Jul 7, 2018

The Recording


So I'm really delighted you (or your patreons) chose this story, even though, ultimately, I agree with you both that it doesn't really deserve, on its merits, a place in The Best of Gene Wolfe. Because I really, really enjoyed it — the story, and rereading it, and the discussion, too. I don't know why; maybe it is precisely the lack of an SF element to the tale, save for the meaning in the world suggested by the record having the meaning that the narrator imagines in it — even if not in quite the sense that he imagines it. I think it's well written, well organized — a delightful story.


Among many other things, I loved your take on why Wolfe included it in the Best-of: which I think is right. His afterwards is really quite something. (I haven't read most of Best-Of, since I have all the individual collections, but then I miss the afterwards unless I catch them on WolfeWiki or quoted by Aramini or something...)


(By the by, you mentioned a fan-edited Best of Gene Wolfe.) In that volume — in the afterwards, perhaps? I don't have it handy — Wolfe suggests a second volume could be put together of fan-edited stories — the suggestion being that it is in addition to the ones in BoGW, so they would be, so to speak, out of bounds. In his introduction to the UK edition (reprinted in the US in a past issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction), Kim Stanley Robinson notes this comment, and lists a bunch of his own suggestions — including, of the ones you've so far covered, "The Changeling", "Eyebem" and "The HORARS of War". He also suggests '"A Story', by John V. Marsch". Anyway, if you (or anyone) does a fan-edited volume, I would propose it be that one: a companion, non-duplicating one.)


As far as the mystery of the story goes, I agree with your reading — which is also Marc Aramini's — that the narrator dies at the end. I agree with all of you that it is, basically, obvious.


But not so obvious that people can't get it wrong; and hence the one thing you both misinterpreted I believe — not anything of Wolfe's, but Asimov's comment.


Asimov's comment is from the book 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories (1984 — so not right after the story was published, as one of you seemed to imply), co-edited by Asimov, Terry Carr & Martin H. Greenberg. First, each of the stories got a single, one-line comment from Asimov — a short intro, I think, to match the short-short stories. So that was not a sign of disrespect, I don't think.


But it was a misreading. Asimov was, of course, a noted rationalist; he was also not (to judge by his self-characterizations in his own work) much of a careful literary reader. This story may well, who knows, have been selected by Greenberg or Carr, or selected by Asimov from a set they chose, or something (he says somewhere his contributions to anthologies tend specifically to be the introductions). At any rate, I would suggest that Asimov quite clearly read it quickly, not very astutely, and thought that the last line was meant to be taken straight — that it was a send-up of superstition. Asimov, basically, blew the story.


So why did Wolfe highlight it? Who knows. He could be poking gentle fun at Asimov; he could be slyly trying to encourage his readers to think more deeply. He could have just found it funny. Or all of the above.


Why did F&SF publish it? Why did Asimov, Carr & Greenberg reprint it in a book of fantasy stories? Well, read properly (i.e. not as Asimov read it, but as you both and Aramini did) it does have a fantasy element, albeit a slight one, insofar as it presents the world as meant, things as signs having a meaning that science does not strictly imbue them with. And yes, Wolfe is a name — although rather less so in 1972 than, say, 1984, or certainly now. But it may have been something else. There's a genre of SF/fantasy story where something mysterious is teased, as either being supernatural or not; the X-Files story. But unless you print some red herrings, then readers always know what the answer will be. (This is a problem in X-Files; in the original conception, Scully was supposed to be right half the time, not how it turned out, obviously.) This is a perfect red herring: since at first it seems to be one, but carefully read, it's ambiguous, or perhaps better say liminal.


