Wolfe's Strange Travellers Scattered Observations

Fri Jan 7, 2005

“Bluesberry Jam”/“Ain’t You ‘Most Done”

The first story seems to be told by a dream in the character in the second. Apparently the latter ties-in in some way with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, which I’ve actually never read. In fact, I’ve read nothing at all by Gaiman. I feel somehow shamed writing that, but it’s true.

The second story is the type of backstory that a reader usually has to imagine for himself when reading Wolfe’s fiction, so it’s unusual for things to be as clear as they apparently are. I should interject here, apropos of nothing really, that Wolfe comments in one of the short essays in Castle of Days that Cromwell was one of the most evil men who ever lived (will find the citation later).

Readers will think of Godard’s Weekend, perhaps, and you might be forgiven for imagining this to be a parable about the appropriation of black culture by white corporate America. But then there’s “Someday, she’d say, the Blood of the Lamb/In them Heavenly tanks goin’ to bust this jam” (18).

Since the society of the jam invokes the socioeconomic conditions that produced the blues, there’s a clear element of ricorso intended, I think.

“One-Two-Three for Me”

A recreational dig on a far-future Earth (but be careful there), and a forgotten device summons a tamed spirit/animal/robot to bring what seems to be heroin to the narrator’s uninterested (in him) girlfriend. She od’s on it.

The device is described thus:

She had this bent thing with some square buttons where it bent. I still see it every time I shut my eyes. It’s black, and the square button are in sort of square, too, three wide and four high, if you know what I mean, and when we scraped the dirt off them, there were numbers on them, like somebody that couldn’t count had to see the number on each of them to know what to do. The first three across said one, two, three, and the next row, four, five, six. Like that. Zero was in the middle of the the last row, sort of like it was really ten, only it didn’t say ten, it said zero. The ones on each side had other stuff on them. One was a star, I remember that.

Sound familiar? It is actually the narrator who thinks that his girlfriend summoned something with the phone, or at least that’s what he tells his audience (he’s obviously telling a story about the expedition to a group of younger people). But might it be more plausible that he found the heroin (or whatever it was) and left it for her to find, knowing what would probably happen?

(There’s a lot of discussion of all of Wolfe’s works archived at Urth, and I’m not sure that someone hasn’t already advanced this interpretation.)

“Counting Cats in Zanzibar”

An early story, “Blue Mouse,” seems to verge into UN black helicopterese at places, and this one begins with the narrator counting her UN currency. Then there’s also “How the Whip Came Back.”

When writers mention “eyes that never smile,” they’re actually talking about small muscles around the eyes. This might be significant here.

There’s a fifth taste, called umami. You can read about it in that New Yorker article about ketchup. You know the one.

A world of paradox is hinted at here with the apparent Asimovian restrictions on robot behavior.

That quote is from Walden. Might Skinner be in the background?

Wolfe sure does describe post-coital washing a lot.

I’m just not prepared to comment on this story in any depth at this point.

“The Death of Koshchei the Deathless”

This one either. Check back for updates.

“No Planets Strike”

From the OED: “The Sidhe are thin, up to six feet in height, handsome and young-looking despite their great age.” (Arrowsmith, Field Guide to the Little People, 21). Sounds like the Beautiful Ones, eh? Comes from Irish myth about fairy folk in mounds, used at great length by Yeats.

There are parallels to The Urth of the New Sun (Mango’s wish to move up to a higher universe) and The Fifth Head of Cerberus (the Beautiful Ones’ genetic mimickry).

Am I correct in thinking that the threat at the end reveals that the donkey is an imposter?

“Bed and Breakfast”

This was first published in a collection entitled Dante’s Disciples.

Was the narrator getting in bed naked to be expected?

The husband had been on the softball team?

Why the overt invocation of unreliability?

“To the Seventh”

What are some treatments of game theory and theology? More specifically, what are some treatments of the notion of the game and theology? Pascal, obviously.

Each jump is the range of the pawn’s movement, obviously.

“You are trying to queen that pawn” (135)

They were a decoy. Note that the reporter attempts to describe her mission as something that would save the human race from whatever it is that grinds them down into machines, note the apparently robotic character of the antagonists, which recalls the Ascians.

Why is exactly emphasized? Is this a reference to the transformation of the world via the introduction of a pawn, Jesus, who transformed it and something else into something much different? Is this a parallel about the substitution of technology for something far more vital?

