AFTER THE FLAME DELUGE:
WALTER M MILLER JR
The history, analysis and
retrospective significance of:
‘A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ’
by WALTER M MILLER JR
David Pringle’s ‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’ calls it ‘one of the genre’s most distinguished works’ (Carlton Books, 1997). To John Clute ‘it is one of the two or three finest single achievements of modern SF’ (‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’, Dorling Kindersley, 1995). While Brian Stableford calls it ‘the most impressive single work to come out of the post-war SF boom’ and ‘one of the most thoughtful speculative exercises produced within genre SF’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’, edited by Peter Nicholls, Granada 1981).
The only novel Miller published during his lifetime – ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (US, 1960), is what genre academics call a fix-up, of three novelettes, the first of which appeared in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ dated March 1955 (no.47). Edited by Anthony Boucher, the title worked to higher literary standards than many of its competitors, and the issue is an odd compilation of strangeness. With Miller denied cover-art in favour of a beautiful Chesley Bonestell illustration titled ‘Surveying Mars’, it also includes a poem by Winona McClintic (“1980 Overtures”) and Lord Dunsany’s extravagant “The Ghosts Of The Heaviside Layer”. By the time the second self-contained installment appeared in the same magazine, “And The Light Is Risen” – July 1956 (no.63) Miller’s ‘short novel’ is granted cover-billing. As is what Boucher introduces as ‘here is the final story in the trilogy’ – “The Last Canticle” (January 1957, no.69). Taken together, considerably revised and rewritten for its JB Lippincott hardback book debut, the novel forms a sobering corrective for those who dismiss 1950s SF as spaceships and tentacled green aliens. This is a cerebrally slow-paced narrative with detailed theological arguments set in monastic austerity, more akin to – say, Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name Of The Rose’ (1980) than it is to the star-smashers of Space Opera.
Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is one such timid aspirant, enduring a lonely desert Lenten-fast imposed by the abbey of the Albertine Order Of Leibowitz. Alongside what had been the route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso, the novice attempts to construct a shelter of interlocking stones sourced from eroded ruins, when he encounters what he assumes to be a cantankerous old lone pilgrim. With Francis unable to eat or converse, the pilgrim is by turn tauntingly playful and antagonistic, but before they part he indicates the keystone Gerard needs to complete his shelter, by marking it with what turns out to be mystic Hebrew symbols. Removing the stone causes an implosion revealing the antechamber to a previously unsuspected Fallout Survival Shelter, in which Brother Francis discovers a box of relics, including a Memo notebook with shopping list for bagels, pastrami and kraut. And a Circuit Design blueprint. Although ‘it appeared to be no more than a network of lines connecting a patchwork of doohickii, squiggles, quids, laminulae, and thingumbob’ it is signed ‘Leibowitz, IE’, suggesting this memorabilia once belonged to the founder of the order. Yet rather than this find being celebrated, the unfortunate Francis is subject to a series of punitive misfortunes.
The affair costs Brother Francis seven Lenten vigils. Time passes slowly, crawling, filled with the detailed tedium of work, wood-carving and text-copying. Until a delegation arrives to consider evidence for the canonization of the Beatus Leibowitz, and Francis is cross-questioned anew by both a postulator and an advocatus diaboli. Then, in answer to a summons, he packs his bindlestiff and his illuminated lambskin copy of the blueprint, and heads towards New Rome on his ass, for the canonization. Brother Francis is interviewed by the twenty-first Pope Leo – who is ‘less ferocious than Dom Arkos’, only for him to be then randomly killed and cannibalized on his return journey by the same ‘Pope’s Children’ mutant bandits who earlier stole his ass and illuminated lambskin. His remains buried by the same wanderer who’d initiated the sequence of events that both skewed, and cursed his life.
