“I Made You” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, March 1954
Price I paid: none
“DO NOT FOLD, BEND, OR MUTILATE”
marked the beginning of our cybernetic society. How will it end?
The varied answers to that question have proved to be fertile ground for some of the greatest science fiction imaginations. But perhaps we shouldn’t look too closely into the future of cybernetics. It may be that the survival capacity of the thinking machine is greater than that of its maker…
I’ve said this several times before, I bet, but A Canticle for Leibowitz is my favorite novel. It might shift around with the rest of my top five from time to time, but it’s consistently up there. Sometimes this fact surprises me. It’s a book that is deeply pessimistic. It’s dark, it’s often ugly, and it deals so heavily with Miller’s conflicted opinions of the Church, something that I made my mind up about a long time ago.
Someone, somewhere, might also be surprised to find that I’m not some kind of sci-fi hipster. It’s a very popular book. It has appealed to a lot of people who have never read another science fiction novel in their lives. It won the Hugo in 1961. It’s a Certified Classic, not just of sci-fi, but of the English language.
And it’s a beautiful book. That’s weird, because again, it deals with darkness and ugliness and pessimism. But Miller’s writing is just, well, perfect. I fell in love with it before the first chapter was out. Every time I open it up again I just sink down into the words. The only book I’ve loaned—and subsequently lost—more often is Good Omens.
I bring all this up so that I can slide into the fact that until today I’d never read anything else by the Walter Miller. Is that a weird thing? I’m genuinely curious. Who else has a Favorite Book but have never felt the need to seek out the other things that author has written? And why? I can’t explain it, myself, but I’ll take a few stabs at it.
Miller only published the one novel in his lifetime. A sequel to Canticle called Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published posthumously in 1997 after a bit of fixing up from Terry Bisson. Bisson says he had to do very little work to get it publishable, but I wouldn’t know. I own a copy, I just haven’t gotten around to reading it. I also haven’t read any of his other short stories, despite owning at least one Best Of compilation (a 1980 Pocket Books edition with a cover that creeps me the eff out).
Jo Walton (heart emoji) wrote an article for Tor.com in 2010 about what she coined The Suck Fairy. It’s what happens when you re-read a book you love and find out that it’s actually not as good as you remembered. Maybe it’s got some racism, sexism, homophobia, or whatever that you missed the first time. That’s pretty common. There are some other things that can cause the Suck Fairy to manifest but I’ll let you read Jo’s article yourself. It’s well worth it.
Anyway, one root of the Suck Fairy I’d like to humbly add is You Didn’t Like Something Else By the Author. It can be related to the rest of the reasons. Maybe the book you love doesn’t have any major ethical issues, but uh-oh, it turns out that a sequel did. Or an unrelated work. Or something they did in real life. Or maybe it’s not that something is problematic, but it’s just bad. Real bad.
And now when you read the book you love, you can’t help but think of that other one.
Does that mean the thing you loved is bad now? I lean toward no, but that’s a tough nut to crack and might be very dependent on circumstance. It gets close to the Separating the Author from the Work argument and that’s a whole can of worms. I get that there are many sides to the issue, and I’m deeply conflicted about it.
Anyway, it might be that I didn’t read any more Miller because I was afraid that if I did, I’d find something that made me not like Canticle any more. It’s not rational. I won’t pretend it is. Just put it on the list of all the other anxieties I take medicine for.
I haven’t had that problem with other authors, though. That throws a wrench into this hypothesis. In fact, almost every other book I’ve loved has led to me reading more by that author.
I mentioned before that all of Miller’s other works are short stories and novellas. Maybe I’m biased against those forms. Finding short stories is a bit harder than finding a novel. It takes an (extremely tiny, yes) amount of research. Plus, people don’t tend to talk about stories as much. They’re less likely to be recommended. Goodreads doesn’t have a “If you liked this novel you might like the following non-novels-but-are-still-written-things” section. And even if you do get a story recommended, how are you going to get it? Are you going to buy a whole book of stories just for that one? Which collection should you go for? The one with stories all by that same author, so you can learn more about them, or the one with stories all with that theme, so you can get a broader view on the topic?
My answer to that, incidentally, is to go to the library and get whatever you find first. I recently needed a copy of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and ended up with Terry Carr’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year #3 because it was the first thing I found with that story in it. Turns out that if you don’t stress out about which collection you get because it’s not costing you money, you’re going to be fine. (All the stories in that collection were good, by the way.)
As to why I never read Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, we can probably pin that down to a wariness of any posthumous sequel to an incredible book. With all due respect to Terry Bisson—seriously the dude is rad— I think we’ve all been burned a few times. Like most people, I think it was the new Dune books that caused that wound, but I also remember my mom’s furious disdain for that 1991 sequel to Gone with the Wind.
