Sunday, March 2, 2014

On "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Jr. *****

This is a friend of mine's favorite science fiction novel. When I decided to do a whole reading list of classic science fiction, he emphasized that this was one I had to read. I don't think it would have been on my list initially if he hadn't, so I'm glad that he emphasized its importance. I'm also glad he emphasized its importance so that I would stick with it. A book about Catholic monks didn't particularly seem like something I would fancy, and the early going portions of the novel seemed very much concerned with that religious world.

But something is much different about this world. We've reverted to the Dark Age. In fact, Miller tells essentially the story of human history here. An atomic war has taken back into an era pretechnology, where superstition reigns. The masses (one has to believe these are the same masses who let their anger stoke illogical choices in political elections) blame scientists and knowledge for man's destruction and set about to destroy virtually all higher learning. The Church is the one that saves a few precious documents. And it is these documents that astound here in the early-going portions of the book, for among them is the work of an atomic engineer named Leibowitz, and his scratch pad of formulas is pondered over by many a monk. He is, in fact, accorded among the saints.

The novel splits into three sections, each of them ending in death. In the first, Francis, a novice monk, discovers a bomb shelter with relics of Leibowitz's. There is much anguish over whether the relics are genuine or fake and over how best to position the discovery so that the Church will accord Leibowitz sainthood. A counterfeit set of relics would actually set back Leibowitz's cause.

There is much irony in the second section, set many hundred years later, wherein a new enlightenment is coming into being. During this period, science is again beginning to find its own--and questioning the value of religion. Now Leibowitz's work is called into question for its actual usefulness. Modern minds surely know more than their predecessors. And when a scientist comes to deliver the fatal blow to Leibowitz's papers, showing that they are worthless, he is surprised to find in them things of actual value, things that he as a scientist is just discovering. This unleashes new theories: That Leibowitz and the supposed advanced civilization of the past was actually an alien race, and that this race left the planet, leaving in its place an inferior race with too much technology on its hands and not enough brains to know how to use it properly (i.e., to not blow itself up with it). Meanwhile, war lurks on the horizon.

The last section finds us in a very modern world, more advanced than even our own at the present time. Men are traveling across space, just beginning to colonize distant planets. But war still looms, and unfortunately, as before, technology proves to be man's undoing. All the material capabilities in the world do us no good if we don't have the ability to love one another. It sounds like a trite lesson, but Miller draws it out into one compelling novel.

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