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The Doctor, the Island, and Death

The main purpose of this essay is to link together the following set of stories by Gene Wolfe.

The Death of Dr. Island
Death of the Island Doctor
The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories
The Doctor of Death Island

The mathematically inclined will notice that the titles make up four of the six possible permutations of three elements.

Recently I noticed that each of the three elements has a plausible opposite, so that the titles can be inverted. For example, The Death of Dr. Island becomes The Life of Nurse Lake. My favorite along these lines is

Lake of the Lively Nurse.

This amuses me not only because it sounds racy but also because it reminds me of Lake of the Long Sun, also by Gene Wolfe.

It is pleasing that two of the three opposite elements start with the same letter, just as the original elements do. (For more about the idea of preservation of form as well as content, see Le Ton beau de Marot … and note that the inversion operation can be thought of as a kind of translation!) Strangely, it is even more pleasing to me that it is not the corresponding elements that start with the same letter; if they did, it would just be boring.

A closing thought: isn't it odd that it sounds more natural to name someone Doctor Death than Doctor Life? Or, since “doctor” is just a title, isn't it odd that we personify death more easily than life? (There is an interesting take on personification toward the end of Cryptonomicon.)


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@ March (2000)