Off the Shelf—“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories”

By Marcus Pan

Chain Border

The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other StoriesNo, I didn’t repeat myself on the title of this Off the Shelf column – though at first I thought the book did. But that is the proper title, as it’s a collection of Gene Wolfe’s short stories and the first one is entitled The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories. Why Wolfe didn’t use, say, Hour of Trust as part of the title of this book, or any of the other fourteen choices here, is beyond me.

Though I have heard of Gene Wolfe before, a prominent psycho-sci-fi writer of the 70s and 80s, I never read any work by the author until this collection. And I must say, it was probably the worst way to delve into his work for the first time. While Wolfe’s stories are brilliantly written and very astute, the subject matter really goes far into psychiatric tirades that, regardless of its being quite fascinating, can leave those expecting some hard science fiction to be at a big disadvantage. The stories are also very convoluted, many without a discernible opening and a discernible closing – a smattering of the middle of something that should have been longer.

We start the collection with the story named on the cover. In this story, the characters of a young boy’s books and comics steps out into his life to guide him with subtle verbal cues and hidden meanings. It doesn’t have much of a discernible beginning or end, so it was kind of a slough through. Alien Stones is a harder sci-fi space-faring story, but again the psychology is the forefront of the tale. This one is rather well done and worth the read, however, especially the ideas of creating non-essential co-captains as a training method.

Tracking Song is a longer and fine tale of, what I seem to gather, a post-apocalyptic world in which a man is thrown from his modern “sleigh” into a world of near-Paleolithic human tribes. His fight for survival, and his traveling after the “sleigh” to find out why he was dropped off, leads you on some interesting adventures and into some interesting characters. Seven American Nights is a strange tale that also takes place in a latter-day United States. A traveler from Europe comes to the states for research and discovery to find himself enamored by an actress who performs at a local theatre. His discovery of just how different Americans can be from other more civilized portions of the world is a very dark story to read, though it leaves many questions hanging without answer and abruptly ends with only a nod towards writing a final word to the story, and not really writing it to any level of completion.

Wolfe is a difficult author to read and unless you’re already familiar with writers like George Orwell (Animal Farm(1)) or Herman Hesse (Steppenwolf(2)) you’ll have a tough time of it. I did find the dialogues of the stories extremely fascinating, such as the conversations between Doctor Island and Nicholas in The Death of Dr. Island (not to be confused with the first story emblazoned on the book’s cover, or the near-the-end The Doctor of Death Island) and there is a darkness that pervades every word, sentence and paragraph throughout. But if you’re looking for hard science fiction – Asimov, Anthony, etc. – then you’ll have to head elsewhere for your fix.

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“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories” by Gene Wolfe
Copyright © 1980 by Gene Wolfe
A Timescape Book
Published by Pocket Books, a Division of Simon & Shuster, Inc.
ISBN: 0-671-49516-X

(1) Reviewed in Legends #109.
(2) Reviewed in Legends #131.

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