'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

This Warrior of a Dead World - Gene Wolfe's literary portrait of Neil Armstrong

As the world marks the passing of a great astronaut, it is highly interesting to note that Gene Wolfe actually wrote something of a literary portrait of none other than Neil Armstrong himself (or a character very like him, in echo of his famous historical pose).  The scene makes something very familiar suddenly very strange.  It gives us a Chestertonian surprise in which we glimpse our own world through the eyes of another world's inhabitant, when we least expected it.  It is one of Wolfe's most iconic moments in his masterwork, The Book of the New Sun, the epic tale of a far future 'Urth' that has advanced so far in technology that it has gone galaxy-hopping with intergalactic civilisations and left the remaining inhabitants of 'Urth' and its dying sun in a Dark Age backwater where the decayed remnants of technology look like magic to their benighted and barbaric communities.  The relevant scene appears early on in the first volume of this tetralogy, The Shadow of the Torturer. The protagonist, Severian, is walking one day through the great hallway of the Citadel's picture gallery, lined 'with innumerable pictures', and comes across a picture cleaner restoring a particular portrait that Severian says intrigued him:

'The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape.  It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.  The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

'This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt.  In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it - not into our necropolis but into one of those mountain forests of which our necropolis was (as I understood even then) an idealized but vitiated image.  It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.'

-Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), ChapterV, 'The Picture-Cleaner and Others'

12 comments:

TheSaxonHus said...

But I don't believe this specific picture is Neil Armstrong. I guess it doesn't make a difference to the post but seems strange to use it when discussing Armstrong. Surely there is a similar picture of him somewhere.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ahhhh, thanks so much for pointing that out! I was misled by the caption under that photo on the site I got it from. Definitely my fault for not checking my sources better. Turns out the picture I had up was from the Apollo 17 mission, I believe.

I *think* I've got Neil Armstrong up there now. Although Wolfe could have been referring to Buzz Aldron (or, indeed, as I said, perhaps one of a number of lunar landings in similar pose).

Duglas said...

Pretty sure that is a picture of Buzz Aldrin. Neil was the one taking all the pictures (so, you can actually see his reflection in the helmet).

Not that that changes the tenor of your post, really!

Duglas said...

Oh, picture changed... now I am not so sure!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I've tried to correct it - hopefully the one above is now Armstrong. The famous one of Aldrin is here, I think:

Link text

Todd said...

This was a really moving part of Shadow for me; the concept itself is mindblowing. Any doubts about this being a 'future Earth' are erased with one quick swipe by this passage.
Just for fun, this is the picture that popped into my head:
http://newsjunkiepost.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/Last_Moon_Walk_Apollo17_640x480.jpg



Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, a major moving and mindblowing moment in the book for me also, Todd.

I guess 'alternate Urthers' could still argue that Urth was bound to have similar moonlanding's to Earth's given that they too grew into a space-faring race. (I'm not initially keen to embrace 'alternate Earth' theories myself - Severian's planet seems more straightforwardly to be our own future Earth to me as you say. But I'm open to being persuaded otherwise.)

Declan Stylofone said...

I have just re-read The Shadow of the Torturer for the first time since the 1980s. I also recently read First Man, a great biography of Neil Armstrong. That passage in Wolfe's novel provided a rare moment of transparency... I immediately thought of Armstrong. It is rendered in the official graphic novel of the book with similar clarity, an image from our era leaping out from the strangeness of Nessus. There is a slight problem though... There are almost no photos of Armstrong on the moon, as Buzz Aldrin was too busy to take them. Armstrong took the time to snap all the best pics from the surface of the moon and were all of Aldrin. Not that it really matters in the context of a mind-bendingly good SF novel.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thank you for that resonant meditation, Declan. I guess this comment thread proves that Wolfe was not so much portraying Armstrong himself, but a figure like him, in a pose very like the famous one we're all familiar with (or the composite in our minds of various similar poses). I'd heard about this graphic novel of New Sun and wondered if it was real. I must see it some day. Is it just of the first volume, Shadow of the Torturer, or more volumes? Thanks again.

Christopher Walborn said...

Perhaps he was referencing the Robert McCall mural at the Smithsonian. Here's one URL I found for it:

https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2889/9916286506_5cec61665b_b.jpg

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hm, I'm guessing not, Christopher, as I think Wolfe would have mentioned the planet-scape painted in the background - plus he seems to say he held only the flagpole and also that the visor is all gold (as it is not in the painting at the link). But I have often wondered if the 'pictures' in the gallery were paintings or photographs.

Christopher Walborn said...

Yes, evocatively neutral term, "pictures." But at least some must be other than photographs. Rudesind mentions Fetchin's image of "three girls dressing another one with flowers that's so real you expect the bees to come out of it." That's how we speak about realistic paintings, not photographs. Even allowing for cultural developments and lost technology Rudesind goes on to say that Quartillosa "was a better draughtsman than the drippers and spitters they're wild for today." Also, his work is in cleaning the images to brighten them—this is how one preserves paintings, and not so much photos. Plus, how long is a photo print going to last? Even an archival print fades in time. It doesn't darken so much as lose contrast, and cleaning won't help that, instead a new print would need to be made from the films, and even those won't last forever without degrading.