bind his brain. Perhaps the spell lay in the sight of Thrang's raging gray-white face, the great arms thrust out to grasp. Mazirian shook off the spell, if such it were, and uttered a spell of his own, and all the valley was lit by streaming darts of fire, lashing in from all directions to split Thrang's blundering body in a thousand places. This was the Excellent Prismatic Spray-many-colored stabbing lines. Thrang was dead almost at once, purple blood flowing from countless holes where the radiant rain had pierced him." I personally think Thrang comfortably shares the same attributes as Wolfe's Ghoul-Bear: huge, thick-limbed, and stinking (sweat rarely smells pleasant). Maybe I'm reading too deeply, but a tribe that dwells in silk-hung barges along a lake shore sounds at least superficially similar to the Marshmen. Further, the specific lake they dwell next to is called 'Sanra Water, the Lake of Dreams', which you could perhaps posit has something in common with the plan to kill Sandwalker and have his soul flow into the sea and out to the stars. I'm no literary buff, but I think there's enough textual evidence to cite a clear connection between the two, especially as Jack Vance so influenced Wolfe's later work. In any event it made me feel very big-brained.

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