The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories: Adrift in a Sea of Strange

If you have been following along with this reread series since its first installment, you’ll remember my own meditations on memory. And an observation: even though I’m being honest with you, reader, I might not be the most reliable narrator—as with most of Wolfe’s characters.

Some spoilers ahead…

In that first article, I’d mentioned that, after The Book of the New Sun and There Are Doors, my friend Pedro Ribeiro lent me Wolfe’s first collection of stories: The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980). I clearly remember the cover (which is not the current purple cover with the skull, but a cover featuring a man with a loincloth and a spear with something that seems a mix between a futuristic scuba diving gear and a jetpack—Wikipedia tells me it’s a Don Maitz cover).

The thing is, I don’t remember if I actually read this collection when Pedro lent the book to me. I used to do that a lot then—borrowing a book and keeping it with me for months without ever reading it. As far as memory can help me, I have the strong impression of reading Endangered Species first. I remember, however, having read at least one of the stories of this collection before the others.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter the order in which I read Wolfe’s stories—what matters is that I read them. Eventually I bought my own copy of The Island… and read it. And I just read its stories again for the third time (some of them for the fourth, and one of them for the fifth time).

I won’t cover them all here, just the ones that mattered (and still matter) the most to me. Beginning with another trilogy of sorts: the Island stories.

“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” is the first story of the collection and of this particular short-narrative trilogy. It describes a few days in the life of Tackman Babcock, a boy who leaves in Settlers Island, with a mother who’s a drug addict, and who quickly finds his own escape: pulp magazines. He asks his mom’s boyfriend to buy one of these for him in a drugstore and immediately starts reading the story of Captain Philip Ransom, a he-man who arrives at the island of a certain Doctor Death, a scientist who conducts strange experiments with animals, turning them into men. (Yes, it’s a shameless ripoff of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but we already knew that from the beginning.) The interesting thing is that fiction and reality start to mingle for young Tackman, and both Ransom and Dr. Death begin to appear and talk to him. The story is rather short and it ends with no conclusion, leaving the reader to create her own interpretation. Even though I’m very SF-oriented, I couldn’t help but conclude that the boy had a very strong imagination—or that he is experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia, or a similar disorder.

The second story in this trilogy (and sixth story in the collection overall), “The Death of Doctor Island,” begins in a similar fashion, with a 14-year-old boy, Nicholas Kenneth de Vore, who is lost in an island. He immediately encounters another person: a man who seems to Nicholas incredibly similar to Jesus in appearance who attacks and tries to kill him. Like Tackman Babcock in the previous story, the boy also seems to mix fantasy and reality, since he starts to hear voices in the crashing of the waves and in the palm trees. He may be insane as well—but the two things are not mutually exclusive: it turns out that the voices are real, emanating from what seems to be an AI, which the boy calls Doctor Island. But the boy is there, on this “island” (in fact, an artificial environment aboard a space station orbiting Jupiter) to be “cured.” As he tells Diane, a girl he meets there and who will become his interlocutor, Nicholas has a undergone brain surgery to cut his corpus callosum, a surgery that not only halved his brain but also his personality. He also, apparently, has telekinetic/empathic powers, and his emotions can change the environment around him. It’s never clear why the boy or the man who attacked him or Diane are there. A point of interest: the man, Ignacio, is Brazilian, and Wolfe is careful to avoid any potential stereotypes in creating the character. Ignacio speaks in English with the boy. There is only one word in Portuguese in their conversation, and it is written correctly, accents and all: patrão (meaning “boss”). Throughout the story, we are led to believe that Ignacio (and maybe even the boy) is homicidal, but that Dr. Island is manipulating them all, and Nicholas is not sure if this is really helping their sanity—or if Dr. Island is itself a murderer of sorts.

Dr. Island gets Ignacio to kill Diane, after which he is free to go, leaving Nicholas all alone there. But, according to the rules of the weird, cruel therapy he’s being subjected to, Nicholas must kill someone else to be freed as well. Thus, Nicholas decides to kill Dr. Island—but part of him dies in the attempt, and he becomes another self, which Dr. Island calls Kenneth. Nicholas, then, has been devoured (the pun with his surname wasn’t lost on me).

