|A Canticle for Leibowitz|
|author||Walter M. Miller, Jr.|
|summary||A powerful and thought provoking study of human nature in a wellconstructed future history.|
Walter M. Miller, Jr wrote most of his science fiction in the 1950s. His work was influential in its treatment of character and for the complexity of his approach to standard science fiction themes. He converted to Catholicism in the 1940s and his faith had a direct bearing on much of his output. His short stories have been collected into a number of volumes but he is remembered principally today for the one novel published in his lifetime, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and, to a lesser extent, its sequel, Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.
It is indicative of the nature of science fiction in the 1950s that so much of what was published in novel form had a previous life in the monthly magazines. A Canticle for Leibowitz is no exception to this, being a collation of three separately published novellas covering a long period in the future of humanity. This results in a book that could be described as a condensed trilogy. It is perhaps best read in that manner, with a pause for contemplation between sections separated in original publication by a couple of years and in setting by six centuries. Such a reading is aided by the lyrical drawing away from detail as each part concludes.
The story is of the slow rise of a new civilisation from the ashes of our own, which was ended by the Flame Deluge and the Age of Simplification. Leibowitz was a "booklegger" from this time who was martyred as he attempted to save knowledge from the mob which believed that all learning led to the hubris of Mutually Assured Destruction. The plot is centred on the abbey of a monastic order which honours Leibowitz and treasures the material he and his accomplices saved. As the story opens, this material is more religious relic than literal knowledge. Too much of the foundation of twentieth century culture has been ripped away for the remnant to be understood in a superstitious age. Despite this the Order believes that a time will come again for such work to be understood and so it keeps the holy duty of preservation. The later parts of the story carry through the grand historical process of building a new civilisation.
However, this is not so much a dynastic saga as the illumination of history through a series of vignettes. The characters spring fully formed into print. Their past lives are barely sketched but their hopes and fears are individual and realistic. As the world around them changes, the monks must each confront in their own lives the nature and execution of their duty to God and its relationship with duty to man. The central theme of pride and humility is played out repeatedly but in such different ways that new insight is gained on each iteration.
Whilst the monks of the abbey are restricted to a normal span of years, Miller manages a powerful continuity of presence in the abbey itself. It is filled with the words and ideas of centuries of Christianity. It evokes the belief in eternity of the medieval church builders and echoes the timeless feeling often experienced in any truly old building. Miller also recalls characters from earlier periods in the story through the artefacts and ideas they leave behind them. Partly as a product of this, the tone darkens through the course of the book. The weight of history increases with the rate of progress, along with an increasing fear that humanity may not have learned the lessons of its past.
For most modern readers the book itself almost becomes its own metaphor. It is littered with learning which has lost much of its currency in recent generations. As a result, it tends to represent the books sealed in barrels by the bookleggers of the next age - many of us could use a guide to interpret the Hebrew lettering or Church Latin. Despite this flavour of the arcane, it addresses fundamental questions of our relationship with knowledge and technology. A Canticle for Lebowitz is a well rounded and thought provoking book. Its concepts and conclusions are as relevant today as when it was written.
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