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A Canticle for Leibowitz: SF Masterworks V
by Walter M Miller, Jr
(Gollancz, £14.99, 355 pages, hardback; first published 1959; this edition 25 October 2001.)

SF writers have often been drawn to religion: books about religious figures themselves cover scan(Moorcock's Behold the Man [1969] or Zelazny's Lord of Light [1967]), or else books set in religious communities, or in societies dominated by fundamentalist religious stricture. This latter category is much the larger, and includes a number of SF masterpieces: Wyndham's Chrysalids (1955), Blish's Case of Conscience (1958), Atwood's Handmaid's Tale (1985), Sheri Tepper's Grass (1989), Simmons' Hyperion (1989), Gene Wolfe's recent four-volume Book of the Long Sun -- the tip of a large iceberg. Given that SF is a materialist literature, and religion is spiritual, this may seem an unlikely crossover. But in fact SF writers and readers delight in, amongst other things, the construction of elaborate structures of thought that are removed to one degree or other from 'lived experience'. The genre lends itself unusually well to exploring questions of belief.

Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) is perhaps the most highly regarded of this particular sub-genre; now reissued very handsomely as part of the hardback spin-off of the Gollancz 'SF Masterworks' series. This novel is precisely the sort of book a genuine fan of SF will want to own in hardback. If you know it, and have lamented that it has been out of print for several years, you need lament no more; if you haven't read it, hurry out and get hold of a copy.

The novel, originally published as a series of shorter stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late '50s, falls into three parts. The first, 'Fiat Homo' ('let there be man') is set a few hundred years after a devastating nuclear war. Civilisation has collapsed and the survivors have turned on the 'men of learning' they blame for the apocalypse. In this new age of Simplicity, a few books and relics of scholarship are preserved by Catholic monasteries. Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is a member of the order of the Blessed Leibowitz; a religious community founded by an electrical engineer from before the nuclear disaster. Their monastery is surrounded by the barren desert of Texas, now populated with bandits and mutants. Brother Francis discovers certain documentary relicts of his order's now-half-mythic founder in an old fallout shelter: electrical blueprints, letters, all quite incomprehensible to the monks. 'Brother Francis produced a scrap of paper ... It was brittle with age and stained. The ink was faded. "Pound pastrami," Father Cheroki pronounced, slurring over some of the unfamiliar words, "can kraut, six bagels -- bring home for Emma"'. Francis, working in the scriptorum, makes a copy of one holy blueprint, and presents it to the Pope in New Rome, but gets killed in the wilderness on his way home.

The second section ('Fiat Lux' -- 'Let there be light') takes us forward in time several centuries to 3174; the monastery is still in place, still preserving as holy relics documents it does not understand. Leibowitz has been canonised by the church, and a local warlord has declared himself 'Sovereign of Texarkana, Emperor of Laredo, Defender of the Faith'. The present Abbot tries to preserve the monastery's independence amongst various petty wars and politicking. One of his monks has built a crude electrical generator, having deciphered some of the documents the order has so zealously preserved.

In the final section, 'Fiat Voluntas Tua' ('Thy will be done') civilisation has reached the level of primitive space-flight, but political tensions again threaten nuclear war. The church has organised a spacecraft to travel to the new colony at Alpha Centuri, and so escape the increasingly likely nuclear holocaust.

Miller's book is a classic that deserves the status; it is beautifully written throughout, its narrative line is expertly paced and cadenced, never rushed but never saggy. Some critics have seen it as bleak, with the apparent inevitability of the second nuclear Armageddon implying a view of human history not only circular, but circularly disastrous. But the book is far from being grim or unappealing. For one thing, it is leavened by Miller's sense of humour, both in the overall conception and in many touches and moments. From Brother Francis misunderstanding the nature of the 'blueprint' and laboriously wasting pots of blue ink making a copy by colouring the entire sheet blue, to the monks construing the Latin plural for 'doohicki' (which is, as you might expect, 'doohickii'). But there is also a considerable beauty in some of the stiller moments. The unruffled line of continuity that the Abbey represents is appealingly evoked:

the years flowed smoothly by, seaming the faces of the young and adding gray to their temples. The perpetual labor of the monastery continued, daily storming heaven with the ever-recurring hymn of the Divine Office, daily supplying the word in a trickle of copied and recopied manuscripts

Death is smoothly folded into this continuum; Brother Francis killed by hungry mutants on his way back from New Rome, his bones finished off by buzzards, does not strike a tragic note. The important life, for Miller, is the life of the religious community: 'the organism, the community whose cells were men, whose life had flowed through seventy generations'. This vision of life has its appeal, and the cumulative effect of the novel is deeply affecting.

