Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748
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...
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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 his telepathic powers to induce her to engage in sexual intercourse with him so that they can create a master race of people with telepathic powers and special communicative abilities. He invades her mind, yet she discovers that these powers are reciprocal. “You Triflin’ Skunk” is about a boy whose mother is a southern woman and whose father is an alien from another planet. Aliens, wanting to discover how human beings think, arrange for this particular alien to father a child with a human female so that they may correspond with the offspring and read his mind through a tumor-shaped growth on his forehead. One night the alien returns to Earth to visit his son. The story, while predictable, is humorous at times and, like all Miller’s fiction, is beautifully written.
Miller’s award-winning novella, “The Darfsteller,” presents the reader with a stubborn and idealistic protagonist, Ryan Thornier, an actor who refuses to accept the automation of the theater. Miller explores a familiar problem: the human invention of automation that takes jobs away from other human beings. Thornier loses his job, yet, because of his act of sabotage, he acquires another chance to act. Thornier initially refuses to learn the modern technological advances in theater but discovers that he may employ them to his advantage.
Critics generally consider A Canticle for Leibowitz one of the finest science-fiction novels ever written. The novel, originally written and published as three separate novellas, concerns the aftermath of a nuclear war. Miller decided to merge the three sections into one novel, in which they appear six centuries apart, allowing scientific progress to occur. The action occurs almost exclusively in a monastery. Miller skillfully interposes Roman Catholicism (Miller converted to Catholicism in 1947), Judaism, and the thirst for scientific advancement and political power. The plot revolves around the need for, and threat of, technology, which human beings may use or abuse. The novel also explores the concept of the cyclical nature of history. The time in which Miller wrote the novel, during the Cold War with its nuclear arms build-up (and immediately before the Cuban Missile Crisis), also proves significant. The novel contains reminders of the first nuclear holocaust, such as mutants and the bicephalous Mrs. Grales and Rachel. Despite the seriousness of the subject, Miller adroitly injects humor into the book, and he creates fascinating characters. The novel leaves the reader with hope for the future, especially in the character Rachel. In 1997, a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz was published, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. The novel was constructed from a manuscript that the editors estimated to have been 85 percent complete at Miller’s death. Most readers considered it to be an interesting footnote to its groundbreaking predecessor.