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Miller, Walter M. – Command Performance (1952)

04/23/2013

Rather than Leiber’s underground Refuges, Miller uses the modern suburbs to comment on conformity and the stifling effects of not fitting in. Notably, he also uses a woman protagonist in order to do this; Lisa is a disaffected housewife whose husband and children are out of town, allowing her to kind of sullenly reflect on how unreasonably dissatisfied she is with her life. “How am I different from others?” she asked herself, and so on. It is very tempting to view this as an early expression of what would come to be called The Feminine Mystique, but I somehow doubt that this is what Miller was going for.

In the midst of her wallowing, Lisa is struck by an inexplicable desire to dance around her back yard in the nude, and so that is what she does. This intrusion of unreality into her solidly normal suburban existence continues to expand with the arrival of a young man who knows more about her than he should – it comes out that he is psychic and has picked up on the signals that she is too, but here Lisa reaches the limits of her desire to not conform: she refuses to believe that she might also be a mutant. Tellingly, the young man then reveals himself to be just as patriarchal and misogynist as the mainstream culture that is stifling here. It was his desire to see her naked that had led her to undress, and he then declares that the two of them are going to be the parents of a new superhuman race of psychics whether she likes it or not.

Conformist or counterculturist, a woman’s autonomy is not something to be respected – this is a surprising insight coming from Miller, whose only other work I’ve read is A Canticle For Leibowitz, which, if I recall correctly, featured exactly one woman character, an old mutant, who showed up only briefly toward the end of the book. Lisa continues to deny her telepathy while her attacker (returning from the other side of town) uses his to confuse and demean her, until she embraces it and turns the illusions back on him, causing him to fatally stumble into oncoming traffic. Back to being alone, but more understanding of the cause of her dissatisfaction, she begins to mentally search for others like her.

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