There are problems with the book, however; and they are deep problems, not superficial flaws or glitches. The most fundamental of these have to do with what we might call 'political' issues. It is ideologically obtuse to interpret the imminence of nuclear holocaust, as Miller does, as a function of mankind's original sin, rather than as a political or technology dilemma. Looking back from a post-holocaust perspective, a visiting scholar of technical science asks 'how can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?' 'Perhaps,' replies a monsignor, 'by being materially great and materially wise and nothing else'. In practical terms this, as much of the book, amounts to a tacit assertion that only by injecting religion into 'materialist' political discourse can disaster be averted; a belief we might label 'fundamentalism', or 'the Christian Right', or a variety of other aliases. It can be argued that America's Reaganite recent history (or the more recent events with Osama Bin Laden) tend to suggest a ruler who believes in absolute religious certitude is more likely, not less, to bring on Armageddon.

Nor is it out-of-place to read A Canticle for Leibowitz in political terms; political agenda surface throughout. In the final section, an old mutant-woman petitions the Abbot to baptise her second head:

It was a small head, a cherubic head, but it never opened its eyes. It gave no evidence of sharing in her breathing or her understanding. It lolled uselessly on her shoulder, blind, deaf, mute, and only vegetatively alive. Perhaps it lacked a brain, for it showed no sign of independent consciousness or personality. Her other face had aged, grown wrinkled, but the superfluous head retained the features of infancy, although it had been toughened by the gritty wind and darkened by the desert sun.

Brian Aldiss thinks that this 'raises a nice theological point... how many souls has a two headed woman?' But the figure here is also ideological. After the atomic war starts again, a doctor applies to use the abbey to treat victims of radiation burns. For those that may recover, this means medical assistance; for those who are certain to die painfully, it means euthanasia. But the Abbot, as a straight-die Catholic, will not countenance the latter, and eventually banishes the aid-station from his premises to a camp at the side of the road. A large chunk of the final section is given over to this ethical drama: the Abbot trying to persuade a terminally ill woman, with a badly radiation burned baby, that the painless death offered by the doctor is fundamentally evil, where the lingering agony of the death offered by Nature is a virtuous function of God's Will. There is no doubt where Miller wants our sympathies to lie. The Abbot shakes his head mournfully after talking to the doctor, and addresses a junior monk.

'You heard him say it? "Pain is the only evil I know about." You heard that?'

The monk nodded solemnly.

'And that society is the only thing that determines whether an act is wrong or not? That too?'

'Yes.'

'Dearest God, how did those two heresies get back into the world after all this time? Hell has a limited imagination down there.

[Canticle for Leibowitz, p316]

To stigmatise the notion that beliefs are culturally conditioned, or the materialist humanitarian concept that a doctor's duty is to reduce pain, as 'Hellish' is extreme, and fiercely reactionary. A Roman, or a samurai warrior, brought up to believe suicide noble and honourable is hardly doing the Devil's work when they commit suicide; to think otherwise is to subscribe to an ethical absolutism with genuinely alarming implications. These things are indeed culturally conditioned, not handed down to us on tablets of stone. In a final scene the two-headed mutant woman's second head wakes to speak innocence beatitudes to the dying Abbot, and we realise that Miller genuinely believes that God does nothing randomly, that every grotesque mutation and experience of misery has its place in the cosmos.

Other moments in the book lean towards this essentialism. For example: one character is a crazy old man living in a hermitage in the desert who believes himself to be the Wandering Jew; and it is a weakness that the book nudges the reader towards believing his claim (the same figure seems to recur in each of the hundred-years-apart sections of the novel); weakness because it closes down possible interpretation rather than opening them up, because it leaves the reader no choice but to take Miller's imagined universe on it own traditional Catholic terms. The dying mother accepts that God wants her to endure her painful death, but insists her dying baby doesn't have the ability to make that acceptance; 'I'm not complaining,' she tells the Abbot. 'The baby is. But the baby doesn't understand your sermon. She can hurt, though. She can hurt, but she can't understand.' The priest wonders 'what can I say to that?' He believes that the baby suffers because Adam had thrown away humanity's 'preternatural impassibilty' in Eden: 'The child was a cell of Adam, and therefore -- It was true, but she had a sick baby, and she was sick herself, and she wouldn't listen.'

It's the 'it was true' that is the giveaway here, the marker of a text that believes not only in absolute truth but in an absolute truth revealed uniquely to a small proportion of humanity that denies essential humanitarian impulses. Personally, I'm with the baby on this one. The novel, it hardly needs stating, is much greater than these objections: a profound, thoughtful, powerful and extremely influential SF classic.

Review by Adam Roberts.

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© Adam Roberts 12 January 2002