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 novel an admirable contrast. Its faults in taste are at least faults brought on by the author's attempt to follow his material through. Unfortunately, Mr. Miller's various pictures do not go beyond their two-dimensional limitations: though he allows his abbots, for instance, some faults and senses of guilt, a substratum of pietism persists. Mr. Miller has not the penetration of a Graham Greene or, for that matter, a good historian. However, even in two dimensions his story is imaginative, amusing and disturbing. (p. 634)
Edwin Kennebeck, "The Future Church," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXI, No. 23, March 4, 1960, pp. 632-34.
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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 memorable story as to stay with a reader for years.
As a speculation on man's destiny and most horrendous possible catastrophe, its vision and scope make so good a book as "On the Beach" seem pale and childish by contrast. The humor and conviction in "A Canticle for Leibowitz" give it the dimension the lack of which made Aldous Huxley's "Ape and Essence" unsuccessful.
You can take your choice: Miller either is telling us our future in terms of our past, or our past in terms of our future. Civilization had been destroyed in this century, but not all of human life. In the scriptural sense, there was a remnant, after what is here called "the Flame Deluge." On that premise, we are projected six centuries ahead, and...
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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 and pathfinders, as preservers and safekeepers, whose instinct is to build and retain a tradition….
In three sections, Mr. Miller … shows mankind up to its oldest tricks, tasting the fruits of knowledge, and killing its own brother. In AD 2600, science is dormant, asleep in the archives garnered by the Blessed Leibowitz's abbey. With no power instruments, the scale of warfare is intimate—a matter of bows and arrows and laying seige. Five hundred years later, electricity has been rediscovered, in Leibowitz's own community, and it is by the light of this new illumination that a number of agents of an ambitious prince examine the Memorabillia and make secret sketches of the abbey's fortifications, in order to capture...
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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 Civilization," in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1960, pp. 42-3.
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The Times Literary Supplement
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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Stanley J. Rowland, Jr.
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)
A Canticle for Leibowitz partakes of two prime strains of American literature. One, the Gothic with its fascination with the horrible and the ominous, is rooted in medieval Christian fears of the powers of darkness and was reinforced by the influences represented in Jonathan Edwards. The other strain, that of an absolutistic moralism, not only informs Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and the stern judgmentalism of William Faulkner's work but is woven even into novels of manners—such as John Marquand's Sincerely, Willis Wayde, a work which infers a moral judgment that is absolute for its situation. This moralism, rooted in our Christian tradition, is particularly strong in American literature because of our...
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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 and survival.
Miller's narrative continually returns to the conflicts between the scientist's search for truth and the state's power…. It is in this area of thought-provoking concern that Miller excels. The conflict goes on, right to the very end of the novel with some men never stopping in their speculations about the implications of their acts, and with others interested only in the pursuit of abstract, scientific truths. These latter are repeatedly used by the power-seekers in the world of Miller's story. The conflict is age-old but presented in new terms. Students will have no difficulties relating these concerns to the problems they are encountering in their courses dealing with the current post-Oppenheimer period,...
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Raymond A. Schroth
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 anachronistic today. This is not so much an indictment as an indication of how far our popular theology has come, even though we aren't gaining much better control of our environment. Miller's eschatology of doom is muted by our Teilhardian theology of hope.
Miller's church of the future, which will protect itself against the gates of hell by sending a spaceship full of monk-scientists, children, nuns and bishops (to preserve the apostolic succession) to another galaxy, retains, with all its learning, some of the worst aspects of the preconciliar Church. Before the ship takes off, a monk slams the door and quips: "Sic transit mundus!" New Rome deals with its friends and foes by concordats and interdicts, as if Old Rome had...
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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 characteristics of the type must be presented in clear terms. By this criterion, A Canticle for Leibowitz is uneven. Many standard stereotypes of "Catholic" writing appear in the book, but some passages do develop unique presentations of types.
In the first section, for example, Brother Francis is recognizable as the naive, humble, unworldly monk; everything about him suggests the traditional, romanticized legends about Saint Francis of Assisi. Brother Fingo plays the standard role of "Brother Cook"—the happy-go-lucky bumpkin of the monastery. But, in Father Cheroki, who represents the stern absolutist and legalistic mentality, and in Abbot Arkos, who represents the pragmatic mentality, the author transcends the...
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Michael Alan Bennett
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.
No one can deny that these are important concerns in the novel, but considerations of structure preclude that any of these issues could serve as the major theme…. A major theme should give unity and direction to the entire work, and none of the themes already mentioned satisfies this requirement. Their treatment is, on the whole, rather haphazard.
But one issue does receive emphasis in all three sections of the novel and is vitally connected to all the themes listed above. Miller's major theme, I believe, concerns the question of individual responsibility. He explores this theme through the various characters in the novel who either accept or reject their various responsibilities. Miller's conclusion is that if nuclear...
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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 collection, Conditionally Human (1962), combines "The Darfsteller" with two other novelettes, demonstrates his proficiency with fiction of medium length dealing with serious intellectual and emotional themes, and shows a generally prosaic and sometimes plodding style. The second collection, The View from the Stars (1964), consisting of nine stories from the period 1951–1954, exhibits a considerable range of subject matter, various degrees of control over style, and a talent for compression, and makes it clear that the ability to construct effective scenes and dramatic contrasts was present early in Miller's abbreviated career. Ironically, by the time these books were published, their author was no longer writing science fiction…....
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Harold L. Berger
[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 if one accepts the premise about man's incorrigibility with dangerous toys, Miller's gentle static clericalism has its virtues. The clerical mentality and temperament is hardly disposed towards inventing world-blasting armaments. In all, however, Miller seems to be less assured by his faith in faith than his faith in scientific ignorance to halt the deadly cycle. Here again science fiction steps backward from the precipice, waiting for the instinct for racial survival—should that ever come—to overtake madness and the machines.
And the step backward is Miller's too. In 1952, eight years before Canticle, he wrote "Dumb Waiter," a preachy story whose optimism now leaves one with a feeling of sadness. I read...
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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.
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 (1962) that science fiction "believes God is dead, but sees no reason for getting...
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