Book Review: The View from the Stars, Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1965)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1965 edition)

3.75/5 (Collated rating: Good)

Almost all SF fans have read Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s masterpiece A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) but few indulge in his shorter works.  By 1957 Miller had virtually quit publishing new SF (A Canticle is comprised of novellas published between 1955-1957).  His only work published later was Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997) completed by Terry Bisson and released posthumously.

The View From the Stars (1965) — containing five short stories, two novelettes, and one novella — is a cross section of his most productive decade.  Although I found that none of the works included should be considered masterpieces, “I, Dreamer” (1953), “Dumb Waiter” (1952),  “Big Joe and the Nth Generation” (1952), and “The Big Hunger” (1952) were wonderful.  All the others are readable, if somewhat unremarkable.

Recommended for all fans of 50s SF — not only can Miller’s prose be achingly beautiful but the religious undercurrents (as in A Canticle) are often well-handled.  And of course, Richard Powers’ cover for the 1965 Ballantine edition is to die for.

I for one plan on reading Miller’s collection Conditionally Human (1962) soon.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

“You Triflin’ Skunk!” (variant title: “The Triflin’ Man”) (1955) 3/5 (Average):  Somewhere in the deep south where “the rain sang light in the sodden palmettos and the wind moaned through the pines about the unpainted shack” (7) a young boy lies writhing in agony in his bed.  A voice in his head promises, “only a small hurt this time, my son” (8).  His ignorant/superstitious mother, unknowing of the voices wishes she had the money to cure his mysterious aliment.  The boy soon learns the true nature of the voice.  But the mother and her shotgun dispel the plot.

“The Will” (1954) 3/5 (Average):  Despite being the least interesting/ruminative story in the collection the fun twist ending would have delighted me as a child.  Perhaps I would have figured out where the the mysterious coordinates were that form the fulcrum of the story.  Kenny, a smart fourteen-year-old obsessed with SF shows, is dying from some untreatable disease.  While his father and his mother attempt alternative treatments he indulges in his SF fantasy world and sees a way out.  And it works of course, with some reader participation….

“Anybody Else Like Me?” (1952) 3.5/5 (Good):  The first story in the collection that deals with a common 50s social issue — the discontent of the 50s housewife.  On the surface Lisa has everything — a family, a husband who has a substantial income, art clubs, social groups, etc.  However, when her husband is on a trip and her children are staying at her mother’s her world threatens to implode with the arrival of a mysterious stranger and growing abilities of her own.  Miller’s treatment of telepathy is intriguing — and the ending is pitch perfect.

“Crucifixus Etiam” (1953) 3.75/5 (Good):  Due to the substantial publication history, “Crucifixus Etiam” appears to be one of Miller’s best known stories but I am somewhat unsure why.  Manue Nanti, originally from Peru, now slaves away on some unknown project on desolate Mars.  Due to the atmosphere he has “plastic aerator valves” surgically stitched into his chest that release oxygen from a tank directly into his lungs.  Miller frames the tale as a religious parable — not only do the workmen, from all walks of life and places, suffer inordinately through severe pain for some unknown reason but when the reason is revealed they see that their suffering has not been in vain.  Miller is in the unusual position of deploying religious imagery to justify the standard 50s naïveté of future space travel.  This would not be a problem if the characters themselves did not buy into it — but they do, wholeheartedly.

“I, Dreamer” (1953) 4/5 (Good):  “I stand in the rain.  Like a bright silver spire, I stand waiting in the rain for Teacher to come.  The great concrete plain stretches about me on all sides to vanish in the gray torrent” (68).  A sentient spaceship, who does not know that he is a real child — stolen from its mother — whose body is hidden connected to the controls within his metal bulk, lifts from the surface of a planet and transports his Teacher and a woman who cares for him across space.  The Teacher does not refrain from using the pain button at the slightest provocation.  The woman sings to him when the Teacher is not around.  A disturbing and atmospheric story….

“Dumb Waiter” (1952) 4.25/5 (Good):  The best story in the collection!  And one of the more intriguing 50s SF cities put to paper.  After a cataclysmic war a vast automated city was evacuated.  The robotic war planes of the enemy still fly overhead opening their bomb doors — but they have long been out of bombs.  Although many inhabitants want to return to the city the automated security controls, traffic controls, judges, etc are still activated. Mitch Laskell seeks save the central computer from roving bands who want to destroy it so they can reoccupy their homes.  But he will have to outsmart the security system, rescue a woman and her child from jail, and of course, avoid fines and penalties that could land him in jail with no rescue and no way to pay for his release.

“Blood Bank” (1952) 3.5/5 (Good):  The longest work in the collection is a straightforward space opera with a rather visceral twist.  In the far future humans has settled the stars.  Earth, despite its place as the birthplace of a galactic empire, is a backwater and virtually forgotten.  Eli Roki, a space commander from Colph, adheres too closely to rules and regulations and destroys a Mercy vessel from Earth.  Ostensibly the vessel was sent out to help various disaster stricken worlds but Roki believes something is afoot.  After he is released from his command he sets off to find out.  On the way he encounters an independent female space pilot who assists him in his plan.  Unfortunately, Miller has Roki “domesticate” her by the end of the story.  When women appear in Miller’s work they generally adhere closely to the stereotypes of the age.  What is refreshing (strangely) about the story is the depressing take on the society that has developed on Earth.  Civilization has moved to the stars.  Earth is too far gone to be redeemed.

“Big Joe and the Nth Generation” (variant title: “It Takes a Thief”) (1952) 4/5 (Good):  A beautiful story that begins with real promise but devolves into the standard quest to save the world idiom.  Asir, a thief from Mar’s highlands, is caught redhanded.  But, what he has stolen reveals the reason why Mars is losing its atmosphere. Miller hints at an unusual society where thieves steal ideas and quotations instead of cash: “A thief, if successful, frequently became endowed with wisdom, for he memorized more wealth than a score of honest men.  Quotations from the ancient gods — Fermi, Einstein, Elgermann, Hanser and the rest — most men owned scattered phrases, and scattered phrases remained meaningless.  But a thief memorized all transactions he overhead, and the countless phrases could be fitted together into meaningful ideas” (161).

“The Big Hunger” (1952) 4.25/5 (Good) is the perfect story to end the collection.  The character is a spaceship personified as a man who observes human development swirl around him, using him, building him, worshipping him, leaving him to rust amongst the weeds in a field…   In true Miller fashion, the spaceship personified allows him to speculate with broad strokes on the cyclical swirls of history, on the state of humanity, on growth and decline, on collapse and rebirth….

(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1973 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The View from the Stars, Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1965)

    • I couldn’t agree more. I really loved the ambiance, the prose, the idea of surgically attached breathing tubes… But then, the characters essentially said, “it’s cool suffering like Jesus for something we will never see.” It all the religious imagery ended up justifying the most straightforward “mankind is great and thus deserves to conquer all” type narratives of that era… Perhaps I’m missing out on some of the complexity of the religious parable. The idea that man is being crucified instead of God as Jesus… hmm….

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