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A Canticle for Leibowitz

November 2, 2020

There are two books that I buy constantly, as they are so good I'm often giving them away to friends. The first is Collected Poems, by Robert Service. He was America's bard of the artic and his work spans the humorous to the deeply insightful.

The second is Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz. Though framed in science fiction, this is a dystopian novel of the future after nuclear war has devastated the planet. Written in the 1950s just a decade after the atomic age began it's prescient in imagining the aftermath of that cataclysm.

While books of this nature focus on the horrors of the war, Canticle starts hundreds of years after that event. Long before the book opens mankind had turned on the scientists and engineers who made the weapons. They killed all of the technologists in the Great Simplification, blaming them for the world's destruction. Many mutants roam, victims of the Demon Fallout, though no one remembers what that means.

In the first of the book's three parts, a monastery has escaped much of the damage and turmoil. For centuries a band of monks devote themselves to preserving ancient knowledge against the day humanity will rise from its embrace of ignorance. The patron saint is St. Leibowitz, an engineer in the prewar defense industry. Some of his drawings and schematics survived the Great Purge. The monks raison d'etre is to preserve these precious fragments. They degrade, so like the copyist monks in the real dark ages they spend their lives painfully redrawing the documents by hand.

None have any idea what the material represents so they take no liberties and faithfully replicate every nuance. Blueprints are copied by coloring in blue on a white page, as they have no idea the reverse image is a product of an inexpensive way to duplicating drawings.

Centuries go by. In part two some light has come into the world. Indeed this section is titled "Fiat Lux," Latin for "Let there be light." A brother at the monastery has created a dynamo and an arc lamp. A prominent lay scientist (a few such people have now come to acceptance, particularly for their ability to make engines of war) has heard about the monastery and Leibowitz cult. He travels to learn what knowledge the monks have preserved and is stunned by the arc lamp, a technology far beyond what he has accomplished.

Much wrangling ensues; the scientist wants to cart the monastery's artifacts off for his king's use, but his efforts are curtailed.

Part three takes place thousands of years later. The prewar world has now been surpassed and space travel is common. But the rumblings of war are again upon the land, and indeed the war in all of its monstrosity comes. The monastery's technology has advanced, but it is still a center of knowledge and learning. The abbot is faced with a number of difficult ethical choices, some of which we're fumbling with even today, like euthanasia. Miller presents these quandaries in a nuanced way even as they manifest themselves in the guise of science fiction. For example, a two-headed parishioner, a descendant of one of many mutant war victim millennia earlier, is looking for absolution that the abbot is loath to give. The government wants him to set up an assisted suicide camp for victims of radiation on the grounds of his abbey, which he refuses on ethical grounds. And the ending, which centers around that dual-headed human, is frankly stunning.

It's a very Catholic book, written from the perspective of that religion's ethos, but anyone concerned with deep moral issues will find themselves moved. Though a knowledge of Latin isn't needed to enjoy it, I find my three years of it in a Catholic high school adds color and forges biblical connections to the volume.

I'm now in the middle of The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr, a collection of his short stories from the early 1950s. It's pretty good science fiction and at least one of these tales bears some resemblance to Canticle.

I recommend Canticle to anyone who enjoys thoughtful books.

Feel free to email me with comments.

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