What struck me most about these four (excellent, enjoyable & insightful) was once again both the incredible benefits and limitations of your method. Going through the novels (and it's really only an issue with the novels, since the short stories are, well, short) as if you've never read them before — and I can't quite tell how much of this is a pose and how much it's real; I recall Glenn saying that this novel as a whole made him a Gene Wolfe fan (and not just a BotNS fan), while Brandon has said he is reading this for the first time, but are you really, Brandon? Or are you being a Wolfish trickster? — does a lot for you. Being exposed at such detail — 2 hours of conversation per section, give or take — not only really draws our attention to the details in each section, but to how much has been clarified yet. In this sense, the misguided speculations are fascinating, since they show how an ideal first-time reader would encounter the text, and really highlights what has been hinted at and what hasn't (more on this in a moment).
At the same time, this limits you to spending most of your airtime on a first reading, looking at insights gained in a rereading only in the wrap-up episodes — that is, holistically, and not slowly through the text. Which, given how much Wolfe writes for rereaders, is in fact a serious limitation.
Now mostly I am delighted to play this game. This is my third reading of the novel as a whole (I've read the opening novella more often than that), but it's been long enough that I don't recall the details. In my last comment, for example, I made a big deal out of the fact that the tools on St. Croix couldn't be Abo* in origin, given the manual-dexterity issue — having forgotten, of course, that their origin is explained in the third section (by your division), since the beggar made them. Which is to say, for the most part my memory is fuzzy enough on the details that I fall into the same traps with you.
But I do remember the big stuff. And that makes it hard, on the largest issues, not to feel slightly frustrated, or at least bemused, by your going over and over mysteries that are fairly clearly explained. (I'm about to do SPOILERS for anyone else who is reading for the first time, but since I'm behind, and you, Glenn & Brandon, are way ahead of me, I'm going to go ahead with them.) Basically, the fact that VRT has replaced Marsch is being danced around a lot in these episodes. (I know there is some question about that — that Marc Aramini argues that it is a shadow child, not VRT, who replaces Marsch — but even Aramini thinks that this is supposed to be our first conclusion, i.e. that we are supposed to think so at first, so there are readings of the text which support it, whether or not they're the final readings).
Now, on the one hand, this is fun, since you are finding so much early evidence that things are not as they seem, and even that VRT might have replaced Marsch — more evidence early on than I would have guessed there was. On the other hand, you seem to be beating about the bush to avoid coming to that conclusion, possibly so as not to spoil the effect of the pretense that you haven't read this before.
All of which is fine for Fifth Head, since you've already recorded it, and I am really loving the podcast. But let me repeat an earlier suggestion that you consider — for Peace, say — doing two episodes per section, not divided as a recap/discussion, but as a first read/reread. I can understand why you wouldn't want to — some of your audience couldn't listen to half the episodes right away — but it would have so many benefits it's worth considering. (I am thinking in particular ahead to the Book of the New Sun, where more people will have read the books, and there is all the more to see on rereading.)
Oh, and a more minor point: in the future, maybe in addition to saying what page you're reading up to, you could say something like, "stopping with the paragraph that ends: [quote]", or something? To make it easier for those of us reading along in another edition? That shouldn't usually be too big a spoiler!
Apart from those broad thoughts, I have only a few scattered specific things to say about these four episodes:
• You discuss the boy (VRT)'s name for the abos, "the free people". Now I think that that is a translation for something that a lot of different groups may have called themselves. But the English phrase evokes, for me, Kipling: in the Jungle Book, the wolf pack that Mowgli joins calls themselves "the free people" (or maybe it's the term for all wolves — I forget). Given particularly the presence of wolves (Wolfes) in this story, this seems a likely reference to me.
• You discuss Marsch (VRT)'s claim that he is a child and an animal (although this is a case where acknowledging the later switch would have been particularly fruitful). But you don't dwell on his (quick) claim that he is also, in some sense, feeble-minded, a person of importance, rich and a friend to people of importance. It seems like these, too, will be true in some sense, Wolfe being Wolfe.
• You properly connect the judicial system to the Prisoner, Kafka and Brazil. But I would have talked more about how damn funny it is. It makes me faint (and my wife reach for weapons), it does.
• I loved Glenn's points that A) this could simply be the legal system (that the rich are let off) — we don't know, it is an alien culture, and there have been societies that do this explicitly) and, in a later episode, B) that the difference in Number 5 and VRT's experiences could easily be their citizenship/wealth status;
• I loved Brandon's recall of the point from the Operation ARES Aramini wrap up: Wolfe believes that redemption is for everyone. (I might add: damnation, too.) Worth bearing in mind throughout!
Great work, as always. I will continue to catch up as fast as I am able!
* I probably should call them "Annellise" or "the free people", but Abo is so much shorter, and easier to spell, and given that it is a fictional not real people I am offending, I will allow myself the shorthand.
