Jul 7, 2018

The Recording

8 comments

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.

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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. 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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/
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