Forum Posts

stephenfrug
Apr 20, 2022
In Gene Wolfe
I am continuing to enjoy, very much, your episodes on Peace. I think you are doing what may be the best first reading of Peace ever done. Unfortunately, Peace is to other Gene Wolfe books as Gene Wolfe books are to, well, ordinary books, in terms of the degree to which rereading unlocks its secrets. So I recommend doing, at some point, a (possibly brief) rereading series, in which you consider the five chapters again. Maybe just one episode per chapter, with a bonus reread wrap up... I know, I know. Well, when I ever hit the lottery (to which I don't buy tickets) or discover I am Warren Buffet's heir (despite not being any relation to him & not knowing him), or even just get a big-time movie deal for Happenstance, I'll commission 'em. If nothing else, you should find some way to deal with The Big Spoiler— the one that Brandon said he'd caught (I am guessing, even though he didn't name it). Maybe a section of one of the recap episodes that you could have first-time readers skip? In the meantime, I have three brief comments on chapter three: First, I disagree fairly strenuously with Glenn that Peace reads like a fix-up (to use that nettlesome term that has long outlived its welcome). I think the stories are so carefully thematically sculpted to relate to the narrative as a whole that it is simply hard to imagine that they were written separately. Yes, Wolfe did publish one of them in Gene Wolfe's Book of Days as "St. Brandon", but I think that seems clearly a retrospective excerpting. An aside: I think that you mentioned the excerpting of Peace as "St. Brandon" in GWBoD, but did you mention that Wolfe said in an interview (see Wright, Shadows of the New Sun, p. 98), that "the St Brendan’s story in Peace is my version of an R. A. Lafferty story"? It seems worth noting. Second, I know Brandon said he's supposed to be skipping the secondary literature until after finishing the book, but since he also admitted that he's not, I feel like I can share this non-spoilery tidbit from some bit of it (I believe from John Clute, although I don't have the reference & might be wrong): Clute (if it was he) noted that all of the stories in Peace are unfinished. Now, I'm not quite sure that's right; certainly some of them come to what seem a reasonable conclusion (the one about the porcelain pillow, for instance). But I thought of this because you noted that the main story in Chapter 3 sort of trailed off; it had an end, but it didn't resolve many of its plot threads. In that context it's worth noting just how many stories in Peace fail to end, and in how many different ways—the cut-off fairy tale in chapter one is only the most blatant fashion in which a story fails to conclude; there are others. Finally, Brandon noted (and Glenn agreed) that the chapter got more sinister as it went along. I'm not sure I agree; I think the entire book has been incredibly sinister alm0st from the get-go. I believe in my comments on Chapter Two I chided you for underestimating the sinister element, Obviously you have now keyed in to the sinister element, but look for it in your promised Chapter 1-3 reread as you gear up to Chapter 4. I think the entire bloody book (pun only partly intended) is sinister; it drips from almost every page, without every coalescing. I don't think I'd say that it increases at all in Chapter 3; I think it's just there, as it was through most of it. Take a look; I think maybe you'll see what I mean. I look forward to the Chapter 4 episodes, although I will probably hold off on listening to them until all the Chapter 4 episodes are posted—I think the Chapter 2 & 3 sets worked well as a batch, and so I'll do that again. (Anyway, since my comment on Chapter 2, to say nothing of my comment on the "Cues episode, is still under-appreciated (he whined), I'm sure you can all wait until then for me to share my thoughts. Grump, grump, grump.) In all seriousness, great series & I look forward to the next. But watch for the sinister!
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stephenfrug
Mar 20, 2022
In Gene Wolfe
?" No, it's not on the main GW feed, but the patron feed: but it's on a Wolfe story so this seemed the right forum to post this on. Anyway, the patron feed is full of great stuff so anyone who hasn't heard it, go toss Brandon & Glenn a few bucks and listen. All right, comments on the podcast: Comment on "Cues I will admit I liked this story much more than you both seemed to— I found it very funny, and very clever. You seemed to find it about as simple as "Car Sinister"; I thought it was richer than that, for all its brevity. But I'm glad you covered it! I would note a few things. First, you aren't quite clear that the bowling ball probably doesn't look like a bowling ball—not just to each other (you do note that) but to other humans: that is, presumably, the young man (not really so young any more)'s cue limitations kicking in. (We are told artists see spheres with stars. I wonder what the young woman thinking sexy saw?) Second, the "the traveling mountebank with his wand and coins and cups" is almost certainly a tarot reference. Of course Wolfe, author of the Rhysling-award winning poem "The Computer Iterates the Greater Trumps" (that'd be a great patrons-podcast episode, by the by), knows the tarot well. And of course wands, coins and cups are three of the four tarot suits ("coins" is sometimes called "pentacles", but "coins" is equally common)— the fourth, by the by, is "swords", and I think its omission is not accidental: presumably the not-so-young-any-more man's noticings are already being affected, and swords aren't as funny? I don't know for certain who the mountebank is supposed to be, but my guess would be the Magician (the Major Aracana numbered one, although in most decks these days the Fool is considered 0, so the Magician is the second card even though it's number one). I am not quite sure what to do with this reference (if anything), or what it's import is, but it's clearly there. Third, I'll note is that Robert Borski has an analysis of it which nearly ruined the story for me. I don't think he's right. But it's just convincing enough that it stick sin my mind. I'm glad you didn't mention it, I guess, except insofar as I was hoping you'd refute and/or heap scorn on it. (After getting this far I reread Marc Aramini's write-up, and see that he beat me to the Tarot allusion (unsurprisingly), and that he argues that the missing sword is the clue, and the bowling ball is the montebank. Unlike Borski's analysis, Aramini's is well worth reading. A final thing I'll note is how well the story fits with Wolfe's recurrent concerns about perception and its reliability. Wolfe, writer of elusive stories, puzzle stories, is very attuned to what we notice and what we don't, what cues we pick up. He plays with this a lot—his readers miss his cues, his protagonists miss cues, his readers miss his protagonists missing them, etc, etc. I've always liked this story. Thanks for covering it!
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stephenfrug
Mar 19, 2022
In Gene Wolfe
I've been saving up the episodes for each chapter until they're all up so I can binge them—I think they listen better that way—and I had, in fact, binged the Chapter 2 episodes fairly soon after they came out. But I have procrastinated on writing up my reactions until I just realized that if I don't post them soon I will have reached time to binge Chapter 3 without doing so, so I decided to get my act together. First I should say that I'd never read Peace before you started podcasting about it—it was one of the major gaps in my Wolfe reading—I had rather thought I'd read along, and indeed I listened to the Chapter 1 episodes without having read the rest. But by the time Chapter 2 came out I had read the rest of the book. (What can I say, I'm a binger by nature.) I won't put any spoilers in, but I should mention, perhaps, that I listened with that context. (Also, while I was very thrown by chapter one, as I'll discuss in a minute, I got more into the book as I went along and ended up liking it a lot.) I should say that I loved these episodes: it is a wonderful way to review the book (which I will probably reread once y'all are done, or perhaps right before I binge the summaries). You do a great job on the recaps & discussions (as always). I only have a few remarks. The first is that I don't think you quite did justice (again, I am just referring to the Chapter 2 episodes here: maybe you do in Chapter 3, I don't know) to how dark and strange the book is. Neil Gaiman says in his afterward that on his first reading of the book as a teenager he found it to be a "sweet, gentle, meandering reminiscence" Well, he got it the second time through, and Lord knows I was an idiot reader when I was 17-18, but I really can't quite see how you could read this book with any sort of attention and not get how disturbing it is. I grant you that this clarifies as the book goes along (I trust such vagaries don't count as a spoiler), but even through chapter two it seems to me pretty bloody obvious. I for one didn't take Olivia and Professor Peacock's jokes about killing each other to be just jokes, or at any rate not quite humorous ones. And while you two did talk about its darkness, you didn't highlight it as much as I did. By the way, speaking of Professor Peacock: what a great name! But I just looked it up, and the board game Clue come out in 1949 in America, i.e. long before the writing of this novel. Do we think it's a reference? It's not precisely a character name from that game, but it's a merging of two (Professor Plum and Mrs. Peacock), preserving the alliteration of the former. I kept thinking of it, anyway. Secondly, I was struck when Brandon (IMS) said twice— both in part six of the recap and right at the end of the last recap—that Wolfe was "still setting the table". I definitely felt that, at least in Chapter One, probably (I can't quite remember) through Chapter Two. This was, I think, the source of some of my bafflement and frustration I mentioned when I posted about the Chapter One episodes. I think it was only in Chapter Three that I realized (as I suppose you have by now) that there is only table setting in this novel. It's a very, very strange book—which, of course, heightens the sense of darkness and strangeness i mentioned before. You kept calling it a "memoir" in your discussion, but think about how weird it is considered as a memoir: what memoirist spends a quarter of their memoir talking about their aunt's suitors and one summer? But again, it's not a memoir: it's table setting, all the way through. And Wolfe relies upon the reader, utterly—far more, I think, than in any of the various Sun series or in Latro or in Fifth Head or anywhere that I (at least) have read save for some of his short stories—to provide the meal. He just lays the table. Thirdly, as a fellow historian (at least, a fellow holder of the union card) I appreciated Glenn's rebuttal of Blaine's claim that all history is biography. I agree with Glenn's refutation as far as it went (although his summary of what historians think about and ask—the details of which I didn't record in my notes & can't paraphrase precisely—struck me as too narrow. That is, indeed, one conception of what historians do! Maybe even the best one. But "historian" is both an open group and a contested term, and I think that some historians have thought of history in the various ways that Glenn said historians don't think of it. Which is just to say that I would probably accept Glenn's formulation as a prescriptive one, but I don't think it's right (save, perhaps, in overly-narrowly defined academic channels) as a descriptive one. But I digress. I'm not sure that Blaine, in saying this, meant to refer to the great man theory of history at all. After all, the context is him telling Weer what Weer's grandfather paid for his land—hardly the stuff of Napoleonic conquests. I at any rate read as a observation (still probably wrong and unquestionably debatable) that history is the sum of every human life. This, to me, sounds like the sort of thing that Wolfe would say in his own name, and that is how I took it—as a piece of truth that Blaine happened upon. Obviously one could still rebut it: history includes non-human things (environmental history, say), structural things (neither the history of the industrial revolution nor that of any corporate entity (say, the Catholic Church) will be seen in any individual life), etc. But I don't think Blaine is making quite the simplistic point you attributed to him. Finally, one of you (again, my notes didn't record which, sorry) talked about how remarkable Wolfe was for writing about a child and a child's perception in an adult novel, and asked rhetorically who else had done that. But a lot of people did! It seems to me, perhaps, a very nineteenth-century thing; at least the first two examples that came to mind — Henry James in What Maisie Knew and Dickens in a great many books (David Copperfield most obviously) — are from then, and perhaps it is less done now? Although Hemingway's short stories come to mind too, and some of Updike's. Anyway I don't think it is all that rare, certainly taking a broader view of fiction. Thank you for a great run. I look forward to binging Chapter Three: and I will try not to postpone my write-up so long next time!
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stephenfrug
May 30, 2021
In Gene Wolfe
Glenn & Brandon: could you give a bit more than just the page numbers, to guide those of us who are reading different editions? You could just quote a few words, something like: "next week we're reading from page X, that is, the section break where the next paragraph begins "And that is what I so often do," up through the page break on page Y, where the final words of the section are "if she was buried in them". Or some equivalent way to help those of us without that edition figure out the divisions. (If you don't want to say them on air (or on internet wire? (is it on air if there's no broadcast?)), you could just put up a chart somewhere here.
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stephenfrug
May 30, 2021
In Gene Wolfe
At last we are on Peace!* I, like Brandon, have never read Peace before—something I have thought of as the biggest gap in my Wolfe knowledge for some time, which is one reason I've been eager to get to it. I had actually planned to read the entire thing and make this my reread, but gang aft agley, as Brandon quoted in one of the episodes. That said, I may use the June break to press on and read the entire thing, circle back, and reread. Because so far this novel strikes me as what a Bostonian might call "wicked Wolfe", using the definition I once heard of "wicked" in a Boston accent from a local comedian: wicked is anything raised to the 10th power (wicked good, wicked big, etc). This is wicked Wolfe. What I mean is that most Wolfe works give you a first-read plot to follow. The first chapter (or, since they're shorter, the first 1/5 of) Book of the New Sun gives you a lot of sheer narrative pleasure; so does the opening of Fifth Head of Cerberus, Long Sun, Short Sun, and all the rest of the ones I have read. This one is just... weird. I mean, it's good weird: there are so many fabulous bits (the Christmas scene! The Banshee story! The imagined SF races! The mansion with the museum rooms!) that it's a pleasure to read. But it's a confusing pleasure. I have no idea where he's going. Now, we expect Wolfe to pull the rug out from under us, so we think we know where he's going but it turns out we're wrong: but having the rug there, the false notion of what's going on, is actually important for the first read. Here, Wolfe has given us no rug at all. (I take it this is more or less the same point that Daniel Falch was making in the last day or two.) So I feel even more at sea than usual with Wolfe. Which means that I have almost nothing to offer of my own. I liked a lot of what Glenn & Brandon had to say about the chapter—as usual, their close reading skills are superb, marred only but the occasional flight of what I have to suspect is overreading—but I don't really know if I think they're right, because I have nothing to fit it into. Honestly, the single most grounding thing about the novel is the one spoiler that Glenn said he told Brandon, and that it seems almost everybody knows before they read it, but which I won't mention uncoded just in case anyone here has not heard it (rot13: Jrre vf qrnq.) It is, so far, fundamentally stranger than any Wolfe book I've read before—and that's saying something! But it makes it hard to talk, or think, about. All that said, a few crumbs I would offer: • G & B were talking about how the tree woke up Weer (in the context of the hammering of the pegs in the coffin waking up Hannah), and that made me wonder whether Wolfe is making some sort of "if a tree falls by a house and no one is awake to hear it, does it make a noise?" joke here. • I was impressed by Glenn's detective work in noting that Ludwig's Napoleon came out in 1926 and the novel therefore had to be set such that Weer was 5 or 6 around then... but I was not convinced, because all we have on it is that "I knew the cause, having read it a year or so before—I believe in Ludwig’s biography of him." Which is to say, this is something which Weer says he believes he got from there, and is a fact which Ludwig doesn't mention, and which is wrong anyway. So it could very easily be that Weer is misremembering that he had just read Ludwig, and in fact it wasn't published yet when he said this. (After all, he didn't get this pseudo fact from there, which points out that he might be wrong!) So while this evidence is not useless, I would take it pretty lightly without other confirmation, and would have no problems setting it aside if there is evidence for another (probably earlier) date. • Finally, regarding this passage—just one of the amazing passages that are all over this chapter, often in asides (as this is) or metaphors or tossed off, that make the entire thing wonderful even if it is fundamentally deeply confusing—which Glenn & Brandon read in the Discussion episode: ...and it may have been magic, for I believe America is the land of magic, and that we, we now past Americans, were once the magical people of it, waiting now to stand to some unguessable generation of the future as the nameless pre-Mycenaean tribes did to the Greeks, ready, at a word, each of us now, to flit piping through groves ungrown, our women ready to haunt as lamioe the rose-red ruins of Chicago and Indianapolis when they are little more than earthen mounds, when the heads of the trees are higher than the hundred-and-twenty-fifth floor... G&B point out, correctly, that this is a marvelous image, with some future people thinking of us in this way, and with it interacting with our knowing that we are not this way. But they don't point out that this is also how we remember the Native Americans (and, even more so, how people remembered them in the 1970s): and that like the future people being wrong about us, we were wrong about the Native Americans, as magical lamioes piping through woods. And perhaps Wolfe is pointing out by analogy that, just as we know that the imagined future will be wrong in thinking this of us, we ought to know that we are wrong thinking it of Native Americans. After all, whose civilization is now (in many places, not all obviously) "little more than earthen mounds"? The very word "mound" makes me think of the mound builders. On this reading, Wolfe mentions the pre-Mycenaean Greeks as a distraction, to get us from seeing the most obvious (and thus intended) parallel: the pre-American Americans. But is Wolfe doing this? There are certainly a lot of Native Americans lurking on the edges of this story (the adult games at the party, the people Hannah goes to meet, etc). But again, I am so at sea that I don't really know how much to make of this— or of any of the fabulous readings that G & B have to offer. Peace is fabulous — well written, mysterious, filled with little gems of story and language. But I have no fucking idea where Wolfe is going, and don't even have a false guess to guide myself by. I am as at sea in this text as Weer is in his huge, forgotten mansion and his seemingly-unwilled jumping about in his memories. I can't wait (and may not wait!) for Chapter 2. PS: I forgot that I wanted to say, as someone who heard both the Operation Ares and The Fifth Head of Cerberus episodes, that I really like the new(ish) format of breaking up the recaps if need be, but saving the discussion until the end of the chapter. I think that that nails it! ________________________________ * I have thus far missed "Silhouette", "Thag" and "Tracking Song", which I definitely want to get to, especially that last. But when I sat down to catch up a bit, I decided that I'd rather go with Peace for now, so as to stay on top of it. I will definitely get back to those three eventually.
