Gene Wolfe, “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970) (~15 pp)
Winter comes to water as well as land, though there are no leaves to fall. The waves that were a bright, hard blue yesterday under a fading sky today are green, opaque, and cold. If you are a boy not wanted in the house you walk the beach for hours, feeling the winter that has come in the night; sand blowing across your shoes, spray wetting the legs of your corduroys. You turn your back to the sea, and with the sharp end of a stick found half buried writer in the wet sand Tackman Babcock.
In second person, the story addresses the boy Tackman, who lives in a remote seashore house with his ailing mother and her younger, Jaguar-driving boyfriend, Jason. In town Tackman wants a pulp novel from the drugstore, and Jason steals it for him. The narrative then alternates passages from the book Tackman reads, with the events going on around him in the house, events which he does not entirely understand (such as a lewd remark by Jason about how soft Tackman’s mother is).
In the storybook, a dashing Captain Philip Ransom, lost at sea, washes up on a remote island run by Doctor Death, who, in the manner of Dr. Moreau, is experimenting on turning animals into humans, the humans into…something else.
In the morning after starting the book, Tackman goes out to walk along the beach, and sees Captain Ransom on the beach (or thinks he does).
In Tackman’s world, a Dr. Black visits his mother, along with two aunts, one on his mother’s side of the family, one of the father’s. His mother has divorced recently and the father’s aunt is anxious for her to remarry. At a restaurant, Tackman stands on the balcony, leaning over the rail. Dr. Death is there.
“While you were looking down, I slipped from between the pages of the excellent novel you have in your coat pocket.”
Tackman is worried that Captain Ransom is here and will kill him. Dr. Death replies,
“Hardly. You see, Tackman, Ransom and I are a bit like wrestlers; under various guises we put on our show again and again—but only under the spotlight.”
Further passages from the storybook alternate with activities at the house, as preparations are made for a costume party, one which we see involves drugs and open sex. [There’s a sniff of disapproval of ‘60s culture here, by the straight-laced, Catholic Wolfe.]
But during the party Dr. Death — or whoever is there whom Tackman identifies with him — takes Tackman to his mother’s room, where Dr. Black is injecting her… with something. Alarmed, Tackman races outside to the next house and has the police called.
Later, authorities try to explain what was going on (something about amphetamines). Tackman only partially understands. Dr. Death asks what’s wrong. Tackman doesn’t want the book to end. Dr. Death replies,
“But if you start the book again we’ll all be back. Even Golo and the bull-man.”
“Certainly.” He stands up and tousels your hair. “It’s the same with you, Tackie. You’re too young to realize it yet, but it’s the same with you”.
I thought of this story again recently – a story I’ve reread a handful of times over the years since it was first published – as being a story about stories. The commentary in James Gunn’s 4th Road to Science Fiction anthology characterizes it as about “the joys of escape reading”, but I think it’s a bit more complex than that. Tackman doesn’t just read his storybook to ‘escape’ things he doesn’t understand — he incorporates characters from the storybook into situations in finds himself in in the real world.
All fiction, whether we think of it as ‘escape reading’ or not, is to some extent a simplification into human terms situations among humans, or between humans and the universe, which typically are more complex than any story. That’s why, for instance, filmmakers are so eager to dramatize real events, such as in Flight 93, and last year’s Sully, and a forthcoming TV production about the recent Oakland warehouse fire. We understand the events from news reports, but we don’t fully absorb them until they are retold with the proper dramatic flourishes that emphasize the ‘meaning’ of what might otherwise seem merely random and inexplicable.
Wolfe’s story isn’t exactly science fiction or fantasy at all – it’s a psychological story about how a young boy interprets the world, in which the interpretation happens to come from a pulp science fiction story.
And as the final lines suggest, this kind of thing will inevitably happen again and again. Not only is all fiction escapist in a way, so are the narratives we tell ourselves about the meaning of our society or tribe or individual role in life. It’s in human nature to constantly cast every aspect of the universe into terms that make sense as interactions among humans.
Not only is science fiction not necessarily ‘escapist’ in the crude sense of that charge, on the contrary the best of it suggests that the familiar ordinary ways we humans understand the world around us are not the only ways, and may not apply at all. Just as science does.
I should mention that this story is infamous for being the victim of a famous awards mix-up comparable to the mis-announcement of the Best Picture Oscar a couple weeks ago. (Maybe that’s why the story occurred to me again.) For some reason the members of the SFWA, voting in the annual Nebula Awards, selected (through the ranked voting process the awards use) “No Award” over any of the seven nominated stories. (Perhaps because of the unusual number of nominated stories.) But the presenter — none other than Isaac Asimov — handed a list of all the nominees in order of finish, mistakenly announced that Wolfe’s story had won. And then embarrassedly retracted the announcement after an SFWA officer hurriedly pointed out his mistake.
sfadb.com: 1971 Nebula Awards
The story is available in:
Gene Wolfe’s collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories
James Gunn’s anthology The Road to Science Fiction #4