Tuesday, April 5, 2011

1961: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Now this is more like it. The 1961 Hugo Winner, Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, is an interesting, well-written, and thought provoking book, which is more than I can say for some of the previous books I have read. Hopefully future award winners will be as good as this.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three novellas, each related to one another but separated by large gaps in time and containing none of the same characters (there is one character but he is far too enigmatic to be counted). What the novellas do share is their location: the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz situated somewhere in the American Southwest, most likely southern Utah or northern New Mexico. The purpose of the abbey is to preserve as much past knowledge as possible.  Another similarity between each part nearly every character is a Catholic monk. I have noticed that the last two Hugo winners barely have any female characters. Leibowitz, in fact, doesn’t have a single woman until the final of the three novellas. This is not a strike against it because I would rather have no female characters than poorly written ones. I’m looking at you Ernest Hemingway, especially Catherine Berkley in A Farwell to Arms.

The first novella is Fiat Homo (Let there be Man). Set in the 26th century and a full 600 years after a nuclear holocaust, this story concerns a young novice named Francis, who while on his vigil in the desert, discovers a fallout shelter and a blue print that may have been written by his order’s founder Beau Isaac Leibowitz (he is a Beau because at this point he has not been canonized by New Rome). Francis eventually becomes a monk and works to transcribe documents from the past into new books. He also recreates Leibowitz’s blue print and takes a trip to New Rome for the canonization. This may sound a tad dull and uneventful but there are a number of interesting characters and Miller skillfully uses this time to create his post-apocalyptical world.

And what a world it is. Since this is told from the view of monks 600 years after the fact very little is known or understood about the previous world and how it ended. The nuclear war is referred to as the “Flame Deluge” and nuclear Fallout is thought of as a demon, not a man-made phenomenon. When Francis discovers the fallout shelter he is frighten that it is living quarters for the demon itself and it afraid to let it out again. Miller does an excellent job of describe the world through the eyes of its inhabitants and only showing what they know.

The second novella, Fiat Lux (Let there be Light), takes place 500 years after Fiat Homo and humanity is starting to organize itself again. In this novella, one of the monks builds an electric generator and a visiting scholar from Texarkana, one of the main city-states that have risen over the last 500 years, examines the Abbey’s archives. The dark ages are ending and mankind is moving towards greater civilization and advancement. Fiat Lux is more complex than Fiat Homo and begins to deal with the roles of church and state, secular and religious knowledge and the freedom of information. It would be difficult to explain much more without spoilers but this was my favorite novella of the three.

In the final novella, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done), mankind has again advanced to the point where it has nuclear weapons and space colonies. After 50 years the cold war between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition turns hot and the world is again engulfed in nuclear war. New Rome decides to send the Leibowitz archives and a group of monks into space so that knowledge can be preserved.  While this happens the Abbot must deal with nuclear survivors and the government’s attempts to euthanize the hopeless radiation cases.

All and all it is an excellent story. After some of the past winners it was nice to read something with a well-developed plot and characters. Even changes in language are taken into account. Miller never explains more than he needs to and the philosophical debates that crop up every so often feel natural, instead of shoehorned, into the plot. Also the characters feel like people. They are not ideas masquerading as people, which is certainly an improvement of A Case of Conscience and a million times better They’d Rather Be Right. I usually don’t write in hyperbole like that but They’d Rather Be Right was truly awful.

Despite the praise I am heaping on A Canticle for Leibowitz there are a few parts of it that I found did not make much sense. In the future depicted in the book, virtually nothing of the pre-nuclear war world remains. People have become savages and every old belief is forgotten. If that’s the case, how it is that the Catholic Church remains more or less the same as it has for thousands of years? The monks still use Latin, the structure of the Church remains unchanged; even all the rituals were unfazed. How does that work? It would have been interesting to see at least some change. It would have to be major but little differences to show that the Catholic Church was not immune to the changes in the world. On a similar note, what happened to Protestantism? The United States was (and still is) a predominately Protestant country so it seems hard to believe that it could completely fall away while Catholicism remains the same. In Fiat Homo, most of the land is described as pagan outside of the small Catholic enclaves. It’s not a deal breaker these issues annoyed me.

What also annoyed me was the amount of Latin. I understand the characters are monks and monks use Latin (somehow even in the post-apocalyptical future) but it doesn’t make it easy for the reader. The Latin used is rarely translated, leading me to skim certain sections for the next English part. I was able to figure out what the titles of the first two novellas were but had to look up the final one. Again this is a small gripe but worth mentioning.

My final annoyance was the location. Every major civilization mentioned in Fiat Lux is in the mountains or the southwest. What is it about post-apocalyptic fiction that makes it set in the desert? Mad Max, the Fallout video games, and others all seem to take place in the Southwest. If the world ended I would move to greener pastures.

So read A Canticle for Leibowitz. You will be glad you did. I know I was.

My next book is A Stranger in A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. It’s his most famous book. Let’s see if it’s his best.