Saturday, September 4, 2010

SF Masterworks #69: Walter M. Miller, Jr., Dark Benediction

American writer Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s best known work is his classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, but in the 1950s, his novelettes and novellas earned him high praise and acclaim for his treatment of matters of religion and morality in worlds, present and future alike, that often contain dark undertones to them.  Before discussing the stories found in this reprint anthology, Dark Benediction, a little bit should be said about its author, as Miller's experiences influenced his stories much more than virtually all of the other authors found in the Gollancz Masterworks lists.

Miller served in the US Army during World War II in the Italian campaign and he participated in perhaps one of the saddest episodes of that campaign, the bombing of the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino.  From that moment in 1944, when a horrified Miller learned that instead of Monte Cassino being a German stronghold but rather a place of refuge for Italian women and children displaced by the conflicts between the Partisans, the Fascist Italian/German forces, and the Allied invaders, everything changed for Miller.  He converted to Catholicism in 1945, apparently due to his struggle to understand the world around him and the evils that humans commit, sometimes in the name of good.  Although Miller had a prior interest in SF, it was only during a period of time from 1951 to 1957 that he ever had any of his works published.  While three closely-linked novellas from 1955-1957, originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, formed A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller wrote almost another three dozen stories during this period, fourteen of which are collected in Dark Benediction (the American edition, The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr., was originally published in 1980).

Readers of A Canticle for Leibowitz will recognize the tone present in most of these stories, even though the settings are often vastly different.  Often there are characters thrust into nearly unbearable situations, facing moral crises of some sort or another.  In the first story, "You Triflin' Skunk!," Miller tells the story of a mother and her son, who has come into contact with a shape-shifting alien race who seeks to establish contact by forming bonds with the natives.  However, in choosing a family whose father/husband had deserted the family, things go awry.  Miller's almost laconic conclusion serves to underscore the emotional conflicts stirred up with this failed infiltration attempt.

This sort of story pattern is explored in several other stories in this collection.  In the second story, "The Will," Miller tells a story of a boy's faith and of time traveling gone wrong.  Near the end of this story, the boy Kenny's plight is summed up succinctly in this paragraph:

There was more to the note, but the gist of it was that Kenny had made an act of faith, faith in tomorrow.  He had buried it, and then he had gone back to dig it up and change the rendezvous time from four months away to the night of his disappearance.  He knew that he wouldn't have lived that long.

I put it all back in the box, and sealed the box with solder and set it in concrete at the foot of a sixfoot hole.  With this manuscript. (p. 29)

Although some might think at first that this gives away the story, this is far from the truth.  In "The Will" and also in latter stories such as the eponymous "Dark Benediction," Miller's ability to tell mini-morality stories that contain elements of personal apocalypses may remind certain readers of Flannery O'Connor's best fictions.  Both writers combine elements of Catholicism with Southern Gothic themes (although Miller's stories are never set in the South, the way he executes his stories and the tone several convey are reminiscent of this literary subgenre) to create disturbing stories that linger on well after the last page is turned.

Christianity factors heavily into these stories, with priests and other religious figures appearing, not always in beneficent roles.  The Devil also lurks deep in the recesses of several of these tales, or at least those personal demons (depression, desire, despair) that afflict so many of us from time to time.  Miller's stories work as they do because they recognize these dark forces within those, those forces that may lead us astray from our goals and aspirations, and they explore the ramifications of these conflicts within the conflict of stories that are set in possible futures or then-presents.

Miller's stories are rarely graceful.  The writing is direct and perhaps too blunt at times for readers who may not be accustomed to such straightforward treatment of themes revolving around thanatos and the dream of salvation.  But where the stories may lack in technical prowess, the raw power contained within them are more than sufficient to grab the reader's attention and to cause that reader to pause and to consider just what was read.  Many claim that SF is the literature of ideas and certainly that is the case of Miller's work, especially here in Dark Benediction.  This collection is perhaps one of the better examples of how SF writers in the 1950s questioned the world around them and how they provided their own spin on how technology and war influenced ways humans examined their environment.  A true "masterwork" of haunting, provocative stories, Dark Benediction still contains the power to move readers a half-century after Miller published his last work during his lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. I've had a hard time finding anyone else who has even touched this collection, despite the popularity of Miller's "Canticle." If you're interested, I also wrote a 5-part series on my site reviewing this collection story-by-story:

    I especially enjoyed making connections between some of the stories and his later novels. You can see a lot of the ideas from "Canticle" in embryonic form in this collection.