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stephenfrug
Dec 13, 2020
In Gene Wolfe
Really interesting discussion of a really interesting story — one which, while being very Wolfe-ish and, as you noted, quite well structured in its world-building, is unusually puzzle-free (unless I am missing something, although it seems like you two agreed, as did Marc Aramini in his write-up (which, by the by, includes a handy reconstruction of what he thinks the other side of the conversation is.)) I do, however, want to disagree with Brandon's reading, or at any rate his retelling, of the story as presented in the recap. Some of these may have been slips of the tongue; but in a few cases I think there's some misinterpretation. Not trying to give you a hard time or anything! But I thought it was worth spelling these out: Contra Brandon, it wasn't the speaker who wanted to talk about weapons and not morality; he says explicitly: " “We were talking about morality, and I feel that is a more fruitful and interesting subject; but I can tell you very briefly how we constructed our weapons, if you want— provided you understand that we are going to return to the moral question afterward." This is important, I think, because it highlights and instantiates the degree to which (as he also states explicitly) that this speaker feels no shame; he is proud of what he did. He insists on talking about morality! He is quick to say that he "feel[s] no need whatsoever to justify myself"; this is not guilt. He simply wants to communicate "the imperatives of the situation." Brandon says a few moments were the result of training which I think were clearly intended to be the result of combat. The cutting of the shirts, for instance, does not happen in training (again, possibly a slip of the tongue). Its role in the combat is suggested by the speaker's noting that " the braver someone was, the more torn up their shirts got". (Note also the speaker's pride when he notes that his own shirt—which was made into the flag—was entirely intact... in the back. i.e. he never turned around and ran.) Similarly, what Brandon calls the "sexual component" takes place not during training but during actual combat, and is fairly explicitly meant to be rape. Nor did the yellows discourage this, nor did the blues/greens flee to the yellows to escape it. Rather, the yellows committed the rapes, and it was the raped blues and greens who (although he says he didn't think they liked being raped), " Still, they were the ones, mostly, who wanted to join us." They weren't joining to escape rape, but because they had been spiritually crushed by it. (Arguably very disturbing from a feminist pov, but put that aside.) Similarly (and again, probably a slip of the tongue), it wasn't that some women and some men didn't want to fight; it was that some women didn't want to fight, and some men didn't want the women to fight. (“Some of the women didn’t want to, of course. And some of the men didn’t want to have them do it, either.") Overall, the story is far, far more brutal than Brandon's recounting suggested: the protagonist's army is fighting a lot, and is raping, and is proud of it. (The story is also, arguably, rather sexist.) It's less clear to me than the above, but one implication that I think was missed is that the narrator speculates that "They were monitoring a few selected individuals, I suppose, though we didn’t know it. She must have been one of them." is because they had killed so many others, in battle. Now we don't know if that's right, or if the timing was a coincidence, or what the experimenters were thinking — since we don't get their side of the conversation, we can imagine that perhaps this is in a horrific world in which they are trying to figure out how to martial murderous authority, and maybe they're even glad he feels no shame! Again, we just don't know. But I do think the import of the line about only monitoring a few individuals is to clarify that she was not the first one killed, not by a long shot. It's interesting thinking about what inspired this story. Your context of the Milgrim experiments (those were the shock ones, from 1961, about a decade before the Stanford Prison experiments) and the Stanford Prison Experiment too is definitely part of this. There were other experiments along those lines, too. There were the experiments done by Jane Elliott in the late 60s dividing her class into blue & brown eyed students, which provoked prejudice; that got a lot of attention too, I believe. There's also the earlier Robbers Cave Experiment which divided pre-teen boys into two groups at random & had hostility spring up. (By the way, one of the best recent novels I've read, Richard Powers's The Overstory—an environmentalist novel with a heavy focus on trees—has as one of maybe eight or ten protagonists one of the subjects of the Stanford experiments (fictional, of course). Just another example of its use in fiction, which I mention largely to plug this really awesome book.) It's worth mentioning that the Milgrim and Stanford experiments can't be replicated partly because, in the wake of those experiments, increased controls on and ethical limits for experiments using human subjects were put in place. They're a part of why such guidelines were implemented (along with others, such as the Tuskegee experiments). I also thought your speculation on the Cultural Revolution was interesting. One thing I don't know, however, is how much was known in the U.S. about the Cultural Revolution by 1975— remember Nixon had just opened China, and that was pretty ceremonial. Of course, if your thinking about dehumanization of Asians, and wondering how good people get turned into murderers, there is a closer example to hand in America's conduct in Vietnam, in particular the My Lai massacre, which was a few years before this story. (The My Lai massacre was hardly alone, as was made clear at the Winter Soldier hearings in 1970-1971 and elsewhere — see Nick Turse's book Kill Anything That Moves for a historical take on this — but of course it was the most famous example, and a lot of Americans thought of it as exceptional.) I don't know what Wolfe's attitude towards Vietnam was (nor Korea, for that matter), so I don't know if this was in his mind, but the timing fits. I second the recommendation for Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men, one of the best history books on the holocaust that I know of (focusing on the perpetrators, not the victims, of course), and a really haunting read. Oh, and it's interesting about the Klingons being based on the Asian Peril. I had always taken them as the stand-in for the Soviets (the main enemy), with the Romulans (mysterious, closed society) as the Chinese. This is a really good story! I'm glad you guys covered it.
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stephenfrug
Dec 11, 2020
In Gene Wolfe
I really loved these episodes, although in the end my approach to the story was as different from either of yours as yours were from each other: which is to say, different in details, but perhaps similar on the broad outline. First things first: obviously this is a story about the corporate world, about living this sort of life, just as Wolfe says in his afterwards. "Kafkaesque", which Glenn used, is right, not only because of bureaucracy-as-nightmare aspects, but also because it has humor mixed in with the nightmare, as well as a big dose of surrealism. So about the themes, the phenomenology (as Brendan (I think it was?) put it)— all that, I completely agree. Where I disagree, I think, is in the puzzles/what's really happening aspect. To take the puzzles first. I think this is a Wolfe story that, more than any he ever wrote, is not about the puzzles. This is a story about the themes. If you try and solve the puzzles — and I think you fell into this trap a bit, with the 12 afterlives from the red book (I'll get to my reading of that in a minute) or pairing up the 9 answers in the final line with the types of explainers (an approach that Glenn torpedoed right before you did it by pointing out the reversed order: I would argue that that might well be Wolfe specifically eliminating the sort of reading you did, by showing the order was not stable & couldn't be matched!) — then you miss the point. This is about the themes, the experience, the social critique. It's a very funny story in many places. And it's a nightmare, and one that, as you point out, Wolfe lives. That's what the story means. Ok. But what's really happening? I will admit I came in with a pretty firm interpretation (which I heard before, after I read it for the first time), and heard nothing, nor saw anything in my reread of the story, to change my mind; but perhaps I was overly closed minded. Still, here is the reading, which is not mine, but from my friend Eric Van, who I believe used to be on the Wolfe forums sometimes back in the day. The reading is that the story is literally and purposefully ambiguous. There are three options — the three options listed at the end by the explainer: “You may have been oppressed by demons,” the small man said. “Or revived by unseen aliens who, landing on the Earth eons after the death of the last man, have sought to re-create the life of the twentieth century. Or it may be that there is a small pressure, exerted by a tumor in your brain.” Of course there are others, as he said. But the point is the story fits with all of them. Which means that the story can be read fully as fantasy, SF or mainstream, depending on what you pick; the story is, again, undecided and undecidable between the three. One of the reasons I like this reading is that it forces you back into the themes. Forlesen is having this experience, one which captures (in a clearer air, as GW says) the experience of many people in the working world. Whether it is caused by demons or aliens or tumors isn't the point: the point is the nightmarish, hilarious, hellish experience that mirrors what so many of us go through. (Wolfe expresses the sympathy he so obviously feels—in the story from the inside here, I think, already from the outside: this was written before he became a full-time professional writer, but I get the impression he liked the job editing Plant Management—in The Castle of the Otter, where he says "Jack Woodford notes that what most people who say they want to write really want is to quit work... I have more than a little sympathy for the people who feel that way—an appalling number of jobs absolutely stink; I am fortunate in that I have fallen into one of the few good ones.") Most of the puzzles, I think, are explicable in purely thematic terms. Why is the cop a robot? Because the cops are part of the machine that makes this society run. Why do all the EFs look alike? Because they're all the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Why do mirrors not work? Because this is a society that doesn't let us see ourselves, any more than it lets us be creative or curious. Why does Forlesen remember nothing but his name? Because our ignorance of the past, our lack of ability to remember, is what got us here — as a society, and as individuals (we forget who we are). Why do they get Forlesen's name wrong? It's pure satire of a technological society. It's always about the themes. (You covered a lot of this ground in the show.) What's up with Abraham Beale? He is how we got here, in mythical form: we came from the farm, did lots of things, but came to the city—in part because society and government forced us (took our farms)— and now are adrift. He's not a symbol of Christ, but a mythic version of the American past. So what's up with the religious book and the twelve afterlives? I think the book represents all religion: in the corporate world of the 70s & before, it is there, but it is hard to find: it's buried under the technical manuals of the society, and really, you don't have time to read it, you need to read the manuals & get to work! And as such, it outlines what could be seen as a survey of all the different sorts of things that various faiths or philosophies have taught happen to people after they die: they are reincarnated, they live the same lives again, nothing ("sleep"), they become ghosts, etc. This also explains why heaven (garden) and hell (torment) are a single option: because they tend to go together in (e.g.) Christian belief. These are twelve views of the afterlife; but who has time for those? What's up with the types of explainers? They are the types of people that people look to for meaning. Actors are there because some people really would go to Tom Cruise (God help us). And what do the answers at the end mean? They mean exactly what they sound like. Who knows if this has meaning. Yes, no, and maybe. Any puzzle interpretation lessens them, in my view. I often wonder if any type of suffering I, or others, endure means anything; and I often think that the only answer there is is "No… Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe." Again, I loved the episodes, and you did a really great job of touring the themes — which, as I said, and as you both said, is what matters. For what it's worth, this is what I think we know about what "happens": we explicitly and deliberately can't say. I have some other thoughts on specific things you said, more minor details of the story, but for now I'll stop here. That's the big picture, as I see it. God I love this story. One of Wolfe's very, very best, in my view.
