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Date: Thu, 14 Mar 2002 10:24:42 -0500 (EST)
From: Michael Straight 
Subject: (urth) The Death of Dr. Island (SPOILERS)

One of my favorite pleasures in reading science fiction short stories
is being dropped /in medias res/, not knowing where or when the story
takes place, not knowing if the protagonist is human, alien, robot,
a ghost, and getting to slowly figure it out from clues in the story
as it progresses.  The weirder the situation, the better.

But there's no cliche more disappointing than finding out that the 
real explanation for it all is that the protagonist is insane and 
in a mental institution.  Leave it to Wolfe to turn yet another 
science fiction cliche completely on its head.

The first four pages of "The Death of Dr. Island" are a full force
mind-blowing example of that pleasure described above.  In the first
few paragraphs you start to form a hypothesis about the setting and
the protagonist, but you have to revise it every few paragraphs as 
new details drastically change what you think is going on.  Admittedly, in
order to do this, Wolfe has come up with a very odd protagonist,
situation, and environment.  In fact, it's the old "insane in a mental
institution" plot.  The twist is that, while that is the explanation for
all the weirdness, the weird stuff is all real, not an insane delusion or
a subjective mindscape. 

(Incidentally, it can't be a coincidence that this story comes right after
"Three Fingers" in the collection _The Island of Doctor Death and Other
Stories and Other Stories_.  Any chance that's a clue that the ending of
"Three Fingers isn't quite what it appears to be?)

The rest of the story is not quite as amazing as the first few pages, but
it is quite good.  The ending is nicely unexpected.  Unfortunately, Wolfe
couldn't resist pointing out to the reader how unexpected it was.
The sentence where Dr. Island explains the title of the story falls
flat; it would have been much better to let the reader figure out why the
title still fits (we might have had a nice little discussion about
it).  And you certainly don't need one of the characters saying, "This
isn't ending the way I thought."  Yes, Gene, the death of Dr. Island is
not what I thought it would be.  I geddit.

On the other hand, the place where Nicholas gently nudges the fourth wall,
with his "Don't you know how a machine is supposed to talk?" is quite
funny and well done.

Surely we're meant to be horrified by Ignacio's "cure"?  Are there any
real-world insane people who, after killing (raping?) someone, get better
because they find out it wasn't as much fun as they thought it would
be?  I'm guessing that the big expensive Dr. Island is really for the
benefit of rich, important people like Ignacio; if Nicholas or Diane get
better, that's fine, but they're really only there because they might be
useful for curing Ignacio.

By the way, it seems to me that the collection _The Island of Doctor Death
and Other Stories and Other Stories_ might be the right choice for a book
to recommend for someone who has never tried Wolfe before.  It has some
very excellent stories and doesn't require reading 4+ books to get an
entire story.



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