There’s a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz. Despite the fact that my review of it was devoted mostly to extreme mockery of the Catholic church, I think Canticle is a pretty good book. The sequel…not so much. Thank the gods I had Stranger in a Strange Land to look forward to or I might have given up on The Hugo Project after this nightmare.
Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
completed by Terry Bisson after Miller’s death and published in 1997
Spoilers and profanity ahead!
My reaction in one sentence: What the fuck was the point?
Look, there’s a problem if I finish reading a book and I have no idea why you wrote it. There needs to be a WHY. It doesn’t need to be a snooty WHY – “to call into question our assumptions about the binary nature of gender”. It can be “I like cats and needed a laugh so here’s a silly cat book.” You don’t have to succeed at the WHY – maybe the silly cat book isn’t actually funny. I don’t have to fully understand the WHY – “I know this book is saying something about gender and sex, but I’m not sure what.” I do have to have some idea what the WHY is.
I have no idea why Walter M. Miller wrote this book. Canticle I get. Well, I don’t get it, not really, but I can identify some of what he’s trying to talk about – ignorance versus learning, history repeating itself, etc. WHW I DO. NOT. GET. It’s a midquel and talks more about the nomads and there’s a bunch of political crap and religious crap (which I’m pretty sure only someone who’s been to a Catholic seminary could follow) and some disturbing gender/sex/stuff and I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE THOUGHT HE WAS EXPLORING OR IF HE THOUGHT HE MADE SOME KIND OF POINT. I guess it’s supposed to be the journey of Blacktooth, but to what? He becomes a hermit at the end, so what? Is that supposed to feel like the logical result of his life choices? And the chick…and they have kids, who never reappear, but the cat does? They live like a mile apart but never see one another? What the fuck is going on?
Apparently Miller wrote the majority of the book and Bissom just ‘tied up a few loose ends.’ Dear Mr. Bissom: YOU ARE NEVER ALLOWED TO DO ANYTHING WITH STRING AGAIN EVER. THERE ARE MORE LOOSE ENDS IN THIS THAN IN A FUCKING POM-POM.
And I just. Don’t. CARE.
A good book is one that lets you find something new with each reading. I’m fine with that. I’ve read books I haven’t understood before. I’ve finished books and said to myself, “I have no idea what the author was trying to say. But I know they were trying to say something, and I’d like to try to figure out what it is, at least a little.” But the book has to be at least intriguing enough that I say, “Hmm, I want to re-read this in a few years.” Like, you know, Canticle. Or Stranger in a Strange Land (next week on THP…!). Or The Gate to Women’s Country or Grass (Sheri S. Tepper I love you!!). I don’t need to fully ‘get’ a book to enjoy it, or to put it on my re-read list. But I do have to ‘get’ just enough to be hooked – to actually consider devoting the time to reading it again.
WHW? So not happening. I don’t know what Miller is saying; I don’t know what he thinks he’s saying; I don’t know what language he’s speaking; and I’m not going to fight through 400+ pages of obscure Catholicrap and politicking and squick again to try to figure it out.
The thing is, I wanted this to be good. At the beginning, l thought I had an idea what it was going to be about. Since the main characters are primarily Nomads who have chosen service to the Church, I figured there would be a great exploration of the tension between and conflation of pagan/tribal/animist/polytheist/psuedo-matriarchal worldview and christian/civilized/theist/monotheist/patriarchal worldview. Which would have been awesome. But it wasn’t, because Miller’s methods of dealing with ideas is to mention them, and then:
- Give no indication of what significance, if any, they actually have
- Strangle them with convoluted, esoteric theology and politicking that no one could hope to follow
- BRING ON THE SQUICK!
Look, just don’t read this one. I still have a headache, six weeks after reading this, and my brain has only just now rebooted after WHW brought up the Blue Screen of Death.
Some social equality thoughts:
Holy racial and sexual diversity, Feminist Batwoman! Especially for the 1960s – oh wait, this was written forty-five years later. Oops.
Race: I have to give Miller points for the character of Wooshin (which we would probably spell as Wu Hsin). I thought the physical description was interesting: “He came originally from the west coast, and his skin was yellow, quite wrinkled now, the shape of his eyes strangely different.” (p37) and I love the fact that he was identified by appearance ten pages before any explicit reference was made to his race/ethnicity – he was described as an individual before being chucked into the “Oriental” box. Actually, Miller’s treatment of race overall is pretty awesome; I love this quote from p98: “Blondes were not plentiful, but there were probably dozens of them in Valana. The mixed ancestry of the continent’s population produced skin colors in varying shades of brown, but fair skin and black skin were both rather rare, as were red and blond hair.” Woah, you mean that in the future in the American Southwest, most everybody is multiracial?
Gender/Sexuality: The main female character, Ædrea, pisses me off. Genital mutilation done to her by men – “for her own protection” – ew. She decides to get rid of it by giving birth (conception by inserting Blacktooth’s semen, not by intercourse)? Ow and ew (is she going to be a Mary figure? Ow and ew.) Exhibitionism and description of her genitals as disgusting – ew. Ew ew ew ew ew. So much ew. Could we have a sexually liberated female whose primary function is not one of squick, please?
There was some discussion of lesbians being fairly common among the nomads, which I found interesting. And then Blacktooth has a homoerotic encounter with a gay man…and has weird dreams conflating him with Ædrea? I guess kudos for thinking outside the traditional gender boxes.
In the end? There was a lot of potential here, but Miller chose to beat it up, strangle it, draw and quarter it, and then bury it under six feet of overly-complicated arcane Catholicrappy political garbage. By the end, the reader feels rather like zie has been subjected to the same series of tortures.
Look, I promise next week will be better. We return to the saga of Bobby Heinlein, but for all my issues with him, he did manage to write one of my favorite books of all time. Please do come back next Monday and grok it with me!