Walter M. Miller jr

The View From The Stars

The View From the Stars - Walter M. Miller, jr. - Ballantine; 1965

The View From the Stars – Walter M. Miller, jr. – Ballantine; 1965

The View From The Stars by Walter M. Miller, jr. (1923 – 1996) was first published in 1965.  It is a collection of nine short stories all previously published in a variety of genre-related publications.  This is his second published collection of short stories.  I read his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz and was impressed, but not tremendously so.

If I knew nothing of the author besides what I read in this collection, I would not be surprised if/when you tell me that the author committed suicide.  It is clear to me he was “unsettled” even from these writings.  I think he took his life after his wife passed away.  But allegedly he suffered depression or PTSD, or something. Well, also allegedly he was a USAF bomber who wrecked Monte Cassino…. so I just cannot conjure any sympathy for him.  Nevertheless, one of the striking tones that I found in this collection was a depressed and heavy one.  Like most good science fiction, Miller asks significant questions about mankind and existence and the future.  He examines mankind’s role in the universe in a number of scenarios.  Somehow, though, there is also an added heaviness that pervades all of these stories.  Miller is not a happy guy.

  • You Triflin’ Skunk (1955)
  • The Will (1954)
  • Anybody Else Like Me (1952)
  • Crucifixus Etiam (1953)
  • I, Dreamer (1953)
  • Dumb Waiter (1952)
  • Blood Bank (1952)
  • Big Joe and the Nth Generation (1952)
  • The Big Hunger (1952)

These stories generally have the grim/dark element of destruction (either individually or on a broad scale) running through them.  They are not “uplifting” stories, really.  There is a hefty dose of destruction in most of these stories and because of that I was not able to race through them.  It is not easy to read heavy material.  However, there is a lot more going on than just a darker feeling.  Throughout all of the stories is a persistent awareness, questioning, and allusion to religion.  Miller is not an irreligious or blasphemous person in these stories.  Nevertheless, he does strongly demonstrate his difficulty with creation of man by the Divine.  In many stories there is a reference to man having descended directly from ape.  There are often comparisons between man and ape.

But Miller also examines mankind’s relationship with technology.  Does tech rule man or man rule tech?  What is the value of tech? Can man appreciate that value?  Is tech to be feared?  What about man’s misuse of technology? There are also places whereat he seems to gently pit technology against religion, just to see what happens.

You Triflin’ Skunk – 4 stars – this was my second favorite story in the book.  It is very Southern.  But its also got this dark humor which is good for late-night reading.  I got a kick out of this one.  Miller is also displaying his writing skill; the tone is tense, the setting is excellent.  One feels pity for the characters and I really enjoyed the ending.

The Will – 2 stars – this was my least favorite in the book.  This one contains a solid dose of misery and depression.  Despite, I think, its effort at being futuristic and hopeful.  I don’t really like reading about dying kids.

Anybody Else Like Me – 2 stars – this story is creative and has a developed suspense factor.  However, I feel like the creativity is stifled a bit by a somewhat unrelateable plot.  I just wanted more out of the story.  The main character did not evoke any sort of sympathy or interest. But I am no fan of such characters…

Crucifixus Etiam – 3 stars – dismal, heavy, sad.  Here Miller really wrestles with the concepts of sacrifice, the future of mankind, and planet colonization.  Miller asks if the value of goals changes based on its proximity.  There are a number of stories in this ilk that come from the 1950s star science fiction writers.  However, while this one really makes strong and painful points, it is a heavy read tinged with vague hopelessness.

I, Dreamer – 3 stars – This story is the most dark and dismal of the bunch.  This is really a heavy and shocking read.  It is also exceedingly well-written – poetic and artistic.  Unfortunately, there is the same sad and hopeless feeling as in some of the other stories – though here it is amped up.  I really think the writing level is excellent, but I do not think I can give this to many people to read. If anything, this is a story that will stick with me for awhile.

Dumb Waiter – 4 stars – This is my favorite story in the book (and probably most readers’ favorite).  It has a very nicely done post-apocalyptic urban/technological story.  Math, logic, survival skills all play a role.  In places, the tone is as relentless and ruthless as the characters need to be in order to survive.  This story is edgy, as they say; gritty.  I love anything with robots and computers, of course.  But there is one small section that is weird and disturbing. (Hello, why didn’t someone send Miller to a shrink in 1952?)  but that can be omitted without loss to the story.

Blood Bank – 3 stars – this is a good story, that might even be great.  Here we have the only real “adventure” story in the collection.  But even so, this is not mere pulp.  Miller uses it to ask any number of questions about evolution, nature, ethical motives, intergalactic politics, and military “virtue.”  There is an excellent level of cultural awareness.  However, the ending is rather spare and there are places where the story meanders a bit from its main path. Don’t worry, here too is a level of shock and misery.