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stephenfrug
Nov 22, 2020
In Gene Wolfe
Despite the pandemic & its habit-altering ways, I found time to sneak in a few podcasts, and listened to these. God it's great to hear your voices again! My favorite observation was the idea that this was a 'man against nature' story. This, to me, captured the surface moral approach of the story: it reads, at least initially, as if Wolfe took a deliberately detached view: people (the now-masters) did such-and-such, and this was the response. Neither the original action (which is essentially, as Marc Aramini says, eugenics) nor the response (killing people) is a good one, but Wolfe's tone seems oddly non-judgmental, particularly about the latter. I think it falls into the category of: if you give people only bad choices, they'll take bad choices. Yet there is judgement here, and I think it's against the masters, and for Paul. To be sure, Paul is a murderer; but it feels as if Wolfe gives him a pass for having no choice. You say at one point in the discussion that the humans seem to like killing for food, but I don't see that, at least not as the main motive: it's not clear to me that there's much other choice—life in the rural areas is unsustainable; in the city is only genetically altered organisms (the policeman & the trees are all we hear of that aren't masters—so liking it seems to me to be a case of making a virtue out of a necessity. So I think Wolfe's detachment is that of recognizing the necessity, and giving Paul a pass for it — in a fallen world, he might be saying, one must do bad things if put in a bad situation. So why is Paul still good? In a word, love. The name, I contend, is more than simply a version of the french Loup (although yes, that too: Wolfe creates polyvalent stories, after all!). It's also a reference to Paul. But not his life, necessarily (maybe that too, I'm not fresh enough on the New Testament to say), but his theol0gy. One of Paul's most famous lines, surely, is "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." I think that's why he's Paul: to remind the reader that the greatest is love. Which Paul has. You mention several of these signs in the story: the masters are pointedly not-married, and seem to show little signs of loving. Emmitt says that "even a bad man can love his child": which is to say, love can redeem even a bad man. And Paul does love — in particular, he loves Janie (and vice-versa, as her tears indicate). Indeed, his love for her sets him apart in particular from the masters: they were created by eugenics. But Paul loves someone who a eugenicist would dismiss — Janie can't speak. Marc Aramini, in his write-up, quotes an interview with Wolfe: "I was trying to get the reader to think about the real nature of love between man and woman. In the first place, the girl in “The Hero as Werewolf” is retarded and cannot speak. And, secondly, in the end she has to damage very badly the man she loves in order to set him free. I think I was trying to say, first, that you must not think that the person you love has to be a whole lot like you in order for that love to be real and working. And second, that we all, if we are going to be honest, have to hurt people in order to do them good. We have to tear away parts of them in order to do them good." The have-to-cause-pain-to-help is a familiar and important theme in Wolfe's theology, one we have seen many times, and one he expresses explicitly in nonfiction (the stand-out instance being his discussion of Christ as a torturer, and his various theodic justifications for pain, in The Castle of the Otter). But the other note is key here: Janie is retarded and can't speak. Paul loves her anyway. His love for her, and hers for him, redeems them both, and sets them apart from the foul genetic supremicism of the masters. Paul is a hero, not because he goes on a hero's journey, but because in the bleakest of worlds, in which he is cast, he is able to maintain the ability to love. Despite being, not a werewolf, but a werwolf: a man to be feared as a wolf is. Two minor points: I definitely read the policeman as a genetically engineered dog, as Glenn did. I read the "ghost houses" not as intentional traps, but as houses that Paul gets trapped in that he thinks are traps. They are, in fact, just abandoned houses, with complex electoral systems that Paul is unable to work, not having the knowledge or training. Why are they abandoned? For that, I'll take the "they're leaving for the moon" theory, which I hadn't thought of but seems to fit very well. It was great to start to catch up. Hopefully I'll find time to reread & listen to "Forlesen" before the end of the year. Stay safe, everyone.
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stephenfrug
Jan 29, 2020
In Gene Wolfe
I feel like I have been negligent in posting my thoughts on "The Death of Dr. Island" — largely because I don't feel like I had that much to say beyond the fact that I really enjoyed rereading the story, and listening to your discussion of it. But never having let "nothing to say" stop me before—— The idea that you floated that most struck me was the idea that Dr. Island was an anti-Eden: an Eden with a snake but no fruit (as we see in the story). Ignacio is an anti-Christ, as you pointed out; but is he also an anti-Adam, who instead of mating with Eve and creating the human race, murdered her, and will (perhaps, at a stretch, although it seems in character) somehow end it? And does Dr. Island's nature as an anti-Eden mean (and did you say and I simply forgot that you did) that the sin in the story is not the sin of disobedience, but the sin of obedience: to Dr. Island, in some sense, but more broadly, to society — a society which (if we take Dr. Island as its representative, as it claims to be) is evil and utilitarian and interested only in functioning, not souls? You often talk about Nicholas as being changed, transformed, etc, and discussing whether the change was good or bad (and for whom). But I took somewhat more literally the claim in the story that Nicholas and Kenneth were different people. Thus Nicholas was not (as you phrased it) changed into Kenneth, but killed to let the latter live. This, too, was a death of Dr. Island: the death of one (Nicholas) to help another (Kenneth). (It's not quite true to say you missed this — you also spoke this way — but you went back and forth; I would have hewed more strictly to the two-different-people line. It's not like having two people in one head is an unusual feature in a Wolfe story!) The aspect of the story that I was most interested in that you didn't dwell on are the parallels/inversions with "The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories". You quoted the bit of that interview which is also quoted on WolfeWiki and by Aramini — "I had had a very nice sort of little boy; I would have a very nasty sort: thus Tackie/Nicholas. I had had a doctor who looked like a villain; I would have one who was one but looked real good: thus Dr. Death/Dr. Island. I had a real, somewhat gritty island on the Atlantic coast; I would have an artificial island on an artificial world; thus Settler's Island/Dr. Island. And so on and so forth." — but I have never seen much more on the "so on and so forth". Marc Aramini, IIRC, mentions that whereas the first story deals in quotes from imaginary pulp stories, this novella contains many quotes from real, high-literature poems. The one other that occurs to me is that the first story is about characters escaping from a fiction into the real world; perhaps "The Death of Dr. Island" can be seen as characters from the real world (not ours, but a fictional one) put into something that is, basically, a sort of fiction: a fantastic, unreal space in which they are as out of place as Dr. Death and the others are in the world of "The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories". But I suspect there are more; and I think it would help our interpretation if we could think about them. A few smaller points: • Glenn did a marvelous retelling of Prometheus, drawing out the parallels between him and Christ; but in his version, at least, I also heard the story of Adam: like Adam, Prometheus disobeys the ruler of heaven, and gets knowledge that he/humanity was not meant to have; and is punished by pain and death. (Not sure where to go with it, but I had never thought of it before, so I thought I'd point it out.) • Glenn quoted the line in the story about how "those who prayed were usually more interesting companions than those who did not", and said, laughingly, that he thought it was Wolfe's view. I agree; but I don't think that fact reflects well on GW. It is the precise parallel to the all-too-common atheist boast that atheists are smarter than believers. Wolfe's version is a generalization that believers are tempted to (believers are deeper, more interesting) just as atheists are tempted towards their own arrogation (atheists are smarter); but both are bad temptations that ought to be avoided. Both are false (equally so), but more, both are poorly-observed, shallow, self-congratulatory, and self-refuting. Wolfe perhaps believed it; but so much the worse for Wolfe — and for his readers. • You mention the therapy robot, and its being a symbol for robots taking human roles, and alienation, and so forth. I wonder if it is also a reference to that famous experiment, showing that when therapy patients (who lay down, and couldn't see their therapist) spoke to a tape recorder, they did about as well as those in the control group who spoke to actual therapists did? Great story; and great discussion. I look forward to listening to "Forlesen" once they're all out!
