Fabulous episode, guys: possibly your best yet. I loved, loved the connections, to Aquinas and Jung and the Book of the New Sun, and so much else. I loved how much you brought out of the story.
My comments, next to your discussion, are trivial, but FWIW here are a few minor thoughts:
1. You both (and Marc Aramini, too, in his write-up) seemed to take it for granted that the social worker fell in love with Frank in the story we read — that this is an example, like (perhaps) Packerhaus's growing consciousness, of change and growth. I must admit I read it differently: I read it that the (old) Social Worker, in life, fell in love with Frank, in life; that they were going to leave to get married; that to keep them around, the Old Woman poisoned them: that their realization that they were in love and going to be married was part of their limited recapitulation of their former life, not something new. (To back it up, I'd point out that they don't really interact much: nothing to form the basis of love. They do interact enough to jog mostly-dead memories and patterns, though.) But with all three of you on the other side, I feel like I might just be missing something.
2. One of you (sorry, I forget who) said that there was only one living person in the story, the Old Woman. Surely there are two — that the new social worker is, in this story, alive; and we are seeing her killed? Or is that supposed to be recapitulation too? I read it as the actual murder.
3. I definitely think the Old Woman is alive; the story doesn't work well the other way. The main counter evidence that I see is that she looked her part "perhaps almost too much"; but one can read that as her playing the part, getting ready to die. So yeah, I think she's alive.
4. One connection you didn't make is what happens to elderly people sometimes, that they loose their memories enough to live in the continual present (with memories of the distant, but not recent, past). One way to read this story is as a horrific embodiment of that situation. But I'm not sure that's in the story; it's just something I thought of.
5. One Book of the New Sun connection you didn't mention explicitly: the idea of people being alive after their death is important in that story. One thing to note: Thecla is said to have been brought back to life by the process of her memories being put in Severian: her memories, almost, are her self. (A view of the self like that in the story, which Brandon dismisses.) Now, that's not quite true — it seems that the Claw (or Severian's power as the once and future Conciliator) plays a key role; Thecla isn't alive in the other minds. (Although on the other other hand, it seems that the Autarchs live in their successors minds, without that magical/spiritual intervention.) Anyway, the connection between memory, personhood, consciousness & soul will be brought up again. (I can't wait! (Although I will, of course.)
6. I loved the idea of a story about someone committing suicide, inspired by this method, to preserve their younger self. You should write it! (I can imagine it in a future festschrift like the SHADOWS OF THE NEW SUN volume from a few years back; but could also just be a great story.)
Again: fabulous episode. Maybe my favorite yet.
Looking forward to Operation ARES!
I didn't love this story upon my first reading, but the more I thought about it, the more I found myself liking it. A second reading and listening to the podcast helped deepen my appreciation. Some things completely escaped my notice, like the Swiss clock imagery, or the importance of breath, and I have the show to thank for pointing these things out to me.
A few random thoughts:
A slow horror filled her, and there was an agonizing tightness in her throat. She should be crying, she knew; but there was no moisture in her eyes.
The true horror here is that her painful realization will recur again and again.
A big part of the story is the false immortality offered by the Packerhaus method. There are hints throughout that the permanence it offers is ultimately fleeting.
“That cat’s shedding,” said the new social worker. “In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cat shedding quite so much. The hair’s coming out of her in quite a remarkable way.”
The cat losing its fur presages the Packerhaused humans eventually losing their hair, and that will probably only be the beginning.
There's also these lines which hint at an eventual loss of muscle control.
Muscles, you know, will still respond to an impulse after death. We used to do it with frogs’ legs and a galvanic cell when I was a little girl in school
The Colonel’s fluid preserves this attribute, you see—at least for a long time.
These living memorials are actually dying memorials, though this isn't obvious yet. How much more horrifying will their looping existence become?
The man forever trying to light his cigar reminded me of Tantalus in Hades. What strange hell is this, a smoker trying to smoke, but failing again and again without end?
The Tolkien references are on point given the importance of death for Tolkien. A passage from The Silmarillion comes to mind where man's mortality is called a gift:
But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.
