Thoughts on A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (W.M. Miller Jr, 1960)

canticle (from the Latin canticulum, a diminutive of canticum, “song”) is a hymn, psalm or other song of praise taken from biblical texts other than the Psalms.

The divide of Church vs State has been around since approximately forty-five seconds after the rise of churches and/or states (whichever came latter), and to this day remains a touchy subject in a realm of touchy subjects. Don’t talk about politics or religion over the dinner table, someone’s parents have echoed throughout time, but Walter M. Miller’s A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ doesn’t so much focus on the aggressive dichotomy so much as it broadens the scope to tell how each shapes the other in turn, and how the results become neither and both. As each side tries to co-opt the discovery of articles relating to Saint Leibowitz (an engineer in the time immediately proceeding the Great Flame Deluge/Third World War of Atomics) Miller looks at the ways that various sociopolitical factions approach information and fact, and tailor it to their own agendas as humanity first crawls out of a new Dark Age to a new technological Renaissance and in doing so reawakens knowledge of destructive power so vast that it threatens to break the cycle of societal/historical recurrence and technological progress/regress to eradicate mankind altogether. Mostly set within the development of the Order of Saint Leibowitz, traditional religion is forefront – much language being derived from the Latin employed by the Roman Catholic Church – though for the most part they are portrayed as more centrist-atheistic and institutionally focussed in practice. Primarily, this is divided into three sections of the book, each a little over a half-millennium apart:

1.  FIAT HOMO (Let There Be Men)
Following the discovery of an old fallout shelter in the Utah desert in the 26th century by a novice monk, a number of relics once belonging to his Order’s founder Leibowitz are exhumed and taken into the Abbey. This time is shortly after what is referred to as The Age Of Simplification – where following the Flame Deluge brought on by Man’s intellect all literacy and intelligence was ruthlessly eradicated by fearful mobs, proudly proclaiming themselves as Simpletons. Somewhat comically, the prized relics amount to little more than part of a schematic blueprint, a shopping list and a crumbling memo pad, but due to the Simplification nobody is able to determine this and the artefacts are dutifully copied and illuminated. At this stage Leibowitz is being considered for canonisation as a Saint by the Church and the sensationalisation that the discovery a large number of relics related to him pertains is actually detrimental to the Order’s wishes to see him canonised, so the novice monk is told to keep his fool mouth shut regarding the events surrounding the discovery (he was led to the site by a wanderer whose identity comes under much speculation) so that the Order’s chances might be preserved. Nonetheless, word-of-mouth and inconsistency of understanding of the relics themselves brings embellishment to the novice monk’s tales, eventually resulting in the canonisation of Saint Leibowitz into the Roman Catholic Church. This is the primary thrust of this segment: the results of proud ignorance, the manipulation and control of information, and how its restriction and unreliability through telling and retelling causes a feedback loop that encourages mysticism, idolatry and deification rather than any truthful understanding of history and the past.

2. FIAT LUX (Let There Be Light)
Centuries later, through a process of oral transmission, “booklegging” (hiding and copying texts) and guarded archival by monks and priests, mankind’s scientific understanding has begun to crawl back into a New Renaissance. Mostly, this centres on the rediscovery of the harnessing of electrical power, deemed miracle by some, devilry by others, and natural development by others still – the conflict between perdition and progress. Settlements have stabilised into cities and politik comes harder into play here as men strive for power, resources and territory, and how greater intellectual capabilities allow for greater reach, opportunity and consequence. A monopoly on knowledge means absolute control, science is manipulated from the hands of the monks and priests that have tended to and preserved it in the interest of greater humanity to be placed in all of mankind’s hands directly, only to be immediately snatched up and repurposed. And once it has what it wants, politics severs itself from faith. Note that I’ve stuck to primarily masculine descriptors so far – there have been no women in the story as of yet, though it is assumed they have been in the background without explicit mention. This is almost certainly a move on the author’s part to identify with Dark Ages transference of information with its intrinsic links to the scholars of the ancient Roman Catholic Church who pieced together the scriptures of their various orders from embellished fragments of earlier, impermanent tellings into a single cohesive doctrine, and whom being largely comprised of males kept details and illuminations gendered towards those most likely to need to interpret and pass the knowledge on: other educated men within the Church.

3. FIAT VOLUNTAS TUA (Let Thy Will Be Done)
Centuries on now back to a time similar to before the novel began, with two superpowers embroiled in a nuclear Cold War of half a century. Rumours and suspicions of each side assembling nuclear weapons on orbit above the planet have tensions plucked, and the Order of Saint Leibowitz has expanded the scope of preserving a few memorabilia to preserving and recording all of humanity’s collective knowledge in the likely event of the next Flame Deluge. Incidents of fallout have given degrees of radiation sickness to vast swathes of the population and much of this final part surrounds the stubborn refusal of the Order’s Abbott to issue the permission/blessing of the church for doctors and medical personnel to administer euthanasia to alleviate the tortured existence of those most afflicted, nor to condone the practice of suicide that is becoming prevalent in the face of agony and horror. For all the scientific advancement that they themselves fought to hard to preserve and re-cultivate, the Church is still unable to allow it to be applied to end pain humanely – arguing instead that it is God’s will that Man suffer the hardships so that he might secure his worthiness of transcendence. This part is the most analogous to the contemporary society that Miller existed in, and by extension it still applies to broader global issues today. Animals adapt to their environments, but intelligent animals shape their environments to suit them and in doing so create a ripple in evolutionary adaptive patterns, resulting in homogenisation and biological stagnation – the humans within the original  Simplification become mutants both from generational radiation damage and a rediscovered ned to adapt to their environs rather than to shape it to their whims with intellect. So closes the novel as a small microcosm of ocean creatures are affected and in turn effect their ecologies in the fallout of the final Deluge.

Definitely a thematic shift from the more futurist fare I’ve been running off lately, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is one of those science-fiction novels that is so far removed from the usual space-faring explorations of the nature of man that one could be excused for not considering it “sci-fi” per se, but like the very best of a genre it subverts classification entirely and tells as much about the past and the present as it speculates about the future. It’s never been out of print and there are some awesome covers out there as well, so if you’re interested to feel how something like the Bible came to be the patchwork that it is and just how easily perverted the truth is, give it a whirl.

Next up I’m back to interstellar tropes again with #25: THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE.

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One response to “Thoughts on A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (W.M. Miller Jr, 1960)

  1. Pingback: Cycles of Time & Civilisation – “THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE” (Niven & Pournelle, 1974) | thomasscotthollandscottthomas·

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