The Lost Canticles of Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Walter M. Miller, Jr., is an enigmatic figure in mid-century American science fiction. An engineer with World War II flying experience, who wrote science fiction of a technophilic variety, he also studded his stories with allusions, clear and cloudy, to the Judeo-Christian tradition, generally bathed in a generous light. A commercial writer who boasted a million words by 1955, including scripts for television’s Captain Video, he came to write progressively more complex, sophisticated, problematic stories until, having more or less perfected his art, he stopped writing at the pinnacle of his success, at the age of 36. A Southern Catholic, born in Florida in 1923, he wrote his best-known work about a future order of monks founded in Arizona in the name of a Jewish engineer.
Miller restricted almost all of his writing to science fiction; in a short career, reaching from January, 1951, through August, 1957, forty-one stories (listed below, in the Appendix, as ##1-41) appeared in the American science-fiction magazines over Miller’s by-line.1 Three of these were later (1960) to comprise his award-winning novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz; three others were collected in 1962 under the title of one of them, Conditionally Human; and another nine were assembled in 1964 under the title The View from the Stars (see B1, B2, B3 in the Appendix). The two collections are out of print, as are most of the anthologies in which at least seven other Miller stories (along with nine of the fifteen in the three books) have been reprinted. A goodly number of these stories are worth looking into, either for some intrinsic value, or in connection with his best work; the themes and motifs of Canticle had a long period of incubation. And even Miller’s worst were often better than the accumulations of words that filled up to thirty magazines in 1952 and thirty anthologies of science fiction stories in 1954.2 Since 1957, however, Miller’s name has been associated with no new science fiction, and very little writing for the public of any kind.3 It may be that his novel obsessed him, draining off his writing energy; it may be that it set him a standard he felt unable to maintain; perhaps it expressed so well the themes which concerned him that its completion left him nothing to say. Even if other concerns entirely apart from writing took him away from science fiction, it must be inferred that his reasons involved what satisfaction he was or was not getting from writing.4 In reviewing his career, then, it is impossible to ignore Canticle as the culmination of a decade’s work, but it would probably be unwise to assume that everything that preceded it was in some way directed toward that final achievement.
The biographical information available on Miller is sketchy indeed: an early autobiographical sketch accompanying "Dark Benediction" in the September, 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures; a brief portrait in the June 1, 1958 Library Journal (3:1769); an entry in Donald H. Tuck’s A Handbook of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2nd ed. (Hobart, Tasmania: privately published, 1959); the dust jacket of Canticle; and headnotes in the March, 1957, issue of Venture, and in anthologies edited by T.E. Dikty, Judith Merril, and William F. Nolan comprise the lot which I have been able to unearth. But his personal experiences and the ambience of the decade in which he wrote are certainly discernible in his fiction. His Southern origins, his wartime flying, his engineering education, his reading of history and anthropology, and his personal vision of his religion are all reflected in some of his stories. How his more private life might be involved is conjectural, but the social environment of America in the years following World War II is eminently visible.5 In that war, a technological elite had come to power, had defeated an evil enemy of seemingly archetypal proportions, and had emerged with a vision of unlimited energy and growth in peacetime. Today’s harbingers of ecotastrophe are one ironic result of that blind faith in progress, but the destructive use of atomic power had already shown the negative side of technology, its potential to bring about a culture with a forcibly much lower level of technology, which implied a corresponding social regression. The disillusionment of the postwar decade was not long in coming either, with the Cold War turning hot in Korea, paranoia about national security (the Rosenberg trial, McCarthyism, the blacklist in show business), suburban sameness and an obsession with conformity. Conformity, security, overpopulation, hot and Cold wars all figure in Miller’s stories, though the dominant themes, an interrelated pair, are socio-technological regression and its presumed antithesis, continued technological advance. All of these he treated with respect to their social implications, particularly for the United States, but perhaps more importantly, with regard to their effect on individual behavior, including that side of behavior which can only be termed religious.
Most science fiction writers and readers would probably accede to the dictum of Leslie A. Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel (Cleveland: World, 1962, p. 478) that science fiction "believes God is dead, but sees no reason for getting hysterical about it." To be sure, an explicit role for religion is not uncommon in science fiction. Numerous writers have used the Church as a vehicle of government or a front for revolutionary activity, in other words, as a political entity. For others, religion represents a storehouse of tradition, imagery, allusions, and riddles which they have looted for its trinkets or ornaments. Occasionally, as in C.S. Lewis’ trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, the science fiction becomes the ornament in an unabashed exercise in popular Christianity, attacking the popular beliefs associated with materialistic science and technology. The assumption in general, however, is that serious science fiction and serious religion don’t mix.6
This assumption also seems to have distorted critical discussions of Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz. Marketed simply as "a novel," it has been read as if it had little or no connection with science fiction, as if the author sprang full blown into the literary landscape in 1960, as an apologist for, or a would-be reformer of, medieval or modern Catholicism, before the winds of change which emanated from the Vatican Council convened by Pope John.7 Most published critiques take little note of the novel’s polyphonic structure, in which other viewpoints are given almost equal time and equal weight, with a special emphasis on the viewpoint associated with science and technology.8 Few of them have recognized his long apprenticeship in the science fiction magazines, and the continuity between the novel and what preceded it. In these stories, and I think in the novel as well, Miller comes across as an unashamed technophile, as well as a Catholic believer, however incongruous that combination may seem to opponents of either or both positions. In addition, the author is shown as a commercial writer learning his trade, willing to play along with the conventions and categories of magazine science fiction, while honing his tools so as to convert a craft into an art.
Miller’s development as an artist is not as easily demonstrated as is the thematic content of his stories. The book version of Canticle shows decided improvements in its three parts over their magazine versions, and the story, "Conditionally Human," has been revised upward for book publication, but other changes are less obvious. Since he uses the same themes more than once, some improvement in handling can be inferred, if the "improved" story was actually written after the "rougher" draft, something which it is impossible to know, given the vagaries of magazine publishing schedules, without direct information from the author himself. There is also a tremendous difference between the first and last science fiction stories Miller published, but the progress in between is very uneven, which may not be explained simply by the fact that dates of writing and publication do not coincide. In such a short career, the chronology of publication may be of limited value. The fact that his annual publication record from 1951 to 1957 was 7, 15, 5, 5, 5, 1, and 4 stories, novelettes, and short novels does suggest one obvious break in terms of rate of production. Moreover, although his best work is spread across the decade, the first two years have more than their share of trivia, impossible to take seriously but utterly lacking in humor. By contrast, the last five years show an increase in serious subject matter and a higher value placed on humor. That he did not always write fast is evident in Canticle, which was at least five years in the making. But its richness is foreshadowed by the increasing complexity of his later stories, which were published if not written at a considerably slower rate: only four were published after the first Leibowitz short novel. During these years there is evidence that Miller was learning how to illustrate a point more and to preach it less, learning how to avoid the most blatantly clichéd stereotypes and conventions, learning how to concentrate the reader’s interest on a single character immersed in an action the meaning of which transcends the individual. In addition, the growth of Miller’s ability to utilize humor more or less parallels the change in his writing to a more complex conception of the role of characters, and a more ambiguous and problematic approach to values, culminating in that work of utmost seriousness which is little short of a "comic" masterpiece. But this change, which I see as an improvement, is gradual and uneven, not a matter of simple chronology.
In examining Miller’s thematic concerns, and his maturation as an artist, I have almost disregarded the order of publication of his stories. In the pages that follow, we will begin with a rapid survey of most of his work under three thematic categories, (1) technological collapse and social regression, (2) "hard" technology and social advance, (3) "soft" or biological technology and social or psychological ambivalence; then, building on these summaries, continue with (4) a review of the role of religion in Miller’s fiction and (5) a survey of his growth as an artist culminating in a more detailed examination of his best stories; and finally conclude with (6) an estimate of his accomplishment.
