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Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Bantam, 1997, 434 pp.
Like many fans of science fiction, I have vivid memories of the first time I read A Canticle for Liebowitz. I was in high school, and I thought I had a fairly accurate picture of the limits of the genre. Miller's extraordinary novel shattered that arrogant view with ease, and made me even more of a sf addict. If a novel as quirky, self-contained, and powerful as A Canticle for Liebowitz could have such a favoured place in a popular genre, that's where I wanted to be. Two other encounters with the novel are worth relating. A few years ago, I studied Miller's book in a university course, and I was struck by the alternately nuanced and sledge-hammer use of Catholic imagery (having some of the Latin translated helped me there). Then, just before reading Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, I re-read the classic, and found it as compelling, as vastly strange as ever.
Looking back, I think part of A Canticle for Liebowitz's appeal was its solitude -- the way it stood on its own as Miller's enduring masterwork, his only science fiction apart from some short stories. Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman makes for odd reading in this sense. By all accounts, Miller struggled greatly with the writing of this sequel, and while I don't know the details of his personal troubles, I do know that he didn't finish the book himself (Terry Bisson did, and is thanked for his efforts in a cursory acknowledgment from Miller's estate). This adds another layer of uncertainty to the matter -- who knows what Miller might have done with the novel once he had the first draft completed? I don't say this to inveigh against Bisson, who indeed does a fine job, but, to state the obvious, he is not the same writer as Miller. When I heard of the publication of this sequel, my first reaction was disappointment. As I've stated, I saw A Canticle for Liebowitz as grand in its isolation, in the way it refused to conform. Sequels have a reputation as the most conformist type of book, rightly or wrongly. How would reality measure up to my expectations?
Ironically, Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman has much of the same dogged, stubborn mood as its famous predecessor. Properly speaking, the book is not a sequel at all, but takes place in roughly the same time period as the middle section of A Canticle for Liebowitz. Miller's emphasis on Catholic viewpoints, and his straight-forward regard for characters who take religion seriously, is just as subversive today as it was forty years ago. And just like A Canticle for Liebowitz, Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman refuses to reduce its meaning to truisms and sloganeering. Miller, better than most other writers, examines the way religion is inhabited by real people, so his books are neither religious orthodoxy, nor the opposite attitude more typical in science fiction. This last book by Miller does not have the same scope, the same epic gaze, as A Canticle for Liebowitz, and it is a lesser work in other ways, but it is still quite an accomplishment.
Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman tells the story of Brother Blacktooth St. George, a humble monk in the familiar abbey of St. Liebowitz. The book opens with this lyrical sentence: "As he sat shivering in the gloomy corridor outside the meeting hall and waited for the tribunal to finish deciding his punishment, Brother Blacktooth St. George, A.O.L., remembered the time his boss uncle had taken him to see the Wild Horse Woman at a Plains Nomad tribal ceremony, and how Deacon ('Half-Breed') Brownpony, who was on a diplomatic mission to the Plains at the time, had tried to exorcise her priests with holy water and drive her spirit from the council lodge" (1). Brother Blacktooth, also known as Nimmy, is awaiting punishment because of his desire to leave the order of St. Liebowitz. He's not quite sure what he wants to do instead, but he wants out. Deacon Brownpony becomes Cardinal Brownpony, and takes Nimmy along on various political missions, all the while making him keep his vows. Nimmy falls in love with a girl named Aedrea, which causes extra problems with the church hierarchy. The book deals mostly with the politics of the Plains, and an attempt to heal a schism in the church. The story comes to somewhat of an abrupt halt, with a series of tragedies. The final chapter of the book happens many years later, and, while quite profound, is one of the saddest things I've ever read.
Miller spends a great deal of time on his main character, Nimmy, but the monk remains somewhat of a cipher. When I had finished reading the book, I had a picture of Nimmy in his late teens at the oldest, so I was rather shocked to find, in re-reading the first chapter, that he is thirty or older. In many ways, Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman feels like an adolescent rite of passage story, so Nimmy's age seemed a bit wrong. Cardinal Brownpony becomes the second main character, and he also is an enigma. A religious man, yet politically ambitious. Compassionate in his relation with Nimmy, yet Machiavellian on a larger scale. In fact, I think that Miller's characterization is one of the limiting factors in this novel. This sequel tries to tell one continuous story, the kind of narrative where detailed and believable characterization is more important than something with the epic scope of A Canticle for Liebowitz, where part of the intended effect was the sense of remove, of how the characters were marionettes if you looked with a vast enough perspective. The same kind of effect is much tougher to achieve on an intimate level as in Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, although the final chapter, as I've already mentioned, does go in that direction.
Perhaps inevitably, this book stands in the shadow of its classic predecessor. It's worth reading, just to experience a bit of Miller's vision this many years later.
Last modified: October 23, 1999
Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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