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From: "Robert Borski" <rborski@coredcs.com>
Subject: (urth) Silhouette
Date: Fri, 31 Jul 1998 22:03:23 

Given that in "Silhouette" we have a literal Deus ex machina--originally a
convention of stagecraft--plus a panoply of characters who are known only
by their first names or rank (the stuff of allegory), in addition to a
series of scenes that recapitulate Biblical events, from Genesis to the
Harrowing of Hell to the Second Coming, I'd like to suggest the following
about "Silhouette:" in my opinion it's meant to be read as the science
fiction equivalent of a medieval Mystery Play. Throw in a little Francis
Bacon--"Silhouette," after all, was originally published in an anthology
entitled NEW ATLANTIS--and keeping in mind that Bacon's central conceit
attempts to argue that science can be used to bolster religious tenets, I
think I might be ready to make an attempt at rendering sense of one of Gene
Wolfe's more enigmatic works. 

Mystery Plays, of course, were loosely based on Biblical events (or
medieval variations thereof), and so that's how I'd like to frame most of
my discussion. Also keep in mind Mystery Plays jumped around a lot--they
didn't always present events chronologically, and often juxtaposed time,
place and action, so you often got a hodge-podge of narrative skeins.

Johann, a lieutenant aboard an unnamed ship orbiting Neuerddraht, a planet
in the Algol system, is Silhouette's viewpoint character. He is crippled in
one leg like so many Wolfe characters (most people attempt to link this to
Wolfe's childhood bout with polio, but his maternal grandfather also had a
wooden leg), and so has Christlike qualities, but when we first meet him,
he's surrounded by the icefoam walls of his compartment. Icefoam, being a
polymer of water, is placental in nature; the ship is also constantly
rearranging itself--mitotic imagery. Both of these notions suggest the
instauration of a new universe. But this time around will God's first words
be "Fiat Lux" or the opposite: "Let darkness reign." And of course we
immediately note that the lights in Johann's apartment have begun to go
out--despite a maintenance check that asserts this is not so. I think it's
also important at this point to keep in mind a quote from another
Johann--St. John the Divine: "Men loved darkness rather than light, because
their deeds were evil." 

Neuerddraht--German for "New Earth Wire"--will be, if all goes well, the
new Eden. "Earth is sick" and Johann's ship is meant to find habitable
worlds to colonize. But while Neuerddraht has the verdure of Eden, it also
has unusually high ultraviolet--something more akin to hell. (Algol, in
fact, means Demon Star.) The "wire" in its title also links it back to the
overmonitor, which some of Johann's shipmates call God. "Wire" may as well
link back to the leisure satellite Pleasureworld--another sinister false
Eden (note how it's called Pleasureworld, not Heaven), with its garden (the
Forest of Trees) grown from recycled ordure. (Cf. Johann urinating into and
drinking from the same recycler.) 

In the next pageant of the Mystery Play, Johann plays Adam. (Somebody once
asked where the phrase God's Fingers originated--I always thought it
related to the following passage from Silhouette: "In Michelangelo's
painting The Creation of Adam, a floating Jehovah stretches forth his hand
to the reclining Adam.") Playing not Eve, but Lilith, is the ship's Captain
(who's never named). She drugs Johann and they copulate, but Johann
hallucinates that he's making love to Marcella (fr. Don Quixote?), a
former, truer love--his Eve--so in a sense he's remaining faithful, at
least in his mind. The forbidden knowledge motif here is carnal, not
fructive. It's also mentioned that the Captain has not often availed
herself sexually of Johann because his leg wound (which symbolizes Christ)
turns her off. Lilith also appears in Goethe's Faust (as do the triumvirate
of Grit-Gerta-Gretchen in Margarete). Having been the one to disconnect the
overmonitor--"God"--she also represents the Miltonian rebel of heaven,
Lucifer. And in the end she attempts to lead "awakened" marines--other
rebellious angels--to the New Eden (but which is actually Hell).

More Genesis links: the overmonitor disobeying verbal commands and
rephrasing questions, as well as its dispersal to other machines during its
attempted disconnection, recalls the tower of Babel and what happened
there, with the diaspora of post-Edenic tongues.

There's also a huge tie-in with Sodom and Gomorrah. Most of the ship's crew
appears to be bisexual, although Johann refuses the advances of both Karl
and Emil. Yet another crewmember who refuses to partake in this
anything-goes-licentiousness is Anna, a former undercook who's committed
suicide--might we not expect such behavior from someone named after the
mother of the Blessed Virgin? Johann thus represents Lot here; and when
he's on Neuerddraht (where a city much like ruined Sodom is later found),
he's told that if he turns around and looks, the alien ghost he's
channeling will become unavailable to him, recalling Lot's wife and her
transubstantiation (she becomes a eucharist of salt, no?). Johann also has
a difficult time disengaging his emotions from those with whom he has
casual sex; i.e., he needs love to make coitus spiritually rewarding.

Christ's Passion is the next event in the Silhouette Mystery Play. Johann
transported via astral projection to Neuerddraht represents Christ's walk
in the Garden of Gethsemane. The scratches he receives there represent
Christ's scourgings and the crown of thorns. The computer reports him as
being either missing or dead; this is the time immediately after
crucifixion, where Johann as Christ harrows Hell--a very popular motif in
Mystery Plays (in fact, the earliest known English Mystery Play is entitled
The Harrowing of Hell). Here his alien companion represents the souls Jesus
succors from the fires of damnation. The name "Johann" here also recalls
Johann Sebastian Bach, not only because of his fugal walks, but because
Bach suggests yet another harrower of hell, Orpheus, who's also counciled
to look straight ahead (but who still loses Eurydice in the end).
Johann/Christ returns to the ship (the Resurrection), and with the alien at
his side, and with a few loyal crewmembers (note how his affection
transfers from Grit to Gerta ["Pearl"]--another transubstantiation image,
but more positive), and is able to carry the day (the Second Coming). His
first act as Captain? To turn their ship away from the false Eden/Hell of
Neuerddraht, and chart a new course for elsewhere. It's now the redemptive
Eighth Day (as the title of one of Johann's books by Thorton Wilder

As for Wolfe's rather Baconian attempt at explaining astral projection in
terms of quantum/temporal mechanics, this fits in with the New Atlantis
angle I mentioned earlier, and makes it seem less "New Agey" in some
respects, at least in regards to some of the other beliefs advocated by the
various cult factions. But less so is the silhouette of the title--the
alien ghost/familiar Johann channels. Is his ability to host the alien
based on his belief in "God"? (The word, according to the alien, exists in
Johann's brain--unlike his shipmates, who use books like gambling chips,
Johann reads, which also recalls, as I've argued before, the Gospel of St.
John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
Word was God.") Does the alien symbolize the soul and all things spiritual?
Is it the shadow of the Almighty, and Johann its priest-king summoner? Is
Johann with his Covenant a benign Johannes Faustus?

Perhaps there's a clue in the entymology of mystery, at least as it relates
to Mystery Plays, for here the keyword does not derive from mysterium, but
ministerium, the same word which gives us minister.

Johann as minister; Wolfe as magister. The curtain lowers. Who knows what
the next Mystery Play by our favorite lupine may depict? 

Robert Borski 

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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