And on the subject of Tolkien, Wolfe wrote a wonderful article called "The Best Introduction to the Mountains" where he reflects on his relationship with the author. It's quite touching, and it blows my mind that it was rejected. It's become a bit tricky to find on the Internet, but you can read it here:
Michael, thanks for your comments. You guys are probably right about Frank and the social worker, but I'm excited to see if we do indeed find any clues in later stories.
Another fabulous episode, guys. I didn't really care for this story too much, but the podcast brought a lot of things to the surface I hadn't caught. I, too, had thought the social worker and Frank might have been poisoned after they became a thing. Thanks again for doing this, gentlemen.
I think the idea of an edited collection is a great one. I'll definitely make a pitch for it if it happens!
Brandon, I will be listening to the Operation ARES but not reading along — partly because Wolfe's disavowal has made me less interested in reading the book, and partly because it's simply unavailable (the cheapest used copy on amazon is around $70; no local library, public or university, has a copy). I might be moved to overcome one of these barriers, but between the two I'll pass. I do look forward to the episodes, however. (And I'm for reading along with every Wolfe novel from Fifth Head to Borrowed Man if you guys keep it up!) Going to be interestingly different in structure dealing with a novel, and I look forward also to seeing how you guys structure it.
Yes, Stephen, thank you for your support, your encouragement, and your enthusiasm. I'll echo Brandon's excitement for your feedback about Operation ARES, as well.
I agree with Brandon's answers, so I'll limit myself to just a few comments. One, I'm so glad that you brought up Thecla's memories. What does it mean to be a person, or, perhaps better, how do we define selfhood or personhood, are vital questions that I go to SF for, and I'm interested in discussing it more and more. I do think that I don't like the definition that we get in this story, but, again, I think that we'll see Wolfe address the question at greater length and with more nuance as we go along. I can't wait. Also, I want to take the opportunity to plug Star Trek: Discovery. These questions are at the heart of the show's thematic discourse right now, and it's been exciting. Tomorrow night's episode in particular is (probably) going to deal with someone in a Severian/Thecla situation.
I also really like your question about the relationship between Frank and the social worker. I agree with Brandon that the theme of the text supports our (and Marc's) reading, but you are right that the text never explicitly endorses that. I'm not sure how much we can do with this reading internal to the text, but it will be great to keep this in mind when we address this problem again. There are some potential articles in these disparate readings, and I think that might be fun at some point (and I'm slowly working on Marc to put together an edited volume).
Thanks for the encouragement, also, about writing up that story. I'm going to keep this in my back pocket.
Hi Stephen. Thank you so much for your encouragement and kind words about this episode! I think this story really surprised us with its conceptual death. And as always, Glenn came up with some thought provoking questions to lead the discussion.
1/4. I absolutely love this reading of the story. I think, though, that it undermines the argument that the post-death brain is able to create new memories, which I think is an explicit problem in the story. But taken with your wonderful thematic reading in point 4, I do think it could be plausible that the old woman poisoned them when she discovered that two of her primary relationships with the outside world would be leaving her for one another. Even though Frank and the Social Worker don't interact, my instinct (unsupported by the text perhaps) is that there is some light Toy Story stuff going on while the woman is away. I don't think the Packerhaus people lose consciousness when the old woman is not around. The absence of any discussion of what goes on when the old woman is not present, to me, raises the question.
2/3. I think the Old Woman is alive to be sure. I was toying around with the idea that she may not be alive in order to talk about the undead. I also was looking for a way to discuss the story's oddity regarding the new social worker and the Father. I'm not convinced there is a new social worker, but I'm not sure. AI really don't know what to make of the Father/Grandfather issue in the story. I'm not sure how all of that works thematically either.
5. I think we're all excited to dig into consciousness and personhood and memory and souls. I think you'll find me arguing against the Enlightenment position that we are rational minds. I'm sure we'll be able to escape discussing the "Brain in the Vat" thought experiment at some point in our coverage of Wolfe and BOTNS.
Operation ARES is going to be a lot of fun. Our conversation with Marc Aramini went exceedingly well. I forgot if you mentioned you'll be reading along or just listening along for it. Either way, we'd be grateful for any feedback you have about our coverage of a novel as opposed to short stories. We really appreciate your continued engagement.