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Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1923 - 1996)

 

American science fiction writer, famous for his ironic dystopia A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), which received in 1961 the Hugo Award. It was the only novel Miller published in his lifetime. His second novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, appeared posthumously in 1997. They both reflect Miller's religious concerns and his pessimistic Spenglerian vision of humankind, in which cultures go through a life cycle of birth and decay.

"But the old man was sad as he sat on his porch. He knew so little of the Great Purpose. Why must his seed fling itself starward? He knew that it must - but he lacked a reason. His grandchildren played in the twilight, played space-games, although there was not yet a starship on the planet." (from 'The Big Hunger', 1952)

Walter M. Miller, Jr. was born in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, the only child of Ruth and Walter Miller, who worked for the Florida East Coast Railway. He grew up in the American South and studied at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville from 1940 to 1942. A month after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army Air Force, and spent most of the World War II as a radioman and tail gunner aboard B-25 bombers.

Miller flew 53 bombing missions over Italy and the Balkans. He participated,  among others, in the destruction of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, the oldest monastery in the Western world. It was also a strategic position in the German's defensive line, but the monks later told that the Germans made no military use of the monastery itself.  "As soon as the decision was made to attack the Monte Cassino feature direct," wrote General F.S. Tucker after the war, "the monastery was doomed to destruction." (Monte Cassino: The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II by David Hapgood and David Richardson, 1984/2002, p. 240) The controversial assault  is not generally considered a war crime. However, a number of critics believe that the experience had a decisive impact on Miller's personal development and certain recurring  themes in his work. The author himself claimed that "The only horror I felt in connection with Monte Cassino was due to the fact that it looked to me as part of my squadron's bomb-pattern might have hit our own troops." (Miller's Milieu, or the Cultural Moments of Late Humanism: Science and Religion in the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Derek J. Thiess, 2008, pp. 19-20)

At school Miller had called himself an atheist but in 1947, at the age of 25, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Noteworthy, Miller never considered himself a devout Catholic and actually A Canticle for Leibowitz is ambiguous in its attitude toward organized religion – despite the fact that Miller tried to reconcile himself with the Church. New Rome, which is situated in the former United States, has little in common with the old one. Later in life Miller said that his theology lay "somewhere west of Zen and east of the Son". ('Lest the World's Amnesia Be Complete: A Reading of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz' by Ralph C. Wood, Religion & Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 2001, p. 23)

After the war, Miller married Anna Louise Becker, they had four children. From 1947 to 1950, Miller studied engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, where he enrolled on the G. I. Bill of Rights, and worked part-time in electronics repair. He never finished the degree. Some months before he was to graduate Miller was seriously injured in a car crash, in which he broke both of his legs and his arm and was hospitalized for a long period. To exercise his wrist he began to write. With his family, he moved to Florida in the mid-1950s.

While working on a script for the TV show Captain Video and His Video Rangersin Manhattan, Miller met the writer Judith Merril, who was married to the science fiction writer Frederik Pohl. At that time Miller and his wife were discussing a trial  separation. Miller lived with Merril in New Jersey and Florida for six months. Once he allegedly confronted Pohl in their little apartment with his deer rifle, which he kept with him all the time. Pohl, a war veteran too, won the ensuing wrestling match according to Merril's memoir – "Finally Fred put Walt down." (Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary, 2002, p. 131-132) In September 1953, Miller divorced Anna, but remarried her in December. She threatened suicide if he left.

During his active writing period, Miller published about 40 tales, but then  passed life in seclusion avoiding visitors and distancing himself from friends, family, and colleagues. When his wife died in August 1995, he was completely heart broken. Miller had suffered from depression for decades and eventually ended his own life at the age of seventy four. He died of a self inflicted gun shot wound on January 9, 1996 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Before his death, he had started to work on a sequel to Canticle. This disillusioned novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was duly finished by Terry Bisson.

"What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." (G.W. Hegel in Philosophy of History, 1832)

Miller started to publish short stories in the 1950s. He also wrote scripts along with Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Robert Sheckley for  Captain Video and His Video Rangers, starring Don Hastings and Al Hodge. This children's programme was shot alive in a small studio and folded in 1953. Before 'Secret of the Death Dome' (in Amazing Stories in January 1951), which is in some sources mentioned as his first story, he published 'MacDoughal's Wife' in American Mercury (March 1950), a non science fiction work, which he wrote while recuperating in a hospital after an automobile accident, and 'Month of Mary' in Extension Magazine (May 1950). In 1955 Miller received the Hugo Award for his novelette 'The Darfsteller' in which a theatre has substituted human actors with life-sized dolls, controlled by the Maestro, also a machine. The protagonist is a former actor, now working at the theatre as a janitor. He secretly takes the place of a doll, planning to give his last great performance. Inside this simple story frame Miller probed the question of human creativity and hazards of mass production of art. "...Whatever you specialize in, another specialty will either gobble you, or find a way to replace you. If you get what looks like a secure niche, somebody'll come along and wall you up in it and write your epitaph on it. And the more specialized a society gets, the more dangerous it is for the pure specialist. You think an electronic engineer in any safer than an actor? Or a ditch-digger?"

