Miller, Walter M(ichael), Jr.
Walter M(ichael) Miller, Jr. 1923–
American novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.
Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is generally regarded as one of the outstanding achievements of speculative literature. This novel is set in the future and depicts the gradual reestablishment of civilization following nuclear catastrophe. The novel generated much popular and critical attention upon publication, and the continuing relevance of its themes has helped sustain its popularity among both young adult and adult readers.
A Canticle for Leibowitz employs a three-part structure which parallels the development of Western civilization from the Dark Ages to modern times and emphasizes the cyclical nature of history. One of the principal themes of the novel, which Miller explores through allusions to the traditions of Roman Catholicism, is the role of religion in society. In addition, Miller details the impact on society of advances in science and technology. For these reasons, critics have variously categorized Canticle as historical, religious, or science fiction. Many agree that the scope of Canticle extends beyond these areas, since Miller's blending of themes results in a wealth of interpretations. Miller's focus on the responsibility of individuals in shaping the course of society gives the novel a moral perspective as well. Canticle won the Hugo Award in 1961.
Miller began his literary career in the early 1950s by contributing tales to various science fiction magazines. Many of these stories were later collected in The Science Fiction Stories of Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1978) and The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1980). As a whole, Miller's short fiction has inspired relatively little critical interest. "The Darfsteller," however, won a Hugo Award in 1955 as best novelette. This story is representative of Miller's short fiction in its examination of both the constructive and destructive effects of new technology.
(See also CLC, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)
[A Canticle for Leibowitz, a] very good, partly humorous historical novel, is about the role of the Church as the preserver of wisdom and spiritual life in dark ages, but its era is in the future rather than the past. (p. 632)
The telling of the story is intelligent, skillfully oblique, and often funny. Mr. Miller evidently knows a good deal about the language and protocol of the Church, and he cleverly adapts its forms—such as prayers and official pronouncements in Latin—to the pattern of his story. (pp. 633-34)Those who have seen the motion picture "On the Beach," which I think completely avoids or cheapens the serious problems with which it pretends to deal, will find this...
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["A Canticle for Leibowitz"] is an extraordinary novel. It is apt to arouse either enthusiasm or distaste, but little middle ground opinion. It will be a most unusual literary experience even if you don't like it—but already it has made this reviewer and many other readers enormously enthusiastic.
It is projected into the future—it has elements in common with science fiction, yet it would be quite impossible to classify it narrowly as such. It is fanciful, yet as deeply true as any book I've read. It brilliantly combines several qualities: It is prodigiously imaginative and original, richly comic, terrifyingly grim, profound both intellectually and morally, and, above all, is simply such a...
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[A Canticle for Leibowitz] is a curious and original and very serious book, and it will be so satisfactory to the right reader that I think a warning is in order: though the action takes place in the future, and though a space ship takes off on the final page, this should not be confused with what is usually called science fiction. In a way, it is a cautionary tale about man's perennial inhumanity to man, and the invevitable use he will make of scientific means to that end. But even this is not Mr. Miller's gist. What he has really written is a highly imaginative, and basically joyous, celebration of human kind's instinct to keep going, and especially of those members of the race who are not so much discoverers...
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Mr. Miller is a fine story teller at his best—which is in the opening section of ["A Canticle for Leibowitz"], depicting the medieval reprise. But when his time-machine shifts gears into the neo-Renaissance, it stalls in a bog of quasi-historical novelese. These chapters are overrun with thanes and clans and polyglot hugger-mugger concerning a baronial type named Hannegan II, who operates out of the Red River country, and has designs on the states of Laredo and Denver.
A graver misdemeanor is the author's heavy-handed approach to allegory; his far too explicit moralizing dulls the luster of his imaginative format.
Martin Levin, "Incubator of the New...
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Without question A Canticle for Leibowitz is a most remarkable novel. The style is sharp, exact, completely individual, and above all alive. And the scale is huge—embracing life present, life past, and life future. Mr. Miller looks at life from the different angles of God and scientists and poets and priests and the Wandering Jew and—believe it or not—he makes sense out of it, and beauty too. Some critics have talked about this astonishing novel in terms of science fiction. That is an insult. Primarily and essentially it is religious and human.
