Feb 12

Thoughts on EP. #56 / VRT Part 1


Another enjoyable episode.


Some random thoughts on points which you brought up:


1) I had not read Capek's short-short about the cat and loved it. Cats start to show up as references and players in the 3rd novella; maybe as shape-shifting abos, maybe as symbols of the unknowable and often hostile natural world of the two planets. The dog references seem to drop out in the 3rd story, and there seems to be a polarity going on - Abos as cats and the Wolfe line as dogs? 2) Capek's other best known science fictional work (aside from the play R.U.R., itself an acronym like the 3rd novella V.R,.T., takes a very focused look at the pernicious effects of colonization, and the way it affects both the colonizer and the colonized - "War with the Newts". I've read it twice (once in high school, when its dark visions scared the crap out of me) and years later, and its probably time to dip into it again - there's a newer translation that is supposed to better preserve the literary devices Capek used. Like V.R.T., it's mostly an epistolary work. I'm curious if the novel has strong ties to V.R.T. 3) Probably getting ahead of your closed reading, but my impression on first reading VRT is that Vail's Hypothesis may be true, but it is only a partial truth, and that St. Croixian society has at least 4 or 5 components, each with their own genotype and phenotype:


A) A wealthy anglophone merchant class


B) the Wolfe clonal family, presumably part of the "A" class, and the discarded remnants of its genetic line which have become slaves, and the source of the "planetary face". This is distinct from the prostitutes who are employed at the bordello.


C A wealthy remnant of the original French settlers of both planets. ("At one time, French was the lingua franca")


D) The underclass society, which includes criminals, prostitutes, some of the non-Wolfeian slaves, and which are the transplanted (possibly shape-shifted) Hill People from St. Anne. Some of these remain in urban and rural society, as well as the outback of St. Anne in scattered remnants, where some may still practice the older shape-shifting skills as animals. #5 notes t0 Marsch that the "planetary face", which he seems to possess comes from a relatively small group of settlers ("Since on this world we are all descended from a relatively small group of colonists, we are rather a uniform population"), but is a different phenotype than the underclass: "Here, most of us have a kind of planetary face, except for the gypsies and the criminal tribes, and you don’t seem to fit the pattern.” {Marsch) said, “I’ve noticed what you mean; you seem to have it yourself.” These two off-hand comments leads to the question: If the common phenotype comes from the original genetic stock of the first settlers...what is the origin of the mysterious "gypsy" underclass, if not the Abos?


The persistent description of the prostitutes, who can be presumed to be members of the underclass, emphasizes very long legs, narrow necks, and high shoulders: "Two of my father’s demimondaines were waiting in the hall, costumed and painted until they seemed more alien than any abos, stately as Lombardy poplars and inhuman as specters, with green and yellow eyes made to look the size of eggs and inflated breasts pushed almost shoulder high, their long, gleaming legs crossed before them like the varnished staffs of flags."

"[T]he heads, the slender necks, the narrow shoulders, of a platoon of my father’s demimondaines"; "I have thought since, many times, of that girl as I saw her leaving: the high-heeled platform shoes and grotesquely long legs" "..an immensely tall and lanky woman who had been hawking pralines in the street came running toward us. It was Nerissa." In the descriptions of the second novella, we learn the phenotype of the Hill People: long wild hair, high foreheads, "hands—large and strong" "his skin the cold stone color of the dust, his wild hair breaking the telltale silhouette of his head". (107) “Your forehead is high and your eyes are far apart,” "wiping his long hair" (130). When he shape-shifts in some way into an otter's shape, it is noted that he is long-limbed, like the underclass of St. Croix: "...short, powerful swimming legs in place of his long limbs." The Hill People have green eyes, "Marsch" has vivid green eyes ("His eyes, I noticed, were a bright green, without the brown tones most green eyes have"), as do apparently all the Hill People, as do the the long-legged prostitutes of the Maitre's bordello, and the boy who hires out to Marsch. At least some of these phenotypical traits describe #5 and Maitre; while David is blonde, #5 is pale, brown haired and brown eyed. "Striding toward us was a tall, high-shouldered young man—who halted, with a startled look, just when I did. He was my own reflection in a gilt-framed pier glass, and I felt the momentary dislocation that comes when a stranger, an unrecognized shape, turns or moves his head and is some familiar friend glimpsed, perhaps for the first time, from outside. The sharp-chinned, grim-looking boy I had seen..."


Maitre is described as "a tall, hatchet-faced man" ("hatchet face" generally means a thin face with sharp features); "My father’s hunched, high shoulders"


The unnamed slave of the reviewing military officer in the 3rd novella is likely also a cast-off of the Wolfe clonal line: "slave—a high-shouldered, sharp-chinned man with a shock of dark hair". The Wolfes are described, then as tall, which would imply longer legs (not necessarily, of course - I am tall but much of that seems to be torso) although apparently not as long as the underclass whom #5 described; , the Wolves have sharp features that are described variously as mantis-like and hatchet-faced, but have brown eyes - unlike the Hill People, who have green eyes.