So now that I’ve prattled on for about a thousand words of navel-gazing, let’s talk about the story!
I guess it turns out that I needn’t have worried.
Within a sentence I was sinking into the prose the way I do with Canticle. Miller’s descriptions aren’t flashy, but they’re more than strictly functional. He manages to tell the reader what they need to know effectively but evocatively. And, like Canticle, you get the background of the story piecemeal in a satisfying way.
There’s a robot. We learn that its name is Grumbler. It’s on the Moon, keeping a lonely vigil. It’s lonely because Grumbler destroys anything that comes near it, no matter what.
We get the whole story from its point of view. We experience it through the robot’s powerful but inhuman senses. It “hears” via radio and seismometer, for instance.
We also learn that Grumbler is angry. And broken. It has several problems, but main among them is that its Identify-Friend-or-Foe thing is busted. Everything is now an enemy, which includes the single human alive in its territory. A fellow named Sawyer was on a team to come out and fix Grumbler, not knowing that the robot would destroy them on sight. Sawyer managed to escape and hide in a cave, but he’s running out of oxygen.
You’d think that a really effective horror story would require us to see from Sawyer’s point of view. To feel his terror, to hear his failed plans, to worry his worries. Miller chose not to take that route, and it worked like a charm. Grumbler is aware that Sawyer is nearby. It keeps tabs on him. Nevertheless, Sawyer is a speck. A minor annoyance that must be killed in much the same way that a mosquito must be killed. Even more minor than that, really, considering that mosquitoes carry disease. Sawyer can do absolutely nothing to harm Grumbler. Ever.
And yet Grumbler keeps vigil over Sawyer’s cave, waiting for him to come out. It doesn’t have much else to do. It’s tied to a specific large area that it can’t leave. Trying to leave registers as pain to Grumbler. So do its malfunctions. It’s also solar powered and the moon has just entered its long night (about 14 Earth days). Grumbler is annoyed at that, too. It’s hungry.
We learn that there was a war at some point, but we don’t get any details. One detail we do get is that Sawyer programmed Grumbler. He’s its creator. This, like most everything else, isn’t much help. Sure, you’d think Sawyer would have the means to turn Grumbler off or something. In fact, he even has an idea at some point that might be useful.
The idea comes up when a rescue party gets in radio range. Grumbler overhears their chatter. Sawyer suggests that the rescue party find and destroy Grumbler’s backup power supplies that are scattered across its territory. It’ll eventually starve to death, but not before Sawyer himself, who is starting to lose his sanity.
It’s hard to get a good mental image of Grumbler, but one thing’s clear: it’s not a humanoid robot. For some reason I pictured it as a truck of some sort, probably because of the movie Maximum Overdrive. One of the story’s many reprints was in a collection called Supertanks (ed. Waugh, Greenberg, Haldeman. Ace, 1987. I want a copy), so that’s probably a good clue as to Grumbler’s appearance and capabilities.
We know it has guns for close-up work. It used those just before the story started. At the end of the story we learn about its magnapult. We also learn that Grumbler is well aware of its own capabilities—both those described in the manual as well as what it’s actually able to do. So it knows that the rescue team will think the magnapult will have a specific maximum range, and knows that they don’t know that its found a way to extend that range without losing accuracy.
Were you expecting this story to have a happy ending? I can’t honestly tell you whether I was or not.
Grumbler destroys the rescue party from several miles away. When Sawyer realizes what’s happened, he finally comes out of his cave to yell at Grumbler. He gives us the title of the story just before being hit with a grenade.
I guess part of me was expecting the story to have a bit more of a moral, although in retrospect I realize how silly that is. There are two forces at work here: my knowledge of the other stories in this book and my knowledge of Walter M. Miller, Jr. The first won out while I was reading. When I finished I was all “Is that it?” before realizing that not every story needs to have some kind of “people are better than robots” or “be careful what you unleash” moral.
I guess the story does tend toward that latter moral. An article by David N. Samuelson refers to this as a “sorcerer’s apprentice” story, which is pretty spot-on.
Really the story is just pure techno-horror. Scary as crap and well-told. If there’s a theme, it’s about humanity’s insignificance, which is a big scary for me. No human has much impact on the story, and only one human appears in it for the duration. It’s set on the moon, at night. Overhead is the endless expanse of space. Stretching to the horizon is endless lunar wasteland. There might be some people elsewhere on the moon, but it doesn’t matter. It matters about as much as it matters that there are people on Earth.
So yeah, the story touched a nerve once I started to dwell on it.
This story has been reprinted a bunch of times, so if you some short story collections you probably have it somewhere. It’s a fine read. Looking around the Internet I see some statements to the effect of three to five other stories that really stand out, stories that, if not for A Canticle for Leibowitz, he’d be famous for. I look forward to exploring those, and hope that you’ll provide your own recommendations.