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stephenfrug
Dec 08, 2019
In Neil Gaiman
Another fun episode. I don't see, however, why Brent claimed it was not a Sandman story. Having Sandman stories in which another character is the protagonist is extremely common in the series. If I recall correctly, there are issues (in A Game of You, I think) where he doesn't appear at all. Sure, in this case, it's a John Constantine story too, and hence (I suppose) a Hellblazer comic. But it's a Sandman comic. I do think that Gaiman's self-assessment that he doesn't quite hit his stride until issue #8 is right, and this issue, while fine, is just fine. It's not one I'd hand to someone who's never read one and say, "read this". (Actually, I'd hand that person volume 2, The Doll's House.) A few good details you either didn't mention or didn't emphasize: - Mad Hettie's somehow knowing he's back, and Constantine's off-hand line "the funny thing is she is two-hundred and forty-seven years old". - The meta-textual call-out when Constantine remembers horror movies where people split up, and asks, "we're going to stick together, right?" - You mention his being caught by Dream, but not the fabulous streaking lines as if Dream had to rush down through the dream sky to catch him: he didn't just reach into the dream, he flew in it. - "It's never only a dream, John Constantine" — a recurring line (also: "of course it's a dream", a variant with (oddly) almost the same meaning), which occurs here, I think, for the first time in the series. - How well the artist does at removing any hint of sexuality or the male gaze from the naked Rachel - Dreams callousness: I don't think he's being robotic, as Glenn said: he's unfeeling, which is not quite the same thing. Remember he has lived for eons, and people live and die. It's just... normal for him. (Until and unless it isn't.) He never intervenes when most people suffer; and he (in a fashion) makes people suffer, with nightmares ("I am far more terrible than you, my sister" he'll say in issue #8). - But Constantine actually shouts: incredibly brave, now that he knows who Dream is, and something of his power; but Dream is, I think, in his debt, and thus does this (call it a "boon", perhaps) - And because of that dream not only gives her a dream. but covers her: part of the favor he does JC, treating her not only kindly, but with dignity - JC's reply to where Dream is going: "Aren't we all, mate?" Not realizing, I guess, that what Dream said was meant literally. - Still no Brent bio on the about page. The peasants are getting restless.
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stephenfrug
Oct 30, 2019
In Neil Gaiman
You're aways away from there, I know, but given how ahead of time you record you may not be as far as I think. So I wanted to flag this little essay I wrote about (one page) of the issue. I'm pretty happy with how it came out. http://stephenfrug.blogspot.com/2007/05/100-great-pages-neil-gaiman-charles.html Just in case you find it thought-provoking for your discussion.
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stephenfrug
Oct 30, 2019
In Neil Gaiman
Fun episode! I thought that, in contrast to the first (where the second half of the issue was quite rushed) it was very balanced and a great discussion throughout. My favorite parts were the antiquity geekery, of course. I knew that the gates of horn & ivory were Greek, but didn't remember where they came from (although I've read the Odyssey). Fun stuff. Some other thoughts: • Brent (I believe it was) pointed out the purple & yellow coloring on the page when Dream is in bed in a rather crucifix-like pose, noting that they are Easter colors. In the color-corrected absolute, however, they don't look purple and yellow — they look a lot more natural. I don't know if they changed their mind or if they never meant it to be that way, but they changed it. Doesn't invalidate the reading in the version those colors were in, but worth noting. • I am curious how much Alan Moore's interpretation of Cain & Abel — which Gaiman draws on enormously, including the regular murders, etc — was in the previous "House of Mystery" (& Secrets) issues, never having seen the latter. (In general, early Sandman reads in a lot of ways as a spin-off of Swamp-Thing — Cain and Abel, John Constantine dropping in, cameos from the Justice League, etc. This will change over time, of course.) • Glenn mentioned his favorite panel on p. 11, but I admire above all the page as an artistic whole: what a marvelous layout, conveying the dream-journeying in such a vivid way, embodied in the very structure of the page. • You don't mention it, but the three-who-are-one switch places on two of the pages they are focused on. I seem to recall Gaiman describing this, in an interview, as each of them rotating to become the others in turn, i.e. transformation, not shifting places. Not clear from the art, but it's a cool idea. • In your mention of syncretism, Glenn describes the Furies, Fates, Graces, etc, as different names for the three-in-one. I think it goes beyond that: I think they are different aspects of them. That they are multi-faceted, and that different names capture different sides — different "points of view" (as Abel describes what died when Morpheus, but not Dream, dies, towards the end of the series). • You both said that Dream did badly in asking his questions. I disagree. He asked in an ordinary way, and they answered as slipperarily as they could each question. Each time he tried to learn, and phrased the next one differently; they continued to evade him. They weren't being all that helpful. • You said (IIRC) that the final two panels ended on a creepy or horrific note. I think it's heartbreaking. A person so broken down that the fact that they're bleeding is not so bad. I guess what I'm saying is, "I'm not bleeding, you're bleeding", or something. A very powerful pair of panels. Looking forward to #3!
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stephenfrug
Oct 08, 2019
In Neil Gaiman
Sigh. Y'all weren't taking up enough of my reading & listening time with Wolfe? Needed to snatch some more? I kid, I kid. I saw this forthcoming on your patreon feed (while not being a sufficiently munificent donor to get the early access to it) and am delighted to get to hear it. It's a lot of fun! I love Gaiman, although I don't think he is quite in a class with Wolfe — certainly not in the infinite depth of his stories. But I do love this series & am delighted to read along. Brent mentions briefly that this was a horror comic, and you both mention that this is a horror story, but I think you undersold the degree to which this was promoted as a horror comic. (One of the earliest posters for it had as its tagline a bit from T. S. Eliot, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust", with (IMS) a picture of Dream holding sand on it.) One of the meta-stories of Sandman is how it began as a horror comic and then morphed; you can't quite capture that, and how startling it was (thus magnifying the effect it had on comics more broadly) without pointing out that beginning. Incidentally, in his afterwards to Prelude and Nocturnes, Gaiman talks about the first issues as a deliberate tour of the horror story: There was a definite effort on my part, in the stories in this volume, to explore the genres available: "The Sleep of the Just" was intended to be a classical English horror story; "Imperfect Hosts" plays with some of the conventions of the old DC and E.C. horror comics (and the hosts thereof); "Dream a Little Dream of Me" is a slightly more contemporary British horror story; "A Hope in Hell" harks back to the kind of dark fantasy found in Unknown in the 1940s; "Passengers" was my (perhaps misguided) attempt to try to mix superheroes into the SANDMAN world; "24 Hours" is an essay on stories and authors, and also one of the very few genuinely horrific tales I've written; "Sound and Fury" wrapped up the storyline, and "The Sound of Her Wings" was the epilogue and the first story in the sequence I felt was truly mine, and in which I knew I was beginning to find my own voice. So Gaiman was clearly quite self-conscious about its being a horror comic — with issue 8 being, in many ways, the first serious step away from that. Overall, I liked the episode a lot, but I thought it seemed unevenly paced — extra slow at the beginning and then rushing past cool details at the end. Here are some neat things you left out that I thought I'd just touch on: • The bottom of page 24, where Alex just reads one page — that with the picture of Dream — over and over; • the art on that same page in the middle panel of the third tier, where we see Alex only as a silhouette, and from the interior POV of the slashed painting; • The top tier of p. 25, where we see, in the art, the visibly aging Alex, with the visibly aging henchmen behind him, including one ending up in a wheelchair, and the implication of the continuing monologue (great dialogue there), with him getting angrier & more threatening as he gets older; • The hilarious silly henchmen reading the paper, talking about page 3, dreaming of a vacation; • Dream's hand reaching into the frame from the bottom of the page on p. 27; • More comedy: the dialogue in the dream that Dream raids for food, "that's the first time a naked man ever turned up to raid the buffet"; • The art on p. 33, with three zooms, one away from Ellie, the other two both in. • The amazing dream sequence on the bottom of page 34, where Gaiman really caputres the feel of dreams, and you see Alex as he follows the cat through a weird, dream-logic version of his mansion, de-aging in reverse of the aging (from p. 25, above, and from the story in general), until he is the boy we first met; • "Cat got your tongue?" • The stars in the hole in the wall (on p. 37), mirroring Dream's eyes, particularly as described several times in the issue; • The extraordinary familiarity and horror of the nightmare on pp. 38-39, and the way that each page reproduces for the reader the experience of Alex: you think that each page is the "real world", only to find it isn't. Great stuff in this issue. And this is before it really gets good! A few miscellaneous thoughts: • I hope you'll talk, at some point, about the switches in artists: which begin as unintentional swapping around (Sam Keith felt like "Jimi Hendrix in the Beatles" and left after issue 3), but then eventually starts to match the artist to the story & storyline in really interesting ways, making conscious use of the changes in story styles. • You didn't say which edition you are using, but while listening I opened up both my old paperback of Preludes and Noctures and my copy of The Absolute Sandman, Volume 1, and boy is the latter different. It's recolored (I don't know that this is true in the other Absolutes, but it was a selling point for volume 1), and you can really, really tell. For the most part, I think it looks a lot better. (Compare, for instance, p. 19 — very different.) If you haven't seen it, and get a chance, check it out. • You may be technically right that the title of the series is The Sandman — it's on at least some of the covers — but boy it sounds weird. Most people seem to refer to it as just "Sandman". [/Jack Black in High Fidelity impression] • Given your other podcast, you can't skip Gene Wolfe's introduction to the trade volume Fables and Reflections; it's great. • Brent Helt needs to be added to your 'about' page! The masses demand a bio!!
