Saturday, December 26, 2015

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz


Opening Passage:

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice's Lenten fast in the desert.

Summary: The story starts with Lenten vigil. Brother Francis is out in the desert discerning whether he has a vocation to the Albertian Order of Leibowitz when a brief series of interactions with an old Jewish wanderer leads him to discover a Fallout Survival Shelter, possibly associated with Blessed Leibowitz himself. In Part I of the Canticle we get the humorous story of the somewhat hapless Francis and one of the relics found in the shelter, a blueprint signed with Leibowitz's own name, entitled 'Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B'.

Part I ("Fiat Homo") occurs several hundred years after the Flame Deluge, the nuclear apocalypse that laid the world waste and created a Dark Age. Part II ("Fiat Lux") opens in 3174, with the rise of the empire of Texarkana and a new Enlightenment. There are wars and rumors of wars, but Thon Taddeo, the illegitimate cousin of Hannegan, the emperor of Texarkana,is interested in other rumors, namely, that the Abbey of St. Leibowitz has physics texts from the twentieth century. When he gets to the monastery after the dangerous trip, escorted by Hannegan's guard, he finds himself in for a shock: one of the monks of the monastery has invented a fantastic machine that he has only just barely conceived the theory for.

Part III ("Fiat Voluntas Tua") opens in 3781, and again there are wars and rumors of wars, this time nuclear. A nuclear explosion has created a profound need for medical camps, and the Abbey of St. Leibowitz opens its grounds for the purpose. But there is almost immediately a conflict between the Catholic abbey and the medical authorities over the practice of euthanasia, and it appears that the underlying nuclear tension is getting worse.

Each part poses an objection to the monks of St. Leibowitz -- How can they waste their time with something as trivial and useless as texts? How can they stand in the way of scientific progress? How can they stand in the way of mercy? But the monks merely continue on, as the objections fade into other objections and the challenges of one age give way to the challenges of another. They hold the line, as best they can in their fallible ways, enduring as they always have.

A consistent theme throughout is that states tend to arrogate to themselves ever-increasing power, without limit, effectively divinizing themselves, and that in the process of doing so, they destroy themselves. We get this in Part I with what we learn about the Flame Deluge, in Part II with the rise of Hannegan, and in Part III with the conflict between Church and state on matters like euthanasia. In every age Caesar tries to usurp the place of God -- may even apparently succeed for a while -- and collapses through his grasping for power. The Church stands against this; but one day, perhaps, it will shake the dust off its feet (Mt 10:14).

Favorite Passage: There are a number of good ones, but this one jumped out this reading:

There were spaceships again in that century, and the ships were manned by fuzzy impossibilities that walked on two legs and sprouted tufts of hair in unlikely anatomical regions. They were a garrulous kind. They belonged to a race quite capable of admiring its own image in a mirror, and equally capable of cutting its own throat before the altar of some tribal god, such as the deity of Daily Shaving. It was a species which often considered itself to be, basically, a race of divinely inspired toolmakers; any intelligent entity from Arcturus would instantly have perceived them to be, basically, a race of impassioned after-dinner speechmakers.

It was inevitable, it was manifest destiny, they felt (and not for the first time) that such a race go forth to conquer the stars. To conquer them several times, if need be, and certainly to make speeches about the conquest. But, too, it was inevitable that the race succomb again to the old maladies on new worlds, even as on Earth before, in the litany of life and in the special liturgy of Man: Versicles by Adam, Rejoinders by the Crucified.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.