"Seekers of the City," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3031, April 1, 1960, p. 205....
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["A Canticle for Leibowitz"] is a work of the Imagination…. Miller, who is a dull, ashy writer, is forced to depend, in addition to his conjuring tricks, on heavyweight irony: A scientist founds the monastery; the monastery guards the very knowledge that leads to rediscovery and repeated annihilation; the Memorabilia are the principal baggage the monks carry when they leave the earth. But irony, after all, is only a kind of high-toned mockery. It entertains but it changes nothing. (pp. 159-60)
Whitney Balliett, in a review of "A Canticle for Leibowitz," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXXVI, No. 7, April 2, 1960, pp. 159-60.
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Failure to place A Canticle for Leibowitz … in its genre has caused some uncertainty and confusion in its reviews. Therefore we should first appreciate what kind of novel it is, realizing of course that all works in a given art form partake of common denominators, precluding a rigid boundary between kinds.
With this in mind we can say that A Canticle for Leibowitz belongs in the same category as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and contemporary works such as Nevil Shute's On the Beach and a number of science fiction stories. These works explore the possible consequences of man's mastery of nature through technology. (p. 640)
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The greatness of Miller's accomplishment [in A Canticle for Leibowitz] lies not in the mere telling of his marvelous story. After all, television, the movies, and hundreds of science fiction yarns have told the story of Man's folly several times well and many times poorly. And, while A Canticle does have nice touches of humor and irony that the others may lack, the narrative is not significantly above the level of the rest. Rather, the achievement lies in Miller's skillful handling of thought-provoking ideas. While dealing with potentially sensational plot materials (the possible end of the world and all that sort of thing), he has placed most of his emphasis on the moral issues of Man's way—his life...
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When Canticle first appeared, seven years ago, it was compared to Brave New World, 1984 and On the Beach. But in one way Canticle is more satisfying: it puts its theme in theological perspective. The critics praised it, faulted it for being "too Catholic," and have generally ignored it since. Yet the paperback—with a seared monk on its cover, transfigured against the blazing wreckage of civilization—has passed from friend to friend. Now it can be read not just as a piece of brilliant science-fiction warning about the coming nuclear deluge, but as an underground sub-Scripture classic, an ethical tract….
Despite all its futurism, Canticle seems curiously...
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A curious book, which defies narrow categories, [A Canticle for Leibowitz] contains elements of satire, science-fiction, fantasy, humor, sectarian religious propaganda, and an apocalyptic "utopian" vision. Although much of its meaning can be discerned by any perceptive reader, it can be better understood with a few footnotes which place it in the context of recent "Catholic" writing. (pp. 213-14)
Because characterization in satire does not present a particular person so much as it illustrates a type, the satirist must not only avoid a trite repetition of commonplace stereotypes, but must also avoid the other extreme of obscuring the type by a fuller development of character. The essential...
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Critics and reviewers have busied themselves in listing the various themes which lend substance and depth to [A Canticle for Leibowitz]. Stanley J. Rowland (The Christian Century, May 1960) [see excerpt above] has noted the thematic treatment of the issue of euthanasia and of the conflict between church (spiritual) and state (temporal) authority. Edward Ducharme (English Journal, November 1966) [see excerpt above] has claimed that "Miller's narrative continually returns to the conflicts between the scientist's search for truth and the state's power." To this list I would add that Miller also examines the occasional clash between scientific speculation and religious doctrine.
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Up until [the publication of A Canticle for Leibowitz] Miller had been regarded, in Sam Moskowitz's words, as "the perennially promising author." An engineer-turned-writer, he had published some forty-odd stories in the major science fiction magazines in the Fifties; several were chosen for anthologies, sometimes of the best stories in the field, but many of his tales are rather conventional and far from distinguished. "The Darfsteller," a story about a human actor struggling quixotically to compete in an age of automated stage plays, won for him a "Hugo" in 1955 for the previous year's best novelette, but he was not able to publish a collection of stories until after the success of his novel. The first...
