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Miller, Walter M, Jr

Entry updated 31 July 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1923-1996) US author who before beginning to publish served in World War Two as a pilot, flying combat missions; he then converted to Catholicism, in 1947. Miller began publishing sf with "Secret of the Death Dome" in Amazing in 1951, and over the ten years of his active writing career released about forty more tales, many of which had a deep impact upon the field. During the 1950s, a time when US sf tended to express its new-found interest in character through stories whose rigid formulae were derived from sentimental fiction and which tended to read as simplistic moralities, Miller published in Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Astounding and elsewhere tales whose treatment of character was effortlessly complex; moreover, through his preoccupation with Religion, he transfigured conventional sf themes and instruments – progress, Genetic Engineering, Biology in general – by treating them with a rich ambivalence.

Perhaps the best example is "The Darfsteller" (January 1955 Astounding), which won a Hugo as Best Novelette in 1955. The sf premise seems simple: a Computer-like machine that controls a Theatre of life-sized mannequins has displaced human actors. The darfsteller, an unemployed Method actor, has been working as a janitor in a theatre, and sabotages one of the mannequin-tapes so that he can replace it on stage. At this point the typical sf story of "character" might well give him his comeuppance and the tale would end. But Miller is just beginning; the rigged performance becomes an essay in acting and, through its presentation of Christ's Passion, a continually deepening examination of the actor's complex, emblem-haunted nature. The story appears in Conditionally Human (coll 1962); Miller's other collection of shorter work was The View from the Stars (coll 1965). The Science Fiction of Walter M. Miller, Jr. (coll 1978) and The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. (coll 1980) [for vts see Checklist], which essentially resort his relatively small output, amply convey a sense of his finest work in short form.

But Miller remains best known for the famous first volume of his Order of Saint Leibowitz sequence, A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959), which remained a singleton for decades; along with James Blish's A Case of Conscience (September 1953 If; exp 1958), it stands as one of the relatively few attempts in US sf to deal with formal religion, and one of the very few to do so successfully. The first part of this three-part work is placed in a Ruined Earth setting 600 years after a twentieth-century nuclear World War Three, a time when the human race has long been sunk into a new Dark Ages, and when its survival remains a moot question. The Catholic Order of Leibowitz – named after a twentieth-century physicist who created the Order and bestowed upon it the task of preserving knowledge during the period of violent nescience that followed the holocaust – has come into some holy relics relevant to Leibowitz's canonization (see Ruins and Futurity), and their survival – conveyed in terms that evoke an elevated sense of Medieval Futurism – becomes emblematic of humanity's. In the second part, half a millennium later, the Order is confronted with the rise once again of the scientific mentality, with all its benefits and risks (see Discovery; Invention; Technology). In the third part, a further half-millennium later, the Order has lost prestige and power in a new industrial-scientific age, but prepares a Spaceship to escape the inevitable second holocaust, thus hoping to shorten the period of darkness that will ensue. The novel is full of subtly presented detail about the nature of religious vocation and the way of life of an isolated community, deals ably with the questions of the nature of historical and scientific knowledge which it raises, and poses and intriguingly answers ethical questions about mankind's proper relation to God and the world; though the vagrant entry of the Wandering Jew into the text is perhaps a little contrived, that is a small flaw in a seminal work. While A Canticle for Leibowitz can be read as a work of Christian apologetics, Miller (like Gene Wolfe after him) clearly responds mythopoeically to the holy story of his Church, and to the institutions, with effects both ambiguous and ironic. At the same time, however, his central commitment (like Wolfe's) is unwavering, and the cyclical pattern of the tale reads as anything but defeatist – for the moment of Christ's Coming is not a matter of dead history. The 1961 Hugo for the book was richly deserved.

At the time of his death – he committed Suicide in 1996 – Miller had written about 500 manuscript pages of a sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997), which was completed, at his request, by Terry Bisson. The text, a sequel only by virtue of its date of publication, is set about seventy years after the close of the middle section of the previous book, and places a Catholic Native American in conflict with his chthonic roots as he slowly ascends the Church hierarchy. Inevitably, the text lacks the constant surprise of its great predecessor, the sense that even the author is holding his breath in anticipation of the next revelation. [JC]

see also: Amazing Stories; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arts; Automation; Colonization of Other Worlds; History in SF; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Medicine; Mutants; Robots; Sociology; Space Flight; Supernatural Creatures; Telepathy.

Walter Michael Miller Jr

born New Smyrna Beach, Florida: 23 January 1923

died Florida: 11 January 1996 [body discovered on this date]



Order of Saint Leibowitz

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J B Lippincott, 1959) [book dated 1960, copyrighted 1959, with copies on sale from October 1959: two covers issued, the second by George Sottung, the first by the illustrator here credited: hb/Milton Glaser]
  • Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (London: Little, Brown/Orbit, 1997) [text completed by Terry Bisson: hb/Peter Goodfellow]

collections and stories

works as editor


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