A Canticle for Liebowitz by Miller, Walter, Jr., 1960
Consistently voted as one of the best books in the entire genre, Walter Miller, Jr's A Canticle for Liebowitz is also one of my favorite books of all time. Every time I read it I rediscover how incredibly well written it is, and how fantastic the story really is. The author, Miller, was never one of our more productive authors. I think he penned thirty or forty short stories, many of which were highly regarded, but other than a sequel to this book which is not as well written, and was finished by Terry Bisson after Miller’s death in the 1990's, this is the only novel he wrote. Honestly though, the quality of this one piece is high enough to catapult Miller to the very top place in many reader’s, critic’s, and scholarly best of polls.
The story is pretty simple. It is told in three parts - three novellas - starting about 600 years from mid-century when the world was destroyed by a cataclysmic nuclear war called the Flame Deluge. Shortly after the war a popular revolution called the Simplification led to the murder of scientists and destruction of their works. Somewhere in the southwest desert of the United States near Laredo and Denver in southeastern Utah an electrical engineer named Liebowitz saw the destructive potential of the Simplification before it got to his region. Liebowitz began hoarding scientific texts and hiding them until the Simplification burned out. As the front of the Simplification approached the southwest desert the Roman Catholic Church began to take in scientists and give them refuge. The church took in Liebowitz, and while in their charge he dedicated himself to a monastic life. The Church later gave Liebowitz permission to build an abbey near a desert town called Sanly Bowitts (Saint Liebowitz) where he organized monks into groups of “bookleggers” and “memorizers” who did the abbey’s work of saving and preserving knowledge. Monks who were caught doing this outside the abbey were frequently martyred, and this ultimately was Liebowitz’s fate. Six hundred years after his death the Abbey still existed and Liebowitz was revered by the monks who viewed him as a martyr and sought to have him canonized.
At the start of the novel the canonization process for Liebowitz has only just begun. Book One, called “Fiat Homo” took place approximately 600 years after the war. Society had been knocked back to the Stone Age. Many of the books that the Abbey had saved were severely deteriorated, so the monks had set up a third vocation, that of “copyist.” Brother Gerard is a novice at the Abbey, and while doing penance in the desert he was approached by an elderly traveler. The mysterious vagrant showed Gerard a subterranean room in the ruins of the buildings outside the abbey proper. In the ruins were artifacts that Liebowitz himself left including a partial circuitry diagram titled “Transistorized Control System for Unit 6-B.” The discovery caused a bit of commotion as the Church in nearby New Rome was in the process of evaluating the miracles of I.A. Liebowitz as part of the canonization process, and the conservative friars at the Abbey did not want anything to divert the cardinal’s attention from the matter at hand. However, given to rumor the friars spread a story that the ancient traveler who helped Gerard was a manifestation of Liebowitz himself, and the abbey became concerned that if that leaked out the Church in New Rome would never make Liebowitz into a saint; the abbey was concerned that the Holy See would be afraid to canonize someone about whom there were so many popular rumors, rather than evidence of actual miracles. Despite the abbey’s attempts to down play the importance of the find, and the insane sounding rumor, New Rome became interested in the artifacts (called “memorabilia” by the abbey). Ultimately Gerard was made a monk, after which he dedicated his life to the copy room where he illuminated a copy of the document that he had discovered.
This first novella focuses on a band of monks in the desert who eke out a poor living in a society modeled after medieval Europe. The monk’s job was to preserve knowledge to the best of their ability. The problem was that even if the monks preserved everything that they found, the state of their technology made it impossible to interpret or use that knowledge. By the time of this story the brothers at the abbey had lost so much of our culture and science that they don’t even understand the items that they preserved, and instead of passing down the knowledge to subsequent generations they gave glory to God by copying and illuminating them without comprehension. An astute reader will realize that a similar situation may have predominated before the war. That is to say, mankind, for all of its technological advances still understood little of the power of their technology or the ramifications of their actions.
Book Two, “Fiat Lux,” took place approximately 1200 years after the war. In it the Church, and particularly the monks at St. Liebowitz Abbey, had started to apply some of the scientific lessons that they intuited from the partial documents that their predecessors had discovered in the ruins, especially the Liebowitz hoard discovered by Gerard and a new find of several whole physics texts. The Church in New Rome dispatched a secular scholar to examine the newly found treasure. At the same time the independent nations of Laredo and Texarkana were making overtures of war, and the abbey was caught in the middle. The old beggar makes a reappearance in this story, and this time he sold himself to the abbey as Lazarus, not Liebowitz, but of course the implication is that they are one in the same.
