Sep 7, 2018

The island of doctor death and other stories, redux

35 comments

Edited: Sep 7, 2018

The podcast is my favorite explication for one of my favorite stories. I reread the story, listened to the podcast, and came here to see what else was posted before laying out my own thoughts..only to find this was one of the mysteriously disappearing posts. Hope you don't mind me starting one up again. I can't add much of substance to your comments or the the broad range of scholarship that has already been applied to this story by others, but some minor thoughts that popped up while listening to the podcast: 1) The pulp novel pastiche is wonderful, of course. I was thinking particularly not only of the obvious source of Dr. Moreau (although I had cleanly missed noticing that "Dr. Moreau" means "Dr. Black", but also Edgar Rice Burroughs (with his tales of lost cities in the jungles and mightily-thewed heroes), Doc Savage (whose exploits were being reprinted at the time this was written and whose cover art, by James Bama, always depicted Doc in conflict in a torn shirt, as the cover is described in the story), Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming's Dr. No, and even Lovecraft - the stones in Ransom's confinement cell are described as "cyclopean", a word I have only ever seen used by H.P. Lovecraft and his acolytes, and of course the links to Lemuria. The phrase you mention as being a pastiche of Robert E. Howard ("like a thunderbolt of purpose") is dead on.

 

2) I love how Dr. Death progresses from being an evil character to being a helpful and even protective figure (perhaps even fatherly) by the end of the story. I like your comments that this represents how we use archetypal figures from fiction to understand the darkness within "real" life.

 

3) In Bruno, Wolfe shows a frequent motif of dogs (and cats) and other animals that have been genetically advanced (?) to human shape = the dog/policemen of "The Hero as Werwolf", "Sonya, Wessleman and Kitteh" of course, and the talking donkey and ox of "No Planet Fall". Wolfe's love of dogs often comes out in his stories. (My favorite photo of Gene is in Patti Peret's collection of photos "Faces of Fantasy", displaying a grin as wide as the horizon while a Marmaduke-sized dog luxuriates across his lap.)

 

4) The Freudianism is as prominent in this story as "House of Ancestors". The florid description of Dr. Death injecting "a fluid which by its very color suggested the vile perversion of medical technique" into her body seems to suggest the dawning awareness (in Tackman's case, probably prematurely accelerated by the sights to which he has been exposed in the house) that his mother is a sexual object to other men.

 

5) Tackman's literal dance of joy and anticipation at continuing the story is wonderful.

 

6) Really good catch on Jason's costume being that of a Nazi SS officer. I missed that completely.

 

7) Tackman recognizes the couple "making love" at the party, suggesting this is not the first time the child has been prematurely exposed to sexual situations.

 

8) I also like the suggestion in the podcast that Tackman seems to benefit from his relationships with both Ransom and Dr. Death - Dr. Death is his ability to recognize the darkness and dangers in the world, and Ransom in the model of courage to do something about it - I imagine him running out of the house like "a thunderbolt of purpose" to seek help for his mother.

 

 

Sep 7, 2018

9) I also like your suggestions that Bruno acts as a warning of the risks of entering the sexuality and uncertainty of the adult world. 10) I don't think that it is likely that Wolfe intended Tackman could be a sort of entertainment app or module. There is no indication that this story exists in the future where such technology could exist, and seems to be set contemporaneous with the era when it was written - the best evidence for which is that Tackman gets the paperback novel from a spinning wire rack inside a drug store, and when was the last time any of us saw _that_?

Sep 7, 2018Edited: Sep 9, 2018

11) The question of whether the characters from the novel are crossing over into the real world is left nicely ambiguous by Wolfe. I always look for any Catholic, or at least theological, perspectives in a Wolfe story, and to me, while this is story is primarily (and wonderfully) about the effect literature has on our lives and development, this story also seems to explore the interesting philosophical question of creationism (after Reina Hayaki) - not the religious arguments for the involvement of a Creator in the creation and design of the universe, but rather the philosophical field that examines what kind of existence abstract objects possess, and whether their existence as abstracts poses a challenge to the materialist / naturalist paradigm of reality. If reality, under those models, consists solely and exclusively of matter and energy, what kind of reality do the epiphenomena of abstracts, whether Platonic ideals or mathematics, possess? In the case of the story we're discussing, creationism examines what kind of reality do abstract literary characters possess. There is a LOT of creationist scholarship in this field which I cannot begin to summarize (or often, fully understand), but we can say that fictional characters do have a sort of reality and even a kind of agency to them - they can affect others (how many people have chosen to work as investigators because of a love of Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew?), and we seem to have a shared consensus on who they are and how they will act, which is flexible but not infinitely so. For instance, we can play with aspects of Holmes' character far beyond how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle depicted him - we can set him in the 21st century (the Benedict Cumberbatch series "Sherlock") , we can make Watson a woman ("Elementary") or even make Holmes and Watson both women (the "Baker Street" Web series), we can even change his name and make him an American and make him a doctor of renal medicine in a teaching hospital in New Jersey (the "House" TV series), but at some point, we can only change his characteristics or actions so much before we all could agree he is no longer "Sherlock Holmes". A story about a plumber working in New Jersey who does not investigate mysteries but spends his off-hours playing poker might be an interesting story, but we could all agree, it is not a Sherlock Holmes story. Philosophers tend to side with one of three camps in this field - the Irrealists, who argue that fictional characters are simply figments of the human imagination, are artifacts rather than abstracts, and do not pose any philosophical quandries; the Realists, who argue that as claims about fictional characters can be right or wrong, and that they possess a kind of agency inasmuch as they can have an influence on our actions, as I described above, thus exist as abstract objects; and a camp that tends to split the difference, based on the writings of Alexius Meinong, which argues that there is a difference between "Being" (sosein, "being so") and "Existence", and that while us "real" human beings possess both, fictional characters have being but not existence. Meinong said that being is a mere property of an object, even an abstract one, just as color and size are, and that a horse has both being and existence but that a unicorn has only being. The British logician William C. Kneale coined the term "Meinong's Jungle" in 1949 for the strange philosophical realm where these creations that have being and identity and agency but not existence reside. I love that term and want to use it in a story, somewhere.

 

I think Wolfe, on the evidence of this story, is either a Realist or a Meinongian in the field of creationism. Questions about the objective or subjective existence of Dr. Death and Ransom is purposefully left ambiguous within the story, I suspect because Wolfe did not consider such distinctions as material or necessary to the point of the story, which is that fictional characters have a reality - often a very intense one, and sometimes a positive one - and have an agency within our lives. To that extent, Dr. Death and Ransok are both "real" to Tackman and exist to us. Just as Tackman does. If I were to teach a section on the philosophy of creationism, Wolfe's story would be assigned reading. As you said in the podcast, Wolfe brings out so much new that will show up in later works. I thought a lot about "And When They Appear" while rereading this, where the little boy Sherby also interacts with "fictional" characters who may or may not have an "objective" reality, but Sherby tragically fails to learn the lessons from them that Tackman does. (Possibly because Sherby has the same childish egoism that the narrator of "The Recording" possessed.) Once again, a great story and a great podcast, guys!

Sep 8, 2018

BTW, what is the musical piece that opens the podcast?

Sep 9, 2018

Mick, thanks again for your kind word and deep insights into issues we can only just touch on during our episodes. I find your comments about creationism as a philosophical issue fascinating. I've only come across similar ideas in the field of logic where it is possible to create logically sound arguments with impossible objects or absurd things (as Lewis Carroll is famous for.) I had no idea that there was a philosophical project in wondering how and if impossible propositions could exist.

 

As you brought up, non-material objects have always been a part of philosophy especially as much of western philosophy is deeply indebted to Plato's notions of Ideas and Essences. I've found a lot of joy in reading George Berkeley and his theories of radical nominalism, which would appear to me to be a solid start to answering what exists and what does not. The answer might be that very little practically exists to most people, and the things that do exist, hardly exist in the ways we often consider them to.

 

I'm definitely interested in digging in to more about this subject. It makes me want to go back and blow the dust of the covers of some of my old philosophy books that I don't have nearly enough time to engage with now.

Sep 12, 2018

Mick, do you have a recommendation for a good introductory book or article on Meinongianism or Realism?

 

And the music we use is called "Ghost Dance" and it's by Kevin MacLeod.

Sep 13, 2018Edited: Sep 13, 2018

Glenn, I'm not sure about which books to recommend as my grounding in philosophy probably isn't good enough to evaluate them - I've read the following articles to get the gist of Meinongianism and Neo-Meinongianism, and the realist and irrealist perspectives on the existential categorization and nature of literary characters in particular. As I said, there is a lot of argument in this area and its easy to go deep down the rabbit hole when you take a peek at this field and I often find myself out of my depth and in over my head. The first is the best intro I've found:

 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/20464446?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

 

This is a good overview, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nonexistent-objects/

 

And some other papers:

https://philarchive.org/archive/BERMMAv2

 

http://www.eurosa.org/volumes/5/ZvolenszkyESA2013.pdf

 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/23012547?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

 

While there is a lot of debate about what kind of existence, if any, literary characters possess, there's a much bigger argument that's been going on for decades about whether mathematics possesses a non-corporeal existence - it seems capable of describing just about any aspect of the universe, which is pretty wild if it was solely a human creation or simply an epiphenomenal artifact of the human intellect. The Christian philosopher Prof. William Lane Craig has been working on an argument for the existence of God based on the existence of mathematics, and has written this article on it, which expands on Plato's conceptions:

 

https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/god-and-the-unreasonable-effectiveness-of-mathematics/

Thanks for the identification of the opening music, I like it!

 

 

Sep 13, 2018

Mickjeco: fabulous comments, and I'm delighted that you did start a new thread. (Although as the one who began the first one, I'm pretty sad that it seems to have been lost! I suppose it was probably pretty mundane, but we never remember our own brilliance more fondly than when it is lost beyond recall...)

 

I don't know the area of creationism you are talking about, although it sounds pretty interesting; I hope to follow your links and read up on it some time. But it makes me think of the work of Grant Morrison, the comics writer, who writes about this stuff all the time, most notably, perhaps, in Flex Mentallo, but also elsewhere. (I don't remember where he notes that the one power that superheroes unquestionably have is to inspire us in the real world. I suppose, following this logic, Superman's most impresive victory was his victory against the KKK (which, if you don't know the story of how the fictional superman dealt real damage to the all-too-real racists, well, google it up, it's great.)) If this is a topic of more than passing interest to you, I urge you to check it out.

Sep 13, 2018

Stephen, I've liked the work of Grant Morrison that I've read, I'll have to read him further, thanks. I read about Superman vs. the Klan in Freakanomics, and yes, I think he he does have a kind of agency, just as Dr. Death and Ransom do for Tackman in the novel. I think I would be a different person today if I hadn't read Superman, and Batman, and Doc Savage, and Tarzan, and Jean Valjean, and John Carter, and even Dracula, while growing up. I just read Wolfe's Shields of Mars, his loving tribute to Burroughs' Mars novels, which seems to touch on this as well.

Sep 13, 2018

...Except maybe I'm wrong? I found a brief note in an earlier thread saying I didn't write on Island of Dr Death at all! So maybe the whole some-are-missing is completely wrong? (I feel like a Wolfe narrator all of a sudden — not a comfortable feeling!)