Big Joe and the Nth Generation – 4 stars – this story is really creative, interesting, and technological.  There is a lot of suspense and the story really resonates with the reader.  It is like Indiana Jones meets John Carter, I think.  “What is a technologist?” – is asked, which is a question that really runs through this whole collection, but only actually voiced here.  Once again, elements of sacrifice, religion, and future planet-forming are touched upon.

The Big Hunger – 2 stars – This story did not really do much for me.  Maybe because it was predictable – it isn’t so much of a story as a rumination on mankind’s predictability.  History is cyclic and repeating.  Man is ambitious and stubborn.  Man has come from apes.  And mainly:  what does technology “think” of man?  I feel like this has been done in a more interesting way plenty of times – but maybe not with this artistic writing?  I get what Miller is doing here, but I just found it droll and preachy.

Therefore, definitely read Dumb Waiter and Big Joe and the Nth Generation.  If you still want more, read You Triflin’ Skunk.  Other than that, this is somewhat too dismal for me to recommend openly to all.

3 stars

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller jr.; EOS

A Canticle for Leibowitz was first published in 1960 by Walter M. Miller jr.  It won the Hugo Award in 1961 and since it’s first publication, it has never gone “out of print.”  Miller is an interesting study:  he fought with the Air Force in WWII, flying over fifty missions in the European theatre.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism and wrote a number of short stories.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is the only novel he published in his lifetime.  In his later years, Miller became reclusive and suffered from depression.  He committed suicide in 1996.

The cover art for this edition was done by the famous artist John Picacio, who has done a number of covers for novels. I am very fond of his artwork, which includes an edition of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway and several Michael Moorcock novels. Since it’s publication, A Canticle for Leibowitz has been blessed [sic] with the seemingly unending fortune of having excellent cover art.  One of the things that I like about Picacio’s cover is that there are elements that reflect religion, time, and apocalypse – but also hope and stability.  The color work is excellent and this edition is a keeper.

The introduction to this edition is by author Mary Doria Russell.  She is the author of the book The Sparrow. Now, I tried several times to read and finish that book, but it was too much and I ended up quitting and selling the book – not that I like to admit that.  Her introduction to Miller’s novel is good and bad. I agree with her at some points and yet she seems just slightly too sycophantic about it at other points. As I read the novel, Russell’s introduction stuck in the back of my head and I kept turning it around to see if I really agreed or disagreed. Since I kept at it, I guess that’s a signal of being a good introduction.

The novel is divided into three parts:

  • Fiat Homo
  • Fiat Lux
  • Fiat Voluntas Tua

Before starting the book, I was interested in a “destruction of knowledge/apocalypse” novel. So, I built up my expectations on that front. After reading the first part, I was disappointed – not in the novel, per se, but rather that my expectations were slightly off.  Nevertheless, I was enjoying my reading even if the story was not going where I had thought it would.

Reading the second part of the book, I kept waiting for one of the main characters to “turn traitor.”  I guess it’s a sign of the jaded and bitter times I live in that I was expecting that to happen. Surely, not all the good guys are that good, right? Thankfully, none of the characters “turned traitor.”  I say thankfully because not every book has to use that twist to make the story significant. Sometimes, the good guys are simply good guys. Sometimes it’s okay for people not to give in to evil.

The third part of the book was the most intense part of the book. I do not want to give away anything, but the last part displays all the “history repeats itself because human hubris refuses to learn from it’s mistakes” theme that I feel Miller really wrestled with during his lifetime.  Some of the scenes in this last chapter are a bit graphic, although not too terrible for anyone who watches any TV in 2012.  And in the end, the concept of hope still hangs in there, regardless of all the stupidity, stubbornness, and violence.

There is a lot of Latin in this book, but not just Latin – it’s basically Church Latin.  And in 2012, I am as dismal as Miller is regarding the state of anti-intellectualism and even general knowledge of the Church Herself.  I think that non-Catholics will not get as much out of the book as Roman Catholics will. Sure, the plot and themes remain accessible, but some of the tone and feeling is probably going to be lost on many non-Catholics. Some of the themes of the book include religion vs. science, state vs. religion, and faith vs. despair.  However, Miller does not write a church that cannot laugh at itself or take a rueful look at itself.  There are plenty of times in the novel where there is wry humor and bemused characters reflect on their plight.

I can see why it won a Hugo Award.  This is by no means a crappy novel.  In parts it is intense, saddening, amusing, and shocking.  I really liked the Abbots of the monastery and they are really the tools through which Miller tells us this story.  The hints of Leibowitz throughout the story are just enough to be curious and intriguing, but without any solidity.  Ultimately, the Church is the one bulwark of salvation – perhaps more material than spiritual – in the novel and that fact in and of itself will agitate some readers. However, readers who are not vehemently opposed to organized religion and who are willing to take a look at human progress as a whole will enjoy this novel.  If enjoy is the right word:  nuclear warfare/fallout is not really enjoyable, right? I gave it three stars, but I think an argument can be made for four stars. I think I give it three because the first section really seems less purposeful (in a writing sense) than the other two sections. I can honestly say I have not read a book with a plot that was similar and I have a feeling that I will be ruminating on many elements in this novel for years to come.

