Literary Review: Read Walter Miller, Jr.’s, “Command Performance.” I command you!

For now, you get to suffer through a literary review, to go along with my other musings here.  I apologize in advance.  I don’t know if I’ve written a book review since my freshman year of college, so if you find any brilliant observations, they are purely accidental.

Or just my natural genius.  You make the call.

But seriously, if this lacks brilliant observations, it is simply because I’m rusty.

Enough about me. While I didn’t originally plan to do literary reviews when I started this blog, “Command Performance” had me enthusiastic enough that caution is to be thrown to the wind.  The short story was originally published in “Galaxy” magazine in November 1952; I found it in the Kindle store, where “The Galaxy Project” collects the best of “Galaxy,” and are offered for low price (or in my case, as part of my Kindle Unlimited subscription).  I have to admit this was my first exposure to Walter Miller, Jr.; it will not be my last.

“Command Performance” details the awakening of protagonist Lisa Waverly, a suburban housewife who understands her role toward her husband, her children, her parents, her friends and community.  When we think of an awakening, usually we consider an awakening at dawn, when the first rays of the sun gently peek in through our curtains, inviting us to embrace the day; Lisa’s awakening is more like waking up in the middle of the night, with a sense of dread of unknown source, forcing us to stare at the ceiling, restless, no matter how we would will sleep to take us again.

For most of us, that sense of dread comes from internal anxieties; Lisa, however, is a “mutant” – with ESP or telepathic awareness.  She moves from unknown to the known, as it is contact with Kenneth Grearly, another mutant, who forces her to accept that she is not “normal,” that she has, in fact, evolved.

I’ll give up no more of the plot, but will commend Miller’s handling of the subject.  While we might imagine what we could do with that kind of power, Lisa’s extrasensory awareness is more curse than blessing for her.  Miller’s handling of the science of ESP seems to suggest that similarly gifted individuals may communicate with each other, because their minds are attuned to each other, but this does not extend to the world at large; since Lisa had never been in proximity of another “mutant,” she was never aware that she was different.  But while our most popular mutants, the X-Men, deal with the persecution of mutants, Miller deftly illustrates the loneliness of Lisa’s condition.  A woman who was in the warm embrace of her family and community suddenly finds herself separate – not only because her husband and children are away from the house for a short time, but more so because she knows that when they return, she is not “like” them.

“Command Performance” is classic science fiction, and it holds up well after 60 years because the focus of the story is how the individual responds to an evolved situation, rather than the details of that evolution itself.  Go ahead and read it now; you can thank me later.

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