Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

This book is a great example of one of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres: post-nuclear-war Earth.

The book’s back story is that sometime towards the end of the 20th century, a global nuclear war nearly destroyed all life on Earth. Afterward, bands of survivors turned in fury against anyone who they felt was responsible. At first this included mainly scientists and engineers and physicists but eventually came to include anyone who was merely literate.

The few learned people who escaped being killed by angry mobs fled to the one institution that would protect them – the Catholic Church. There, a former electrician named Leibowitz organized them into “memorizers,” who memorized as many of the old texts as possible (like in Fahrenheit 451), and “bookleggers,” who scavenged for any books that may have survived and brought them to the abbeys to be hidden.

The story is told in three parts, each separated by hundreds of years from the next. All three parts center on the brothers of the Order of Leibowitz, who live in a remote abbey in the desert that used to be the southwestern United States.

The first part of Canticle opens several hundred years into this new Dark Ages. There is no electricity, no industry; the country is divided into loose territories ruled by warlords; people dress in homespun and grow all their own food; travelers are terrorized by bandits. So much time has passed since the war ended that the technical “Memorabilia” that the priests have painstakingly saved, stored, and recopied is inscrutable even to them. They have a vague sense of their own history only through religious stories and parables that they have memorized by rote.

As the years pass, however, priests and scholars study the abbey’s library and gradually piece together the technology of the old world.

One of the best aspects of this book is the writing itself. I’m far from a softie in this area; I usually like what I’m reading to be straightforward and plain. But the religious imagery and the thoughts and conversations that his characters have are beautifully, archaically written and, at the same time, funny, ironic, and interwoven with modern content. It’s like Lord of Light, but Christian. There are entire sections of the narrative that read like poetry.

Our introduction to this world is through the eyes of Brother Francis, an earnest but somewhat addled young novice in the Leibowitzian Order. To Francis, the nuclear war was “the Flame Deluge;” the period where the survivors murdered anyone literate was “the Age of Simplification.” All the remnants of the war around him – the crumbled buildings, the mutant people – are all part of a divine plan. The most basic accomplishments of “the ancients” (us) in the “twilight of the age of enlightenment” (the end of the 20th century) seem like magic.

In the beginning of the book, Brother Francis is out in the desert suffering through his 30-day Lenten vigil when he stumbles across a tremendous find: a long-buried fallout shelter containing technological relics that may well be connected to the Beatus Leibowitz himself. When Francis reads the ancient sign that says it is a Fallout Shelter, however, he is horrified and won’t open the door. After all, the Fallout Shelter may very well contain a Fallout – “a terrifying beast, a fiend of Hell” – and if he opens it, the Fallout could escape and eat him.

To steel his courage, Francis says some of the vesicles from the litany of the Saints:
From the place of ground zero,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
O Lord, deliver us.

From the curse of the Fallout,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua,
Domine, libera nos.
What makes this book great, though, is that not only is it well-written and funny, but it is also depressing and sad.

Throughout the entire book runs a feeling of dread: that humanity may be doomed to an endless cycle of self-destruction. We grow, we learn, we invent, we come to think that we can create Utopia. And then, when we realize that we cannot, we become hopeless and frustrated and angry and crush what we have made.

On the one hand, you feel sorry for the war survivors, fumbling blindly through the world with no electricity or labor-saving devices. You want them to benefit from knowledge, to emerge from the dark. But at the same time you dread the inevitable destruction that knowledge appears to lead to. You know that if they do not recover the science, there will be no danger of another nuclear war. As Miller says:
Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America – burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again.

Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?
All of this takes on even more weight when you find out that Miller shot himself in 1996 at the age of 74.

At the back of my 2006 paperback edition of Canticle, there is a description of the author. It says that Miller was a tail-gunner in a bomber in World War II, “participating in more than fifty-five combat sorties, among them the controversial destruction of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Casino, the oldest monastery in the Western world.”

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

Yes! Totally deserving of all five stars, and I know Cthulhu can be stingy with the stars.

This is one of the few books that made such an impact on me that I totally remember when and where I was when I first read it.

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