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[A Canticle for Leibowitz has] a special dreadfulness: the idea that the insanity of war is chronic, that man will return to ashes what he raises up from past ashes, until he is no more. Beginning six hundred years after the "Flame Deluge," Miller's episodic narrative carries the reader through twelve centuries of recovery to the beginning of another Deluge, one which, if not the last, will teach men nothing, but will only rewind the clockwork of futility. (pp. 151-52)
No doubt Miller's novel would have seemed most illiberal in less troubled times. Not only does he despair of man (not an exceptional attitude in any age), but he displays a strongly proclerical feeling vis-a-vis science…. Yet...
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Although the biographical information available on Miller is sketchy, his personal experiences and the ambience of the decade in which he wrote are 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. 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....
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Miller, Walter M., Jr.
Miller, Walter M., Jr. 1923–
Miller, an American, writes science fiction novels and stories and television scripts. He is best known for A Canticle for Leibowitz.
[In A Canticle for Leibowitz] we have an epic of time, space, and consciousness. We have a succession of Ends and Beginnings, a concept of human history which stresses the unity of judgment and redemption. Space is the locus of the action, but while redemption is glimpsed in space and time, it is only visible as a suggestion of hope for a future which is beyond the time and space of which we are presently conscious. A notion of man comes through in this story which plays upon his seemingly inevitable tendency to destroy what he creates: "The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty."… Thus we have a suggestion of history as it has been: Man builds his house laboriously, only to bring it crashing down. But out of the holocaust the remnant survives to carry forth the story of man.
But what is the source of the folly in man? What prevents him from building a house that can endure? Miller suggests that superimposed upon man's capricious freedom—the source at once of creative action and the seeming obligation to destroy—is a failure, an incapacity, to use this freedom properly. The freedom which is attained when man attains consciousness of good and evil, when he distinguishes himself from nature and begins to build civilization, carries with it the tendency not merely to ignore nature, but also to manipulate time, that is, to fail to distinguish between the area of existence which falls within man's control and that which does not. When man is aware of the justice which is history's goal—the justice that would exist if man's freedom to choose were exercised correctly—and when he seeks to act in accordance with that justice, his life becomes authentic. But the same freedom that draws him toward justice leads to his embitterment with the space (nature) and time (history) which he is given. And this bitterness impels him either toward despair and inaction or toward an attempt to assert a control over space and time which he does not possess. He attempts to become God, and in doing so forfeits the possibility of authentic manhood. In this context, the suggestion that God alone is the Lord of history is not a summons to human slavishness and subservience, but rather to the fulfillment of man's freedom in justice and love….
Miller, whatever his concern for theology, is always true to the story. His characters happen to be concerned with theological questions, but when they speak they always remain within the context of the story. Thus the theological conclusions are drawn by the characters and not by the author speaking directly to the reader. The theological realities become a part of the story itself.
Lois and Stephen Rose, in their The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning (© 1970 by Lois and Stephen Rose; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox, 1970, pp. 91-4.
[The] peculiar merit of [A Canticle for Leibowitz] is traceable to virtues which are both subliterary and transliterary. For one thing, it is science fiction … and its prose while competent is not distinguished. So it is not as "good" as, say, Katherine Mansfield. Yet it is of more moment than Katherine Mansfield. It is also of more moment than the better known sci-fi futuristic novels, 1984 and Brave New World….
A Canticle for Leibowitz is like a cipher, a coded message, a book in a strange language. From experience I have learned that passing the book along to a friend is like handing the New York Times to a fellow passenger on the Orient Express: either he will get it altogether or he altogether won't.
Like a cipher the book has a secret. But unlike a cipher the secret can't be told. Telling it ruins it. But it is not like giving away a mystery by telling the outcome. The case is more difficult.
A good indication of the peculiar nature of the secret is that the book cannot be reviewed. For either the reviewer doesn't get it or, if he does, he can't tell….
To say that the book is a cipher and that some readers have the code and some do not makes it sound like a gnosis, something like Madame Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, which only an elect lay claim to understanding. But it's not that either.
Rather has the mystery to do with conflicting anthropologies, that is, views of man, the way man is. Everyone has an anthropology. There is no not having one. If a man says he does not, all he is saying is that his anthropology is implicit, a set of assumptions which he has not thought to call into question….
At the end of an age and the beginning of another, at a time when ages overlap, views of man also overlap, and such mishmashes are commonplace. We get used to a double vision of man, like watching a ghost on TV.