Finally, clones: it's absurd, as I rather suspect you both know, and I shan't bother to argue against it. Obviously genetics and family traits and all that are a big part of the story, but one needn't go all the way to clones for that: simple family resemblances will do. I liked your reading of the "stamped" line as having to do with the record — but, again, you can get that from ordinary genes. It reminded me of the early sonnets of Shakespeare, where he emphasizes that you ought to have kids so your looks will live on. (Sonnet 3: "Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime:/ So thou through windows of thine age shall see/Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time./But if thou live, remember'd not to be,/Die single, and thine image dies with thee.") — Though now, of course, we need a story about how Shakespeare was really talking about Clones.


Again, it was really great to read a (comparatively, for Wolfe) story, and to hear you talk about it. I particularly loved the idea that the feeling of power line was the answer to the riddle of the 'I thought I loved him' line: just right. And the Proustian memory bits were great preparation for Fifth Head, which I am greatly looking forward to — as I am your recap episode as well.


(PS: I suppose it's too late, what with y'all living in the future, but do we have to call Fifth Head a novella collection? I mean, sure, I guess it's that too in some sense. But really, it's a novel — Wolfe's first great novel. Let's let both it, and the novel form, have the dignity of the ascription.)

Jul 8, 2018

Stephen, I'm glad you wound up enjoying this one as much as we did.


I'm grateful for your investigation of Asimov's comment about the story. I much prefer imagining Asimov at his typewriter having to snap off one-line comments for a dozen stories he doesn't really care about just so he can pay his mortgage that month and buy some time to work on something of his own. And I am this evening, after Brandon and I record, going to start on his second robot detective novel, The Naked Sun, which I'm excited about.


And I will accept your challenge to blend Shakespeare and clones. I've already written a story about Twelfth Night and robots (with a strong Wolfe allusion), Coming in 2023! But on the note of his sonnets, if you don't already listen to the Chop Bard podcast, I highly recommend it -- it's one of my favorites. Ehren is also doing a spin-off show called Shakespeare Sundays in which he is now going through the sonnets sequentially.


I'll save my comments about what The Fifth Head of Cerberus is for our final wrap-up episode, but as someone who loves the novella form I wonder why you think there is more dignity in the label "novel" than "novella." Indeed, I greet the news that my favorite contemporary writers such as KSR are publishing a new novel soon without much excitement. But I'd buy a novella collection without blinking.

Jul 8, 2018Edited: Jul 8, 2018

I don't think there's more dignity in 'novel' than 'novella'; I think there's more *unity* in 'novel' than 'collection'; and I think it's clearly a single work. Also, novels sell better, so from a sheer marketing point of view better to call it a novel (since it's accurate). And can anyone imagine making sense of VRT outside the context of the other two stories?


I will try to check out Chop Bard — sounds great. Although to be honest I have limited amount of podcast-listening time in my schedule, and it's mostly filled up already. :)

Jul 9, 2018

Yeah, the clone thing was absolutely absurd, but it was a good bit of fun as well. The Recording is a fine story, but I just don't think it's one I'll be returning to that often, if at all. It's really incredible how much Wolfe was able to publish. I often wonder if he was some kind of rare writer who publishes everything they write.

Jul 9, 2018

He once said — I think in The Castle of the Otter — that he once sold a story on the 36th submission. So part of it, I suppose, is simple persistence.


That said: I reject the implication that "The Recording" is a lightweight story that maybe ought not even have been published. Even if I wouldn't select it for my personal Best of Gene Wolfe, I do think it's a very fine story, well done, with lots of great stuff in it.

Jul 9, 2018

I can't even think of 36 places to which one can submit a story now. But I think elsewhere he claims to have sold 80% of his stories, which is remarkable. Now if we can just get them all collected ...

