Friday, July 27, 2012

Friday Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

I read this book and wrote this review a while ago, but the book itself seemed appropriate for this week. It's very much a sci-fi book, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

In the twenty-sixth century, the world is barren, having been destroyed by the “Flame Deluge,” a worldwide nuclear holocaust in the twentieth century that leaves few survivors. Those who survive decide to end the possibility of further destruction: They burn all books, all knowledge, all possessors of knowledge, and forget their past. This becomes known as the “Simplification.” But not everyone is interested in forgetting. In the midst of the Simplification, I.E. Leibowitz, one of the fathers of nuclear weapons and a recent convert to Christianity, forms a monastic order to protect knowledge from the “simpletons.” It is in the process of memorizing and booklegging (a book rescuing and smuggling operation) that Leibowitz is martyred for his faith, leaving his order to persevere without him.

All this comes out gradually through the story. The reader is transported to this postapocalyptic world without being given a roadmap; the reader must discover the truth behind the events as the story unfolds. For example, there are passing references made to new Church encyclicals dealing with care for the mutant, documents that sound like Scripture but are really attempts by the Church to understand the events of the past (e.g., there are frequent references to the demon Fallout), and, after 600 years have passed, the reader is left to wonder what is truth and what is legend about Leibowitz (now Blessed Leibowitz, soon to be Saint Leibowitz). Luckily for the reader, Walter M. Miller is an excellent guide through this unfamiliar territory, and his writing is engaging enough to keep the reader intrigued.

Miller structures his story in three parts (Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, and Fiat Voluntas Tua [“Let him become man,” “Let there be light,” and “Thy will be done,” respectively), each part taking place six hundred years after the prior part. The structure works well, especially considering that the parts are three sixes, representing the number of man (who is responsible—twice!—for destroying the world). The three parts are snapshots rather than a flowing narrative, but there are recurring symbols, characters, and events that give the novel a structural unity that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that the reader sees events as they are happening but also gets to see how six hundred years bury or soften the truth through legend and midrash.

Perhaps the most interesting point of structure is who Miller chooses to set at the center of the story: the Church. One of the only institutions to survive the Flame Deluge is the Roman Catholic Church, which, Rome having been destroyed, is forced to start again at a new location in the U.S. The story is a testament to how the church has adapted through world history, dealing with problems as they arise. Reference is made to new Church edicts focusing on the treatment of mutants (no doubt a result of the radiation from the Flame Deluge) or the restoration of “ancient” documents, and new saints are canonized. At one point, a priest debates whether a woman’s second head (whom she names “Rachel”) should receive baptism. In many respects, the Church keeps doing what it has done, even in the face of such catastrophic destruction. Miller gives the story an air of authenticity by frequently interjecting Latin. (This can be frustrating at times, especially if you, like me, don’t speak Latin. I found this page a bit too late in my reading.) The story is bathed in religious imagery that may be lost to some modern readers unfamiliar with the Bible, but for the reader of faith, this infuses the story with a richer, broader meaning and application.

Within the structure of the story, the interaction between the Church and the outside world changes. The opinion of the Church changes from veneration to indifference to sycophancy (because of the Order’s holding all the documents from the past) to, ultimately, opposition. The seeds of the final feeling of opposition are sown in the second section, when a new, “scientific” theory is introduced that man after the Flame Deluge was not created in the image of God, but created by prior men in their own image. Thus, the scientific community tries to sever the connection between God and man, cutting also the ties to morality. (The effects of this are very apparent in the last section, where the Church, while present, is not seen as the authority it once was.) There is a very poignant scene in which the abbot of the Order of Saint Leibowitz forbids a woman and her child from accepting the government-sanctioned red ticket, which qualifies them for a mercy killing due to radiation overdose. A police officer sees this and “overrules” the abbot, forcing him to stand back as the woman enters the assisted suicide camp. The officer then chides the abbot for being so unmerciful.

The story flounders at some parts, namely the beginning of each section, mostly because the reader is thrust into the narrative without any guidance as to what the world is like (but, as mentioned before, while this is confusing, it is also one of the novel’s strengths). At some points, it is difficult to understand the political climate of the time because of a hazy geography. Also, the character names are true to the sci-fi genre, that is to say, a bit cheesy at times. Still, the strengths of A Canticle for Leibowitz make it a worthwhile read, and the confusion at first and the apt commentary on modern society make it ripe material for rereading.

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