Post-apocalypse classic: Canticle

Moving right along with my sf education, I just finished another of those famous classics I’ve heard about for pretty much my whole life but somehow never got around to reading until now. This time it’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, 1959, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. It’s a post-apocalypse story about the world after nuclear annihilation, and about the double-edged nature of human knowledge — how we value and treasure it deeply, while at the same time knowing it can (and almost inevitably will) be put to evil uses.

The novel is structured in three parts, set at 600-year intervals, and revolves around the actions and beliefs of an order of monks who are dedicated to preserving bits and pieces of knowledge from before the “Flame Deluge.” The Church is, in this post-apocalypse world, the primary force for the preservation of literacy and the copying of whatever written fragments survived; that’s a very believable direction for Miller to take, given that it echoes real history from the Dark Ages. In this first part of the novel, the world is a chaotic place with no real governments, just people trying to survive and slowly pick up the pieces. The major action takes place when a certain novice monk finds a stash of records and relics from the time of the Deluge. And since they appear to be related to a scientist named Liebowitz, the very man this monk’s order has nominated for sainthood, this of course causes quite a stir.

Things pick up in the second part, another 600 years down the road. By now, city-states have arisen and power has begun to centralize and politics has once again reared its ugly head. Science has also made some progress, due partly to information contained in the Liebowitz records. This part of the novel involves the first scientific genius in the post-apocalypse era, whose theories go a long way toward re-establishing humanity’s lost knowledge base. It’s heartening to see the rediscovery of the electric light and the possibility of humanity regaining its lost glory. At the same time, though, Miller forces us to think about the ugly intersection of science and politics. One of the themes of this novel is the question of what kind of responsibility scientists should have, and how strongly they should resist handing over their knowledge to ignorant politicians to misuse. Miller points out that “ignorance is king” — that politicians and leaders WILL abuse science and technology in pursuit of power, and WILL put their petty and selfish short-term goals ahead of the long-term good of the people, a fact even more blatantly obvious today than when this book was written.

After yet another 600 years, the species has achieved, and surpassed, its pre-apocalypse level of technology. They have computers, spaceflight, off-world colonization….. and, unfortunately, also retain their belligerent tendencies in the form of a large nuclear arsenal. There’s a tense Cold War atmosphere of impending disaster, and the tension only grows worse as we get little snippets of news reports about world events, and it becomes clear that another nuclear war is coming soon. As in the previous parts of the book, the abbot of the Order of Liebowitz plays a central role, and this modern abbot asks:

Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix, in an unending sequence of rise and fall?

Adding to the sense of impending doom are several press conferences in which the media grill the U.S. Secretary of Defense (who shows exactly the same air of arrogance, petulance, and evasiveness displayed by former SecDef Rumsfeld; and these reporters ask really tough questions — I can only wish that was realistic also).

The novel ends on a mixed note: yes, the second apocalypse happens, but not all of humanity is destroyed since there are some off-world colonies. But the question remains: will those colonies end up in the same position and eventually destroy themselves as well? Is a cycle of self-annihilation inevitable? Will humanity never overcome its war-like nature?

Overall I found this novel to be a very sobering and thoughtful look at these issues, although there was also some humor here and there to lighten the mood. There was also a small supernatural aspect to the book, and of course I didn’t care for that, but I can overlook it as it wasn’t major. I thought the prose was very readable, even beautiful in places. I especially loved the transition between the first and second parts, given through the viewpoint of generations of buzzards flying over the changing world. I also liked Miller’s description of a nuclear mushroom cloud:

The visage of Lucifer mushroomed into hideousness above the cloudbank, rising slowly like some titan climbing to its feet after ages of imprisonment in the Earth.

A very decent and worthwhile read.


3 responses to “Post-apocalypse classic: Canticle

  1. crotchetyoldfan

    Excellent coverage of this, one of my all time faves.

    I had a different take on Miller’s message though – which is certainly informed by my personal viewpoint:

    I believe that one of the inherent messages is ‘as long as we mix science with religion, perhaps as long as we allow science to be subordinated to religion, we’ll end up in nuclear armageddon.

    Science may be no better, but we haven’t really given the rational a chance all by itself.

    I think this POV is informed by the ever-present church, which in the beginning holds all knowledge and ultimately gives its rubber stamp to the building of ICBMs.

    On the other hand, you could say the message was ‘when religion takes a back seat, this is what happens’…

  2. I didn’t get the impression Miller was trying to say anything negative about religion (not that it would bother me if he did); for the most part he seemed rather neutral. However, there was one part that I personally took as an extremely negative comment on religion. This was the subplot in part three about the woman and baby with radiation poisoning. When the abbot tried so hard to talk the woman out of euthanasia, and instead to let the baby suffer from the horrible burns and radiation sickness (about which NOTHING could be done), all for the sake of some wacky dogma, that just reminded me that there IS pure evil in the world, and that kind of religious ideology is one variety of it.

  3. Pingback: Matt’s Bookosphere 8/3/2008 « Enter the Octopus

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