Sep 13, 2018Edited: Sep 13, 2018

As I've grown older, I've become more concerned about the risks of Alzheimer's and dementia (which my mother had), so as a project to improve my long-term memory, I started keeping a sort of retro-diary several years ago. When I had a memory of something that happened in childhood, or as a teen, or as a young adult, I would enter it into the (by now quite enormous) Word file that has an entry chronologically for every date from birth. Whenever possible, I would try to tie down an event to a specific date, which I could often do because I've linked it in my mind to a specific event in history, or often even a movie or TV show I saw at the time - I can tell you when I dated a certain girl because I took her to a specific movie, and so forth - and use old photos, letters, documents, and newspaper stories (I have a paid digital subscription to my hometown newspaper going back to to the 19th century), and so forth, to trigger my memories, and which often help me put things into a chronological order. I do this to improve and/or retain my mind's abilities to pull memories out of deep storage in my brain, but this is also probably like Latro's scrolls - I think that if I ever suffer traumatic memory loss due to brain disorder or a stroke, I would at least be able to go back and see the record of my own life - assuming I can remember the password, and assuming I trust my own writings. It's probably been good for keeping my memory healthy, but I often find that my memories do not track with what witnesses, like my siblings and friends, recall, or what objective sources like newspaper articles or documents relate, or what old letters friends and family share that I wrote or received at the time. Sometimes the things I think I remember doing as a child I am told happened to someone else, like my sister. Often I am the only one who remembers an event out of all the people whom I thought were there. Other major events that I think I would sharply recall, I have no memory of, or only a dim recollection. It can be a humbling experience. The limits of memory seem to make us all unreliable, Wolfeian narrators.

Sep 13, 2018

Mick, thanks for these suggestions. These will fill up my office hours for the rest of the month. I did also pick up some Pieper, but have only gotten a short way into it. I'm looking forward to jumping into these worlds you've opened up for me.

 

Stephen, I'm going to add some more Grant Morrison to my list, too.

Sep 14, 2018

A couple of later thoughts on the story that occurred to me:

 

12) On the question of whether the characters in the story are "real" or not, the strongest evidence I can find is that Dr. Death directs the boy to his mother's room, where Dr. Black is preparing to inject her with something (just as Dr. Death did earlier in the story to Talar). While Tackman might have wandered there on his own during the party, it does point towards Dr. Death possessing some information (the imminent danger to Tackman's mother) that Tackman himself did not possess. 13) Like the reference to Tackman finding his paperback adventure novel on a spinning wire rack in a drugstore, a disparaging comment about the book made by Jason ("That's camp. Did you know that?") also points to this story happening in the 1960s/1970s time frame, which would also discredit the idea that Tackman is some sort of advanced futuristic entertainment program. "Camp" as used in that era most commonly referred to something that was so hokey and exaggerated that it was enjoyable as a satire of a genre, like Adam West's "Batman" series or the "Barbarella" movie; that usage still occurs, but it seems to have faded, and "camp" as used nowadays more commonly refers to forms of gay culture.

 

Sep 16, 2018

Yes! Dr. Death definitely seems to possess knowledge that Tackman doesn't, but if these interactions are just Tackman's imagination at work, I wonder if this "knowledge" is really just that Tackman has inferred that there is danger based on subconscious observations.

Oct 25, 2018

Today I found out where "The House of 31 February" came from and it is not what you would have expected.

 

Gene and I went out to lunch today and somehow the discussion worked around to teachers we had in college. gene related a story about his mathematics professor at Texas A & M assigning a project to calculate the statistical chance of encountering someone with the same birthday as one's self.

 

rather than doing the statistical analysis, one student decided to poll all the people in Gene's dorm as to when their birthday was. gene heard this fellow working his way down the dorm hallway and finally getting to gene's room.

 

"when is your birthday?" the student asked.

 

"February 31" Gene answered.

 

The student, his head buried in his data , solemnly nodded and entered the information.

 

I suddenly made the connection. "Gene! Is that where The House of 31 February in The Island of Dr. Death and other stories came from?"

 

Gene thought for a bit and then said "I suppose it did!"

 

(Gene said it was OK to share this story)

 

 

Oct 25, 2018

What a great story! Thanks for sharing that.

Oct 26, 2018

Haha, this is marvelous. I wish I'd been able to be in basic training with him.

Oct 25, 2018

Michael Frasca: fabulous anecdote. Thanks for sharing that. That sure sounds like Wolfe was already the Wolfe we know through fiction...