‘The complexity of the work as a whole is quite extraordinary’ points out John Clute, ‘there is humour, pathos, tragedy, myth, speculation, irony, and hope’ while ‘each section of the book both prefigures and echoes the other sections, giving the effect of a mosaic.’ He points out that, in one thread, Miller simultaneously balances the countervailing beliefs that secular history is both cyclic – ‘it never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day,’ yet also a linear pathway moving upwards towards a possible state of grace. With Thon Taddeo acting as Devil’s Advocate. ‘If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.’
‘So it was that, after the Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification.’ Survivors vent their rage on all people of learning, who they hold responsible for the armageddon weaponry, by destroying literacy and burning books. Yet the monk’s task ‘was to preserve what was worthwhile in the old world, and at the same time to shape a new world that would not just re-enact the old tragedy’ according to John Clute’s encyclopedia entry. And this is where Isaac Edward Leibowitz attempts to bend the Cistercians role as sanctuary to preserve what can be saved by ‘bookleggers’ who smuggle books, and ‘memorizers’ who – as in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953), memorise entire texts.
From the first section – ‘Fiat Homo’, a leap across a further six-hundred years of the ‘black millennium’ to 3174 into part two, ‘Fiat Lux’, with new rumours of war. ‘Time seeps slowly in the desert and there is little change to mark its passing.’ Yet there’s the rise of the secular power of Texarkana, and the emergence of the precociously talented ‘Sage of Sages’ Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, bastard outcast of its ruling family, who seeks to test the truths – or falsehoods of the memorabilia in the abbey archives. Testing ‘the esoteric gulf between Christian monk and secular investigator of Nature.’ While within a vaulted basement of the abbey itself the spark of renaissance is ignited. Dom Paulo must arbitrate between the rival factions as Brother Kornhoer reinvents a treadle-driven dynamo to power an electrical lamp, ‘a brilliance that had not been seen in twelve centuries.’ A lesser writer than Miller would have him simply refer to a copy of Brother Francis Gerard’s blueprint. Inevitably the process is more complex than that, and fiercely opposed as blasphemy by traditionalist factions.
I bought my copy of the Corgi Science Fiction paperback edition of ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ as a teenager at the ‘Motherby Bookstall’ on Hull’s Open Market – then located in the square behind Holy Trinity Church. Drawn by the cover-art, strikingly highlighted by a dark cowled figure against a pure red background, I found it well worth paying its trade-in 1/6d price. The blurb quotes the ‘Chicago Tribune’ to the effect that ‘in the great tradition of ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’, this is ‘an extraordinary novel, terrifyingly grim, prodigiously imaginative, richly comic.’ The reference to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, and George Orwell’s 1949 novel is not really helpful, but it indicates the status the publishers are targeting. This, they’re saying, is not cheap SF, this is literary fiction too, albeit with science fictional premises. As Brian Aldiss points out, ‘it was immediately greeted with the warmest praise by reviewers – ie, they said it was so good it couldn’t possibly be SF.’
The advent of nuclear weaponry at the close of World War II, and the escalation of superpower confrontation through the subsequent Cold War, legitimized a raft of shock-horror pulp excess glowing with radioactive mutants and thrilling new barbarities. With just the scary frisson of credibility provided by each new H-Bomb test and political crisis, maintaining a precarious Mutually Assured Destruction balance of terror. ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ is uniquely a product of this 1950s nuclear paranoia. Rather than hunting links in mainstream literature, a more appropriate parallel would be with John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ (1955), in which a fundamentalist Christian community in post-apocalypse Labrador have survived what they term ‘the Tribulation’. Miller’s ‘dark robes’ inhabit the same essential wasteland future, but with a considerably more thought-through intelligence. Yet here the comparison also falters.