1. The cyclical theme of technological progress and regress which is the foundation-stone on which A Canticle for Leibowitz is built is present in much of Miller’s earlier writing, too. Two stories foretell complete collapse of our civilization or race, two concern political stalemates in which technological progress is at least slowed, and five more involve directly the theme of rebuilding society after the collapse of technology.
The collapse stories are negligible accomplishments, both published in 1951. "The Little Creeps" describes from the viewpoint of a blustering general, how "energy creatures" from the future (tomorrow!) fail to get him to change several small actions within his control so as to avoid nuclear war and devastation of which they are a product. "The Song of Vorhu" is a grisly "love story" of a farther future in which a spaceship pilot tries to preserve some fragment of sanity and the human race from a nameless "plague"; seeking another" resurrection of mankind, he is haunted by disembodied lines from the Bible (Abraham and Sarah, the Messiah, the Red Sea, "What is man that thou art mindful of him," "lower than angels," "to have dominion," "from the mud of Earth").
The political satires are more considerable, as fictions, if not as science fictions. "Check and Checkmate" (1953) Places some promising satirical ideas in a setting so far removed from reality as to rob them of some of their sting. Extrapolating Cold War barriers forward several generations, Miller gives us an American president, John Smith XVI, who is selected rather than elected, who wears the golden mask of tragedy, and who must circulate among dozens of identical "Stand-Ins" to insure his anonymity and bodily safety. After forty years of Big Silence, he re-opens contact with the East, in the person of Ivan Ivanovitch IX, who wears a red mask (of Lenin), who literally "faces" Smith down (without masks) and who invites him to an Antarctic summit. While Congress convenes to conduct a "witch hunt," bringing thousands to "justice" for breaches of security, both sides trade charges but continue negotiations. Planning to launch an attack on the day of their meeting, Smith shows up with an explosive device strapped to his chest, only to find out what Ivan had meant when he said a certain discovery had eliminated both the need for "atomics" and the existence of the proletariat: Ivan himself is a robot. Miller makes no attempt at realism, maintaining only the tiniest bit of suspense before the manifest ability of technology, even when it is suppressed, to transcend security precautions conclusively reduces to the absurd that preoccupation of the Cold War era. "Vengeance for Nikolai" (1957) is only minimally science fiction, with no extrapolated technology, rather an implicit standstill. A tale of bizarre assassination, it concerns a Russian girl who carries poison in her breasts for the brilliant general of the American "Blue Shirt" invading forces. Marya is a creature of legend, Miller indicates, whose sheer intensity of purpose seems to get her through the lines without much damage. No didacticism, except for the warning against American fascism, detracts from the purity of her mission, vengeance for her dead baby channeled into an act of heroism on behalf of the Fatherland.
Miller’s first attempt at the theme of regression, "The Soul-Empty Ones," is a confusing blood-and-thunder melodrama, the coincidences of the plot shattering a degree of credibility built up by the relatively sensitive handling, of character and exposition. Primitive tribesmen on Earth are caving in to invaders from the sky, except for one, whose fortunes we follow, as he discovers his identity as an "android," and helps to rescue the "true men" from their Martian masters who have brought them back to resettle Earth. The rendering of primitive ritual and the determination of Falon to rise above submission to tradition are done reasonably well, but the distance to technological mastery is too great to be overcome with any believability.
In "The Reluctant Traitor," Miller’s viewpoint character is an intruder in the primitive society, a human on Mars who rebels against a restrictive city-state which forbids fraternizing with the natives. In exile, he learns more about the "androons," who turn out to be humans whose forebears came as Martian captives, and manages to reverse their defensive posture and to overturn the city government. The conclusion seems to promise an open frontier society like the Old West, but with a higher level of technology and some brotherly love, or at least mutual tolerance. The action is terrifically fast-paced, including some sexual and sado-masochistic titillation, but the conversion of the primitive androons on their flying bats into conquerors of a high-technology city-state is just not convincing.
Miller’s best variation on this theme is his shortest, "It Takes a Thief" (reprinted as "Big Joe and the Nth Generation"). Earth is no longer, and the remnants of Martian colonists have fallen back into scattered tribes which keep ancient knowledge fragmented by restricting it to ritualistic sayings "owned" one to a person. Asir has "stolen" the sayings of others, and has put enough together in his mind to realize that a catastrophe threatens unless the people regain control over the technology governing their life-support system. At the story’s beginning, he narrowly misses execution for theft and, not having learned his lesson, takes off with his girl friend on a flying "huffen" (jet-propelled by means of bellows-like lungs) for the sacred vaults. Hotly pursued, he nevertheless deciphers the system by which to get past the ancient robot guard (Big Joe) which kills one of his pursuers. Having advanced from the paradigm of magic to that of science, however primitive, he can now use the robot (technology) to help bring his tribe up to the knowledge which will be needed within twelve Mars-years to save the world.
The same story is told still another way in "Please Me Plus Three," which takes place on Earth, where the survivors of the catastrophe are primitives who worship Bel (the Bell communications satellite, whose pylons are cult centers). Another exiled hero, Ton, is befriended by outcasts, this time a band of wandering monks, who have kept alive some knowledge of the true nature of Bel and of the history of human society. He escapes from them, too, and after edging through an area irradiated by Bel’s peace-keeping efforts and coming upon some misshapen mutants, manages to take control of a repair-robot who has been waiting over 500 years for equipment and orders to fix pylon G(eorge)-86. Returning home "riding on an ass’s colt," Ton overpowers, with the help of George, the guardian of pylon G-80, and directly challenges Bel. The confrontation is partly electrical, partly mystical, as Ton and Bel seem to exchange personalities, so that Bel can be made to feel pain and, punished, explode. Restoration of human civilization apparently can proceed, but how we got to this point and through it is not at all clear.
Finally, in "The Yokel," Miller takes up a much less devastating and more localized case of regression. Technological haves and have-nots in the city and country, respectively, are at odds in a post-catastrophe low-grade kind of warfare. The hero’s equivocal actions take him to both sides of the border on land and in the air (he’s a frustrated veteran pilot), as a good sense of Northern Florida local color comes through. Although the hero’s survival may be in doubt, through all of the melodramatic maneuverings, the city’s victory never seems threatened. Its power supports a dilute utopian ideal of technological society without the problems posed by anti-technological inhabitants, who are kept outside. Undigested anthropology (Ruth Benedict) fails to supply a rationale for all of this action, but the hero’s opportunism is fairly convincing; from the beginning, he longs for a world in which "things work" again.
2. In none of these stories is there any hint that technological progress itself is to blame for the past or coming cataclysm, rather some shadowy kind of mismanagement seems to be responsible. No credible character argues against progress, and the most positive characters are always involved in rebuilding or at least preserving some semblance of technological civilization. In another dozen or so stories, technological advance is extrapolated from our present situation and, if not slavishly approved, at least favorably treated. Five of these tales treat what is perhaps the favorite of all science fiction themes, man’s getting into space. Six are concerned with controlling technology, which to some extent means being controlled by technology. In two stories, faith in technology is taken to almost mystical heights.
"No Moon for Me" is a shaggy-dog story, about a hoax that comes true. A voice from the moon has by its presence challenged mankind to get there, in order to confront the alien invaders. But the ship which is launched, amid prayers, last-minute instructions, and self-congratulations ("space opens tonight"), has one man on it who seems to desire its destruction. Colonel Denin, father of the American space program, was responsible for planting the voice’s transmitter, and his martyrdom is narrowly averted by the pilot, Major Long. Denin’s disgrace is also averted, however, because Long discovers alien footprints around the earlier rocket, and signs of another ship. As the third crew member, Dr. Gedrin, whimpers in his terror, "no moon for me," representing those who do not want space travel, Long mutters to him, the Colonel, and us: "You’ve got it, fellow. Like it or not."