The third story in the series (eleventh in the book’s table of contents), following the wordplay of the previous two installments, is titled “The Doctor of Death Island.” Alan Alvard, the inventor of talking books (similar to our modern audiobooks but with an added bonus: the narrator can also discuss the book with the reader), is serving a life sentence for murdering his business partner. Two years into his imprisonment, he is diagnosed with cancer. Since he is rich, though, he’s offered the option of cryosleep, so that he can be woken up when a cure is found. Forty years after, this comes to pass—and, along with a cure, immortality. But how can one enjoy eternal life in prison? This particular story could have been told by an author like Fredric Brown in less than five hundred words, but Wolfe goes way beyond the Twilight Zone-y usual kind of conundrum and offers us a meditation on the meaning of life and obsession, showing Alvard’s struggle to get out of prison, and the experience of facing a new world along with the all-too-old feeling of jealousy on the part of his former lover. In this story, up until the very end (and perhaps even beyond it), we are not sure if Alvard died just as he was leaving prison, or if he ever really left the cryogenic unit in the first place.

All three stories feature lonely men (two of them quite young) in places where they don’t belong. All three are about keeping your sanity under duress. At least two of these stories have Biblical undertones (“Doctor Island” is a riff on the Adam-Eve story, with Nicholas as the serpent, and “Death Island” a meditation on sin, with its murders—yes, there are probably two—driven by hubris and jealousy). All three Island stories deal with conceptions of reality in the metafictional sense. But it is only now, after reading them again, that I realized that Gene Wolfe’s choice of themes is not limited to memory and religion. He also raises interesting questions on two major recurring themes in science fiction: “What is real?” and “What is human?”

Both themes are fundamental in the work of another science fiction icon, Philip K. Dick, one of my favorite writers, who I had the honor of translating to Brazilian Portuguese twice (The Man in the High Castle and VALIS). But, upon rereading this collection, it became clear to me how Gene Wolfe shows the reader various ways in which the same questions can be asked in a more elegant, complex way: in the first story, young Tackman meets a girl in a party who tells him: “I’m going to pretend you’re real.” At the end of that same story, Dr. Death tells him: “But if you start the book again we’ll all be back. (…) It’s the same with you, Tackie. You’re too young to realize it yet, but it’s the same with you.” Is he real, or simply a character in yet another story…a story that we are reading?

In the other two stories, we never know for sure if what’s happening is delusion or reality. The Edenic scenario in “Doctor Island” is not quite real, even if the island is human-built, for it’s not on Earth. As Marc Aramini points out in his massive analysis of Wolfe’s literary output, Between Light and Shadow, the whole thing is enacted as a psychodrama. Therefore, nothing is real, in the sense of being spontaneous. As for “Death Island,” the doctor in question is a certain Doctor Margotte, the man who oversees Alvard’s cryosleep, and who is briefly seen near the end of the story (even though it is odd that he would have gotten the immortality therapy since he was rather old to begin with). We can’t be sure of that either—but it is said in the beginning that Doctor Margotte is strangely aware of every death that will happen in that prison. I don’t know if Margotte exists at all. Maybe it’s all a fever dream of Alvard’s, a malfunction in the cryogenic system, or simply something that maybe happens to frozen people after a while, mixing fiction and reality.

The story opens with an Oliver Twist quote that states: “There are books of which the backs and the covers are by far the best parts.” In his book, Aramini also points out the relevance of Dickens throughout the story, and it was a delight to find the many references, direct or oblique, to works like Little Dorritt, Bleak House, A Christmas Carol and quite a few other stories. It made me want to embark on a big reread of Dickens as well (ahem). As you know, Aramini has studied Wolfe’s stories far more completely and exhaustively than I intend to do here, so I strongly recommend that you read his book if you want to understand more about possible interpretations of Wolfe’s stories.

Speaking of what makes one human, many of the other stories in this collection focus on this theme. For example, there are allusions to characters in Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio in at least two stories—”Three Fingers” and “The Toy Theater.” In the latter, a young puppeteer of the future travels to a distant planet in order to learn the secrets of the trade with the greatest marionettist of them all: Stromboli. The story is short and straightforward but beautifully told, and in the end we are not quite sure if all the characters in the narrative (including the apprentice and Stromboli himself) aren’t puppets themselves.