Apollo, a papal representative in the court of Hanegan of Laredo, an agrarian nation, became suspicious that Hanegan would try to wipe out the nomadic herders of Texarkana. Such a play would give Hanegan dominion over most of the southwest and serve as a springboard to domination of the North American continent. Once the physics texts were discovered Apollo sent a nephew of Hanegan to go and inspect them. The scholar went to the abbey and learned, among other more important things, that the monks have reinvented the printing press, the light bulb, and many other modern devices.
This book pretty clearly depicts the beginning of a Renaissance, where the monks have started to apply the scientific lessons that they have learned from studying the memorabilia. But what it is really about is the personal anguish and fear that can come from rapid technological change, and mankind’s sometimes ill-advised attempt to control nature. The context here is the rebirth of scientific disciplines brought about by the Church, and the co-opting of those skills, principles and disciplines by the secular world. The Church advocates for their own purpose: The glorification of God, and urges the scholars to leave nature alone. But then the war ensues and takes the decision out of their hand.
Book Three, “Fiat Voluntas Tua“ takes place in the year 3,800 or so. Strong nations that dominate large regions of the globe have sprung back up, and they have developed nuclear technology and missiles again. Nationalism has sprung up and is strong everywhere. At the beginning of the story elevated radiation and fallout was detected in Siberia, and the various nations blamed each other for it while taking it as proof of an upcoming war. Asia refused to admit that it came from an above ground test, and North America refused to admit to a limited attack on Asia. At the Abbey in Utah the monks have been preparing for another nuclear war, and with funding from New Rome have constructed an interstellar starship. They have planned the evacuation of a number of monks who have critical scientific skills, and who will take the ancient documents and memorabilia with them to one of three or four colony worlds. In the end the ship gets off, but those who remain are doomed.
This is one of the best SF religious books out there, in my opinion. My personal favorite novella is the third one, and that is the one with the strongest religions message. In that story the capital of North America has been struck by the Asians with a large-yield warhead. In another limited exchange North America took out Asia's orbital launching platforms. The parties thereafter negotiated a ten-day cease-fire to allow for negotiation. The Abbey has been designated as an aid point for those who survived the blast in the nearby city, and a “mercy camp” has been set up down the road. The monks are trying to convince survivors who have taken large doses of radiation and who have severe burns not to commit suicide and to let nature take its course. The ultimate message of that part of the story is that on an individual level you should not interfere in fate, but on a larger level it is about the irresistible temptation to play with nature. The writing is amazing. Let me share some of it with you. In this scene a young girl and her infant have been burned and severely dosed, and are on their way to the suicide camp. The girl is planning on euthenizing her daughter, then herself next. The abbot picks them up in his car and drives them down the road. On the way they have a conversation:
"I had a cat once, when I was a boy," the abbot murmured slowly. "He was a big gray tomcat with shoulders like a small bulldog and a head and a neck to match, and that sort of slouchy insolence that makes some of them look like the Devil's own. He was a pure cat. Do you know cats?"
"Cat lovers don't know cats. You can't love all cats if you know cats, and the ones you can love are the ones that cat lovers don't even like. Zeke was that kind of cat."
"This has a moral of course?" She watched him suspiciously.
"Only that I killed him."
"Stop. Whatever you're about to say. Stop!"
"A truck hit him. Crushed his back legs. He dragged himself under the house. Once in a while he'd make a noise like a cat fight and thrash around a little, but mostly he lie quietly and waited. 'He ought to be destroyed' they kept telling me. After a few hours he dragged himself from under the house. Crying for help. 'He ought to be destroyed' they said. I wouldn't let them do it. they said it was cruel to let him live. Finally I said I'd do it myself, if it had to be done. I got a gun and a shovel and I took Zeke out to the edge of the woods. I stretched him out on the ground while I dug a hole. then I shot him through the head. It was a small-bore rifle. Zeke thrashed a couple of times, then got up and started dragging himself towards some bushes. I shot him again. It knocked him flat, so I thought he was dead, and put him in the hole. After a couple shovels of dirt Zeke got up and pulled himself out of the hole and started for the bushes again. I was crying louder than the cat. I had to kill him with the shovel. I had to put him back in the hole and use the blade of the shovel like a cleaver and while I was chopping with it, Zeke was still thrashing around. They told me later it was just spinal reflex, but I didn't believe it. I knew that cat. He wanted to get to those bushes and just lie there and wait. I wished to God that I had only let him get to those bushes, and die the way a cat would if you would just let it alone - with dignity. I never felt right about it. Zeke was only a cat, but -"
"Shut up!" she whispered.
" - but even the ancient pagans noticed that Nature imposes nothing on you that Nature doesn't prepare you to bear. If that is true even of a cat, then is it not more perfectly true of a creature with rational intellect and will - whatever you may believe of Heaven"
James Blish noted in his critical work The Issue At Hand (written under the pen name of William Atherton, and actually published first serially), that the evolution of science happened like this;
Magic led to Religion which led to Science.
Certainly a startling concept when I first read it as a younger man; I was still locked into the notion that science was a refutation of all things religious, and that magic was just out there in left field somewhere. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to believe it. All three phenomena are essentially methods of controlling and understanding nature and the natural world around us. It just so happens that as a rational culture that sometimes believes that the latest is in fact the greatest, we put more of our faith into science than the others. I guess you could say that science is the outlook du jour. But I think that Blish missed something big here. I think that the path to "enlightenment" should look like this:
Nature led to Magic which led to Religion which led to Science.
Nature is the core of it all: If we did not wonder about aspects of the natural world, we would not have ever developed the other concepts, and I think in this book Miller is examining the interplay between the last two as they relate to the first. Sorry, Magic, but it's just not your day. Consider this: There were lots of things going on in this book. Miller wrote a cold war piece and one of his main vehicles to move the story along were the problems that can arise from a distortion of the past. He posits a vague repetition of history that led to great suffering, where humans were tempted to take the easy way out. I have always wondered whether Miller was trying to show that destructiveness from the repetition of our era - the era of nuclear brinkmanship - or the destructiveness of a repetition of the era depicted in Fiat Homo - the new dark ages where virtually nothing of our world was understood. Maybe its both; I don't know for sure, but that seems possible to me. But in either event man has been tempted by primal fears to embrace self-destructive strategies. In one mankind gathered knowledge of a "brighter" past in the vain hope of protection. In the other mankind used terrible weapons to destroy the other without realizing that they would die too. How else could this story end?
Of course the genesis for this story was the Catholic Church’s efforts in the dark ages to preserve the lost knowledge of the fallen Roman Empire, but Miller also borrowed many stories from the bible. Clearly identifiable in this story are elements of the stories of Genesis, Exodus, Moses, Jesus, Lazarus, Job, Revelations, Bael and others. All of Miller’s main characters, save one, are men of faith who are depicted fairly, lovingly and righteously, despite any human foibles that they have. And the SF elements of the story are never opportunities for them to re-examine their faith, as is the case in many other SF novels that tackle religion. They are men of faith to their cores, and they do not question that faith, no matter what. Rather the SF elements are challenges to humanity to whom they are dedicated shepherds. Their faith in their patron and in God give them the fortitude to fight (passively) for their beliefs, for the continuity of their view of the culture and society, and lead them to do the right thing in times of trouble, no matter what the secular rulers are up to. That they do it without becoming “freedom fighters” or guerrillas makes it all the more beautiful and sanctifying. And like any good Catholic tale the book is filled with death and rebirth metaphors, and its full of examples of how history never changes, and repeats itself over and over, no matter what. In that sense it’s also a truly novel take on our collective cold war fears, though in this book the fear is not over the existence of the missiles or the possibility for war. Those are the fears that everyone else plays on when they write these kinds of stories. Miller gives the worse fear, which is that we are stupid enough to do this to ourselves twice in a row.
I hope I’ve given you a lot to think about here. I should have, because the social messages in this book are, to borrow a phrase, legion. Aside from all the Christian messages and reversals in this book, it is reducible to two elements. Its really about fear and hope, and the good thing is that those two messages are broadcast to you on a Times Square sized neon sign. As to fear, insanity figures big in this book, primarily about our abilities to survive collective doses of it. “Nature imposes nothing that nature hasn’t prepared you to bear.” This book describes in exquisite detail the uselessness of our quest for Eden, and shows the foolishness of our misunderstanding of our true enemy. That is to say, it is not suffering that we should be combating. It is the unreasonable fear of suffering. Fear drives us to strike out against others before we even experience it, which once experienced should give us reason to join hands.
I have to say; there really are not many books or movies out that that truly move me to a deeply personal place. Lots of books move me to excitement, or anger, or happiness. But every time I read this one, for some reason the last twenty or so pages make me think of all the people that I have ever known who have died, and I don’t quite know why. The last scene is an extended death scene, a horrible lonely one, much like it probably really is, even for those who die in a crowded room. But it is full of hope for the future too. I hope that it is not just what I see in it. I’d hate to think that others don’t share in this wonderful a revelation with me. I’ve been agnostic my entire life, and I am the child of two of the most “devout” atheists you have ever met, if that modifier applies. I go to a Roman Catholic Church pretty much for purposes of marital harmony only. And like all of you, I have no idea at all what happens to us after we die, but a big, fat part of me hopes that there is some sort of rebirth afterwards. I think that is what A Canticle for Liebowitz is really about. At least that is the kind of hope I experience after reading it, and that is why it moves me to tears practically every time.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell