Wordy Wednesdays – A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Civilization has fallen. Mutants lurk in the wasteland. In what used to be the southwestern United States, somewhere in the Utah range, a small abbey of faithful Catholic monks has gathered. They protect what they call the Memorabilia; the scraps and shreds of the old world, hidden for decades from the chaos and destruction of everywhere else.

Nice day. Maybe I’ll preserve all human knowledge. (Source)

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr., impressed me.

In scope, the novel passes through hundreds if not thousands of years. We start at the small Abbey of the not-yet-sainted Leibowitz, with a young novice who is on a voluntary time of solitude. Brother Francis meets a traveler, and the traveler looks at the crude stone hut Francis has built to protect him from the desert wolves. The traveler then indicates a stone that would nicely complete the hut, marking it with symbols. Well, turns out that there is a fallout shelter underneath the stone, and it’s full of relics from Leibowitz’ time. One in particular is some kind of electrical design. The monks send it to New Rome and make copies.

This first part serves as an introduction to the kinds of people these monks are and what they do. We see them painstakingly making copies of lost works, even though they don’t know the importance of them. It also gives a sense of how much has been lost, and how the world has turned to superstition and stupidity (not the monks – they’re a pretty keen group).

Then we jump forward a few centuries to a time when Leibowitz has been sainted. Mankind is recovering the old secrets of science. One of the monks, Brother Kornhoer, has created a crude kind of arc lamp. And this age has Thon Taddeo, sort of their ages’ Einstein. Thon wants to journey to the Abbey to inspect the Memorabilia. Here we begin to see the stresses between the religion that preserved all this knowledge and the ways in which it might be used. See, Thon’s cousin Hannegan rules over a wide patch of land, and he has aims to rule the entire continent. Thon refuses to take a stand against him, citing the academy that Hannegan allows Thon to have (or work at or whatever). The Abbot doesn’t want the mistakes of the past to be repeated, and he is desperate for learned men to take responsibility for the things they create.

This is an interesting and relevant dilemma. Should science just create and expand where it can, without regard of real-world consequences? It’s a tough question. Even tougher for the Abbot is – should he allow Thon to conduct research with the Memorabilia if Thon’s inventions will be used by Hannegan for violence and war? On the other hand, the Memorabilia has been saved specifically to bring back the light of science and technology – to make the world an easier place to live in, to fight disease, to enlighten minds – so denying Thon, possibly the greatest mind of the age, access to this storehouse of knowledge might be an even greater crime.

The novel doesn’t solve this dilemma. But it’s important that it was raised. Not only that, but Miller brings character to both sides of the debate – Thon isn’t happy that all this knowledge has been hidden away, as he sees it. The Abbot isn’t happy that it will go out into the world where it can do harm. They clash. It’s interesting and compelling.

(Right: This is how I imagine “Christians in space.” Pretty kickass, really, though Jesus looks super high, like out of his mind tripping.)

The third part is another few centuries ahead. Space travel is possible, nations have nuclear weapons again, and colonies exist on other planets and even in other star systems. The Memorabilia isn’t truly necessary anymore, though it has grown to include much more knowledge than before. But North America and the Asia Coalition are moving towards war – nuclear war. The Abbey of Saint Leibowitz, however, has planned ahead. They get word from New Rome that it is time for their plan to go into action. A small number of monks take the Memorabilia and head off to a starship secretly owned by the church. They’re going to make sure that humanity and its accumulated knowledge aren’t pushed to the brink again. They can’t stop a nuclear war – the church has fallen out of favor with the common people, and the national leaders seem more concerned with revenge and war than mercy and justice. But the church can preserve knowledge, and the Memorabilia is sent to Alpha Centauri, in the hands of the monks who are intent on using it to aid the colony there.

The story, however, doesn’t follow them. These monks leave – we stay with the Abbot. A city in the southwestern U.S. has been hit with a nuclear bomb, and refugees from the destruction gather at the Abbey. The Green Star Relief effort, sort of like the Red Cross, wants to set up inside the Abbey so that the refugees can be treated right there instead of having to walk a mile or two down the road. But the Abbot at the time disagrees with the Green Star procedures. See, if a person is suffering from very bad radiation burns or radiation sickness, and the Green Star workers don’t think there’s any chance for recovery, they tell the victim that suicide might be the best way. They do it to minimize suffering, and no one is forced to use the suicide facility, but it’s suggested and even encouraged in very bad cases. The Abbot refuses to allow the Green Star Relief effort to work in the Abbey if they are going to recommend suicide.

– When they see this, the monks say “Satan has fallen.” That kind of poetry is rare. (Source)

Part of his problem is that the state specifically allows suicide under its control, but people committing suicide on their own results in all kinds of legal complications. The inheritance such people leave behind might be taken by the state. The Abbot feels that this is just a way for the state to make the idea of nuclear war easier on people. If there aren’t radiation burn victims wandering around, if there aren’t suicide lying in the street, the horrors of war are lessened in an immediate sense. It doesn’t feel so real.

This last section of the book deals mostly with the power of the state versus the goals of the church. The church wants to avert war, they want people to live in peace – a peace under their rule, basically, but that’s because they see secular rulers as unconcerned with the lives of their subjects.

The story ends with a little mystery that lets us believe what we’d like. Essentially, we can choose to believe that the Abbot sees a miracle, or we can choose to believe that he is hallucinating because tons of stone are pinning his legs to the ground and he’s spent a considerable time bleeding in the dirt.

Overall, yes, you should absolutely read A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s science fiction at its best, dwelling on large questions about the interaction of science and humanity. There’s a focus on religious beliefs, on wide and deep gulfs between the will of God and the weakness of Man. Unlike some other sci-fi I’ve read, like Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo (older, less useful post by me), this novel doesn’t bring up an interesting mystery and then totally refuse to solve it. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, we get to decide, rather than just be frustrated that we don’t have enough information or that we aren’t shown enough. That’s an importance difference.

Seriously – read this book.

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About seansynthetic

"...so I says the the guy, I says to him, 'No, YOU ain't allowed back into this Chuck-E-Cheese.'"

Posted on July 25, 2012, in Wordy Wednesdays and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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