No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

2010/45: A Canticle for Leibowitz -- Walter Miller

We have your bloody hatchets and your Hiroshimas. We march in spite of Hell, we do --
Atrophy, Entropy and Proteus vulgaris,
telling bawdy jokes about a far, girl name of Eve
and a travelling salesman called Lucifer.
We bury your dead and their reputations.
We bury you. We are the centuries ...
Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual, with bloodstained vestments and nailtorn hands, children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. (p.259)

One of those classics I always meant to get around to reading -- bookclub gave me a reason to do so.

A Canticle for Leibowitz consists of three linked novellas, all focussing on the monastic Order of Leibowitz. Fiat Homo is set 600 years in the future, after nuclear holocaust (the Flame Deluge); Fiat Lux is set in 3174; Fiat Voluntas Tua in 3781. The message, rather grimly, is that history repeats itself.

The eponymous Leibowitz was a technician, involved in weapons development during nuclear war, who later repented of his work, was persecuted for his learning, and was martyred. Fiat Homo focusses on the bureacracy surrounding his canonisation -- complicated by Brother Francis's encounter with an old man who leads him to a lost Fallout Shelter and to relics of Leibowitz himself. Is the old man somehow Leibowitz? Is he the Wandering Jew? Is he both? Neither? Anyway, Brother Francis gets what's coming to him, and so does Leibowitz.

Fiat Lux centres on the frustration felt by scientists and technicians -- the best they can hope for is to recover what's been lost. There is a Poet with a glass eyeball, and a melange of feudal politics mirroring and complicating theological affairs. If the first section had the feel of the early Christian era -- desert saints, simplicity, theological debate -- this second novella is more reminiscent of the late medieval period. The old man is still wandering the desert. He claims to be over three thousand years old.

Fiat Voluntas Tua is by far my favourite of the three novellas, and the one I feel is most successful as a story in itself. By 3781 humanity has regained space flight: it has also regained nuclear weapons (referred to as Lucifer). There are colonies on distant planets. There are mutants (actually, there have been mutants all the way through, but here they're part of the story). There is the kind of socio-legal structure which prioritises due process of law over human suffering. And there is a potential miracle, the raising of a creature of primal innocence, a promise of resurrection. And a one-way trip to the Centauri Colony.

Miller's prose is occasionally poetic and often light-hearted, despite the gloominess of his setting. Or apparently light-hearted: there's an underlying bitterness throughout. Easy to see, with hindsight, just how much influence A Canticle for Leibowitz has exerted over the field.

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