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A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.

Published by Bantam Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The novel begins with a novice monk in his hermitage, keeping vigil as he seeks to learn his vocation. As he sits in the desert, he sees a mysterious figure coming toward him, and he wonders whether the traveler's apparent leglessness is a mere illusion of the lay of the land, or if this person is indeed one of the misbegotten.

Up to this point, everything seemed to be a story of one of the Desert Fathers of the early centuries of Christianity, or perhaps one of the more severe Medieval monastic orders. But as the encounter between Brother Francis and the mysterious wanderer progresses, the hints accumulate that this story is taking place not in the distant past, but in the distant future. A future in which civilization has collapsed, leaving only fragmentary ruins of technologies that can no longer be replicated and are often barely understood. The monastery itself may be built of masonry in a manner that goes back to the beginnings of civilization, but much of the stone that has been used in it has been rudely broken from even older buildings into which the mysterious ancients were somehow able to insert strips of steel (we of course recognize it immediately as rebar around which concrete was subsequently poured).

As we read onward, we slowly learn that at some time in the past humanity had a disastrous nuclear war which is known only as the Flame Deluge (thus equating it with Noah's Flood). The nature of the conflict over which it was fought is no longer even remembered, although readers at the time it came out would almost certainly have surmised that it would have had to be between the US and the Soviet Union, since the two superpowers were locked in the deathgrip of the strategy known as Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD.

But Brother Francis and his contemporaries know nothing of that, for the aftermath of the nuclear exchange was a moral panic against science and technology known as the Great Simplification. After all, was not the original sin of Adam and Eve the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? If science and technology were the cause of the horrors that destroyed the old civilization, let them be extirpated and let humanity embrace once again the simplicity of a life of toil with one's own hands, as humanity was directed to live in the Good Book. The Catholic Church struggles to preserve fragments of the learning of the old civilization, much as it did the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans during the worst of the Dark Ages, even if the monks who carefully copy the manuscripts have little or no understanding of what they have in their hands.

And that is exactly what Brother Francis does with the mysterious documents he discovers in the Fallout Shelter which he accidentally uncovers. He has no idea what a squirrel cage motor would be, since the device described in the blueprint is far too open to actually cage a squirrel, and there is no evidence of the little beast within its circle. But it's clearly a holy relic of the sainted founder of their order, so he dutifully produces a beautifully illuminated copy of it on a piece of fine parchment. At length he succeeds so well that the Prior suggests that he should take it to New Rome and give it to the Pope.

It is an extraordinary journey through a land still wild and in ruins after a millennium of desolation, and he is robbed of the beautiful illuminated copy by a group of bandits. But they have not the wits to discover the true treasure Brother Francis bore hidden within his habit: the original blueprint he had spent fifteen years copying. That he is able to place in the hands of the Holy Father -- and having done that, he goes forth only to be set upon and slain by bandits as he makes his way back to the monastery.

This theme of hope and futility is carried through the second and third sections of the novel, as humanity slowly claws its way back up to civilization. The second section, in which aspiring technologists have recovered or rediscovered enough science to actually build an arc light which sparks and sizzles while illuminating the refectory with eye-hurting light, is perhaps the most humorous one, if in a most dark way. The monks are still struggling to copy and preserve printed materials that they really don't understand any longer, but now they know just enough science to start making some guesses about their possible meanings, some fairly educated and some downright absurd.

Take for instance the one scholar who suggests, based upon a book he read, that contemporary humanity may not be the original humans descended from Adam and Eve, but instead artificial humans created to labor for them and subsequently usurping their position. We can recognize from the description of the book that it is in fact a work of speculative fiction imagining what might happen if humans were to inadvertently create their own replacements: if not Capek's original RUR, then one of the many subsequent stories of robots and androids. But they have lost all the context in which the novel originally existed, and as a result cannot determine whether they are reading a work of reportage or imagination.

It is in the third and final part of the novel that hope and futility both reach their crescendo. Humanity has come full circle, and once again has mastered the technologies it possessed at the time of the Flame Deluge. But it still has not mastered its own passions, its sinful nature and tendency to self-destructive pride. And as a result, the nations are once again at one another's throats, as if determined to re-enact the destruction which brought down the previous civilization. But this time things will not repeat exactly as they did the last time around, for a spaceship is being prepared, a new Ark for a new Noah to take a saving remnant to the stars.

In the decades since Walter Miller originally penned his novel of a future America in ruins, many other authors have written their own visions of what happens after the Bomb. Some of them have been more hopeful, suggesting that perhaps if enough people could overcome their fear and pettiness, it would be possible to save the essentials of civilization in an ever-growing positive spiral. Others have been far more pessimistic, portraying hopeless worlds so totally poisoned that it is only a matter of time before death overcomes even the most carefully guarded redoubts. And there were some for whom the aftermath of a nuclear war offered the possibilities of an endless series of stories about doughty heroes fighting battles against mutants, monstrosities, and assorted Soviet and Nazi agents who pop up whack-a-mole fashion from the woodwork of the ruined future world, although those stories belong properly more to the men's action-adventure genre than to science fiction proper.

However, almost none of them have had the intense examination of the role of religious faith, both at a personal level and as a community of believers, in the preservation of the fragments of true civilization amidst a future full of people thinking only of themselves and looking out for their own short-term survival even at the despite of the common good. That focus on religion, and upon the role of the Catholic Church and its various orders of vowed religious in the preservation of social order and of humanity's cultural memory, makes A Canticle for Liebowitz stand out from the rest of the post-apocalyptic fiction subgenre.

Review posted August 19, 2010.

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