Sep 4, 2018Edited: Sep 4, 2018

I had not read this story before, and so read it before listening to the podcast. I agree that it's among his most straightforward stories- or seemingly straightforward, at any rate. As far as why F&SF chose to publish this story, they would sometimes publish stories, especially if by known talents, that didn't have an overt fantastic or science fictional element but had literary merit, under both Anthony Boucher and Ed Ferman. The late Harlan Ellison's "All the Lies That Are My Life" was published there, despite having no fantastic element that I ever saw. I think Stephen's comment above was on point - this belongs in that genre of ambiguous works wherein different readings could include a fantastic element, or none, or something on the liminal borderland, like Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House". I think this is a ghost story where the ghost doesn't really appear (as a Stephen King character once aptly described "The Red Badge of Courage")


If there is a fantastic element, it would seem to lie in the young narrator's fear that if he listened to the record, he would hear Uncle Bill's voice continuing to call for the doctor the narrator never sought out. But is what he hears his Uncle's voice, after a sort? He hears the Rudy Vallee song, "My Time is Your Time"


I was curious to hear the full song, which I learned was recorded by Vallee in 1929 (which helps tie the story to a specific time). It was the opening theme song for his popular radio show. It is quite evocative of a particular era (you can hear it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNp5t1nsqbk). The full lyrics: It's dancing time.

The clock says ten

Won't you say when?


I'm ready, go steady

When we begin

The time is right,

I think we might,

Just chance it and dance it

Away tonight


Your time is my time,

We just seem to synchronize

And sympathize,

We're harmonizing


One steps and two steps,

Old steps and new steps,

There's no time like our time

And no one like you.


In the context of the full lyrics, especially the lyrics just after the quoted "Your time is my time" ("We just seem to synchronize / And sympathize / We're harmonizing"), the recording may - or may not - be the voice from the grave of Uncle Bill, whom he has essentially become, and whom he will follow into death, probably also alone, if not as the story ends, then surely soon after. This story seemed like a grim reminder to me of the Roman memento mori on gravestones - tu fui ego cris, "I was you; you will be me" (sometimes rendered as "What you are, I was; what I am, you will be.")


It's close enough to dark fantasy, or quiet horror, that I can see why Ed Ferman might have made the call to buy it for F&SF. The curious last line - "So much for superstition!" I read as the narrator's tone-deaf misunderstanding of the subtle message of the song's lyrics, just as his youthful egocentric attitude prevented him from understanding his uncle's distress and need for help.

Sep 4, 2018

It seems almost de rigeur in any discussion of a Gene Wolfe work to first ask the questions 1) Is anyone a Christ-figure? and 2) Is anyone a clone?

Sep 5, 2018

Haha, Mick, thanks for justifying our sometimes absurd attempts to find a weird angle into a story.


Thank you for posting those lyrics. Reading them this morning, it almost seems to me like Wolfe began with his dark reading of this text and then constructed a story around it.

