Walter Miller’s fiction has long been a favorite of mine. A Canticle for Leibowitz is not just one of my favorite science fiction novels, but one of my favorite novels altogether. There’s something peculiarly epic about that story, and I don’t mean that in the cheap way the word “epic” is generally used these days. I mean it in the way that scholars use it, as a way of describing a story that is universal in scope and powerfully vivid in detail. Leibowitz follows the historical development of mankind after a near-future nuclear inferno, during which we relive the great sweep of civilization from the Roman collapse to the modern, technological age. Miller gives us monks and politicians and radiation-born freaks who remember enough of the past—of our past—that they fear repeating it even as they fatalistically drive towards it. Like I said, it’s one of my favorite books, and it was not a small disappointment to hear that its sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was very poorly made and published by way of some major contributions from another author after Miller had committed suicide with only a partial manuscript in hand. You can imagine my glee upon discovering that a collection of his earlier short stories have been published.
This collection, entitled Dark Benediction (originally The Best of Walter Miller Jr), has been recently republished by the Orion Publishing Group as a part of the SF Masterworks series. The very trippy cover art can be seen to the left. I purchased it a few weeks ago, and have been slowly making my way through the stories, and I decided that reviewing them one by one would make a great blog series. The first few stories in the collection are quite short, and as such I will combine these together into groups of two. The first two stories in the collection are “You Triflin’ Skunk!” and “The Will.”
Both of these stories share a common sort of setup and development, in both senses of the word “common.” They are set in poor, rural places, and feature largely uneducated people as protagonists. Miller instills in the reader a sense of the mundanity of these people and their surroundings, of their ignorance and simpleness. These people are not great, learned, or even adventurous, but they are all about to experience a collision with the uncanny.
You Triflin’ Skunk!
“You Triflin’ Skunk!” is exceptional firstly for its unusual title, which would seem to suit a Flannery O’Connor story better than one of alien visitation. Indeed, the rural isolation of the religious protagonist Lucey seems like the perfect setup for one of O’Connor’s morality tales, and it helps that Miller takes his time developing the ordinariness of the situation, only revealing the back story of Lucey and her epileptic boy Doodie one piece at a time. Doodie, you see, hears voices during his fits, and he claims he actually hears the voice of his father, who can speak to him telepathically through the tumor-like growth in his forehead. The boy claims to be one of many half-breeds, the son of a priapic alien and a human mother, whose purpose is to prepare the earth for invasion. Lucey mocks this revelation, but that doesn’t stop her from carrying a shotgun with her outside on the night her son warns of his father’s coming.
This is the sad story of a boy, Kenny, who is diagnosed with an unspecified terminal disease. He loves watching the televised exploits of Captain Chronos, “Custodian of Time, Defender of the Temporal Passes, Champion of the Temporal Guard,” so when he finds out about his disease he hatches a plan to save himself. I won’t ruin it for you, but it isn’t that hard to figure out. As with the first story, “The Will” builds up the mundane world of Kenny and his parents before Miller sets to ripping the rug out from beneath your feet. One of the things Miller does so well is to make you care about these characters before he starts to bother you with fantastic elements of science fiction. His characters are never mere plot devices, but real people who matter very much. These aren’t exactly morality plays—and Leibowitz definitely had a moral character—but the stories are at least about people rather than ideas.
Tune in next week when I review “Anybody Else Like Me?” and “Crucifixus Etiam.”