"Cold Awakening" is a heavily melodramatic story of cops-and-robbers, plot-and-counterplot on board a starship about to take off on a 500 year journey with its occupants in suspended animation. Enmities build, unfounded rumors fly, and the "number two fuse," the back-up man who would be awakened in case of trouble (and die, long before arrival), is killed. Joley, the "main fuse," whose story this is, engages in some clever detective work, but lucks into the solution. Morphine addicts (a pet peeve of editor John Campbell’s) plan to wake up early and live it up, unable to face withdrawal on landing. Joley narrowly escapes a plot on his life and, thanks to a kind of shell game with the leads to the three fuses’ cold lockers, the evil Dr. Fraylin is cooked instead. The bad guys punished, the ship can depart, with Joley "promoted" to the status of colonist, and new "fuses" installed. The whole thing is very silly, the technological situation seemingly invented in order to make an irrational plot vaguely plausible, and to justify a tirade against drugs.
A kind of prose poem, "The Big Hunger" more or less establishes a rationale for some of Miller’s other stories of man’s evolution. A lyrical flight of fancy about space exploration, ostensibly narrated by the "spirit of adventure," this story alternates florid rhetoric and sentimental vignettes to take us far into the future, through several pendulum swings of expansion and contraction, as waves of explorers leave this world and others, while those who are left behind make peace with the land. A Stapledonian chronicle in miniature, it is largely successful in evoking that longing which Germans call Fernweh and one of the characters calls "the star-craze," a hunger which has always echoed through science fiction and which no amount of details about real space travel can ever satisfy. Echoes of this story, or of the concept it tries to dramatize, can be heard in the regression stories, in stories of human evolution, and in two elegies for the loss by certain individuals of the "freedom" of space.
"Death of a Spaceman" (usually reprinted as "Memento Homo") is a corny farewell to a man whose decrepit body lies in bed while his mind and his yearnings remain in space. Old Donegal is rough-tongued and cantankerous, a renegade Catholic who knows he’s dying but tries to humor his wife and the inevitable priest. Although he accepts reluctantly the administration of the last rites, his farewell ritual is hearing one last blastoff from the not-too-distant spaceport, for which a party next door is quieted down, and after which a solitary trumpeter plays "Taps." Miller admits he "translated" into science fictional terms the story of an old railroad man of his acquaintance, but the tale’s sentimentality is effective despite the transparent manipulations.9
A more ambitious version of the same theme is "The Hoofer." A more active character, Hogey Parker is also rambunctious and querulous, an unintentionally comic character on Earth, where he has come home one last time after squandering in a poker game and on alcohol his earnings as a touring entertainer (a tumbler or hoofer). Using Hogey’s drunken condition as a vehicle, the story uses flashbacks to cram a lot of detail into a small space. Although he is disagreeable. he earns some sympathy because of his genuine hunger for what he has lost, because he is a fish out of water, and because in his drunken stupor he stumbles into wet cement which hardens during the night and denies him any chance of ever returning to space. This story is also a kind of "translation"—Hogey could be an Earthside entertainer—but the sense of future advances, though on the periphery, is definitely present, counter-pointed by the backward wasteland which is his home on Earth.
By contrast to the peripheral role played by technology in those two stories, "I Made You" is a pure "sorcerer’s apprentice" sketch, about a war machine on the moon which kills anyone who comes within its range, including one of its programmers, because its control circuits are damaged. The reactions and "feelings" of Grumbler are included from one of several viewpoints, but no one or thing seems to matter very much. A more conventional Astounding puzzle-story, with Campbellian disdain for anti-technology forces, is "Dumb Waiter," an early attempt at comedy. In a future when cities have become completely automated, but people have been driven out of them by a war their machines continue to fight even without ammunition, Mitch Laskell enters one city to try to restore sanity to the man-machine interface. Whereas the crowd wants to destroy the central computer, Mitch, with his engineering background and technophilic orientation, only wants to reprogram it. To make the problem more urgent, Miller not only has the city threatening him, with its blind obedience to outmoded laws; he also introduces a young woman and child Mitch must try to rescue, while the crowd of Luddites are only one jump behind him. The behavior of this ingenue and of the villain seems to be turned on and off by a switch in the author’s hand, Mitch’s solution to the problem hardly requires "enlightened" cerebration, and the whole piece is a thinly disguised lecture on the need for men to learn to understand machines, so as to keep them in their place. A bit of slapstick action, in the simple-minded actions of the city and its robot cops, presumably is supposed to turn into gallows humor, but it is difficult to take anything here seriously enough for that.
Even more of a lecture, but one which seems to be heartfelt, and is not compromised by much in the way of "story values," is "Way of a Rebel," with the same protagonist, published two years later. Now a Navy lieutenant aboard a one man submarine, Mitch rejects orders to return to port when the autocratic American government issues an ultimatum to the Soviets. Unable to participate in the destruction of technological civilization (cf. "The Yokel"), he feels no compunction, however, about "destroying the destroyers," an oncoming fleet of Soviet submarines of which the American command is unaware, and sacrifices his own life in the process.
In three of his best stories, Miller sides with those who are to some extent victims of technological progress, in their coming to terms with the presumed advance of civilization. "Crucifixus Etiam," his best short piece, shows us a day laborer on Mars, whose lungs are being sacrificed to the dream of making Mars air breathable for colonists within a thousand years. This story will be examined later in more detail, as will "The Darfsteller," the Hugo award winning short novel about an ageing ham actor displaced by lifesize mannequins in a mechanized theatre of the future, and his attempt to beat the new technology at its own game. Not quite as successful is "The Lineman," Miller’s last published story, a "day in the life" of a worker on the Moon. In contrast to the "tragedies" of Manue Nanti and Ryan Thornier in the stories above, Relke’s experience is dark comedy, about the time a traveling whorehouse came from Earth and put the work force off schedule. Not everything is lighthearted Relke is threatened and beaten up by labor goons, two men are killed (one in a well executed scene of "black humor," when he takes a bottle of champagne from the whores’ ship into airless space) but the general tone is one of achievement, not just survival, in the midst of ever present danger. Though the line crew of the Lunar Power Project get to take a brief vacation, they are reminded forcibly that Lunar interdependence can not tolerate an Earthly margin of error or freedom. As one result of this venture in free enterprise, more women presumably will be allowed to come from Earth, but Relke personally learns something more fundamental from this series of mishaps. Besides educating him about sex and politics, this episode has taught him that "there was a God," whose creations of the universe and of human beings were on pretty equal footing.
This sense of faith is carried to extremes in two earlier stories. In "The Will," the impending death of a child is thwarted by his faith in the ability and the willingness of future time travelers to rescue and cure him after digging up his buried stamp collection. Although the premise is uncomfortably silly, the story is almost rescued by its mundane details: the parents’ grief, the boy’s addiction to the Captain Chronos television show, and the public relations use to which he is put by the program’s star and producers (based presumably on Miller’s own experiences with Captain Video). Technology veers into the supernatural, not just in the eyes of primitives, but in those of a computer scientist, in "Izzard and the Membrane." A Cold War melodrama, replete with brainwashing, counter-espionage, and the scientist’s defection, this short novel is full of action, much of it vague, that ends when the hero saves the West almost single-handedly. Some of the vagueness may be excusable, since one of the characters, the spiritual part of an "electronic brain" (i.e. the 11 membrane" attached to "Izzard" or "Izzy"), turns out to be God, or a reasonable analog. Enabling the hero to win, it then transports his "transor" (soul), and those of his immediate family, into a parallel universe, with orders to "increase and multiply."
3. As some of these stories show, Miller is not always sure that the fruits of technology will be as delicious as the planners contend, but the drive to progress is not to be halted, as it was in the stories of regression. In all cases, however, the technology was "hard," based primarily on the physical sciences. The Church, which has pretty much given up most claims to insert morality into physical science, has a much greater stake in the futures mankind is offered by the biological sciences. Correspondingly, questions of biological "advance" Miller treats with more circumspection; "progress" is a much more ambivalent quality in his "biological" stories. Seven of these concern intelligent aliens, all dangerous to man, some of which are clearly negative symbols of possible paths of man’s biological progress. Two stories, one of them involving aliens, concern the temptation and threat of telepathy. Seven others focus on other questions of possible human evolution, whether natural or forced, a distinction that breaks down under analysis.
Aliens were featured in "The Song of Vorhu," "The Soul-Empty Ones," and "No Moon for Me," and the possibility of aliens, or at least Unidentified Flying Objects, is a significant motif in "The Lineman," but few details are given. Details are also a little sparse in some of the other stories but the menace is plain enough. "The Space Witch" has hypnotic powers that disguise her true form from Kenneth Johnson, and allow her to masquerade as his estranged wife (who in fact has just drowned). Hunted by other aliens, she seeks refuge, endangering the Northeastern United States, but Ken, after a glimpse of her "true self" (with tentacles), hijacks her ship, condemning them to each other for good. Almost as jejune are three other alien stories. "The Triflin’ Man" (reprinted as "You Triflin’ Skunk") is an alien father of an Earth child who is coming to claim his offspring, causing the child nightmares and severe headaches. The child’s mother, however, a Southern country woman, drives away her one-time seducer with a shotgun.
"Six and Ten are Johnny" finds humans from the exploratory starship "Archangel" invading aliens. The planet "Nun" is inhabited by a world-girdling intelligent plant which ingests and learns to replicate humans. When it separates one of its progeny to make the trip back to Earth, it plans to take over that world from its unsuspecting hosts. Another alien who ultimately turns out to be dangerous, indirectly, is the "Martian" in "The Corpse in Your Bed is Me" (written in collaboration with Lincoln Boone). His sense of humor is so bizarre that a successful television comic feels compelled to make him laugh. Failing repeatedly, he declines and disappears, only to return, dead, as the only sure way to produce a Martian laugh. The "Martian" does not make the story science fiction, however, and the overall air of unreality turns what might have been humorous into an insipid enigma.
"Secret of the Death Dome," Miller’s first published story, is also insipid, a melodramatic shoot-out between invading Martians, whose dome floats harmlessly, but impregnably above the Southwestern desert, and an Army sergeant seeking revenge for the castration-killing of his best friend, the husband of the girl he’s always loved. If the story has any importance at all, it’s because of the Martians’ problems with reproduction; reversing the usual insect dependence on queens, they have only three ageing males left, one of which the hero kills, as he rescues the girl and drives the menace off-planet. Biological specialization is not limited to sex in the more promising "Let My People Go." An "ark" full of human colonists finds Epsilon Eridani II is inhabited, and a cavern an its moon offers evidence that human captives had once been brought from Earth. Three mismatched envoys accept an invitation to visit the planet where they discover the inhabitants have bred and trained other animals, including humans, to serve them as communication systems, organic building materials, even as food sources (including humans!). Rage, as in "Death Dome," enables one returning envoy to break a hypnotic block so as to provide the colonists with the key to their gaining a foothold on the planet. They release the "vermin" they carry aboard ship, and the overspecialized Piszjil are forced to deal with those who know how to control the pests.
Although telepathy may not be a case of overspecialization, as a potential human talent, it may be said to represent a projected step in human evolution. Aside from "Gravesong" and "Let My People Go," in which it is a simple communication convenience, telepathy figures in only three of Miller’s stories. In "Bitter Victory," psi powers are possessed by aliens who use them to assume human form and to stalk each other on Earth. The story involves their becoming too attached to human forms, ways, and emotions, so that when the final conflict comes (one of mental powers but rendered in terms of physical effects), they find themselves both crippled—one blind, one lame—and they seem to accept each other, love, and human form. A recurrent phrase, "for the love of man," underlines the implication of man’s moral superiority to these more "advanced" life forms. In "The Wolf Pack," dreams of an American airman turn out to be telepathic messages from a girl in the town of Perugia, Italy, over which he must fly another bombing raid. Religious allusions ("jovial Wotan," "through crucifixion came redemption," "o my people," and a more or less literal "for God’s sake") stud Lt. Mark Kessel’s wrestling with his conscience. His observation that the existence of his pack of fighter planes is "paradoxical proof that men by nature are cooperative beings" does not do much to salve his conscience when he gets the last message from the girl, dying amid flames and rubble: "If you had known ... would all have been spared for the sake of one?" As in these stories, telepathic sharing seems to bring about more pain than good in "Command Performance," a slick satire in the Galaxy mode which will be discussed later.
If man is destined, as "The Big Hunger" claims, to expand outward from Earth in waves of exploration and conquest, human evolution may take some strange jumps. This is the subject of two stories of the far future. The slighter piece, "Gravesong," is an elegy for man as he was (i.e. is now), vaguely satirizing two possible paths he may take. Emilish, returning the ashes of his mother to ancient Earth, meets the grave-tender, Eva, whose anima-like beauty marks her as a throwback from the mud-creatures which men on Earth have become. Amid memories of the galactic corporate state from which he comes, and the contrast stressed by Eva that she is a creature of earth and he is a creature of space, he ponders the warning of his mother that, given unlimited power, "Man is no longer man," and wonders what he is.
Two other paths are suggested in "The Ties that Bind," a puzzle-story of a sort which pits a pacifist Earth society, twenty thousand years from now, against the militarism of a fleet using the planet as a refueling station (its resources apparently not having been exhausted) en route to a battle somewhere else. Using the old ballad, "Edward," as a backdrop—five stanzas serve as epigraphs to the story’s five sections—Miller develops these antithetical milieus and psychologies, emphasizing their mutual incomprehension and their ironic interrelations. Only the fleet’s cultural Analyst, Meikl, seems to have a firm grasp of what’s happening: he and the narrator call it Kulturverldngerung, the power of unconscious vestiges of man’s culture. Like Cassandra, however, he is not understood in time. Desertions and rebellion by some crewmen become a problem before long. Then another piece of the puzzle is supplied when an Earthman picks up a sword which he does not intend to use and finds that it seems to "fit" his hand; his muscles, affected by Kulturverltingerung, seem to recognize an affinity for the weapon. The real problem is that the descendants of this Eden-like Earth carry within them an inner Hell with which Earth once infected the galaxy. And even the now "innocent" Earthmen are potential killers, although that potential is not realized at this time; evolution has not changed the fact that Man is subject to this version of "original sin."
If these stories represent natural evolution, the same is not unequivocally true in "Blood Bank," in which Terrans play the role of the heavy. In this Astounding space opera, moral indignation runs high as one puzzle: what did Commander Roki do wrong? (he ordered the destruction of an Earth ship carrying "surgibank" supplies to a disaster-stricken planet, because the ship would not stand by for inspection) gives way to another: how will Commander Roki vindicate himself, so as not to have to commit suicide as the code of his world demands of his honor? Admirably controlling suspense as Roki gradually uncovers the clues, Miller keeps us from doing the same until we have learned the particulars of this milieu and have accepted to some extent a degree of cultural relativism which most of the characters in the story do not have. Each cultural idiosyncracy is embodied in a person and rooted in some physical, biological, or cultural peculiarity of his or her world. Although the heart of the adventure is conquest of the "Solarians," a predatory race evolved on Earth which uses standard humans as medical supplies to trade for nuclear fuel and a fascist renaissance, the story’s center of interest is not in Earth, its legendary past or aborted future. Nor is it in the comic confrontation between Roki and the female pilot from a frontier world whose rickety cargo ship transports him to the Sol solar system. The primary concern is the solving of puzzles, from the technological (faster-than-light drive, reaction engine limits, ship-to-ship grapples) to the anthropological (humanity’s alleged origin on Earth, the amount of space an empire can govern, how much diversity a widespread civilization can and must tolerate). These cross at the point of conflict between non-Earth humans and Solarians; not being human, the latter threaten humanity, an implicit act of war which tolerance for local customs and local biological variation cannot encompass. Common romantic and melodramatic motifs are employed for surface excitement, but the real interest is more of a cerebral nature, with the moral concern for intraspecies savagery almost a side-issue.
Although the evolution in that story may have occurred naturally, the evolved Solarians ensured their "superiority" by means of brute strength, graying the distinction between natural and forced evolution. Two other examples of forced evolution, which may not be against nature, but which important characters see as unnatural, are a pair of poor stories about cyborg spaceships, employing the brains of human "children." Whereas other writers have seen this process as a means by which cripples might live useful lives, Miller emphasizes the inhumanity of their existence by emphasizing the children’s innocence and the despair of ostensibly sympathetic mother figures. The condemnation of the practice of using human brains to complement computer logic in piloting spaceships seems to come from an irrational base which is at least peripherally doctrinal. In "A Family Matter," the woman is a stowaway (of all things) who claims to be his mother, lamenting her loss of twenty years ago, and raging at him, threatening his "flesh-organ." In self-defense, he accelerates too fast, killing both her and his human part, and, having lost all sense of identity and responsibility, heads out to nowhere, instead of returning to base from this "test" of his abilities, which has also turned into a test of his "humanity." In "I, Dreamer," the early training of a child to distinguish between self, semi-self, and non-self, though effective, seems grafted on. The story proper, again told by the cyborg, is a ridiculous mish-mash of revolutionary politics and melodramatic seduction, with a little sadism mixed in. It is ended by the narrator’s empathy for the girl’s pain and his longing to be a "Two-Legs" forever, which for some odd reason causes him to plummet into the palace of the dictator, even as the secret police are rounding up all the revolutionary conspirators. Inherent in the basic situation is only a little pathos; Miller, in trying to exploit the "horror" of this man-machine interface, was forced to introduce melodramatic conflicts which make both stories ludicrous. Yet he thought the idea worth two stories, and even reprinted one of them in his collection of short fiction, suggesting that the idea, at least, of forced evolution presented in them was of some importance to him.
4. In two other, longer tales, which will be examined in more detail later, Miller is more successful in raising hard "religious" questions about "forced" evolution, while telling convincing stories in an effective, symbolic manner. "Conditionally Human" questions man’s right to play God with life and death and the fate of "lower" animals. "Dark Benediction" asks how humanity would respond to a gift from the skies promising great powers, if it also demanded a physical change of the color and texture of the skin.
Both stories explicitly involve religious questions and symbolism, and feature Catholic priests in advisory, but fallible, roles. Miller’s other works may not be as permeated with his religion, but its effect is apparent. Catholic priests are characters in "No Moon for Me," "Crucifixus Etiam," and "Please Me Plus Three." Primitive priests are negative figures in the last named, and in "It Takes a Thief" and "The Reluctant Traitor," where they represent stagnant tradition in the way of progress. Prayer is explicit in "No Moon for Me," "Death of a Spaceman," "The Triflin’ Man," "The Lineman," and "The Wolf Pack," and implicit in "The Will" and in "Izzard and the Membrane" which features God as or in a computer. Scriptural tags are employed in "Izzard,""The Song of Vorhu," "Crucifixus Etiam," "The Lineman," "The Wolf Pack," and "Let My People Go." Religious titles and imagery are apparent in "Six and Ten are Johnny," "Grave Song," "Crucifixus Etiam," "Memento Mori" ("Death of a Spaceman"), "No Moon for Me," "The Song of Vorhu," "Izzard and the Membrane," "The Soul-Empty Ones," "The Reluctant Traitor," "It Takes a Thief," "Please Me Plus Three," and "The Ties That Bind." And Christian doctrine may be instrumental in "A Family Matter, "I, Dreamer," and "Blood Bank" as well as in the "original sin" stories, "Grave Song," "The Ties that Bind," "Conditionally Human," and "Dark Benediction."
Hardly an obligatory convention, like the boy-girl romances and repulsive villains Miller brings in occasionally, religion (especially the Roman Catholic version of Christianity) usually has a negative connotation in science fiction. Miller’s primitive priests are conventional in that way. But the priest in "Death of a Spaceman" is a sympathetic figure, as are those in "Conditionally Human" and "Dark Benediction," while the clergy in "No Moon for Me" and "Crucifixus Etiam" are neutral tones in the moral landscape. Christian doctrine does suggest a bass tone of conviction as a contrast to the uncertainty of modern man, a role it plays convincingly in A Canticle for Leibowitz. But the doctrine or its exponent, as in Miller’s novel, may be naïve, lacking in understanding of the whole picture, or otherwise irrelevant. The exponent need not be nominally religious, either: although the psychiatrist in "Command Performance" can not play this role because his advocacy of conformity is so much a part of the conventional milieu of the Fifties, the Analyst in "The Ties that Bind" is a reasonable facsimile of a priestly raisonneur because of the antiquity of his anthropological teaching, which predates in a sense the secular humanism of that story’s Eden-like Earth.
For the technophilic Miller, unlike the technophobic C.S. Lewis, the direct opposition of science and religion won’t do, at least not if it means the downgrading of science and technology. They represent for him the best that we can do today and in the foreseeable future, when it comes to knowledge and concrete achievement. As in A Canticle for Leibowitz, however, religion suggests a kind of wisdom, traditional, irrational, humane, which knowledge alone can not reach, but a kind of wisdom which, divorced from social and technological, and even aesthetic reality, is also inadequate as a guide for conduct. It complements the engineering question, How, with the age-old poetico-religious question, Why, even if it does not reveal the Answer. At the least, its presence in a Miller story indicates continuity with the present, and by implication, a universal need of mankind. At best, the religious connotation of the parable—and most of Miller’s stories are parabolic in their didacticism—underlines the moral ambiguity of a situation, its need for a moral resolution. When the mass of American and British science fiction magazines were top-heavy with laboratories, machines, and the "social" effects of science and technology (i.e. the effects of hypothetical inventions and discoveries on "masses" of people), Miller was one of a handful of writers concerned with effects on individuals, who stand alone, lacking the kind of certainty that only dogma can provide, and aware of both the lack and the inadequacy of the outmoded dogma.
5. Philosophy, or sententious content, does not by itself make a story or a writer, of course. On other counts, Miller was neither consistent nor outstanding. Writing for science fiction magazines, he had to keep in mind the prejudices of their editors and readers, if he were going to sell his stories even at their low rates of pay. One thing he had to do was to keep the story moving, often at the expense of character, structure, or even logical coherence, and many if not most of his stories suffer from that requirement. The melodrama has not worn well. His best, however, seem to have incorporated that principle of efficient story-telling without harm to their integrity.
If he were writing for Astounding or Galaxy, the highest-paying markets, he had to try to please their editors. John Campbell’s technophilia was congenial, and his predilection for the puzzle-story could have dictated the writing of "Blood Bank," among others. Other Campbell buttons probably were pushed by "No Moon for Me" (space at any cost), "Izzard and the Membrane" (Cold War hostilities, brainwashing, and defecting scientists), and "Cold Awakening" (the horror of drugs). The man-machine interface dominated "Dumb Waiter," "I Made You," and "The Darfsteller," which Campbell bought along with the mood-pieces, "Crucifixus Etiam" and "The Big Hunger." Mood may also have caught Campbell’s eye in "The Soul-Empty Ones," which is otherwise a good example of Miller’s bad handling of melodrama, something that stands out in most of the stories published before 1954.
Horace Gold at Galaxy preferred satire, which "Conditionally Human" and "Command Performance" powerfully exhibit, as Miller’s only sales to that magazine. Other attempts at satire, possibly written for Galaxy, but published elsewhere, were less successful: "Check and Checkmate," "Bitter Victory, "The Triflin’ Man," "The Hoofer," and "The Corpse in Your Bed is Me."
The predilection of Anthony Boucher and his successors at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and its short-lived sister publication, Venture, were for careful writing and characterization, when they could get them. The three parts of Canticle were published in F&SF as was "The Lineman"; Venture printed "Vengeance for Nikolai" and "The Corpse in Your Bed is Me," both of which are only borderline science fiction, but enigmatic character-studies and a bit shocking for the Fifties (Venture’s editorial policy favored material which was "strong" for the times). That six of Miller’s last nine publications were with Mercury Press is indicative of the turn his writing had taken toward "human" stories, less crowded with incident, more concerned with values.
Melodrama was dominant in his 1951 stories, except for "Dark Benediction." "The Secret of the Death Dome" is a traditional Western with a Gothic twist, and incompletely visualized action, a problem which beset several of Miller’s early stories. The world was saved in four of those first seven tales, by implausible means, implausibly and humorlessly described. Overplotting and cardboard stereotypes ruined "The Reluctant Traitor," "Cold Awakening," "Dumb Waiter," and "Let My People Go" in 1952, though the last-named has its moments and is almost long enough not to buckle under the weight of events. Sentimentality is another risk he took frequently, especially with irrelevant love-interests, but also with whole stories, such as "The Song of Vorhu," "Bitter Victory," "Grave Song," the cyborg stories, "The Wolf Pack," and "The Will," using it to good advantage only in "The Big Hunger," "Death of a Spaceman," and "Conditionally Human." From the humorlessness of his earliest travesties, Miller proceeded to satire as early as 1952, but a more feeling kind of humor does not show up until "Death of a Spaceman" in 1954, after which it is featured in more of his stories than it is not. He was always concerned with values, and even found successful aesthetic vehicles to express them as early as 1951 ("Dark Benediction," and, published just after the turn of the year, "Conditionally Human"), but not with the richness and ambiguity only humor can supply.
In his best stories, Miller managed to combine thought and action, to make ideas personal and involving, by approaching a universal ("truth") or problem by means of strong identification with an individual, who must demonstrate an important decision by means of an action, the significance of which is underscored by the fact that there is not a lot of action for action’s sake cluttering up the pages. One exception is "The Big Hunger," in which mankind as a whole is the protagonist, but it holds for the sentimental or near-sentimental "Death of a Spaceman" and "The Hoofer," for the melodramatic "It Takes a Thief" and "Blood Bank," for "The Lineman" and "The Ties That Bind," which just miss being in the first rank. And it definitely holds for those stories which are in the first rank.
"Command Performance" is a very human story of suburban loneliness and conformity, and the conviction of Lisa (Miller’s only female protagonist except for Marya in "Vengeance for Nikolai") that she is rightfully different from the conventional image to which her husband and her analyst want her to conform. Telepathic communication with another, which should convince her that she is right, instead upsets her terribly; she is to some extent attached to that conventional image she wishes to reject. She can only accept her talent after she has used it herself to fend off the "attacker" who wants to mate with her to perpetuate a super-race. The scenes of her communication with him are rendered well, from his discovery of her, dancing naked in the rain in her backyard; to his prevention of her calling the police, by means of illusion, causing her to see things that are not there; to her own switch from passive reception to active sending, as she stops his physical progress towards her by means of imaginary cars in the street. He pushes on, disregarding them, only to be killed by a real automobile, leaving her safe but empty again, and this time knowing why. Lisa wastes no time on remorse; she begins, as her would-be ravisher presumably once did, tentatively questing in the telepathic "communication band" for someone else like her. Her prospective mate and his plans for a race of supermen are melodramatic, but Lisa’s character and situations are real enough and realistically presented, with the kind of satire of contemporary mores (conformity and all that) for which Galaxy was noted.
In "Conditionally Human," Terry Norris, a veterinarian, cares for animals whose intelligence has been increased to put them midway between pets and children (children are rare, because of restrictive population laws), and his occupation upsets his newlywed wife whose maternal reflexes are strong. Terry’s crisis point is an order to destroy certain "units," in this case "neutroids" (apes transmuted into baby girls with tails), which exceed the allowable intelligence limits. After Terry has located one of these units, named Peony, and taken it away from its "Daddy," a petshop owner, he is visited by Father Paulson (Father Mulreany in the book version) on behalf of his bereft parishioner. The priest acts reluctantly as a moral guide for the unreligious Terry, who uses him as a sounding board, then goes to excesses not sanctioned by the priest. He not only hides the illegal "deviant," but he also kills, by a carefully planned "accident," his supervisor who has come to see that the order and the "neutroid" are executed. Then he decides to take a new job with the company that produces "newts," to carry on the work of the fired employee who made the newts not only too intelligent, but also functionally, biologically human.
In a society forced by population pressures to restrict the freedom to breed, there are many malcontents, from Terry’s wife and the priest, to pet owners who identify themselves as parents, to the kind of technician who "humanized" the newts. In this situation, Terry finds himself "adapting to an era," at first to the status quo, but then to the possible future that an artificially created race might bring about. Either choice requires a kind of moral toughness and seems to demand that he kill, if not Peony then supervisor Franklin. By contrast, the priest could never sanction murder, though he may be an indirect cause of one; he finds the creation of the neutroids an abomination but their destruction possibly even more so. Peony has an edge on Man, since she "hasn’t picked an apple yet," in the words of the priest, i.e. she is not tainted by original sin (compare the reading of a play fragment in Part Two, and the consecration of Rachel in Part Three of Canticle). But Miller seems determined to stretch the Church’s teachings to the limit; what if you have to choose between murders? Terry and Anne both make that choice --she threatens to kill him -- on behalf of the freedom to breed or "create," but the reader, having been taken only part way down that path of argumentation, is left with a moral ambiguity. The satire (Galaxy again) cuts both ways, but seems aimed at the kind of society which makes such choices necessary.
Heavy with implications, the story is not weighty in a ponderous sense; things happen too fast for that. Miller sets the stage with a honeymoon quarrel, sends Terry off on a collecting mission, and intersperses social background and lampoons of oversensitive "mothers" before we even find out what a neutroid is, Before the first, "unimproved" batch die, Anne risks too much attachment to them by feeding them apples; she also declares her intention to risk an illegal baby of her own. Scenes flash by, such as Terry’s conversations with the police chief, with Anne, with "Doggy" O’Reilly (Peony’s "Daddy"); tension builds, Peony is shown to be adorable, and the die is cast. Though the moralizing increases, the pace never flags. The end finds the Norrises waiting it out, aware that they are pitting themselves against society. Quixotically they pursue a goal they are unlikely to achieve, recognizing that they have elected—as has the whole society, unconsciously, and in an opposite manner—to play God to a "new people."
"Dark Benediction" raises other interesting questions about man’s fate, positing a biological transformation of the whole human race into a new "improved" model, a transformation which is resisted by almost everyone before it takes place. Sharing the senses of Paul Oberlin, we share his repugnance to the "dermies" whose skin has turned scaly and gray, and whose desire to touch others and spread the contagion is little short of obscene. Overtones of racial prejudice (the locale is the South), leprosy, violation of the integrity of the individual, fear of the unknown in general, and the known transition period of often fatal fever make it clear that a considerable trade-off is required. For those who are not dermies, who do not know or believe that there are benefits involved, it is less a trade-off than a betrayal of all that’s human, a conversion of men into monsters. Rather than chronicled, this background is given to us through flashbacks and conversations, as we follow Paul, alone on the road. In Houston, he is impressed into the service of a paramilitary local government, concerned with maintaining racial purity, safe from contagion, and anxious to have him, as a trained technician. He makes his escape in a truck, one of the few vehicles that run and have gas in this age of chaos, but on impulse he rescues a girl, Willy, whose incubation has started and who is about to be executed for it. Making her ride in the open back of the truck, Paul heads for Galveston Island, which he hopes will be a haven. His hope is doubly ironic, given the contemporary reputation of Galveston as a "sin city," and the coming twist of the plot.