“Queen of the Night”

153 is the verse on this page Wolfe’s original?

166 What’s that “Amerika” doing there?

First appeared in a collection entitled Love in Vein

The folklore in question might be worth exploring.

“And When They Appear”

175 wheel of fire rolling down the mountain 177 exousia in the eyes [comes from greek root for authority, seems to have rare ecclesiastical usage] 185 Who is Father Eddi? One Christmas I said a Mass no one came to besides a donkey and an ox (see “And No Planets Strike”)

How did Corporal Charlie end up with the mouse? Why did Sherby trade the copter control for it?

The idea of the story is the tragedy of Sherby asserting his will and defiance, his maturity, being unable to appreciate his innocence before having it violently taken away. I suppose that Sherby’s parents must not have celebrated Christmas, and the House’s programming was designed to educate him.

I’m unsure of the legends that Wolfe is using to populate the Christmas scenery here.

General idea: holograms in literature?

Is there a discernible backstory at all here?

“Flash Company”

First of at least two stories that deal with women who done did their men wrong.

Seemed to appear in a collection devoted to fantasy uses of musical instruments.

“The Haunted Boardinghouse”

I’ve gathered from on-line discussions that this story owes much to Crowley, who I haven’t yet read, so there’s that to consider. It’s also set in a future that might be similar in some ways to that of “And When They Appear.”

What is this ridiculous business about a war with Mexico?

The narrator dies not in an attempt to restore the world but in this world’s attempt to restore itself.

“Useful Phrases”

Others have acknowledged the debts to “Tlon Uqbar” here, but I’m afraid that I don’t have the slightest idea what is supposed to be happening here. On an immediate inspection, the narrator seems to either be suffering from paranoid delusions, or he has discovered an alien phrase book for travellers who’ve infiltrated Earth, or who at least visit every so often. By learning their language, he’s called them forth and perhaps expects to be taken with them. It could be a metaphor for the learning of a new language, and the venerable Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might have something to do with it.

Are there clues enough to figure out what the last word means? Does the language itself seem to have some clear grammatical pattern, or can it be determined to be something else?

“The Man in the Pepper Mill”

257 why is the boy named after Tiptree? What’s the point?

It might be an hommage to her, though I can’t remember her work well enough to know for sure.

Seems to be about magical thinking and the trauma of death and loss in the child’s mind.

“The Ziggurat”

269 the “quod scripsi” at the beginning is probably a good signal of what Wolfe thinks about the character 272 black spot on the chair 273 Sibberling had given them his swarthy good looks 285 the wife character saying that she would tell everyone how Emery molested the girls seems a very unusual thing for her to say, even stressed, because of all the children being right in the cabin with them 286 contemplates suicide 289 what is that “could of” there? 309 there is the Haunted lake stuff to consider and the story that Brook tells on this page 316 the Brownies and the fairyland stuff are all consonant with the Knight/Wizard series, certainly

why was he keeping such a precise journal in the beginning? Habit? Something else?

316 does not read the marker 317 what’s happening with the coyote? 318 young women more alike than sisters seems to point at the outre-seeming cloning hypotheses, thought I think it’s at least as likely to think about this as being reflective of Emery’s engineering, sf-oriented mindset–a rationalization of madness. 318 he recalled the lasers used to engrave steel in the company he had left to found his own
325 Chaucer(pretty sure), recalls that the brownie girls were perhaps speaking an old english

Is there a constant typographical device in this volume (and story) of representing the phone conversations’ other party’s dialogue in italics? It would be worth checking other stories in this volume as well as the original print of this one.

328 the law, which extended every courtesy to murderers, detested and destroyed anyone who killed or even resisted them

remember that he’s five miles from the lake–how did the twin get there and back so fast? How was he able to walk, with a gunshot wound, over the snow so far?

335 for centuries, unheeded men and women in England and Ireland and any number of other countries had reported a diminutive race living in hills where time ran differently

African ones called Yumbos–investigate

336 Brook would never go to Purdue now, never utilize his father’s contacts at NASA

338 telephone people always seemed to maintain their equipment better than the power people because the latter are generally public? 343 Tamar–> check 349 note that David’s conversation is not recorded

There’s clear wish fulfilment in the magic technology which enables Emery to found a new company and in his notion that Jan will then be attracted to him again.

352 wish to stop time and live forever

Clearly, Emery is mad. It’s hard for me to see how the story could be read any other way.