The Death of Dr. Island

Publication History

  • First publication
  • Wolfe collections
  • Other reprints
    • Nebula Award Stories 9, ed. Kate Wilhelm, Harper & Row 1974
    • The Best Science Fiction of the Year #3, ed. Terry Carr, Ballantine 1974
    • The Best from Universe, ed. Terry Carr, Doubleday 1984
    • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IV, ed. Terry Carr, Avon 1986
    • Fugue State / The Death of Dr. Island, Tor Double 1990
    • Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois, St. Martin's 1994
    • Visions of Wonder, ed. David G. Hartwell and Milton T. Wolf, Tor 1996
    • The Locus Awards: Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan, Eos 2004
  • Awards
    • Winner, Nebula Award for Best Novella, 1973
    • Winner, Locus Award for Best Novella, 1974
    • Nominee, Hugo Award for Best Novella, 1974

Wolfe's comments

  • In an interview with Melissa Mia Hall, reprinted in Shadows of the New Sun by Peter Wright, Wolfe said of this story: "Well, the first one, as you probably know, was a Nebula nominee. That was 'The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories' and it was the only story, as far as I know, that lost to No Award... I was talking to Joe Hensley (who's a good friend of mine who I haven't seen in years) and he said you ought to write one called 'The Death of Doctor Island' because everyone would say -- hey, here's a second shot at it, right? I didn't believe him, but it sounded like such a cute idea that I started thinking about how I could turn the original story around and reverse a lot of the roles and have a different story that was sort of a mirror image of the first one. And I did it and it turned out Joe was right, it did win a Nebula."
  • In an interview with Robert Frazier, also reprinted in Shadows of the New Sun, Wolfe said, "...I decided to take Joe up -- which I figured would blow his mind -- and do a thematic inversion of my earlier story. I had had a very nice sort of little boy; I would have a very nasty sort: thus Tackie/Nicholas. I had had a doctor who looked like a villain; I would have one who was one but looked real good: thus Dr. Death/Dr. Island. I had a real, somewhat gritty island on the Atlantic coast; I would have an artificial island on an artificial world; thus Settler's Island/Dr. Island. And so on and so forth."
  • In the same interview, Wolfe also answered the question: "Is the story 'The Doctor of Death Island' a twist on the material generated in the previous two 'Death' stories?" by saying: "Sure, that what made it so hard to write."

Terry Carr's foreword from Universe 3, 1973.


by Gene Wolfe

This fascinating novelette by Gene Wolfe is the story of a strange young boy who moved his head continually from side side, as certain reptiles do, and of what happened between him and two others on a man-made satellite circling Jupiter. It may be the oddest sequel in science fiction: two years ago Wolfe wrote a short story titled "The Island of Dr. Death," which was nominated for a Nebula Award; Wolfe wondered what kind of story he might devise if he turned the themes and character types upside down, and the result was the tale below. It’s totally unconnected with the earlier story in any conventional sense; it’s complete in itself and has no characters, background or situation from the other story. It might be regarded as a fugue-sequel on earlier themes... or you could ignore such quasi-technical jargon and read the story purely for itself: a richly inventive tale of people in an intriguing new environment.


  • The four poems quoted in "The Death of Dr. Island" contain images of islands and the sea, exile and isolation, and the tranquil beauty of nature.
    • The epigraph is Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem Heaven—Haven, subtitled "A nun takes the veil." The poem relates a nun's feelings upon entering the convent to those of a sailor upon finding safe harbor. The poem is misquoted: 'havens' is replaced with 'heavens', possibly in reference to mankind in space needing a refuge.
    • The first quote is from Milton's Il Penseroso, a poem that praises a life of isolation, contemplation, and melancholy. It is loaded with classical references. The "missing thee" reference in context is to Philomel, the nightingale. In mythology Philomel was raped and was transformed into a nightingale when she fled her rapist. The poem is quoted by Dr. Island to Diane, foreshadowing her fate. There is also a reference to being "led astray" -- as when Dr. Island lies to them,
    • The second quote is from Tennyson, Enoch Arden. Enoch Arden is a sailor who becomes shipwrecked. His wife Annie remarries his childhood friend Phillip. The names "Enoch" and "Nick" sound similar, as do "Annie" and "Diane." Her last name is Phillips, or "Phillip's" -- Nick loses her to another man in the worst possible way.
    • The final quote is a translation of a haiku by Bashō. The haiku juxtaposes the image of the rough waters of the Sea of Japan between the mainland and Sado Island--an island where undesirables were exiled--with the tranquil image of the Milky Way. Metaphorically this could be Nicky, exiled within silent Kenneth.
  • "I was watching Satan fall as lightning from heaven" is from the Bible, Luke 10:18 (Douai version) -- Jesus is admonishing the disciples who take pride in being able to dismiss evil spirits.
  • "For the love of God, Montressor" is from Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado', which has nothing obvious to do with armadillos other than the similarity of word. [Unless I'm missing a cultural reference here... -- Mo.]

Characters and Onomastic Significances

  • Nicholas Kenneth de Vore (Nick, Nicky, Kenneth): "Nicky" may refer to "Enoch," the cast-away husband of Annie in Enoch Arden. "Kenneth" is anglicized from Gaelic and may mean "born of fire." As a suffix, "-vore" (as in "carnivore") means "devour," which in turn sounds like "de Vore."
  • Dr. Island: The name may refer to the saying that "No man is an island." Dr. Island is not a man; he/she is inhuman in his moral distance.
  • Ignacio (Patrão): Nicholas must call him "Patrão," meaning "boss" and etymologically linked to "father." The latin "ignus" means "fire." Ignacio keeps a fire, "stolen" from "Poseidon," constantly burning "under the big palm log."
  • Diane Phillips: "Diane" may refer to "Annie," the wife of Enoch Arden. Annie becomes Phillip's wife (hence, "Phillips") after Enoch fails to return home. The name "Diane" derives from "Diana" the Roman goddess equivalent to the Greek Artemis. In the version of the myth most relevant to "The Death of Dr. Island," Artemis and Apollo were twins born beneath a palm on the floating island of Delos, which Poseidon anchored to the sea floor with four columns.


  • The many allusions to classical poetry and mythology may be one of the thematic inversions of the story as compared to The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, which was influenced by the pulps and H.G. Wells.
  • "The Death of Dr. Island" makes several references to the myth surrounding the birth of Artemis and Apollo upon the floating island of Delos, using a complex analogy linking Dr. Island to the island of Delos, and to the gods Poseidon and (depending which version of the myth one reads) Zeus. "Poseidon" is Ignacio's name for the many-legged robot he encounters underwater. The robot/"Poseidon" had been incapacitated while repairing one of the immense cables that anchors Dr. Island, analogous to the god Poseidon's columns that anchor Delos to the sea floor. From this deceased robot/"Poseidon," Ignacio obtains a nuclear welder which he uses to start a fire "under the big palm log," which seems to refer to the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo beneath the single palm upon Delos. Note that "Kenneth" may mean "born of fire." If Nicholas/Kenneth is in some sense born of the fire Ignacio ("Patrão"/father) maintains "under the big palm log," then this seems to link him to the god Apollo. Diane is linked to Artemis by her name, which derives from "Diana," Artemis's Roman equivalent. Nick may seem an odd type for Apollo, but the original Apollo was a god of plague before he became a god of healing.
  • The mother of Artemis and Apollo was a Titan, the goddess Leto (one of the mistresses of Zeus). Dr. Island is the "goddess" of that artificial world (Nick says, "You talk like a woman; are you a woman?" and compares the beauty of the place to an Easter egg he was given by his mother.)
  • There was a real island called Delos sacred to the Greeks. No food grew there (like Dr. Island's island). Also, they purified the island by not permitting any graves there. Diane's body is burned to ash and washed away by the flood.
  • Wolfe seems to be playing with the typical sf "Return to the Garden" scenario. The story takes place in a time when humanity has colonized heavily off-planet, metaphorically leaving Eden. This colonization has resulted in a dramatic increase in mental health disorders among the colonists, and the island has been designed as an experiment in therapy. Dr. Island tells Nicholas that the simple jungle and beach setting is better than anywhere on earth actually is anymore, but that it is nonetheless designed to represent an idealized representation of life on earth. But the Garden imagery is ultimately ironic: the God of this Garden is interested only in the utility of its inhabitants, values one's life above the others, and generally seems to have a disturbing lack of morality.
  • The Eden imagery leads to an association with that lesser "fall of Man," the story of Cain and Abel. The Cain figure, Ignacio, ultimately leaves the Island in the end, just as Cain travels "east of Eden"; however Ignacio is not banished for his murder like the original Cain, but rather is released as a "cured" patient. Diane, perhaps the most "human" character in the story, has been sacrificed with Dr. Island's consent, and Dr. Island is willing to sacrifice Nicholas as well; Dr. Island ends up obliterating Nicholas's consciousness. Dr. Island's justification is that two "non-operational models" have been given up to make one that is operational, and within the program's parameters of "normal."


  • "The Death of Dr. Island" is one of the "Wolfe Archipelago"-stories whose titles each contain the words "death," "doctor," and "island" in some order.
  • There was a film version of 'The Death of Dr. Island' in the works; however, the project seems to have stalled in post-production.

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