Having rescued Willy from the moral equivalent of a Nazi concentration camp, Paul is now obligated by decency to get her to safety, provided that she doesn’t try to touch him. The island, however, is a colony of "hypers," their term for dermie. Only in the hospital, run by priests, where he takes her for help, can Paul find any security, and that in a sterile room, avoided by hospital personnel, who wear nose-plugs to maintain their self-control in his presence. He lingers on, partly because Willy is responding poorly—fearful that she might have touched him, she attempts suicide—partly because he has been promised a boat in which to escape. While he is waiting, he learns from a Dr. Seevers what truth he has managed to extract from his research into the transformation and its cause. One night, however, Paul wakes up terrified, with memories of being caressed; over the first fright, he realizes it was Willy, and discovers that she has run away. He chases after her to the sea, and accepts the inevitable, his transformation and her love.
As in all Miller’s best stories, the science fictional rationalization is clear, the behavior believable, the focus not on the science fiction itself but on the situation of one troubled person. Unlike in others, however, the biological transformation in this one is a positive one, with utopian overtones. Although the repellent characteristics are given their due, the parasite which Dr. Seevers explains is responsible for them is also responsible for an increase in sensory perception and apparently, cooperative behavior. At least the islanders are better behaved than the mainland totalitarians; this may be partly due to the influence of the priests, but where else is their wisdom respected? And islands are traditional utopian locales. The real reason why this metamorphosis is more acceptable may be its resemblance to a divine blessing. The parasite is a gift from the sky, having arrived in meteorites launched by some alien civilization; though labeled with warnings, the pods were first opened by the ignorant, unable to read the signs and driven by their "monkey-like" curiosity. As from Pandora’s Box or the apple of Genesis, but perhaps in reverse, as a distribution of good, the contents spread everywhere, making it likely that everyone, eventually, will have to give in to this "dark benediction." Reception of the parasite is a passive act, moreover, requiring acceptance only of the "laying on of hands." Believing it really is beneficial, that the scientist’s findings are accurate, requires, as does believing the disease is harmful, an act of faith (parasites in "Let My People Go," clearly in the service of overspecialized aliens, were regarded with fear and loathing). Paul and the reader can only decide on the basis of others’ behavior; the paranoia of the mainlanders can hardly be preferable to the love and respect shown by Willy and the priestly medicine men.
An act of faith is also crucial in "Crucifixus Etiam," Miller’s best short story, but the faith is not sustained by the protagonist’s Catholic religion.An elegiac, near-future projection, this story makes of technophilia a secular religious faith. Although the passage of two decades has brought into question some of the details (the limited amount of social change in a century, the stated "high" rate of pay of five dollars an hour, the use of English rather than metric measures), the basics of the story are universal, as the title suggests. Roughly translated, it means "crucified still or again." This is the story of a man who takes great risks to his health for the chance of high rewards; as his health begins to fail, and the rewards come to seem unobtainable, he wonders what the justification of his work is, then comes to identify with the goal he serves but will never attain.
The man is Manue Tanti, a Peruvian laborer at work on Mars, his health endangered by implanted oxygenation equipment which encourages atrophy of the lungs. The justification is "faith in the destiny of the race of man." The science fictional trappings are necessary, since no job on Earth offers quite this kind of risk, and certainly none is so dependent upon future realization. The project of making a breathable atmosphere for Mars is already almost a century old, with eight centuries yet to go. But the handling is in no way impersonal. Our concern is not with the project, but with the suffering of one man, representative of many. We start with the basics of his situation, his longing to travel, his pain from the oxygenator, his struggle to maintain his lungs so that he can indeed realize his ambition. We hear that the engineers have life much easier than the laborers, we hear that Mars is growing her own labor force, we hear that the object of the drilling job is to tap a well of tritium oxide, and we know no more than he does which is fact and which is rumor. We see his estrangement from his fellow-workers and how they and the elements seem to conspire to make him give in, to breathe less, to let the oxygenator work more. In the hospital, we dream with him of falling and wake with him in the death-fear this inspires, only to discover to his horror that he has not been doing any breathing at all on his own. Facing his being trapped on Mars, we ask with him the purpose of all this, whose ends he is serving, and we see the inadequacy of the faith proffered by the itinerant clergy who come to offer comfort, As he gradually gives in to the pain and its easement, we follow Manue in his quest for understanding: a repairman tells him Mars is a dumping ground for Earth’s surplus, tritium suggests to him hydrogen fusion as an energy source, the "quiet secrecy" implies that the men are not be trusted with the knowledge of what in fact they are doing.
As the work goes on and he becomes an oxygen "addict," we follow the curve of his emotions to cynicism and despair, to a controlled cursing in lieu of prayer. On the day a controlled chain reaction is started deep beneath the Martian crust, the men are finally informed of the significance of their job, laboring so that others may breathe, far in the future. Pent-up resentment and a momentary fear that the reaction might not be controlled almost lead to a riot. Quite unexpectedly, Manue knocks out the ringleader, and his frenzied threat to pull out the rioters’ air hoses quells the rebellion. He finds the answer bitter—Miller calls it Manue’s "Gethesemane"—but also glorious. One man asks "What man ever made his own salvation?" Another says "Some sow, some reap," and asks Manue which we would rather do. Manue himself picks up a handful of soil and thinks "Here was Mars. His planet now."
The roughly 8000 words that comprise this story are very efficiently employed. Miller uses vignettes, rather than long scenes, and avoids the sentimentality that technique seems to lead to in other short stories. Bits of action and dialogue, nothing extended, break up what is mainly narrative. The characters, bit players except for Manue, are solid individuals: the Tibetan, Gee, Manue’s digging partner with whom he has nothing in common; the foreman, Vögeli, who is quick-tempered and efficient, trying to maintain his men like tools; San Donnell, the "troffie" (atrophied) repairman, who is a mine of misinformation; even the riot leader, Handell, and the supervisor, Kinley, though little more than roles with names, seem right in their parts. The local color and slang, brought in as if in passing, make Mars feel lived in. And the third person narration, limited to the consciousness of Manue, is particularly effective in that it restricts our senses almost claustrophobic ally to those of the perfect observer for this story: a Peruvian, used to thin air and small social horizons, ignorant of much but proud of his ancient heritage and comfortable in his ambition, Catholic in upbringing but able to recognize how ill-fitted his religion is to this alien world.
On a larger scale, Miller managed a similar triumph in the short novel, "The Darfsteller." This, too, is limited to the consciousness of one person, for whom technological advance is no unmixed blessing. Ryan Thornier, an ageing former matinee idol in the days before the stage was automated, has consistently refused to make a "tape" of his acting personality, or to work in the production or sales ends of the autodrama business. Steeped in theatrical tradition, proud of his art and even of the poverty to which his pride has brought him, Thornier is reduced to janitorial duties in an autodrama theater, his chief joy in life being the rare chance to see a third-rate live touring company play to a sparse audience. Denied that opportunity, he is given two weeks’ notice before he is replaced in his job, too, by an automaton. Since this is on the eve of a mechanical stage run of a play he once starred in, the actor conceives and executes a plan to make one last performance the culmination of his career and simultaneously an act of revenge against this boss, his profession, and the world. "The Darfsteller" is the story of what he accomplishes, and how.