3 stars

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem; Harvest

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub was published in English in 1973 (it was originally published in Polish).  The title is a reference to a work by Edgar Allen Poe.

Most places and people categorize this book as science fiction, which I think is incorrect. It does take place in the future, but nothing really futuristic is relevant to the story.  The year 3149 is really just a fact that provides an overarching frame for the book, but there really is not anything one could point at and call “science fiction.”  At least not how it is commonly defined and referred to.

The book has, really, two parts.  I think most assessments would say that the novel is one whole, but with an introduction.  I want to insist that the introduction is a separate part – in fact, it’s really a misnomer to call it an introduction.  In any case, the introduction provides a framework and leads the reader to understand that the rest of the book is actually the “memoirs found in a bathtub.”

Ultimately, this book is what happens when you cross Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s Castle, and Ismail Kadare’s The Pyramid.  Smash! Then out pops Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

The Introduction is exceedingly well-written and depicts a dystopian future in which the reader is reminded of both A Canticle for Leibowitz and Alasdair MacIntyre’s first part of After VirtueA Canticle for Leibowitz begins 6 centuries after 20th century civilization has been destroyed by a global nuclear war.  As a result of the war, there was a violent backlash against the culture of advanced knowledge and technology that had led to the development of nuclear weapons. During this backlash, called the “Simplification,” anyone of learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be killed by rampaging mobs, who proudly took on the name of “Simpletons.”   Illiteracy became almost universal and books were destroyed en masse.  MacIntyre also discusses the idea of a world wherein all sciences have been dismantled quickly and completely. MacIntyre asks what the sciences would look like if they were reassembled from the remnants of scientific knowledge that survived the catastrophe. He claims that the new sciences, though superficially similar to the old, would in fact be devoid of real scientific content, because key suppositions and attitudes would be absent.  MacIntyre obviously turns this toward an ethical review of the situation, particularly focusing on virtue ethics.

Lem, writing in a tone/style that is similar to Kadare and Kafka, is able to present the future as a place wherein such a ruination of knowledge has occurred – especially in terms of the papyralysis, which is a destruction of all knowledge recorded on paper.  Even today in 2012, the complete loss of the information contained within notebooks, books, newspapers, magazines, etc. would be catastrophic.  Lem wrote this novel in the 1970s – long before  iPads and cloud drives.  The reader really feels the horror and magnitude of such a loss.  Unlike Miller and MacIntyre, Lem focuses on a memoirs that are found in a bathtub.  Not just any bathtub, but a bathtub that was found in the fourth level of the Third Pentagon.  The Third Pentagon is looked upon much like we, in current day, look upon the pyramids of Egypt.  There is an unbridgeable gap between our culture and that of Ancient Egypt such that the pyramids (no matter how much we know) remain mysterious, intimidating, and awesome.  The Third Pentagon is buried deep in a mountain – the result of political bureaucracy gone to paranoid lengths.  What was the original Pentagon, anyway – some sort of temple?

The first half of the story is interesting and very Kafka-like.  We meet the main character in media res without ever learning his name. We then follow his descent into madness via the Building.  The Building, as the character refers to it, is supposedly the Third Pentagon.  The majority of this section describes the suspicions, labyrinth, and corruption that is found in the Building.  Everyone is a spy, a traitor, and on a mission.  No one knows what the missions are, or if they do they also constantly misdirect and mislead others.  Who is following orders? Who is a spy? And many may even be double or even triple-agents!

The writing is good and eerie.  It’s not a read for everyone, if you dislike Kafka or Kadare, you will dislike this.  Nevertheless, it is a very cerebral read and fits nicely with 1984 and the Castle.  I am giving the book only three stars, though, because I feel too much is derivative of Kafka, Miller, etc.  Also, I really disliked the entirety of Chapter 11.  The ending of the book was consistent, but Chapter 11 really took the wind out of the sails.  In the end, it is a satisfying read – very cerebral and a decent satire of bureaucracy.

There are some neat sub-ideas here, as well. For example on page 75, in Chapter 5, the main character finds a book that describes original sin as the division of the world into information and misinformation – which is a pretty neat twist on the “deceitfulness” of the devil in Exodus.  Overall, I find it difficult to classify this book as science fiction.  While the setting is briefly the year 3149, but is all about memoirs that occurred in the past, this really is not a science fiction novel. Dystopian, satirical, and cerebral, but not science fiction.  I feel, in reality, this should get something like 3.7 stars, but that’s not how this works around here!

3 stars