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stephenfrug
Oct 06, 2019
In Gene Wolfe
I must admit this story puzzles me. First, I should say, I just didn't like the story that much (which I had never read prior to reading it for your podcast, and have now read twice). I didn't hate it; it just didn't stand out for me much, unlike several dozen Wolfe stories I could name. I certainly don't see why it would end up in a Best of Gene Wolfe collection. So maybe I am just not sympathetic enough to read it. I liked your discussion a lot — the hinge between the 60s and 70s is of deep fascination to me, and I liked the idea that this story was prescient about it. That said, I found myself wondering how much of that was in the story, and how much we see in the story because we've lived the past few decades (the story takes place about halfway between the time it was written & now). The critiques of business methods and business culture are there, to be sure. But other things — the switch of the American economy from a manufacturing to a finance focus, the absorption of the counter-culture by commercial forces, etc — I don't see in there. (FWIW, I don't see it as cyberpunk, either. Sure, the corporate-controlled dystopia was part of that aesthetic. But I don't think the focus on the digital world was as marginal to it as you implied. Further, several other very crucial parts of the cyberpunk aesthetic — the idea that technology does not always operate as intended, that "the street finds its own uses for technology" (in William Gibson's famous phrase), the idea of the human changing (in ways rare in, say, Campbellian-SF), etc — are all missing. It doesn't feel like a cyberpunk story, to me.) The biggest question for me is the story's politics. If your reading is right, then it sounds like a very leftist story to me — worlds away from the right-wing politics we've seen in Operation Ares and "Paul's Treehouse" and many other stories. I think I read it, however, as more condemning of both sides, rather than making the corporations out to be the bad guys as opposed to the harries. I think the harries come across as awful — wasteful, unorganized, without any coherent ideology or plan or anything, just a mass of craziness. I think that Wolfe dislikes them as much as the corporate culture. In which case this story is of breakdown — much more in line with the earlier stories, at any rate. But I feel less sure here than about other works you've read. There are, of course, ways from conservative thought to an anti-corporate critique. But those ways of thinking were very much not part of conservative thought around 1972. Traditionally, there has been a strain in conservative thought which is suspicious of big corporations, but the mainstream of conservative thought from the mid-50s up until, well, Trump (and in a great many ways through Trump) has been what's called fusionism: the fusion of three strands: religious/social conservatism, anti-communism and free market thinking. Thus Milton Friedman, although he was one of those three, was very much part of & embraced by the conservative movement. So was Wolfe that suspicious of him? I don't know. But given Wolfe, I think another possibility is that we're simply reading the story wrong. I think that the bit with the three characters bursting into flame (or the women bursting into flame & the man exploding) may be key, and I don't think I'm persuaded by your reading that it is simply symbolic/religious/mystical. Wolfe does that sort of thing, of course, but I'm not seeing any sign of it here. And he usually writes his stories to make solid SF/engineering sense, too. In which case perhaps it's a bomb. Marc Aramini reads this as the idealists killing Peters just as he was on the verge, perhaps, of doing something idealistic, making things better: which fits with my more 'damn-both-sides' reading. I took "Hour of Trust" to be a reference to the bit in the middle of the story when Lewis, admitting that he is seeking credit, says "Credit, as you know, is a matter of confidence, of trust." So this is the hour of credit — of seeking credit, anyway. I think it might also relate to the various types of trust of the harries — faith in human potential, faith in God — although that is a type of trust that reads to me as rather bitterly satirical. (Wolfe does not hesitate to satirize Christianity when it suits his stories, of course.) All this is rather unsatisfying, I know, but I don't know what else to do with this story, save that there is something that we're missing. And that unlike most other Wolfe stories, I'm not quite motivated to reread until I figure it out.
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stephenfrug
Aug 23, 2019
In Gene Wolfe
A great discussion of a Gene Wolfe story that is one of my favorites — if by "favorites" you mean "I'd include it in a best-of volume", not, say, top 3. Still, I'm surprised it didn't make Best Of. I think you did a very good job on the story's politics: far less standard conservative than we've seen before, seeming both anti-war and environmentalist, although of course those are two areas where we've seen Wolfe have leftier-than-on-other-things views in the past. Still, the overall effect was a critique of American imperialism, both in Vietnam and in the natural world. You didn't mention one of my favorite bits of humor in the story: the way that Wolfe described what makes the gestures, and then later just describes the gestures; thus, the superb, free-standing line: "Dondiil parted the hair on his body horizontally." Incidentally, one of you mentioned (in analyzing the ending) that the story is largely from Quoquo's point of view; but the explanations of these ("the conventional way of implying...") indicates a more distant-third person than that suggests. Given Wolfe's utter willingness to inhabit the world of his characters—and not explain—when he wishes, I think this is possibly significant. Overall, I had a far more literal reading of the story than you did. First, I saw nothing in the story to indicate that Dondiil is pranking Quoquo. I get that it sounds like an army prank to you, but I just don't see it. They're not in the army (as far as we know), first of all. Second, Dondiil comes across as slightly subservient, even obsequious, to Quoquo — and while you could read that as motive to prank, I also assume he wouldn't dare. So I took it straight: the tigers escaped. Then there's the last line. This, I admit, is more ambiguous than their escape. But led me adduce one piece of evidence you didn't mention: a seemingly-casual, but possibly-important early simile: "the skyacht would have looked surprisingly like a phoenix as the flame from its rockets washed backward over its own indestructible skin, had there been any eye watchin to which the phoenix was known." First, this is another example of distant third, not Quoquo's pov-third, in the story, But more importantly, the phoenix — shoe-horned in in a way that both highlights the absence of humans and the simile itself — is both a mythical beast, and one that returns from the dead. The former could be taken as implying the eyes at the end are simply Quoquo's imagination, I suppose, but I find it much more likely that the simile implies the opposite: that the humans have returned from the dead (not always survived, as you speculate), and that it is because of some mystical connection between them and their land's mythical symbol, the tiger, being returned from the dead. I think this story is, in its own small way, a "Frankenstein' story, about people whose technology come back to haunt them — as well as people who are messing with forces that they don't understand. All this, of course, synchronizes nicely with both the narrow Vietnam-war angle on the story and the larger critique of American (really, broadly capitalist) imperialism.
