Friday, May 22, 2015

FFS/eB: Walter M. Miller, Jr.: "Command Performance" (GALAXY, November 1952); "Conditionally Human" (GALAXY February 1952); "MacDoughal's Wife" (THE AMERICAN MERCURY March 1950)

We consider three important stories from early in the relatively short literary career of Walter M. Miller, Jr., best remembered for the linked novelets published as a novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller stopped publishing new fiction, as far as I know, with the release of the Canticle volume in 1959; he had one notable national publication in The Nation in 1962 (an essay about the ongoing legal/investigative antagonism between Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa) and, in an anthology Miller edited with Martin H. Greenberg, published in 1985, a new poem appeared.  That was all till after  Miller's suicide, when the long-stalled sequel to Canticle, completed by Terry Bisson, was published in 1997.

"MacDoughal's Wife" was apparently Miller's first published work of fiction, though his second, "Mother of Mary" (Extension Magazine, May 1950) is mentioned in the footnote blurb in the March 1950 issue of The American Mercury and was presumably accepted/bought earlier by the Catholic outreach magazine (their current website is careful to cite contributions by Taylor Caldwell and a first sale by Mary Higgins Clark, but no mention of Miller; I've advised them of the above facts, and perhaps he isn't considered too heretical by them, though he was a RC convert who eventually strayed from the church).  Apparently, while never a particularly
doctrinaire Catholic, Miller did have some rather fixed traditionalist ideas about men and women, to judge (I suspect not quite unfairly) by their recurrence in his fiction.  MacDoughal, in this contemporary-mimetic story, fumes over his wife's consistent flirtation with other men, even as she makes some pointed comments about his tendency toward alcohol abuse, during a Sunday at the beach; he's particularly obsessed, in his interior monolog, with her miscarriage three years earlier and what he sees as her nonchalance about that, and the apparent result that she has been left infertile; their childlessness seems to bother him at least as much as her flirting and supposed shallowness, and his emotional and wedding-contractual yoke with her. 

"Conditionally Human," Miller's first story for Galaxy, is available in ebook format with an introduction by Barry N. Malzberg, the series editor for The Galaxy Project reprints from the early years of the magazine. Here, much is made of maternal instinct as the driving force behind the breeding of hyperintelligent dogs and cats, and human-appearance chimps with tails appended to help make it clear that they are not human, since "genetically flawed" humans are constrained from reproducing. The protagonist is a latter-day animal-control agent whose bailiwick is specifically to keep tabs on these surrogate children and their keepers/"parents"...consistently, he and the other men in the story are, or seem to be, the Rational, Rule-bound characters, the women the ruled-by-emotion and -biological imperative foils to their rationalizations for the frequent extermination of very sentient creatures; even a priest, who opposes the extermination, still sees the Child/Pets as soulless and not human enough to be considered on a par with us (genocide metaphor not to be lost here). Thus, both women and men are damned, and while some of the men are allowed to make some moral choices, the women are mostly not quite allowed to demonstrate a similar intellection, so much as hopeless conformity or apparently lunatic rebellion. 

"Command Performance" was Miller's second Galaxy contribution; slightly contrary to Barry's assertion, Miller published his first sf story with Amazing  but didn't go on to publish more or less exclusively with Astounding Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy, but would place many more stories with Howard Browne's Amazing, Fantastic, and Fantastic Adventures, and such magazines edited by old colleagues of Browne as If, initially edited by Browne's once and future assistant Paul Fairman, and Other Worlds, edited by Browne's old boss Ray Palmer, among many other magazines in the sf and fantasy fields.  The blurb on the Rosetta Books page for this one is also particularly bad, as the protagonist has no idea at the outset she's a telepath, nor that the telepath she meets will have such insanely pseudo-rational (and reproductive) designs on her.  But the introduction, by fantasy/sf/historical fiction writer David Drake, like Miller a combat veteran, is quite good in limning the shared history of combat-driven PTSD between Miller and Galaxy founding editor H. L. Gold (not completely unknown to Drake, as well), and noting how Miller's World War II bombing crew experience shaped his later life and career...though Drake also suggests that Astounding, later retitled Analog, editor John W. Campbell, Jr. is raked over the coals for his support of a variety of questionable pseudo-scientific notions, not least his obsession with telepathy and other psi powers,  while, say, Fantastic Universe and Saint Mystery Magazine editor Hans Stefan Santesson isn't faulted for his consistent use of UFO-related "nonfiction" in his f/sf magazine...when, of course, Santesson is tweaked and mocked for just that among those who remember FU under his editorship.

Three worth seeking out; I don't quite agree that these demonstrate that Miller was the best writer in 1950s sf and fantasy at novelet or novella lengths (we did have Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon and Damon Knight, among many others, doing much of their best work at this time), but they are compellingly written, and certainly the passions and desire to tackle the tough subjects are amply present.

For more of today's books (actual books, no less!), please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Walker Martin said...

I'd like to see a biography about Walter Miller's life. His WW II experiences, SF career, and suicide, present a puzzle that needs to be explored.

Todd Mason said...

Well, the Drake and Malzberg introductions are a good start. Though he is as enigmatic a figure as Alice Sheldon, I'll grant you.

BVLawson said...

I've only read his "A Canticle for Leibowitz," and guess it's time I sought out the other works. I agree with Walker Martin - a good biography would be something I'd enjoy reading.

Todd Mason said...

Well, BV, you can see "MacDougal" at the link on the title in the text, and I suspect you can see the other Miller stories online on files for the GALAXY issues in question, though to read the forewords you probably need to buy or borrow the ebook editions cited here. He was indeed pretty prolific and even by the standards of a prolific writer in a relatively short working career, obsessed with the same matters in most of his fiction.