The Darfsteller
by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, January 1955

collected in —
Conditionally Human
The Science Fiction Stories of Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Darfsteller and Other Stories

Dark Benediction

September 2010

The character within the man
Some men insist on competing with machines — and the essence of that competition is that, like a machine, they somehow have no ability to learn new ways ...

John W. Campbell
editor's teaser for "The Darfsteller"
Astounding, January 1955

"The Darfsteller" by Walter M. Miller, Jr., opens with an arresting and since-famous sentence demonstrating how yet another traditional human profession has fallen to the advancing Machine Age:

"Judas, Judas" was playing at the Universal on Fifth Street, and the cast was entirely human.

Immediately we meet our main character — a robot-displaced, out-of-work, live-stage actor:

Ryan Thornier had been saving up for it for several weeks, and now he could afford the price of a matinee ticket. It had been a race for time between his piggy bank and the wallets of several "public-spirited" angels who kept the show alive, and the piggy bank had won. ...

After watching the wretched mockery of dramaturgical art every day at the New Empire Theater where he worked as janitor, the chance to see real theater again would be like a breath of clean air.

In other hands this might have been a short-story in a sad, minor key. Instead, Miller gives us a complex science-fictional novella, a drama of humans on and around the stage, of stage characters, and of human character.

The play within the story

Following a precedent perhaps done most nobly and certainly most famously in Hamlet, the primary story includes and focuses upon an inner story. The play-within-the-story that we see rehearsed and performed is The Anarch, a historical drama about a leading official of the Soviet Union at its revolutionary downfall. It is a measure of Miller's science-fictional vision that "The Darfsteller" was written only halfway through the historical span of the Soviet Union, when that sprawling empire loomed as a Colossus in the world, indomitable and eternal. This play by itself, albeit presented in fragments embedded in the larger story, grips our attention: Here's the starring role:

He was Andreyev, commissioner of police, party whip, loyal servant of the regime, now tottering in the revolutionary storm of the Eighties. The last Bolshevik, no longer a rebel, no longer a radical, but now the loyalist, the conservatist, the defender of the status quo, champion of the Marxist ruling classes.

The above is a really rare and extraordinary vision to have published in 1955 — even as science fiction — with Soviet power and prestige huge and growing. (This is not from an updated text, by the way: quotations are from the original as printed in Astounding.)

The man within the character

"The Darfsteller" is disturbingly predictive on its surface, as well as its future-history; and this is the even longer vision that nevertheless is unsettlingly too-likely, too-soon. In some ways it bears an inverted symmetry to Vernor Vinge's "True Names", another pioneering SF work on roles and guises and characters. Miller suggests artistically that some of our most human and personal props may be transforming even as we expect to rely more on them in the onrushing protean future.

I won't discuss the plot further because I hope you will read and enjoy the story. I will say that it is not only an empathetic character study, but an intellectual dramatization of the nature of Man.

In "The Darfsteller", Walter M. Miller, Jr., shows himself to be a master at dramaturgical interweaving.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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