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stephenfrug
Jul 24, 2019
In Gene Wolfe
God it's great to have the podcast back. A month feels like a long time, especially when you've been binging to catch up! I will say that while I loved your discussion of this story, I didn't like "Westwind" much as a story — a rare occurrence in my reading of Wolfe, where I am often baffled but rarely simply unmoved. It felt, to me, uncharacteristically heavy-handed. I wonder how much of this is simply because (unlike a great deal of Wolfe's readership) I'm an atheist (and a Jewish atheist, at that), and therefore I didn't find the metaphor personally comforting as Glenn says he did (and Wolfe, too, seems to have done). In fact, I would go so far as to say that "Westwind" reminded me of how creepy (to an atheist) a theistic worldview can seem: in a state that is portrayed as a dictatorship — I kept thinking of "Dear Leader" — the dictator is a stand-in for God. A dictator who (for some reason) refuses to help people openly and who uses his supposed universal love as an excuse for not stopping those who harm other people — all of which, were this story not by Wolfe, might make me at least try to read it as a religious critique. I certainly can imagine a story rather like this one which does function that way — in which everyone's believing they are Westwind is seen, not as a sign of love, but as a rather pathetically obvious trick through which a dictator keeps people pacified; in which the supposed universal love which the dictator self-claimedly has for everyone is demonstrably false, given the state of the world he himself runs; in which his claim (or the protagonist's claim on his behalf, clearly repeating the dictator's own line) that that love is why he doesn't interfere with the society's villains is in fact nothing more than an excuse to hide his complicity with the corrupt forces that run the world . But this would be my drash (as we Jews say) on the story: I don't see any signs of it in the story itself. The closest it comes to this is the (strongly implied) critique of official religion by depicting it as "the department of truth", and asking why you need interpreters when you have the leader's words; but otherwise the 'we-should-love-dear-leader-and-believe-his-love-is-real-despite-this-crummy-world' viewpoint is, I think, taken straight, even if I react crookedly against it. I may see a critique to be read, but I don't see Wolfe as doing much with it — at least as far as theism (as opposed to organized religion) goes. Although I will say that, as I wrote this, it struck me that "why do you need interpreters, you have the words", is an oddly protestant view for the Catholic Wolfe to take. Don't get me wrong: there is much to like in this story — the worldbuilding is admirably economical, as you point out, the characters are drawn — it's still by Wolfe, after all. But it feels to me that, quite uncharacteristically for Wolfe, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
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stephenfrug
Jul 06, 2019
In Gene Wolfe
(This was in the patrons-only podcast feed, but since it's a Wolfe story, I thought I'd post my comments on the episode here. If you're not a patron, sign up & give it a listen!) I think that Glenn & Brandon catch the basic landscape of this story quite well (as does Marc Aramini, in the write-up you reference): it's a story about environmentalism and the alienation from nature, about obsession replacing a life, about an accidental trip to fairy (I agree with Aramini about that). I agree with you about the twin meanings of Thanksgiving for the story: first, as a nod to the Native American connection, and as a nod towards Richard's lack of attention to what he should be thankful for. Yet while maybe I just liked the story more than any of you three (Glenn, Brandon, Marc) did, I feel like there is more to be gotten from the details of this story than I've yet seen. So let me write it down. • This is a story about marking. (It almost could be a reaction to work like Seeing Like a State, except that the story predates the book by more than a quarter century (he said accurately but not precisely.)) The protagonist's name is Marquer, that is, "marker", one who makes marks. He is contrasted with his wife, who quotes to him his remarks about odometers (a tool for measuring distance), and their unrelaibility, and about taxes (which brings in a ring of American history, given "taxation without representation": the taxes are raised, in this case, by "they"). The story is filled with numbers and dates. It is about the attempt to make the country, the landscape, nature, legible. But it fails. He doesn't see what's there. He is swallowed by it. • Early in the story his wife, Betty, mocks the idea that the land is "out there... with deer on it, and bears". Richard then goes and checks with... deer and bears. The deer, of course, is in a zoo; when one escapes, it is killed. He is wrong that the deer knows where the land is, or how to stay there. And then he checks with a bear, spelled "bare", and it's a native American woman, but the pun is not only obvious, but dual: she is making a pun in using bare for bear in her stage name, while Wolfe is making a pun using bare for bear in Richard's quest. • The Wizard of Oz reference is not just about the longing for technicolor: it's about an unknown land, one reachable only by magic — a land "over the rainbow", a song that Wolfe mentions by name. • "Princess Running Bare" is explicitly Canadian: she's born in a Montreal slum, she's "half French Canadian, half Cree" (there are some Cree in the U.S., but the large majority of them live in Canada). What are we to make of that? Well, Thanksgiving is an American holiday; unlike, say, Christmas or New Year's, it won't be recognized in Canada. (Yes, of course, they have their own; not when ours is.) Which is to say, she is made as foreign to America as you can get on this continent: half French, half Native American, from Canada. She is the wrong person to ask about the missing land, as wrong as a deer in a pen, that if released would be killed on the highway. • The alcoholism reference might be intended as a reference to a genuine harm that the Europeans did to Native Americans — that is, not a reference to the unfair stereotype, but taken straight, and seen as one of the many crimes that colonizing the land involved. • At the end, Richard wants to go East — that is, back to where the (white, European-descended) Americans came from. He is trying to avoid having to go west seventeen miles. • When does the story take place? It starts, we're told explicitly, in August (a few years after 1968 — in 1976, perhaps?). The action seems to take several months or so. Could it be that the final scene of the story takes place on Thanksgiving? • Towards the end, Richard finds the three million square miles ("Here" he says to himself): between the highways, the remnants of nature (moles, a hawk, nothing so big as a deer or bear), a hubcap from a car (that got into an accident — perhaps by hitting an animal?). • "mosquito larvae": a reminder of diseases the early colonists (not, admittedly, those in Massachusetts, rather Virginia) died of, such as malaria? I think the implication here is not irritation in the way bugs are irritating, but actual menace (a fact highlighted by the fact that it's larvae: it's not that they're biting him, but the implication of what is to come). • Of neither Glenn/Brandon nor Marc seem to interpret the ending this way, I think it's implied that Richard is hit by a car (just like that deer!) This is a story, I think, about our inability to comprehend or conquer the land. The solution here is not for Richard to go happily west and backpack in the Rockies. The force of nature, of the unknown, of the missing land we have failed to tame is more powerful than that. This is about how we are just on the surface, trying to come to grips with the land with our numbers and our cars, but how it waits, waiting for its revenge. Richard finds it, and flees, right into traffic. There is no freedom. We are trapped on the roads we have built, waiting to be mowed down the cars we usually live within. As I said, I don't think this really differs from Glenn & Brandon's interpretation, nor from Marc Aramini's. But I think the symbolism is a lot richer & more coherent than you gave it credit for. And I think it deals powerfully with some powerful themes. It's not just a story of questions: it's a story about the tenuousness of our hold on the land, and the horror should we look and see what remains.
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stephenfrug
Jul 01, 2019
In Gene Wolfe
The notion of the "slingshot ending", which John Clute has appropriated as a critical term of art (see here), began in a thematically-appropriate small way as a remark by Kim Stanley Robinson in a blurb on a Wolfe novel (I believe Exodus from the Long Sun), about how a Wolfe ending seems, right at the end, to open up vast new vistas, to slingshot the readers out into new possibilities of story which are, however, unmapped. The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast's marvelous series on The Fifth Head of Cerberus had a slingshot ending. After carefully building a stunningly original reading — Glenn has called it conservative, but in some ways it is really quite radical when compared to the consensus readings — that the Annese never existed, that they are only a "new planet myth", used to explain and justify various things about the decaying, despotic and violent societies on the twin planets — you have, in your final episode, a radically different interpretation on, one which is only fleetingly compared with the GWLP consensus reading (which, of course, contains disagreements between its two major developers, and some admitted areas of uncertainty); and then we are left. And Glenn said he can't imagine a fitter ending!?! Say, rather, it was a fitting middle: a prelude to rereading the novel, trying to sort out these two, utterly different, both brilliantly persuasive readings. (I am not, repeat not, seriously suggesting this; but I would love to hear it.) All of which is to say that the narrative arc of this season of the podcast is structured like a Wolfe story. Like in a Wolfe story, we have many clues, but no final answers. The seeming complex interpretation is undermined, right at the end, but something which throws all we have learned into doubt. And the reader is left to do the work to make sense of it all. I would like it to be like a Wolfe story in one further respect: that everything is true, that somehow we can create a reading in which everything claimed — in this case, both the GWLP consensus reading and Marc Aramini's reading — is all somehow true at once — all literally true, as Marc is fond of putting it. But unlike in a Wolfe story, I don't think this will be possible. So what, then, are we to make of these two readings? The first thing that strikes me is how different they are, not just in conclusion (although surely that too) but in methods. They start from such different places that it is hard to imagine how to even judge between them. If you start by looking for thematic unity, and focusing on evidence in a historical way (possibly my favorite bit of the entire podcast series was Glenn's going through the evidence for the Annese's existence with his historians' hat on), then the GWLP consensus reading will emerge. If you start by looking for symbolic unity and focusing on the way that parts reflect the whole, then Marc's reading will emerge. Entire categories of evidence will be treated differently: Marc takes "A Story" fairly straight, even while seeing it as about John V. Marsch too; GWLP takes "A Story" as the fevered product of a damaged mind, without, ultimately, any real historical evidentiary value at all. How do we compare two readings, one of which starts with an assumption of universal literalness and symbolic shadows cast by the little upon the great (have they but courage equal to desire), and another which starts with an assumption that many of the characters are lying, that whole chunks of the text are not symbols but errors or delusions or self-comforting myths? How do we stack up Marc's subtle mis-en-scene's with Glenn's brilliant historian's catalog for the barely-existant myth of abos? Both readings had very strong interpretations of parts of the text — Marc is, for instance, particularly convincing on the recurring symbolism of legs and the parallels to trees and butterflies; I found the GWLP consensus reading of Liev's postulate (at least what I took it to be from earlier: the way it was described in episode 71 was different than my memory of it, which was that it was the literal opposite of Viel's hypothesis: for Veil, the humans are actually abos pretending to be human; for Liev, the abos are just humans whom others pretend are abos) far more persuasive. I am tempted to say that