Jun 2

VRT, Sections II-III, and Thoughts on Podcast Method


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.

Jun 3Edited: Jun 3

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?

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.

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.

Yes, thank you both so much for your support and encouragement. I am a little more sneaky than I let on in the podcasts, but not by too much. I've personally been thinking a lot about both Marc and Stephen's long standing opinions about how we will cover PEACE and I'm still on the fence of whether I will read it ahead of time and do a second reading for the podcast or not. In any event, I still perform as close a reading as I have time for for whatever text we cover. I do a lot of outside reading as well, which often prepares me for bigger picture thoughts and questions in my approach to a text. So even though I may not have read the text, I've read enough about it that I can do some hunting within the text and bring it out either when I decide what to include in a recap, or what I want to bring out of the discussion.


I'm so glad that you guys are following along and enjoying what we are doing. Please keep the feedback and thoughts coming!

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.

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.

Jun 6Edited: Jun 7

Haha, Stephen, thanks. Looking back over what I wrote, I realize it sounded REALLY cranky -- and it's precisely because I made the mistake of checking my work email before visiting the forum.

New Posts
  • 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.

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.