Miller converted to Catholicism at twenty-five. And Kingsley Amis – who creates his own Catholic alternative history with ‘The Alteration’ (1976), recognizes ‘religion described – in full and affectionate detail’ in ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’. In a ‘Riverside Quarterly’ (Vol.8 no.4) essay, critic Marilyn House chases up a baffling density of biblical references easily overlooked by a reader of a more secular persuasion (‘Miller’s Anti-Utopian Vision’). To Amis, ‘although containing some amusing satire on monastic self-dedication’ Miller’s novel ‘has passages of what seems to me to be genuine religious conviction not devoid of impressiveness’ (in his ‘New Maps Of Hell’, 1961).
After the war Miller studied engineering, until his first SF story, “Secret Of The Death Dome” – a shoot-out with invading Martians hovering over the southwestern desert, appeared in ‘Amazing Stories’ (Vol.25 no.1, January1951), after which he contributed a slew of gradually-sophisticating tales to many genre magazines.
“The Big Hunger” (‘Astounding SF’ October 1952) is an elegiac prose-poem of meaning-seeking human expansion across the stars in cycles of regression and resurgence, with no protagonist other than the starships which carry them. No characters, but the abstract principle of interstellar flight, and the whole future of the galaxy. According to the blurb, ‘there was a Race, and its life-drive was Curiosity, and only Space was limited.’ Until there’s nowhere else for them to go, but home. ‘I have seen the pride in their faces. They walk like kings.’ Written at a time of strong plot-driven narratives, it’s a bold experiment that can sometimes seem naïve… yet when I first read it, as an impressionable adolescent, I found its time-spanning philosophy compelling. I was even inspired to attempt my own galaxy-wide variant. Brian Aldiss select it for his anthology ‘Space Odysseys’ (Orbit, 1974) as ‘it sums up much of the content of this book, and says a great deal about aspiration in general.’
And “Anybody Else Like Me” (published as “Command Performance” in ‘Galaxy’ November 1952) opens with the sensual eroticism of Mrs Lisa Waverly dancing naked in the rain as ‘the drops took impersonal liberties with her body.’ With effortless eloquence the prose eases into stranger-threat as she picks up telepathic emanation, afraid of the unsettling implications of her own powers, she manipulates the only other telepath to death into a final desolation that leaves her even more alone in ‘the silence of the voiceless void’.
While, as an innovator, his “I, Dreamer” – which debuted in the June/July 1953 issue of ‘Amazing Stories’, anticipates Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1969) in featuring not only the confused emotional responses of what is clearly a ‘brainship’, with ‘Clicker’, the human child-brain grafted into the e-Eradani VII starship weaponry in its strike-back against the two-legs of Earth, but also its desire to sing. McCaffrey’s first tale in her cycle followed in the April 1961 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’.
Yet my personal favourite of his short stories, one I’ve returned to with pleasure over and over again – “Big Joe And The Nth Generation” (in ‘If’ as “It Takes A Thief”, May 1952), is an affectionate contribution to the ER Burroughs tradition. As in ‘A Princess Of Mars’ (1912) the red planet is a dying world which requires the periodic reactivation of an Atmosphere Plant to renew its thinning air. In a fatalistically devolved Mars, only the picaresque Asir of Franic – as a young thief ‘of his tenth Marsyear’, is capable of linking ‘ritual phrase’ snippets of stolen data leading him to the Vaults to rekindle The Blaze Of The Great Wind. The story has everything that makes this sub-genre appealing, an attractively outsider protagonist, a spirited girl companion, the romantic desolation of a doomed world with wonderfully bizarre fauna (the hüffen, ‘nature’s experiment in jet propulsion’), and the puzzle Asir must solve to outwit Joe, the guardian robot. The twist is that this Cimerian plain is on a far-future Mars populated by Ancient Fathers exiled from an Earth reduced by war to a new asteroid belt.
Cherry-picking from both volumes, ‘The Best Of Walter M Miller Jr’ (Gollancz, 1980) presents a comprehensive overview of his short fiction, leading ‘New Worlds’ reviewer Leslie Flood to concede that, whatever else Walter M Miller produced, these tales ‘can stand on their own.’