Glenn: well, I would be happy to be a sounding board. And the "not want to run ourselves into the ground through overwork" reason is a really good reason.
Thank you both for the supportive and encouraging comments. Our objection to doing a separate spoiler-cast isn't philosophical or methodological -- it's about how much work it would be and how much time it would take to run two simultaneous shows for different audiences. In fact, about halfway through V.R.T. we had a very serious conversation about the possibility of not doing any more novels because of how exhausting Fifth Head was ... even with taking breaks between the sections. We talked ourselves off that ledge after a few beers, but we know that we will have to find a way to cover Peace and The Devil in a Forest in a way that requires fewer hours of work per week. We don't know what that will look like yet (we've got a year to figure it out), but we may want to use you two as a sounding board for some ideas. And, hey, we're still at least three years away from beginning The Book of the New Sun.
I want to add my voice to Stephen’s here, though your podcast must remain your own of course In methodology and approach. Your take on Operation Ares was the best thing ever done on it by far; in some ways, the book is primarily worth reading for your coverage. Peace and New Sun are different animals: there has been a ton of quality work done on Peace in particular that is analytically very sound, and the structural approach of Wolfe in design is something that can only be apprehended when the entire novel sits in your mind (sorcerer’s house and Evil guest, to me, were really exercises in structural meaning- the mirrored first and last chapters of Evil Guest reveal something startling, but it is practically invisible even after five to six back to back readings). Peace is similarly constructed out of structural set pieces that make sense when applied to the whole novel - the short story coverage won’t suffer from this issue, and certainly the discussion of some themes make plot and puzzle issues irrelevant, but there are a few places I want the discussion to go further than it ever has in Peace and New Sun. The zeitgeist of “Severian is an awful liar” is terribly banal and disappointing, as are mimetic approaches to archetypal characters in his later work when he moves from SF to fantasy in focus and feel. the question on Peace and New Sun is do you risk reinventing the wheel? There wasn’t even an axle for Operation Ares and your episodes are in my opinion the definitive scholarship on it, with no need to go further unless someone is writing a sociological progression or comparative work on Wolfe or with another author.
Yeah, I just listened to the first few minutes of the recap for section IV, and I got that Brandon wasn't just doing this as a literary artifice! I am sorry to have doubted him. For what it's worth, it was an implicit compliment, since the reason I thought he might have read the book before was because he was picking up so much subtle stuff that I thought he must have had some notion what was coming! :)
I totally get the advantages of reading as if never read. And I am (to repeat) getting a ton out of your doing so. But if I may press the case one more round: there is an important distinction, I think, between the reading of Wolfe and the reading you do in your more formal academic work. None of the premodernists (or at least nearly none) are writing to be deliberately obscure, and to force rereading by modern audiences. The obscurities there come out of our lack of knowledge about context, etc. Whereas Wolfe is deliberately writing things that are only understandable at second (or later) glance. The source and nature of the obscurity is simply quite different. This isn't to say you shouldn't keep using your method — I was not (and would not) suggest that! What I was suggesting was to condense it, and then use the resulting time to supplement it with a second method. This would be a way to have your cake and eat it too. — Again, I don't want to press too hard, so I will drop it at this point; forgive me for pressing a bit. But I really do think your invocation of your reading of pre-modern texts actually goes against the argument you are making, not for it!
If nothing else, do consider my suggestion anew once you get to Book of the New Sun. With the other works, the majority of your audience — and Brandon, and in many cases — have not read them before. But BotNS has enough of a following — and is sufficiently complex! — that it might be worth doing a separate stream of rereading analysis there, if nowhere else.
Anyway, to repeat one last time (since internet chat leads to misunderstandings, and thus I want to risk tedium to avert misprision): I do not mean, in the slightest, to complain about what you are doing by making my suggestion. I am simply saying that there might be a way to do that and more too. Alright, peace.
Speaking of which: I've never read Peace either. It's the biggest gap in my Wolfe knowledge, I think. But my current intention is to read it in its entirety at least once — if I can twice — before you start, to make your careful readings a revision. We'll see; gang aft a'glay and all that. But I hope to.
We wrestled with whether to use Abo or not, too, but came to the same conclusion you did. On the other hand, we're carefully avoiding doing certain Lovecraft stories over on Elder Sign.
This is really Brandon's first reading of the book and that will be true for Peace as well. But I think the benefits of reading as if we've never read it before (even if we have) far outweigh the limitations. In particular this comes out of my training as a pre-modernist. There is nothing I can write about that at least a hundred scholars haven't already worked on, and so an important methodology in my field is to forcibly reject the intellectual constructs and scholarly assumptions of our predecessors and read the texts as if we don't already know what other people think they say. This move has led to some dramatic reevalutions of slavery, ethnicity, and various heresies that make the current consensus on late antiquity look like a totally alien society from the one envisioned by our nineteenth-century predecessors.
I love your observation about The Jungle Book. VRT goes looking for Wolfes ... but does he find them? Are they even real?