Oct 25, 2018

I have a black Pom that follows me everywhere and loves me best, though he Listens to my wife far more. When he goes outside sometimes he will just pretend to be smelling and sit down and smile at me, then he won’t budge until I pick him up. My wife says, “he just likes F-ing with you.” That’s what I feel like Wolfe does to us when we ask direct questions about his work, And why his interviews really really need to be Taken with a metric ton of salt. I’m sure he loves his readers, but he sure likes F-ing with us.

Nov 10, 2018

Wolfe so rarely comments on the meanings of his stories (and can be very gnomic when he does) that I always look for any comments he does make in interviews. I thought this was an interesting comment about "Dr. Death", in his 1988 interview with Larry McCaffery in the Science Fiction Review (https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/wolfe46interview.htm): Wolfe: And I was particularly interested in the way that multiplicity points out the potential lying within everyone for good and evil. Whether we like it or not, that potential is part of what makes us people. We tend to look at somebody like the death camp guards in Nazi Germany and think to ourselves, "Thank God I'm not like that! Those guys weren't people—they were fiends in human form." But those guards weren't "fiends." They were human beings who became pulled into a certain game whose rules said it was okay to be a death camp guard in Nazi Germany. Later on we came along and changed the rules on them. It was important for me to be able to show the way evil expresses itself in people because I think it's essential that we recognize the existence of this potential within us all. This recognition is the only way we can safeguard ourselves from this sort of thing. As long as we go around saying, "I'm not capable of doing anything ugly, I'm the guy in the white hat," then we're capable of doing just about any damn ugly thing. If you're watching a man on his way to the scaffold and you can't realize "this could be me," then you've got no right to hang him. I dealt with a similar idea in "The Island of Dr. Death," where at the end of the story I had Dr. Death tell Tackie that if he starts the book again then (as he puts it), "We'll all be back." If you don't have Dr. Death, then you can't have Captain Ransom. You can't have a knight unless you have the dragon, a positive charge without a negative charge.

Nov 11, 2018

I think this is one of major themes of The Fifth Head of Cerberus as well, and I wish I'd had this in front of me when we recorded our wrap-up episode. I'll certainly be stealing it from you to recycle here on the forum when I have to defend my solution to Veil's Hypothesis in a few months.

Nov 11, 2018

@Glenn - Wolfe also got about as open as he gets on any story in that interview discussing the 3 novellas of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. SPOILER ALERT: for anyone who hasn't read all 3 novellas, you might wish to skip the quoted interview below until you have done so... LM: The opening sentence of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" echoes Proust, you set the story in a place called Frenchman's Landing, and you draw various other French elements into the story. What prompted you to use all these references to France?

Wolfe: It had struck me for some time that it is ludicrous to assume, the way practically every SF story assumes, that people who go to the stars and set up colonies there are necessarily going to be Americans. I saw I could counter this parochial notion by setting my story in a French colony. Frenchman's Landing is actually modeled essentially on New Orleans, which has always had a strong French influence. Somebody—I think it was John Brunner—did an SF book that opens with the words, "The Captain bore the good terrestrial name of Chang." When the first space captains go into outer space, there'll be a lot of Changs out there.

LM: Presenting the sections of Cerberus out of their chronological sequence forces the readers to re evaluate information received earlier. Did you ever give any thought to rearranging them so that they would appear in chronological sequence—that is, with the John Marsch sandwalker story appearing first?

Wolfe: No, because I didn't want to show what John Marsch had been researching—the material that make up his "story" in the second novella— until I had actually introduced John Marsch the researcher in "The Fifth Head." I decided to present the Sandwalker story as a legend or story that Marsch had uncovered, rather than as straight reportage, because I wanted to keep all three stories set in roughly the same time frame—the "present" of the opening novella. Since the period in which the Sandwalker scene was—in terms of the "present" found in the rest of the book—taking place in the distant past of the planet, it made more sense to say, "Here's a legend that has survived from that period" rather than simply jumping into the past and presenting it directly. In the last piece, "V.R.T.," I finish up by showing what had become of Sandwalker's world (this is only hinted at in "The Fifth Head") and by showing what eventually happened to Marsch.