Reverend Father Jethrah Zerchi argues against the morality of euthanasia after Texarkana in nuked, and the abbey is inundated by radiation-blasted refugee victims, in a dialogue passage unlike any other in SF. As though Miller is working out each step of the equation himself, balancing issues eloquently one against the other. Until Zerchi is terminally trapped beneath the abbey’s falling masonry – forcing him to directly endure the unalleviated agony of death he was intellectually extolling as spiritual virtue. While the symbolism posed by Mrs Grales – a mutant with a sleeping second head she calls Rachel, also transcends the genre, into realms of wonder. After the final nuclear exchange, Mrs Grales is left comatose, but Rachel awakens. A new spirit unsullied by the world’s tarnishing. Whatever she represents to Miller must remain open to speculation. Except that humans fill with fancies the space where they find no meaning. While, escaping the new annihilating deluge – and more in hope than futility, Brother Joshua’s starship seeks ‘the continuity of the Order’ on ‘Alpha Centauri’s planet maybe, Beta Hydri, or one of the sickly straggling colonies on that planet of What’s-its-name in Scorpius.’
Michael Moorcock – in his ‘James Colvin’ guise, suggests that Miller’s ‘stories have a slightly dated flavour. Things have moved on since they were written,’ before adding a new significance, in that ‘Miller is one of the people who has helped in the move’ (in ‘New Worlds’ no.162, May 1966). And ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ remains in print. It is still being read. It’s tempting to speculate how future archivists – discovering an intact copy in the ruins of our civilization, will interpret its story into new mythologies.
“Command Performance” was selected by Brian Aldiss for ‘Penguin Science Fiction’ (Penguin, 1961), with Aldiss commenting that here ‘you have a portrait of a woman as actual as any in science fiction’ and ‘there is evidence of that force and vision which Walter Miller has lately brought to bear on his incomparable novel ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’.
“I Made You”, for the sequel – ‘Yet More Penguin Science Fiction’ (Penguin, 1964) Aldiss chose a tale first published in ‘Astounding SF’ (vol.53 no.1, March 1954) ‘for a decade now I’ve been haunted by the vision of an immense and wounded machine lumbering over the surface of the moon, spitting out its anger at anything or anyone who dares to come within range. Only recently did I track down the story that contained this device and found it was written by Walter Miller… Miller skilfully portrays the frustration and rage felt by both man and machine in the story; by the end of it, like so many of the better science fiction stories, it seems to have taken on a wider meaning than its limited context would lead one to expect, possible because tales of the future are like shadows of our present, thrown upon and enlarged against some great platonic cave wall, so that the machine and the man become – in the anonymity granted by futurity – Machine and Man.’
“Memento Homo” (originally published as “Death Of A Spaceman” in ‘Amazing Stories’ (Vol.28 no.1, March 1954) collected into ‘The Worlds Of Science Fiction’ (Victor Gollancz 1964, Panther SF, 1966) edited by Robert P Mills who says ‘each story is a favourite, on one count or another, of its author, and the author in each instance has attached a note explaining why’, with a preface by Miller himself ‘I knew and loved Old Donegal, who used a different name, and whose mistress was not a thundering rocket, but a thundering steam locomotive and who died long ago, I suppose it is that love that makes this story a favourite, in spite of its flaws, its corn, and its obvious obsolescence as science fiction’
“The Darfsteller” was anthologised in ‘The Hugo Winners’ (Penguin, 1964) edited by Isaac Asimov, who recalls that Walter Miller was not at the Thirteenth SF Convention (Cleveland, 1955) where his Hugo was accepted by proxy Judith Merril, but adds an anecdote about a meal shared by Miller and Asimov with Robert P Mills – then editor of ‘Venture SF, in a New York French restaurant where Asimov attempts to impress by ordering in French. Writing later for permission to include the story in this anthology Miller responds ‘of course, I remember you. You ordered chitlins in French’