Many of Miller's stories transfigured conventional science fiction themes into examinations of ethical questions, mankind's relation to technology, and progress in history. In 'Cucifixus Etiam' (1953) a Peruvian laborer, working in Mars, finds out that he can never return to Earth, and sacrifices the rest of his life for the future generations. The theme of sacrifice also was central in 'I, dreamer' in which a machine with human organs takes a suicide mission to save a group of rebels.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller's famous novel, was about the long, slow rebuilding of civilization after a nuclear war. The events cover a period of several thousand years. Miller once said, that it "never occurred to me that Canticle was my own personal response to war until I was writing the first version of the scene where Zerchi lies half buried in the rubble. Then a lightbulb came on over my head: "Good God, it this the abbey at Monte Cassino?.... What have I been writing?" On its surface the work repeated the Cold war fears of nuclear annihilation and the collapse of democratic ideals under totalitarian ideologies. But Miller's epic tale is not a political allegory, but an illustration of the dictum that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. According to James Berger, the novel sided with the view, "that knowledge and technology lead inevitably toward mass destruction" – the death of Earth "reveals technology in its true nature. (After the End: Representations of Post-apocalypse by James Berger, 1999, p. 8)

A Canticle for Leibowitz is perhaps the greatest after-the-bomb novel, preceded by such works as Shadow on the Heart by Judith Merril (1950) and On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957), in which civilization is destroyed and the survivors of atomic war must contend with radioactive pollution. The novel was first published as three novellas in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1955, 1956, 1957) and then in a hardcover edition by J.P. Lippincott after some rework. The book received negative reviews in The Nation and The New Yorker, in which Whitney Balliett called Miller "a dull, ashy writer," but was praised, among others, by The New York Times and Catholic Digest, in which Francis B. Thorton  said that "It is impossible, in a short space, to suggest the enormously rich texture of this fantastic book . . . " (Catholic Digest, September 1960)

In the first part, 'Fiat Homo,' set in the dark ages, 600 years after a nuclear war, the savage world is terrorized by beasts, mutants, and robbers. Knowledge is mixed with myths and Catholic monasteries preserve indecipherable remnants of former civilization. Basically, during this period, there is no redemption outside of the Church. At the Abbey of St. Leibowitz monks have copied generations after generations the Memorabilia of Leibowitz, without understanding their meaning. Leibowitz is considered a saint but ironically the reader sees that he was a Jewish physicist and his cherished texts are grocery lists, a lottery ticket and drawings of electrical control systems. And there are hints that Leibowitz was involved in a Top Secret government project. Brother Francis, a young monk, finds a technical drawing, which is included in Leibowitz's relics and dies violently fifteen years later for a blueprint initialled by the Blessed Leibowitz. The second part, 'Fiat Lux,' takes the reader to another period which has much similarities with the Renaissance. Science is breaking free from the chains of religion, electricity is reinvented. The dawn of a new era is embodied in the self-assured scientist Thon Taddeo. Dom Paolo, an old and gentle Abbot, doubts the blessings of the new technological inventions and tries to keep his faith in. In the last part, 'Fiat Voluntas Tua,' the world is again drifting into a global crisis a nuclear war. The Order of Leibowitz has lost its power but prepares a spaceship to escape the second holocaust. A group of clergy and children leave the Earth and the old Church, to start their life again in Alpha Centauri. The legend of the Wandering Jew is taken up in the character of Benjamin, who appears in all in all three parts of the story. 

In A Canticle for Leibowitz Miller posed the basic question of post-apocalypse fiction: "Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no chance but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?" In the mythology Phoenix is a symbol of destruction and re-creation. But in the Christian world, Phoenix also suggests the triumph of eternal life over death - the bird is a proof that the Resurrection is possible. Along with James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958), Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strage Land (1961), and Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man (1969) Miller's work belongs to the few SF novels of the 1950s and 1960s, which tackled religious questions in fresh way.

Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was not a direct sequel to Canticle, although it dealt with many of its issues. The protagonist is a monk named Blacktooth St. George, who must choose between his devotion to the Church and the nomadic goddess, the Wild Horse Woman. He becomes secretary to the ambitious Cardinal Brownpony and finds out the Brownpony plans a Crusade against the Texmark empire. Brownpony is elected pope and the disillusioned Blacktooth is marching as a soldier in the Crusade.

For further reading: Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A Reference Guide to His Fiction and His Life by William H. Roberson (2011); Miller's Milieu, or the Cultural Moments of Late Humanism: Science and Religion in the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Derek J. Thiess (dissertation; 2008); Glorificemus: A Study of the Fiction of Walter M. Miller, Jr., by Rose Secrest (2002); 'Lest the World's Amnesia Be Complete: A Reading of Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz' by Ralph C. Wood, Religion & Literature, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 2001); Walter M. Miller, Jr.: A Bio-Bibliography by William H. Roberson and Robert L. Battenfeld (1992); Science Fiction: History-Science-Vision by R. Scholes and Eric Rabkin (1977); Visions of Tomorrow: Six Journeys from Outer to Inner Space by David N. Samuelson (1975)

Selected works:

  • 'Command Performance', 1952 (short story)
    - film adaptation: in On the Edge, TV film 2001, prod. Chanticleer Films, Paramount Network Television Productions, Paramount Pictures, dir. Anne Heche, starring Andie MacDowell, Paul Rudd, Joey Lauren Adams, Alan Rosenberg, Joel Grey
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1959
    - Viimeinen kiitoshymni (suom. Martti Montonen, 1962)
  • Conditionally Human, 1962
  • The View from the Stars, 1965
  • The Science Fiction Stories of Walter M. Miller, Jr., 1978
  • The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr., 1980
  • Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, 1997 (completed by Terry Bisson)
  • The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr, 2000
  • Beyond Armageddon, 2006 (edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg; postscript to the introduction by Martin H. Greenberg)


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