Walter M. Miller, Jr. Miller, Walter M., Jr. - Essay

Miller, Walter M., Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.