PrintE-mail Written by Christian Jones

Originally published in 1980 as The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr.Dark Benediction is a collection of short stories from the author of the Hugo-winning classic A Canticle for Leibowitz. Unlike his contemporaries, Miller only had a handful of stories (many of which remain uncollected) and the one novel published in his lifetime. He did, however, script several episodes of Captain Video in 1953. It’s a testament to the writer that despite a meagre body of work he is still being published today.

During World War II Miller served as a tail gunner flying more than fifty missions over Italy. The bombing of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino proved to be such a traumatic experience for him that it influenced his writing, as did his conversion to Catholicism. Miller’s stories are tinged with spirituality and often feature characters looking for salvation or redemption. His characters are so well realised that within the opening paragraphs you care about their situations and plight. There’s a mundanity to their lives, a normality that is stifling and it doesn’t matter whether they are educated or not, rich or poor. There’s a yearning within them and sometimes they know what it is that they yearn for, but often not. Miller’s characters are never plot devices but real people that matter. They drive the plot and that is what makes Miller such an accomplished writer.

The Will is the most heart-breaking, bitter-sweet story amongst this collection. Kenny is a young boy who is diagnosed with an unspecified terminal disease, but whilst watching his favourite television show, Captain Chronos "Custodian of Time, Defender of the Temporal Passes, Champion of the Temporal Guard", he devises a plot to save himself. It’s a simple enough idea and the ending isn’t hard to work out, but we defy any parent with young children not to be moved by this eloquent tale of hopelessness, regret and longing.

Another highlight of the collection is Anybody Else Like Me? Miller wracks up the tension at the turn of every page as the story’s protagonist, Lisa Waverly, inadvertently discovers she is a mutant with telepathic abilities. She’s "well-read, well-rounded, well-informed.... Then why this quiet misery?" Well that’s due to the isolation she feels, the sense that she is somehow disconnected from the rest of humanity. Even her husband and children can’t seem to fill the void that seems to be a part of her life. Then she encounters another whom shares her abilities and has sought her out with the intention of siring mutant offspring, whether she wants to be a willing participant or not.

There are plenty of stories set in the future too. The majority are post-apocalyptic and vividly describe a blasted wasteland, which had clearly been influenced from the bombing raids Miller witnessed first-hand, like the proto A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dumb Waiter. The others cast a very pessimistic view on the future of humankind such as I, Dreamer, a horrific yet touching story concerning cyborgs, and Conditionally Human where mentally enhanced dogs and chimps are used as surrogate children in a population controlled world. But happens when they are no longer wanted?

Perhaps the best of this delightfully dark bouquet is the title story itself, Dark Benediction. An alien parasite has infected a third of the human race and it is spread by simply touching another person. A strange fact about the contagion is that it doesn’t seem to be particularly harmful. The infection causes rather pleasant hallucinations and an uncontrollable desire for the infected to spread the contagion as they see it as gifting the uninfected. However, the uninfected live in a state of constant fear. How can the world function if people are too terrified to leave their homes in case they become infected from something as incongruous as a touch.

Naturally there are stronger stories than others in this collection, but even the not so strong are rich with ideas and inventiveness. There are no fillers here.

Miller struggled with depression and became a recluse from his family and friends before he eventually took his own life in 1996, shortly after his wife’s death. A literary star and troubled talent that shone so brightly before being extinguished too soon.


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