Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fortnightly Book, December 13

I've gone back and forth on whether to try to squeeze in one more fortnightly book this year or to wait until January, but I think I've finally settled on doing one more, although it might possibly end up being one of those three week 'fortnights'.

Walter M. Miller, Jr., was a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps in World War II, flying more than fifty bombing missions. One, however, changed his life forever.

The Allies were invading Italy, and the Germans and Italians had formed a series of very long and very fortified defensive lines across Italy. One of these lines, the Gustav line, ran right by the ancient abbey of Monte Cassino. It turned out to be an especially effective defense. In February of 1944, the U.S. began a massive bombing raid on the line. One of their objectives was the abbey itself, which they suspected might be the major observation post for German artillery targeting, which had been consistently effective. 1,150 tons of explosives were dropped, destroying the abbey. It was a complete failure; Monte Cassino was not being used by the Germans, and the Germans never had any intention of using it, despite its strategic location -- they had made an agreement not to use the abbey for military purposes and did not want to break it in case it would irritate the Italians. But when the abbey was destroyed by the Allies, the point was then moot, so they sent in paratroopers, occupied the ruins, and built it up into a fortress; the bombing had actually made things worse. Miller had been one of the ones participating in the bombing raid, and he was haunted the rest of his life by the silhouette of Monte Cassino he had seen while participating in its destruction.

After the war, Miller began writing science fiction, with some success. From 1955 to 1957 he wrote three novellas for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The three were thematically linked, but independent; however, as he was writing the third novella, he realized that he had the basic structure for a unified work. He made a fairly thorough revision of the three novellas and that became the fortnightly book, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which won the Hugo in 1961, has never been out of print, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time -- some say the best.

It is a world devastated by nuclear war. Through the ages one of the things that is constant is that States will grow up, and their power will wax, until the Caesar of the day begins once again to regard himself as if he had divine authority, and then is humbled in the dust from whence he came. But day in and day out, the monks continue at their prayers and their quiet work.

There is a famous Golden Age radio adaptation of the work. It's seven and a half hours long (in fifteen parts, I think), and very hard to find, so I don't know if I'll be listening to it, but I'll at least keep an eye out for it.

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