Gene Wolfe is one of science fiction’s most unique voices. Effortlessly able to weave the building blocks of literary fiction into his genre work, the resulting allusions and abstract story elements often leave passive readers mystified. But for that portion of the reading population who seek to engage with a text—to ruminate upon the forking paths of meaning and purpose—his stories are a joy. 1973’s The Death of Doctor Island is perfect example of the author’s work in novella form.
The Death of Doctor Island is the surreal story of Nicholas Kenneth de Vore and his time on a empty island. Calling itself Dr. Island, a voice whispers to him from the surf, from the leaves, and even from the monkeys that live in the jungles along the beach he calls home. Savagely beaten in the opening pages by a man named Ignacio, Nicholas runs into a deranged young woman named Diane in pursuit of vengeance. Though explaining to him the nature of life on the small, uninhabited island, everything still seems too disconnected to proceed with purpose. Shown strange secrets in the jungle by the Doctor, things come to a head when running into Ignacio once again.
Attempting to interpret The Death of Doctor Island may be an effort in futility. So few of the summaries and reviews I have encountered online even make an attempt at it, most choosing to gloss over plot. David McWilliam on Strange Horizons takes a stab, however: the novella is an examination of the autonomy of young adults and the relativism of sanity in relation to societal norms. The introduction to the version of the novella I read (uncredited) holds the opinion there is a great deal of Jungian/Freudian allusion underpinning the novella. Given the choice of characters, setting, and latent symbolism, it’s possible to nod one’s head in agreement with either of these two perspectives. But for what it’s worth, I will throw in my two cents regarding the novella’s theme based on the limited knowledge I have of Wolfe’s fiction.
Knowing Wolfe’s views of the cosmos at large and his tendency toward bildungsromans of the most indirect variety, I am of the opinion The Death of Dr. Island is a religious coming-of-age story, perhaps even enlightenment itself. I agree with both McWilliam and the unknown writer who introduced the story that elements of realizing one’s own autonomy and mommy/daddy issues potentially exist in the story. Diane spends time with Nick explaining to him the world and Ignacio’s form of ‘education’ is sparse yet punitive, which would seem to strengthen the hypothesis they are parental figures. (For those who have read the novella, I am aware this is an indirect accusation that Wolfe does not have a high opinion of women. But given his propensity for rendering them either sniveling hags or voluptuous sex objects, I am willing to stick with the idea.) Going further, Dr. Island’s incorporeal omnipresence in nature points to he/she/it being a god, God, or simply a metaphor for universal understanding. But no matter how you spin it, ultimately it is the good doctor which guides and assures Nick as to his path in life. Given the triumvirate these represent in Nicholas’ life (mother-father-god) and the situation they all find themselves at the climax, I’m also willing to stick my neck out and say the novella is a coming into adulthood via spirituality. With that I digress and will let the reader form their own opinion, sufficing to say the presentation leaves an intriguing amount of room for multiple interpretations. (There is perhaps even room for a Garden of Eden interpretation—but no, I truly digress.)
In the end, The Death of Doctor Island is an allusive gem of a story ripe with possibility. It can be read and re-read, potential sub-texts revealing themselves each time. Certainly Wolfe knows the real intent but is too coy to let on what the simple yet effective mix of characters, setting, and symbolism are all about. Written in the author’s ever deceptively simple, confident hand, this really and truly is a story for those who enjoy pondering literary science fiction/fantasy.