New Posts
  • As I try and catch up with podcasts and stories I missed I am constantly impressed with your ability to talk about religion in fiction that is insightful and nuanced. It is so refreshing to hear, thank you. You both got way more out of this story than I did. I thought the analogy was kind of clunky and this more of a complaint about university uinstitutionalism than a wider story. A favorite podcast moment for me, 30 minutes into a 35 minute podcast: Glenn: "Is Smythe Jesus Christ?" Brandon: "WHAT?!?!?!" Way to bury the lead Glenn, bravo. As a side note, when I read the introduction to Storeys From the Old Hotel Wolfe commented on one of the stories was his obligatory Holmes type story. Also we could thank him that he dropped an idea to do a Nero Wolfe story with Nero being a robot. I would have loved this as a story. Gene Wolfe writing Nero Wolfe has a pleasing symmetry to it. Frankly Gene Wolfe could definitely write a hell of murder mystery, does anyone know if he did so?
  • Damn that was a good story. I last read it in the 1970’s before I went to medical school (I am now an internist and geriatrician). It didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but it sure does now! I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but am looking forward to doing so. I will share my thoughts about the medical aspects of the story. There are some spoilers, so read the story first. Medical schools are adding close reading of literature and patient narratives to their curricula. (1) This would be an excellent source for that. I’ll show how that might be done. Page numbers are from the 1st Orb edition of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. Page 80 - ‘a stubble of brown hair threatened to erase the marks of the sutures; with dilated eyes…he paused’ The boy has had head trauma and/or brain surgery. A drug or toxin is likely responsible for both eyes being dilated. A unilateral dilated eye would indicate acute brain damage. Page 86 - ‘his head swaying from side to side as he walked, like the sensor of a mine detector.’ He probably has a visual field defect, possibly related to the brain surgery/trauma. Page 86 - “I set fires to things.” Could the surgery have been a lobotomy to control his behavior? Page 88 - “and cut all the way through my corpus callosum.” Nick’s brain surgery was a corpus callosotomy. (2) This surgery is usually done in patients with difficult to control seizures. The main side effect is problems with speech and alien hand syndrome—control of the non-dominant hand. (3) Nowadays, newer medications and other neurosurgical procedures have mostly supplanted callosotomy. Page 88 - “I only see what is on the right of what I’m looking at, and the other side…only the left.” This is known as a hemianopsia (4) and is a result of the callosotomy. The ‘I’ is the speaking half of Nick—the left side of his brain -or- “left-brain Nick.” Page 89 - “He had uncontrollable seizures.” “Did you?” the girl asked. “I had visions.” We find out the reason for Nick’s callosotomy. He had visual auras before the seizures when he would “see things.” Nick seemed to enjoy these auras and was probably upset when they ended. Page 91 - “there’s something you ought to know about Diane, she gets confused sometimes, we’ve had her to doctors, she’s been in the hospital…try not to get her excited.” Diane has some major Issues. The most likely conditions to cause a 19 year old to be hospitalized would be major depression, a debilitating anxiety disorder like OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Although Diane is skinny, anorexia nervosa is unlikely because the treatment certainly wouldn’t be stranding her on an island with no food! Page 92 - Diane said, “I feel better when it rains.” “That should help you to understand yourself.” Is Dr. Island using cognitive behavioral therapy? (5) Although this is a rather expensive way of doing it! Page 94-95 - “Sickness is…relative” “Diane was not functioning…you were not functioning either.” This is a major motif of the story; illness, specifically mental illness, is defined by society. In our society, a schizophrenic person may take a night job at the post office working alone, then go home to their one bedroom apartment and pull the shades to keep out the world. They would watch TV, eat dinner, go to sleep. They are content and even happy with this routine. They are contributing to society. Are they mentally ill? Page 96 - “We have treatment for disturbed persons…but we have no treatment for disturbing persons.” “Disturbing persons” - people with personality disorders? The best you can do is place limits on people with personality disorders and teach their families/friends how to cope with them. If they become unmanageable, societies tend to place them in prison. Could Dr. Island be a prison? Page 97 - ‘He noticed…that she was looking at him oddly, then realized that his left hand had risen to touch her right breast.’ Alien Hand Syndrome! (3) “Right-brain Nick” is acting inappropriately. Page 98 - “They kept me locked up because I kept burning stuff…I bite people.” Again, “right-brain Nick” is causing all these problems. Page 98 - “Then they stuck me full of Tranquil-C.” That is why Nick’s eyes were dilated. Page 98 - “I still think you’re angry somewhere, deep down.” Taking away Nick’s auras (visions) could be the root of his anger. Perhaps the visions occurred in “right-brain Nick” and that’s why he burns things? Or is "right-brain Nick" just frustrated at his lack of control? Page 101 - “My knees are rough…when I came here they were still smooth…I used to put a certain lotion on them. Because my Dad would feel them…Mum wouldn’t say anything but she would be cross after.” I don’t know Diane’s diagnosis yet, but we have a good idea what may have caused her decompensation. Page 104 - ‘There was no reply. The girl sat staring at the ground in front of her…she did not move when he touched her. “She’s catatonic isn’t she,” he said. “Catatonic schizophrenia.” We now know Diane’s problem; she has schizophrenia. Catatonia is no longer consider a subtype of schizophrenia and is more a part of the symptomatology. (6) Schizophrenia affects young adults and is a chronic condition. Some do well, but many others have major disabilities and suffer from problems with functioning and socializing. It seems that Diane is quite disabled and has a poor prognosis. It is possible that her decompensation was caused by an abusive father. Page 104 - ‘The doctor had been a therapy robot, but a human doctor gave more status. Robots’ patients sat in doorless booths…and talked to something that appeared to be a small, friendly, food freezer.’ I have never heard of Amana being involved in cognitive behavioral therapy. Page 104 - “What is the cause? I mean for her?” “I don’t know.” “And what’s the treatment?” “You are seeing it.” “Will it help her?” “Probably not.” With all their space bending technology, it seems that the prognosis for schizophrenia hasn’t changed much in the Wolfe-ian future. Page 113 - “Your record shows no auditory hallucinations, but haven’t you ever known someone who had them?” “I knew a girl once…she twisted noises.” Auditory hallucinations are very common in schizophrenia. Ambient background noises are screened out by the normal brain. People with schizophrenia are unable to ignore them and experience the noise as voices saying bad things to/about them. The voices could also be internally produced by the brain.(7) Page 115 - “Let Ignacio tell you a story…” After unpacking Ignacio’s tale, it seems that he is a feral child. Unlike other feral children, he was taught language and self-care skills. His only lack was human contact and learning how to interact with others. Feral children have a lot of problems becoming socialized and integrating back into society. They usually aren’t homicidal. (8) Perhaps being a “high-tech” feral made him violent to others. Page 119 - “Did I tell you about the bird, Nicholas?” She had been not-listening again. “What bird?” “I have a bird. Inside…She sits in here. She has tangled a nest in my entrails, where she sits and tears at my breath with her beak. I look healthy to you, don’t I? But inside I’m hollow and rotten and turning brown, dirt and old feathers, oozing away. Her beak will break through soon.” Okaaay, as Nick would say. This dispels any doubts that Diane has schizophrenia. She has a somatic delusion, which, while not as common as paranoid delusions, are frequent in schizophrenia. “Usually the false belief is that the body is somehow diseased, abnormal or changed.” (9) Page 119 - “I have been trying to drink water to drown (the bird.) I think I have swallowed so much, I couldn’t stand up if I tried…” Diane has psychogenic polydipsia, which is common in schizophrenia. They can drink gallons every day—so much so that they disrupt their electrolyte balance and develop very low serum sodium levels. (10) Page 125 - “About 100 years ago, Dr. Harlow experimented with monkey’s who had been raised in complete isolation.” Harry Harlow is a real person who did indeed perform these experiments as Dr. Island has carefully outlined. Harlow was a Professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (11) Many of those experiments are now considered an unethical treatment of animals. I suspect that the inspiration for The Island of Dr. Death came about when Wolfe read about Harlow’s research. You might consider Dr. Death to be a 2150 version of Harlow. ================Major Spoilers================== Page 129 - “Nicholas, you are upset now because Diane is dead—” “But you could have saved her!” “—but by dying she made someone else—someone very important—well. Her prognosis was bad; she really only wanted death, and this is the death I chose for her.” This is the death I chose for her. Those words are the core of the story; did Dr. Island have the right to sacrifice an individual for the greater good? In medical ethics, this encapsulates the conflict and tension between the ethical models of deontology and utilitarianism. (12) It seems that Dr. Island is a firm believer in the later. This is why The Death of Dr. Island would be a great source for a close reading of literature. It is a natural jumping-off-point for a spirited discussion of medical ethics. Page 130 - “Nicholas, who was the right side of your body, the left side of your brain, I have forced into catatonia.” Dr Island has essentially killed “left-brain Nick,” the person who has been our view point for the entire story. This is the death Dr. Island has chosen for Nick. Did he have the right to do so? REFERENCES 1. 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.

Claytemple Media is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.