perhaps those who read the story as ultimately ambiguous were right after all. Perhaps, we might say, they had some presentiment of this ultimate predicament. How else might we decide? One way is to step outside. Marc, in private email correspondence, forwarded me excerpts from two Wolfe interviews (different from the one read and analyzed on-air in the podcast) that seem to weight in pretty strongly on his side — particularly the one where Wolfe asserts straightforwardly that Marsch is replaced by a Shadow Child. — But, of course, Marc also correctly notes that Wolfe interviews are not to be trusted. And ideally (as Marc would be the first to point out) a reading should be fully provable from the text alone. Another way, however, is to look at what emerges. Which reading produces a better novel? And here I must admit I am tending towards the GWLP consensus. To explain why will require a digression or two. A great writer always has certain tendencies they must avoid — temptations to which they are prone, threats they must escape — which are shaped by the nature of their genius. Charles Dickens, for instance — to take a writer whose place in the pantheon of great English novelists is fairly undisputed, as well as a personal favorite of Wolfe's — continually threatens to topple over into sentimentality, into melodrama, and into propaganda. These don't make him less than a great writer: the way he is great involves dancing on the edge of those faults. But he does, at times, topple in. They are the failure modes to which his genius is prone. Similarly, perhaps, Proust's failure modes are purple prose and tediousness: but, again, those are the marks of his genius, not refutations of it. Wolfe's major failure mode is the writing of mere puzzles. (It's not his only failure mode. I suspect his other failure mode, one he approaches less often but to which his genius shows a basic temptation, is that of the catholic propagandist.) I think there is something greater about a novel than a crossword puzzle: partly its expandability, its inexhaustibility — and it's applicability, to use Tolkien's term. Crossword puzzles, at some point, are solved. A good novel has more depths than that. But Wolfe's temptation — and, like the above examples, this is not a refutation of his genius, but rather the way in which his genius manifests itself — is to make his stories and novels sovleable. The threat is tipping over into something can be simply solved in the way that a puzzle is solved. In the way that no solutions to puzzles will ever finish off David Copperfield or In Search of Lost Time. For all that some details are better read by GWLP than by Marc, I think that, on the whole, Marc is better at making sense of all the little clues and details, his hints and shadows.* I think this symbolic readings probably fit best with Wolfe's spirit. My guess is that it is along the way to the reading that Wolfe ultimately intended.** (I don't think he's all the way there yet, as evidenced by the fact that there are still issues about which he is fuzzy: the best reading will, presumably, have more solid answers for (e.g.) what Liev's post-postulate is.) But I think he's on the right track.*** Glenn and Brandon's reading, in contrast, does not explain all the clues. But it leaves us, I think, with a richer novel. (Themes, ultimately, are richer than puzzles.) The Fifth Head of Cerberus, in their reading, is a novel not about the lifecycle of an (ultimately imaginary) alien, but about the violence humans do to each other and the excuses they invent (and believe) to enable them to do it. Perhaps it is simply that I want the GWLP consensus reading to be true. It seems to make it a more interesting story. The lifecycle of imaginary aliens is, in the end, not as interesting as the tendency of humans to cruelty and self-delusion and myth. Now presumably Marc would say that, since the abos copy our tendency to cruelty and self-delusion and myth, that his reading does not exclude this; but it makes it, I think, a pale and less interesting shadow. (The perfect metaphor for this exists, but it is itself more complex than this situation. Nevertheless, for any readers of 80s X-Men comics out there: Marc's reading is like the later retcon about Phoenix copying Jean Grey, and the writer's insistence that this retcon loses nothing; and it is as unconvincing as that defense of that retcon, too.) Now there is one aspect that I think Marc makes richer than the GWLP consensus: the second novella. For all their marvelous attention to the details of "A Story" in their close reading of it, it mostly drops out of their final reading of the novel, which focuses on "Fifth Head" and VRT. The second novella, in their reading, threatens to become a mere settling of scores and patching together of myths. But the novel I am rereading (right now) is the GWLP version: because it feels like a better book. Again: both readings are incredibly powerful. I don't think that any reading of The Fifth Head of Cerberus is going to be persuasive without fully confronting both of them, on their own home grounds of the approach and natures of evidence that makes them persuasive. And I do hold out a hope that there is some way to preserve the best of each these two readings, even if I don't, now, have it. Ironically, if there is such a reading, I suspect that it will coalesce on the "standard" reading to which both Marc & the GWLP take exception: that there are some abos still around, but that Veil's hypothesis is not true; that Marsch is replaced neither by a shadow child version of himself nor by a human VRT, but simply by an abo. Perhaps, in some uniquely triparte Hegelian way, both Marc and the GWLP consensus are antithesis to the thesis of the standard reading, which can all merge into some synthesis. But that they have left as an exercise for the readers; and I, myself, have no solution to it. If one exists at all. _________________________ * Marc's reading does, however, tend to omit, dismiss or explain away the larger, more obvious clues. Often Marc does this by appealing to a proposed two-level reading, in which a mystery contains a (more) obvious as well a hidden solution. But this, of course, threatens to simply ignore the most basic and powerful of the clues. ** One tendency I routinely push back against is the tendency of Wofle interpreters to act as if he is infallible: as if all his clues always add up the way he intends them to, as if he never goofs and weaves in a hint that he does not mean to point the way it actually points. Along these lines, my guess is that something like Marc's interpretation is what Wolfe had in mind, but that he — as an error — did not foresee, and thus did not sufficiently block, the GWLP consensus reading: that the latter is a more-or-less plausible reading of the text, even though Wolfe didn't intend it to be. Because he's not perfect; and, as modern literary theory holds, authors are not in complete control of the meaning of the texts they create. *** Although it's worth noting that symbolism is ultimately very fuzzy: and that historical evidentiary practices of the sort Glenn brings to bear on the work are specifically designed to guard against the primary failure mode of symbolism, namely, the tendency of humans to see castles in clouds.
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stephenfrug
Jun 17, 2019
In Gene Wolfe
My overwhelming reaction to this episode was amazement & gratitude at how well it tied your reading of the novel together. In particular the way you tied your solution to the puzzle to the themes of the book. (Your reading of the thematic resonance of Veil's Hypothesis, as her explanation of the cruelty and the equivalent of Maitre's experiments, was a particularly brilliant touch.) I think it was this tying of your reading into the themes of the book that at the moment tips me into your reading over Aramini's. Marc Aramini likes to have a reading that explains the most details, which is a reasonable standard, but perhaps another possible standard would be to chose the reading that makes the book the richest, thematically, literally and as far as the power of the story and characters go. At the moment, for me, your reading is winning on that standard — and that standard is winning the meta-race. But I really, really can't wait to hear Marc weigh in on your podcast next week! This all ties into Brandon's comment towards the end of the episode that perhaps Wolfe had been too clever, too ambiguous. I wonder that a lot. It gets at the larger philosophical issue of what makes for great literature, and while we all can (given this group) agree that Wolfe is that, he is not infallible (I hope we can all agree on that too!), and I think he sometimes leans too hard into his puzzles and ambiguities. One of the problems with it, I think, is that it creates the sense — at times, maybe even creates the reality — that there is a solution to a Wolfe story. But making literature something with a solution is limiting. Wolfe's stories, I think, do mean a lot more; but they are always threatening, so to speak, by toppling over the edge into the mere puzzle. What I love about your reading is that it uses the answer to the puzzles to enrich (rather than effectively replace) the thematic power of the story. Two apposite quotes from Wolfe interviews (although I forget where, and these are paraphrases I fear) on ambiguity are worth recalling here: "Good writing is only intentionally ambiguous", and something to the effect that any great novel has to come close to saying the opposite of what it is actually saying (a very frightening idea for the wannabe interpreter!) I haven't yet read the updated Lamarck that Glenn recommended — although I definitely plan to read at least some of it (Glenn, thanks for recommending a particular essay to start with!). But I still think that I can say that you undersold Darwin a bit in your discussion. For instance, you say that Natural Selection is chance-determined. But although it rides upon chance, as it were, it is ultimately algorithmic, and there are some interesting philosophical lessons to be learned from convergent evolution, which makes the outputs seem less random, however random the inputs are. Similarly, you say at one point that using the word "adaptation" points to a Lamarckian reading. Maybe for Wolfe; but of course Darwin's understanding allows for adaptation too: no one would deny that life is amazingly well adapted to its environments; that, indeed, is what Darwin sought to explain! And while I will allow that Darwin, unlike Lamarck, could have read Mendel, it's worth recalling that almost no one read Mendel until his rediscovery in the early 20th century: Darwin was not being particularly negligent here, nor did he have a noteworthy gap in his knowledge. (By the way, you say at one point that the sort of shape-changing that the abos are imagined as doing would be impossible in Darwinian terms. I simply don't see why that would be the case. Natural selection has produced an imagination-beggaring array of wonders; why couldn't this be one? (It might have to be what Gould called an exaptation, not an adaptation, but he argued those could also be understood as arising by the Darwinian mechanism.)) And of course modern revivals of Lamarckian ideas can't have been what Wolfe meant when he said, in The Castle of the Otter, that Lamarck was right. I saw at least one scholar say online (although I fear I lost the reference) that Lamarck had a lot of other important ideas that were lost in the condemnation of his notion of inheritance of adapted characteristics. I wonder if that could be what Wolfe meant? It would seem to explain a lot. Two final random notes: • How could you possibly stand to talk about the theme of whether we have to become what we are (or could be otherwise) — as you both do at length (and very well) — and not quote the line, said twice in Claw of the Conciliator (including on the last page of the book), "That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin.” • I love the fact that Glenn read VRT out of order! What a great story. I'm surprised, really, that it does hold up. I hope someone performs the reading experiment you two outline!
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stephenfrug
Jun 16, 2019
In Gene Wolfe
Does anyone know the term "post-postulate"? I've never heard it otherwise, a friend who is a mathematician never heard it, and google throws up really random results, i.e. not as a term, but just as coincidental pairing of words. (On the order of: "pre-postulate, we couldn't achieve the result, but post-postulate, we can conclude...). Wolfe (or should I say VRT) uses the term as if it's an established one, but I'm having trouble finding evidence of its preexistence, let alone what it means (as opposed to just a postulate). Anyone ever seen or heard it in any other context?
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stephenfrug
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