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Tracking Song
In Gene Wolfe
Robert McCarthy
Sep 23, 2020
Just had a chance to listen to your podcasts on The Keys to December and your subsequent take on Tracking Song, and it reminded me of something I’d been meaning to post. I came here to the forum, and I saw that someone else had a really good take on the name Cutthroat. I was thinking that the name Cutthroat referred to a surgical scar on the protagonist. But what neck surgery would make sense in the context of the story? The larynx (voicebox) is in the throat suspended from the hyoid bone at the base of the tongue, and its position in the throat is related to the ability to produce human-like speech sounds. [Full disclosure: I’m a biological anthropologist who specializes in evolutionary anatomy of the head and neck related to vocalization/speech]. The earliest work (by Philip Lieberman) that gained some notoriety for applying concepts of speech physiology and vocal tract anatomy to Neanderthals came out in 1968, 1971, And 1972, and Tracking Song was published in 1975. Lieberman’s basic idea was that a low, descended larynx allowed us, modern humans (but not Neanderthals, which are either a subspecies of our species or a separate species entirely), to pronounce certain sounds like the vowels in “see,” “saw,” and “sue.” These sounds are in 95% of the world‘s languages (and the “see” sound alone is in >99% of languages) and they maximize speech perception by differentiating and expanding one’s vocal repertoire. I only thought of all this after re-reading the story and listening to your initial podcast on Tracking Song, so I do need to go back and read the parts about speech and communication in the story to check if there is anything else to support this take. However, it would be interesting if Cutthroat’s larynx/vocal tract were modified to either make him “subhuman,” to facilitate the production of “animal-like” sounds, or to insert a language translator or something like that (that one‘s for you, Glen - is this another instance in Wolfe fiction of a Star Trek-like universal communicator?). (Depending on what you think the narrator is, I guess the surgery could also be taken As making a beast-man ”more” human by lowering the larynx - not my particular take, but intriguing). A while ago I posted something on this forum trying to trace Wolfe’s knowledge of anthropology/archaeology/human evolution (from Peace and some of the shorter stories), and I think this could be another example - the idea of a modified larynx maps onto what-was-then state-of-the-art scientific knowledge that Wolfe might have picked up as a scientifically-literate person. And it is really interesting that the original scientific context of this larynx/vocal tract difference was that Neanderthals had a diiferent configuration and therefore couldn’t fully produce modern human-like spoken language. In this context Neanderthals might be equivalent to the beast-men that are on their way to “becoming“ human. (I should also note here that views of Neanderthals have changed over time and the 1970’s view seems a little uncharitable in hindsight). Finally, your discussion at the end of the 2nd Keys to December Podcast about spoken language and the ability to communicate (to disagree or otherwise) being the Hallmark of humanity is spot-on, and was certainly a popular idea in the 1960’s/1970’s when Wolfe was writing. This idea has been challenged since then and it is clear that other animals (Birds, monkeys, apes, dolphins, elephants) possess elements of what were once considered unique aspects of language. I think Wolfe made this transition in some of his fiction, too, but whether it was a natural revolution in his own thinking or in dialogue with broader scientific thinking I can‘t say. For me, Wolfe’s exploration of the non-human/human divide (who should we consider to be “people”) is one of the most intriguing aspects of his work and informs some of his best stories, but especially Tracking Song. Thanks for producing such stimulating discussion in your podcast!

Robert McCarthy

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