Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Canticle for Leibowitz

 A Canticle for Leibowitz
 © 1960 Water M. Miller
320 pages

A thousand years ago, nuclear war swept the Earth,  rendering to ashes the civilizations which inaugurated it.  In the southwestern desert, however,  there lies an outpost of another civilization – one far older Just as an epoch earlier, when the monasteries of the Catholic Church preserved classical learning amid Gothic chaos, here the clerical orders dutifully safeguard what fragments of knowledge they can find.  Humanity is populated with genetic monsters and the landscape deadened by radiation, but in the monastery of the blessed Leibowitz there is hope. As the secular world begins to climb back to its feet, however, with new Charlemagne at the head, hope for a renaissance is mingled with anxious anticipation of what mankind will do to itself once it has recovered from the shock. Can we learn from our mistakes?
Maybe not, A Canticle for Leibowitz mournfully concludes. The story unfolds in three parts, appropriate for a novel in which the main characters are monks, and across several thousand years.  The first section is set a thousand years after the Deluge of Flame, wherein Earth was nearly sacrificed to its own bloodlust; this grim setting is made light traveling by a most inept adept – a young, bumbling monk who discovers the remains of a fallout shelter with scientific importance.  In the second section, humanity is in the midst of a rebirth, and in the third section, the wheel of destiny seems to turn again. Canticle grins skull-like even as its characters are in the midst of death.  A seemingly immortal and comic wanderer, having seen age past into age with his own eye, ties the stories together, plaguing but fascinating each sections’ characters, is a guide. Not that he narrates the story, nor ever sticks around for long, but he has seen enough of the human condition to know not to take it too seriously.
The Cold War era saw a variety of works written in obvious fear of what might happen if the bellicosity of the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in actual war: On the Beach, for instance, and Alas, Babylon.  Canticle is less concerned with immediate destruction, however, and more with how the human spirit may cope with it, what truths the disaster might bring to life. There’s an obvious exploration here of the tension between the culture-preserving aspects of religion, and the change-inducing inquiry of science, but I was impressed by how the monks sought to maintain dignity in everything they did, even in the face of despair.  One copies blueprints of a device from before the Flame, but pours hours – years, even – into adding lavish illustrative borders to it. The brothers fight against death;  death of the old culture and its knowledge and  the physical death of the survivors amid war and radiation poisoning. This makes them unpopular, because death sometimes seems like the easiest course of action. After the deluge, mobs killed scientists and other intellectuals for bringing down ruin on them; the monks survived this persecution only barely.  When civilization rebuilds and begins flirting with nuclear arms once more, leading to new outbreaks of radiation poisoning, some attempt to flee the pain by submitting themselves and their children to euthanasia camps. But the monks inveigh against this, urging the afflicted not to take their lives into their hands so cavalierly. Refuse to surrender to fear – live with dignity, trusting in God. It's a diffcult message, of course, but ensures that the novel remains relevant and even thorny in our own era, even though the terrors of the Cold War are over.

The novel's end is bittersweet, as mankind by and large repeats its mistakes. This is especially tragic given how long the humans of Canticle had lived with their ancestors' mistakes: they were the ones living with greatly heightened levels of serious genetic disorders, and a landscape ruined in part by the ravages. They were the ones forced to claw their way back from the stone age after reaction against technology inflicted a 'cultural revolution' of sorts. Yet they persisted in straying near the edge yet again.  There are reasons to be optimistic, however;  at novel's end, the church at least has realized a plan to prevent this from happening again, by sending out a colony mission. In our own lives, we survived decades of brinkmanship and incidents that could have turned deadly.. We'll never truly learn from our mistakes, but when the consequences are as forboding as immediate and wholesale destruction, there at least we may hesitate enough to save our lives.

Nightfall and Foundation, in which knowledge is preserved by religious institutions, though in a less straightfoward manner.


  1. I tried to read this decades ago and, for some reason, just couldn't get into it. Maybe I need to give it another go (if I still have it somewhere....)

    BTW - I'm about 23 fiction books away from a series of 10 books based around the End of the World. Not this one but there will definitely be a few nukes flying around.... [grin]

  2. It does require some tolerance for abundant Latin!

    Are any of them SF books? (Disaster caused by asteroids, solar weather, that sort of thing.)

    Nuke stories depress me. That's why I'm not going NEAR Turtledove's new book about Truman and the Korean war going hot.
    (That, I think I've already incurred enough self-abuse reading his material.)

  3. I think I'll need to skip over the Latin bits.... [grin]

    They're mostly be SF (all but one I think) with alien invasion, eco-disaster and giant rocks falling from the sky in abundance! I miss my SF and am getting my fix mostly from DVD's presently. A few 'lite' SF coming up but I'm several months away from a proper SF session.


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