E) The ruling governmental elite, which includes the military, police, and all members of the fraternal (and role-shifting) bureaucracy, and which are descended from transplanted (possibly shape-shifted) Marsh People from St. Anne, and which continues its battle for control and dominance over the Hill People on a new planet. Their phenotype of the Marsh People is described: "From behind him stepped two men. The people of the meadowmeres, he knew, drove their young men from women until fire from the mountains proved their manhood and left their thighs and shoulders puckered with scars. These men had such scars, and their hair had been knotted in locks..." On St. Anne, They also seem to have a larger, more organized and authoritarian society than the nomadic Hill People: "...and on the bank several hundred people waited—silent figures light-stained early morning colors of yellow and red, their features growing clearer, individuals, a man here, a child there "


The Marsh Man Lastvoice is described as "very tall, and the blue light of rising sisterworld showed a bloodless face from which the few wisps of beard, as ritual required, were plucked daily. The sides of his head had been seared with brands kindled in the flows of the Mountains of Manhood, so that his hair, thicker than any woman’s, grew only in a stiffened crest." He is tall, and thus likely long-legged, but is also (as Eastwind) a snatched Hill Person (", although his appearance has been altered based on the puberty initiation rites of the Marsh Men. Lastvoice, the former Hill Man, is described as having a "bloodless face"; #5 is pale; and "Marsch" is described by #5 as "He wore a beard, very black and more full than the current style, if the skin of his face—what could be seen of it—had not been of so colorless a white as almost to constitute a disfigurement." Sandwalker is described as having skin " the cold stone color of the dust", which could mean pale but is a little ambiguous.


There is the interesting moment when "Marsch" looks at the government functionaries in his rented room and sees one in a mirr0r - which Wolfe took pains to note earlier in the passage: "Madame Duclose, particularly, must have been concerned for the large, gilt-framed mirror in my room, which she had cautioned me about repeatedly. (Mirrors, I have found—I mean good ones of silvered glass, not polished bits of metal—are quite expensive in Port-Mimizon.)" Mirrors in folklore derive their ability to represent someone or something's true nature, such as the soulless nature of a vampire - due to its silver backing. And when "Marsch," who may have some slightly magical capacities himself, looks at the one of the arresting bureaucrats in his room he sees "Mme. Duclose’s mirror was behind him, and I could see that his hair was cut short and that he Had a scarred head, as though he had been tortured or had had an operation on his brain or had fought with someone armed with some tearing weapon." In other words, a Marsh Man. He later notes that all three look similar, with "pointed chins, black brows and narrow eyes, so that they might have been brothers,"


It's unclear to me if the Marsh Men imposters were the ones who returned to St. Croix, took control of the French-Speaking settlers there, and then returned to St. Anne to wage fiery war upon them and enslave the Hill People.

4) Just as a side note, you mentioned John Marsch's inventory of the supplies he took on his expedition, which noted that he would take vitamin pills. I've noticed a couple of times that Gene Wolfe seems to have been a life-long user of vitamin supplements. In his letters home from the Korean War, he asked his mother to send him some vitamins, and in an interview where he was asked about his daily routine, he mentioned taking his vitamins as part of it. He must be doing something right!


5) In another post, I suggested that David is the actual author of "A Story", both from the internal evidence describing the folk-ways of the Annians ("You might say they needed those obsidian arrowheads and bone fishhooks for getting food, but that’s not true. They could poison the water with the juices of certain plants, and for primitive people the most effective way to fish is probably with weirs, or with nets of rawhide or vegetable fiber... They killed their sacrificial animals with flails of seashells that cut like razors, and they didn’t let their men father children until they had stood enough fire to cripple them for life. They mated with trees and drowned the children to honor their rivers. That was what was important..")


Yet, #5 also seems to be tied into authorship of the second novella, as he is the brother who stated in the library that "“because it is distinctly possible that the aborigines of Sainte Anne were descendants of some earlier wave of human expansion—one, perhaps, even predating The Homeric Greeks...I nevertheless gloss upon the Etruscans, Atlantis, and the tenacity and expansionist tendencies of a hypothetical technological culture occupying Gondwanaland." - predating the Old Wise One's peculiar comments about the origins of the Shadow Children on Earth. Unless #5 is in some way part of the Shadow Children's group norm... I'm not sure what all that means, still - either the young David and #5 had read the second novella after finding it in the library, and it is of much earlier composition than its title suggests, or the two brothers composed it, either in collaboration or singly as fan- fiction (could Marsch have stolen it from their home?), #5 composed it while in prison, or the unnamed officer reviewing the case in the 3rd novel is the true author, David, and he has used Marsch's name as the author to satisfy his own literary or political ambitions. There seems to be a specific reason Wolfe brought up those very specific allusions very early in the first novella, but it escapes me.



Oh man, these are some great thoughts! As we get deeper in to V.R.T. I hope Glenn and I will be able to make a clear case (though what is really that clear in Wolfe after all) that the Dr. Marsch on St. Criox is the writer of the second novella. And we spend some time discussing what the second novella is as an artifact of St. Anne. Glenn, too, is troubled by the connection between some of the passages in A Story and Fifth Head, but I think that there are other explanations for that besides David or #5 being the writer of A Story.

Yes, I love all of this! One thing you overlooked about the "planetary face" is that in the first novella we are told that it is normal for members of your groups A and C to have plastic surgery. These are the same people with the planetary face, and so I'm not convinced that the planetary face really is a naturally occurring shape that has anything to do with one's genetic inheritance.


I also read The War With the Newts in high school, but have never revisited it. We might look into doing that as a Patreon episode later this year.

I am reading War with newts and it does resound with fifth head because there too humans discover a new species, but they try to manipulate it for their own purpose which ends up back firing on them.


Well I think that settles it: we'll have to put this on the list.

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

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