Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Let him become Man

A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Canticle for Leibowitz

“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they became with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier to see something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”   ― Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

With references to Dante and the Roman Catholic liturgy, among others, this is an uncommon example of speculative fiction. Combining post-apocalyptic history with three sections set centuries apart in the distant future the reader begins to encounter science fiction in the form of spaceships that can travel beyond the solar system only in the final of the three novellas that form the body of this novel. A Canticle for Liebowitz is one of few science fiction novels that have religion as a primary focus. That it is able to provide the depth of character and levels of meaning that transcend the genre explains its standing in popularity and its well-deserved Hugo Award more than fifty years ago.
The structure of the novel is tripartite with novella-length sections each focused on a small portion of future history each of which indicates the direction that mankind has come in the centuries since the previous section and what direction may be expected in the following centuries. The story begins about six hundred years in the future and each of the subsequent sections are about six hundred years further in the future.
The first section, "Fiat Homo" (let him become man),  is the longest and seemingly the simplest story, focusing on a novitiate, Brother Francis Gerard, in the southwestern desert of what was once the United States. His discovery of artifacts that may be relics of Isaac Edward Liebowitz, the founder of the order to which Brother Gerard belongs, sets off a chain of events culminating in the Sainthood of Liebowitz and in a journey of discovery and heroism for Brother Gerard. While the emphasis is very much on the spiritual life of Gerard and the Order, there is also a focus on history and historiography that plays out like a detective story allowing the reader to identify some of what has happened to the World since the end of the Twentieth Century. The succeeding two sections each bring history forward very slowly, first showing the rise of science and its battles with Christendom in the Thirty-second century, and then portraying the inevitable (or not) repetition of history in the final section, "Fiat Voluntas Tua" (thy will be done).
Cyclic in its portrayal of history, the novel can be frustrating and pessimistic in outlook or positive in its picture of progress, depending on the views of the reader, and his particular religious views. The second section, "Fiat Lux" (let there be light) was the most intriguing and inspirational for this reader as the discovery of the method for producing artificial light by one of the Brothers was portrayed in a manner that echoed the narrative of Henry Adams famous chapter, "The Dynamo and the Virgin", from his magnificent The Education of Henry Adams. While one of the Order of Liebowitz discovers the secret of artificial light it is a secular scientist, Thon Taddeo, who leads the world to further discoveries and represents "a new Renaissance".(p 168)
This is a rich and complex novel that rewards the careful reader (and rereader). One suggestion: The reader may need to dust off his Latin dictionary and perhaps a serious English dictionary also. Interesting both for its characters and the detail imagining of the monastic life it depicts the integration of these in a world recovering from a long sleep. In part it mirrors the actual history of the last two millenia, but the story is not simply one about the repetition of history, but a unique tale that speculates on the nature of man and his place in the universe.

A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Harper Perennial, 1986 (1959)

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