LM: All this "showing" in "V.R.T." is made intriguingly ambiguous by the confusion about who "Marsch" really is.

Wolfe: In the end, of course, it's important that the reader not be confused about this, although part of the fun is supposed to be figuring out what's happened. I leave a number of clues as to who the narrator actually is. For example, both V.R.T. and the narrator are shown to be very poor shots, whereas Marsch is a very good shot, and there's other hints like that. If you hire a shape changer as a guide, there's a definite possibility that he's going to change into your shape at some point. Which is what happens.

Nov 12, 2018

@mickjeco Oh, I didn't realize that was from the same interview! Though I always agree with Marc that Wolfe is always being coy and sly in interviews.

Nov 11, 2018

Wolfe cant be trusted in interviews. Here’s one from an interview by Lawrence PERson which corroborates my reading in regards to shadow children: "'A Story,' by John V. Marsch, yes, which is not actually written by John V. Marsch, but by the shadowchild who has replaced John V. Marsch. (laughs) That's New Wave. But belonging to a literary movement doesn't consist so much in using a certain set of techniques, as it consists in running with a certain set of people, and only to a very small degree did I run with that set of people. So as I said, I would be very peripheral as a New Wave writer.

 

for this reason and others I really don’t like relying on interviews even though I believe in intent.

Nov 11, 2018

his interviews corroborate the second level of his work but never the deepest. It’s kind of annoying, honestly. I always get way more out of his books than his interviews.

Nov 12, 2018

I'm always struck by this, too. Besides, people are always asking him questions about books he wrote decades ago, and it's often clear that he doesn't remember as much about it as the interviewer does because the interviewer just read it.

Nov 12, 2018

@Glenn yes - the ”author function” decreases with time. there’s One interview in particular that grates because I KNOW he is on the edge of outright lying but he still manages to preserve the mystery with a half truth and his initial cleverness in structuring the book.

Nov 13, 2018

This one :http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/intgw.htm. Also, the James Jordan one which makes a big deal about the flood and wherein Wolfe emphasizes that the Urth cycle, to avoid breaking the covenant, is set in a previous iteration. Literally every pre-Urth of the New Sun in text bit of evidence suggests it is the future, from the story of the monitor and the merrimac and the minotaur to that of Theseus and direct quotes from Lewis Carroll to the jungle missionaries who quote the bible and the story of Eschatology and Genesis wherein Nod is told he has arrived far too late to meet Adam and Eve - Isangoma even says that Severian and Agia are the results of the decisions that his contemporaries make. So ... we have a reality with a Lewis Carroll, Marcus Aurelius, Christian missionaries, a Catholic church in South America copied by Scylla, and no Christ? Makes zero sense. But everyone gloms onto that like scripture, just like the segment in the linked interview in which the interviewers try to entrap Gene. Luckily, it can't really be done.

Nov 15, 2018

Oh, yes, I've seen this one before. So. Many. Interviews.

Nov 15, 2018Edited: Nov 15, 2018

@Glenn There's a small print run book collecting interviews and essays by Wolfe titled "Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing / Writers on Wolfe" edited by Peter Wright (not to be confused with the 2014 collection of stories in honor of Gene Wolfe, also titled "Shadows of the New Sun") and published by Liverpool University Press in 2007. It contains essays by and about Wolfe as well as interviews with him, many unavailable online. I looked for a copy for years, but the few copies on Amazon, eBay, and AbeBooks hold firm at astronomical prices - currently, the lowest prices on Amazon are $502.99 for a hardcover and a paperback at $274.49. I set an alert and waited and when someone listed a copy at $45, I jumped on it quickly. If you ever see another copy at a reasonable price, grab it!

Nov 15, 2018

@mickjeco sometimes university libraries and jstor have access to Wright’s books in digital format. If attending Daedalus is the sin, shadows of the new sun is sufficent repentance. When i’m All done with my project I’ll read it again for fun.

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  • 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. 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.

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