The story I mentioned in the beginning of this article as the one I remember having read first  in the collection—and certainly one of Wolfe’s stories I reread most often—is “Seven American Nights.” This is one of my favorite Wolfe short stories. It probably inspired Bruce Sterling’s “We See Things Differently” (where the theme is pretty much the same; actually, the plot is very similar, with reversed roles), and it is also the inspiration for my story “Seven Brazilian Nights” (unpublished). In “Seven American Nights,” we meet a young Iranian man visiting the U.S. Nadan Jaffarzadeh is an architect who goes to America in search of adventure. And he finds it, because he lives in a future (apparently the second half of the 21st century) where the U.S. is a chemical-biological ruin; the country is poor and full of mutants caused by genetic deformities. The story begins with a short letter from a detective to Nadan’s mother, because he has gone missing; the rest is the transcript of his journal, which encompasses seven nights. During these nights, he describes a ruined Washington, D.C. and finds out that there is a functioning theater, where he attends a play and becomes interested in one of the actresses.

(An aside: “Seven American Nights” is written from the POV of a young Muslim. In my opinion, Wolfe manages most of the time to avoid stereotyping (though not always, I’m afraid). The Tehran from which Nadan had departed seems to follow a strict, but not radical, Islamic rule, and what little he describes of his country shows a modern place, far more enlightened than the U.S. When Wolfe wrote this story (it was published originally in 1978), Iran was still under the rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi—the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the monarch and put the Ayatollah Khomeini in power would happen in 1979— so we can say Nadan came from an alternate version of Iran.)

Nadan falls in love with the actress and wants to be with her at all costs, even though he might not be able to return to his home country if that comes to pass. His passion for all things American mirrors the interest-in-the-exotic that USians and Europeans usually display when in countries with cultures different from their own (trust me on this, I’m from Rio). What he writes in his journal, however, is a narrative of Nadan’s slow descent into despair and maybe madness, exemplified by a weird habit he begins to indulge in: having bought a box of sweets in the form of small eggs, he dips one in a drug (or an allegedly psychotropic substance someone sold to him illegally) and puts it back in the box, shaking it up so that he can’t know anymore which egg was drugged. Every night he will eat an egg and go to the street. On one of these nights, he is attacked by a creature, but later there is no evidence of this. There is also no evidence that the substance he acquired is really a drug; maybe Nadan was insane all along. The story ends when, after a previous encounter with the police (which he suspects are in fact not regular cops, but the secret police, probably keeping an eye on him because he is a foreigner—there are interesting theories in Aramini’s study about this), his room is about to be invaded by officers of the law. And the journal ends.

In the postscript, when a woman (apparently Nadan’s mother) finishes reading the journal and inspects the handwriting, she asks the detective: “You think this is his writing?” When he doesn’t answer, she only says: “Perhaps. Perhaps.” That is: maybe even the journal is false, written by someone else (or possibly by a machine whose existence Nadan had learned of, in what’s left of the Smithsonian). We will never know for sure what Nadan experienced during those seven fated nights. And that, reader, is what I love about Wolfe’s stories: his chutzpah in never making things too easy or clear to us. As much as I like delving into different possible interpretations of his work, I like even more to remain in the mist, pondering all the possibilities.

There are other stories in this collection, but these are the ones that have stayed with me over the years. I may revisit this collection later, though, in an attempt to cover other stories. And other stories.

See you all on Thursday, August 22th, for a discussion of The Shadow of the Torturer

Fabio Fernandes started writing in English experimentally in the ‘90s, but only began to publish in this language in 2008, reviewing magazines and books for The Fix, edited by the late lamented Eugie Foster. He’s also written articles and reviews for a number of sites and magazines, including Fantasy Book Critic, Tor.com, The World SF Blog, Strange Horizons, and SF Signal. He’s published short stories in Everyday Weirdness, Kaleidotrope, Perihelion, and the anthologies Steampunk II, The Apex Book of World SF: Vol. 2, Stories for Chip, and POC Destroy Science Fiction. In 2013, Fernandes co-edited with Djibrilal-Ayad the postcolonial original anthology We See a Different Frontier. He’s translated several science fiction and fantasy books from English to Brazilian Portuguese, such as Foundation, 2001, Neuromancer, and Ancillary Justice. In 2018, he translated to English the Brazilian anthology Solarpunk (ed. by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro) for World Weaver Press. Fabio Fernandes is a graduate of Clarion West, class of 2013.

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