On one level this is a personal story, a near-tragedy. Learning quickly enough how the technology of the autodrama operates, Thornier sabotages the tape of an actor intended for a role he once played. Then, since there is not enough time to get a new tape before opening night, he offers himself as a replacement. Against the better judgment of everyone involved, his offer is accepted, and he puts a real bullet in the gun with which the mannequin playing his enemy is supposed to shoot him. In the actual performance, however, in which he competes against the "Maestro," the mechanical director that operates the tapes and mannequins, adjusting them to each other and to audience reactions, Thornier is reinvigorated. He dodges the bullet and catches it in his belly.
Allegorically, this is a fable of technological displacement. In case anyone missed the point, Rick, the projectionist, runs it through again in the coda. Explaining that a human specialist will inevitably lose to a specialized tool, a machine, Rick defines the function of Man as "creating new specialties." But the technology is more than a symbol; the autodrama, throughout the story, is continually vying with Thorny for center stage. To compete with it, he has to learn to understand it, which he has never tried to do before. Learning what he can from Rick, he becomes fascinated with it, to his dismay and the reader’s edification. Seeing the Maestro at work, with Thornier in its system, is most instructive, and enough details are developed to make the automation of the theater, presumably the last bastion of personalized professions, seem believable.
The creation of this illusion is assisted, moreover, by the appearance of former actors and stage people associated with the autodrama who come into town in connection with the opening. Like any technology, this one requires preparation and tending, and they have been reduced to servants of the machine in Thornier’s estimation, and to some extent in their own. It is, of course, the only game in town, and it even offers a kind of "immortality" to actors in their prime, he recognizes, comparing Mela, his one-time co-star and lover, with her unageing tapes and mannequins. The heart of the story, however, lies in Thorny’s love affair with the theater, with its icons and superstitions, the image it gives him of himself (on our level of perception he is a querulous, vain popinjay), and the recaptured thrill of performance, even a mediocre performance on a stage full of mannequins and of threatening electrical equipment. As he thinks to himself, seeing the Maestro in human terms, the director with his eyes on the whole play and the reaction of the audience is always in opposition to the Darfsteller (the true actor-artist), and prefers the mere Schauspieler (the crowd-pleasing entertainer). An excellent fictional creation, Ryan Thornier is always an actor, even in the role of himself with an audience of one, and the theater as microcosm is ideal for this "morality play" of man vs. machine. Though the reader may find himself in intellectual agreement with Rick, in his analysis of the situation, the rational conclusion is clearly at odds with the emotional identification with the quixotic Thornier, whose irrationality is more appealing.
The narrator in this short novel has the same distant, gently ironic detachment as in A Canticle for Leibowitz, with the same fondness for slapstick if not for puns as leavening in a serious tale. The construction is effective, alternating action and dialogue, narration and internal monologue, parallels and antitheses. The characters, aside from Thornier, are personalized functions, though only the theater owner, Thornier’s boss, is an obvious stereotype, and even that may be excusable since he is a tormentor as seen through Thornier’s eyes. And the didacticism, though clearly overt, is cleanly balanced by the felt reality of Thornier’s lament. Perhaps the only thing the novel does not have, and does not need, which may be surprising in view of Miller’s usual propensities, is any religious props or even a sense of religion, unless we assume that for the actor, the stage is his Church. The effect of the whole, however, is that of a minor masterpiece, as the 13th World Science Fiction Convention recognized by awarding it a "Hugo" as the best "novelette" of 1955.
6. The medium lengths, novelette, novella, short novel, were where Miller’s strengths lay, where he could combine character, action, and import. Of his forty-one magazine publications, twenty-four were of middle length, including "Blood Bank," "The Ties that Bind," "The Lineman," four of the five we have just reviewed, and the three more or less independent parts of Canticle. Only "Crucifixus Etiam" really stands out among the shorter works, followed by "The Big Hunger," "It Takes a Thief," "Death of a Spaceman," "The Hoofer," and "Vengeance for Nikolai," most of which come dangerously close to sentimentality (melodrama in "It Takes a Thief") and each of which relies heavily on a gimmick, the bane of so many short stories. Whether the sustained continuity of a more conventional novel was beyond him, we can not know for certain, but it seems certain that part of the success of Canticle is due to its tripartite form, each third crisply etched in short novel size, with counterpoint, motifs, and allusions making up for the lack of more ordinary means of continuity. This, too, he learned in his apprenticeship in the science fiction magazines.
Five outstanding stories out of thirty-eight is not disastrous, but it would have hardly have caused Miller to be remembered if he had not written A Canticle for Leibowitz. Against that standard, not very many science fiction stories or novels can measure up. Leading up to it, however, and to the enigma of Miller’s abandoning writing afterwards, the whole canon has some extrinsic interest, chronicling as it does his development from a commercial writer to an artist, one who may have quit while he was ahead, rather than have everything thereafter compared to one book and found wanting.
1. Miller’s first published story, "MacDoughal’s Wife," American Mercury (March 1950), 313_20, is not science fiction, though it invokes religious and scientific imagery, in keeping with his science fiction, to magnify the significance of the biological sterility and assumed infidelity of the titular character.
2. Anthony Boucher’s observation on magazine publishing in "The Publishing of Science Fiction," in Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Value, ed. Reginald Bretnor (New York: Coward_McCann, 1953), 33, is supported in "Science Fiction Rockets into Big Time," Business Week (October 20, 1951), 82-4, 89, and in Bradford M. Day, ed. "The Complete Checklist of Science-Fiction Magazines," pamphlet (New York: Science-Fiction and Fantasy Publication [sic], 1961). Data on anthologies compiled from W.R. Cole, ed., A Checklist of Science Fiction Anthologies ([New York: W.R. Cole], 1964) and Frederick Siemon, ed., Science Fiction Story Index, 1950-1968 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1971). Supplemented by my own collection, these checklists are also the source for information in the Appendix concerning reprints of Miller stories.
3. A political article, "Bobby and Jimmy" (concerning Kennedy and Hoffa), identifying its author as the writer of Canticle, appeared in Nation (April 7, 1962), 300-3, but I have been unable to find any other stories or articles by Miller outside the science fiction magazines.
4. William F. Nolan, in the headnote to "The Lineman" in his anthology, A Wilderness of Stars, states simply: "For good and valid reasons of his own, Walter Miller, Jr. has retired as a storyteller."
5. Cf. Robert S. Chapman, "Science Fiction of the Fifties: Billy Graham, McCarthy and the Bomb," Foundation
Walter Michael Miller, Jr., a science-fiction writer, attended the University of Tennessee from 1940 to 1942, majoring in engineering. He later returned to college, the University of Texas, attending from 1947 to 1949. In between these two experiences on a college campus, he enlisted in the United States Air Force and was stationed in Europe. For his military service, he earned an Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters. In addition to his flying experience during World War II, he was an engineer.
Miller wrote television scripts for Captain Video in the early 1950’s, an experience that probably led to his inclusion of the Captain Chronos subplot in his short story “The Will,” in which the actor who portrays Captain Chronos attempts to exploit a terminally ill child. Miller has received Hugo Awards (respected prizes for science-fiction writing), one for a 1955 novella, “The Darfsteller,” and one for his most famous work, the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz (awarded the Hugo in 1961). Miller’s fiction often contains allusions and plots that deal with the Judeo-Christian heritage and its customs. Almost all of his protagonists are male. His writings usually deal with the theme of technology, modern and futuristic science that is sometimes helpful, sometimes detrimental, to society.
Miller’s short story “The Will” concerns a terminally ill boy, Kenny, who is determined not to die. Kenny hopes that he can somehow stay alive by virtue of a time machine until a cure is found for his illness. “Anyone Else Like Me?” is about a happily married woman with three children who finds, to her dismay, that a man shares telepathic powers with her. Unfortunately, he can cause her to do whatever he pleases. While the woman’s husband and children are away, he attempts to employ...
(The entire section is 748 words.)