Or, put mathematically, different ages locate man by different coordinates. In a period of overlap he might be located by more than one set of coordinates. Culture being what it is, even the most incoherent anthropology seems natural, just because it is part of the air we breathe. The incoherence is revealed—and the reader experiences either incomprehension or eerie neck-pricklings—only when one set of coordinates is challenged by the other: look, it is either this way or that way, but it can't be both ways.
The anthropology in A Canticle for Leibowitz is both radical and overt. Accordingly, the reader is either uncomprehending, or vaguely discomfited—or he experiences eerie neck-pricklings….
Miller has hit on the correct mise en scène for the apocalyptic futuristic novel. The setting is the desert. An old civilization lies in ruins. There is silence. Much time has passed and is passing. The survivor is alone. There is a secret longing in the reader either for the greening of America, vines sprouting on Forty-second Street, or for the falling into desert ruins of such cities as Phoenix. Phoenix should revert to the lizards.
Such is the ordinary stuff of good end-of-world novels, a sense of sweeping away, of a few survivors, of a beginning again. Here is the authentic oxymoronic flavor of pleasurable catastrophe. Shiva destroys, but good things come of it.
But the neck-pricklings, the really remarkable vibes, come from another direction in Canticle and set it apart from every other novel in the genre.
For the good vibes here are Jewish. The coordinates of the novel are radically Jewish-Christian. That is to say, the time-line, the x-coordinate, the abscissa runs from left to right, from past to future. But the time-line is crossed by a y-axis, the ordinate. What is the y-axis? It is Something That Happened or Something That Will Happen on the time-line of such a nature that all points on the time-line are read with reference to the happening, as before or after, minus or plus. The Jewish coordinates are identical with the Christian save only where y crosses x.
To apply Jewish-Christian coordinates to a sci-fi novel is almost a contradiction in terms. Because all other sci-fi novels, even the best, 1984 and Brave New World, are written on a single coordinate, the time-line. There is a Jew in Brave New World, Bernard Solomon, but his Jewishness is accidental. He could as easily have been a Presbyterian or a Sikh….
For Jewish coordinates (I say Jewish because for our purposes it doesn't matter whether the coordinates are Jewish or Christian, since both have an intersecting y-axis, and after all the Jews had it first) to be applied to the sci-fi genre is a radical challenge of one set of coordinates by another. It is either absurd—and some reviewers found it so—or it is pleasantly dislocating, setting up neck-pricklings. It is something like traveling to a habitable planet of Alpha Centauri and finding on the first rock: Kilroy was here. Or it is like turning on a TV soap opera and finding that the chief character is Abraham….
The peculiar virtue of the novel lies in the successful marriage of a subliterary pop form with a subject matter of transliterary import. Literature, in one sense of the word, is simply leapfrogged. Katherine Mansfield is bypassed.
Canticle is an agreeable battle of coordinates. The eerie neck-pricklings derive from the circumstance that the uni-axis time-line of futuristic fiction has never been challenged before and so has become one of those unquestioned assumptions that form us far more firmly than any conscious philosophy. Miller lays the old coordinates over the uni-axis—like one of those clear plastic overlays in mathematics texts—and the reader experiences a slight shiver, or annoyance, or nothing at all.
When Miller's starship, which leaves the earth in the second holocaust, reaches Alpha Centauri and discovers intelligent beings there, most of the astronauts will ask the strangers the usual uni-axis time-line questions: What is the state of your agriculture? Have you split the atom yet? What about your jurisprudence? Etcetera.
But at least one of the astronauts will be a fellow like Walter Miller and he will ask a different set of questions—questions that, oddly enough, the strangers may understand better than his fellow astronauts: "How is it with you? Are you yourself? Or did something go wrong? Was there a disaster? If so, where do you presently stand in relation to a rectification of the disaster? Are you at a Time Before? Or a Time After? Has there been a Happening? Do you expect one?
When he finishes Canticle, the reader can ask himself one question, and the answer will tell whether he got the book or missed it. Who is Rachel? What is she?
Walker Percy, "Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 'A Canticle for Leibowitz'," in Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden (© 1971 by Crown Publishers, Inc.; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1971, pp. 262-69.