Also known as Walter Miller’s other Hugo-winning story, "The Darfsteller" presents an episode late in the life of aging theatrical actor Ryan Thornier. Years ago human actors have been bullied off the stage by mechanic automotons called dolls which have been imprinted with the personality patterns of popular actors who have signed their careers away to the Smithfield corporation. Those actors popular enough got a Smithfield contract, and the rest got a stolen dream, but none of them got to stay on stage. Thornier has never given up on artistic integrity, even though he had to make a living as a janitor in one of the robotic theatres, but while he "had stood firm on principle… the years had melted the cold glacier of reality from under the principle." This story is an account of his last attempt to save himself.
Much like "Dumb Waiter," this story takes place in a future that is, if not exactly post-apocalyptic, at least a pessimistic take on the human race. Meteors have fallen to earth which contained a parasitical infection that has already spread to one-third of the human race, causing the structures of civilization to collapse. The infected are known as "dermies" because the infection is spread by physical touch of hand-on-skin, and because the infected possess an almost irresistable urge to touch the uninfected. The dermies’ skin turns grey, and they are said to experience hallucinations that some think are tied to a restructured nervous system. It’s unclear to many if the dermie infection is even harmful, but mass panic has caused all social systems to collapse and has driven the world into a state of perpetual fear. The "benediction" of the title is a play on the religious practice of the laying on of hands to give a blessing, and indicates the belief of the dermies that they are giving a gift to those they infect. (Incidentally, the sperm-like creatures on the book cover above is a representation of the alien parasite from this story.)
Set on the moon in the late twenty-first century, "The Lineman" is a brief look at the harsh life endured by lunar workers in the early stages of extraterrestrial colonization. The twist that gets the story moving—the arrival of a space-bound brothel—reminded me of the old C.S. Lewis story "Ministering Angels," but without the wry sense of humor Lewis brought to the subject. This is one of Miller’s weaker stories from this collection, and it never really comes together coherently to make a point.
Vengeance for Nikolai
This story, on the other hand, is a short but frightfully vivid nightmare of a near-future war between an America that has been overtaken by a nationalist party and the Soviets (this was written in 1956, mind you). A woman, Marya Dmitriyevna, has recently lost her infant son Nikolai in an attack, and is given the chance to revenge herself upon the Americans by a Russian colonel. The American military has a general, Rufus MacAmsward, who may be half-mad, but whose strategies have thus far managed to overcome any obstacle. He also has a thing for women. I won’t ruin the ending, but it is dark and funny and disturbing all at once.
All things considered, this is a pretty solid collection of science fiction stories. It shows off Miller’s talent as well as his versatility. I suspect he could have written a dozen novels, and each one would have been both brilliant and entirely different than any of the others. It’s a pity his output mostly stopped with A Canticle for Leibowitz, especially after seeing the potential only hinted at in this collection.
Next up for review, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman?