A Canticle for Leibowitz: Reaction, Part I.

This is not a review blog. But it is a blog where I intend to give some thoughts on things I read. I intended the below to be a short preface to some thoughts inspired by a book, but it turned into a rather longer review. I’ll eventually write the actual thoughts as a Part II to this.

The below contains a few spoilers for the book, but I’ve endeavoured to write for people who haven’t read the book yet. If you like your books pristine, don’t read this. If you don’t mind reading the back cover of your novels before you start them, the levels of spoilers here shouldn’t prove a problem.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is an unusual book. On first perusal, it appears to be that rare creation: a Catholic science fiction novel. Catholicism is not unusual among genre novelists: Tolkien in Fantasy and Wolfe in Science Fiction (or is it Fantasy again?) are both devout Catholics. Indeed, Catholicism plays a major role in both their work: in Tolkien, mostly through analogy, seen in undisguised form only in his private notes and letters (his comparisons between the Valar and the angels, his agonised deliberations over the theological ramifications of, and his ultimate rejection for Catholic reasons of “an evil species”, the orcs); in Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, Catholicism intermingles with Borges and Kabbalah to form the intellectual and thematic heart of the work. But Leibowitz is Catholic in an altogether different way – one might almost call it not only Catholic science fiction but Catholic Science Fiction. It’s characters are Catholic, its setting is Catholic, and most of the book is devoted to discussions of Catholic theology.

This probably isn’t selling it very well. It’s undeniably true that Leibowitz is an unpopular thing in today’s world, an “ideas novel” that seems more suited to sit alongside Dostoevsky than on a modern genre shelf. Yet just as Dostoevsky survives, so too should Leibowitz survive – a book that will not attract too many readers, but a book that will gain a place in the hearts of many of those who do read it. And there are three reasons for this: a strain of light humour on dark topics, excellent prose and characterisation, and the fact that on further reflection it is not entirely Catholic after all. It’s unfashionable to look at the author for clues about the book, but in this case the influences are clear: Walter Miller, an atheist, helped destroy the monastery at Monte Cassino, converted to Catholicism at the age of 25, lived briefly with a former Marxist-Zionist Jew, wrestled with his faith and his devotion for the rest of his life, became a recluse, turned to bitterness against his religion, and finally killed himself in 1997. His novel is set in a Catholic monastery, a religious setting interrupted at intervals by a reclusive Jew, and is preoccupied with issues of responsibility, and in particular with suicide. It would be wrong to link Miller’s eventual rejection of Catholicism too closely to a work composed four decades earlier – but perhaps it should prepare us for a novel that does not merely lecture at us in a Catholic tone, but that is eager to debate with us on Catholic issues. It is never in doubt that the various monks and abbots of the novel have powerful positions, and that their opponent’s views and actions are far from unimpeachable; but it is also often unclear whether the monks are wholly correct. The book therefore fulfils the first requirement of a successful ‘ideas novel’ – it ruminates rather than rants.

Leibowitz is so full of ideas, both explicitly in argument and implicitly in themes and events, that one could talk for days about it without coming to any conclusion. I do indeed intend to discuss a few of the themes later, for those who are interested (and who have not read the book, or who do not mind being spoiled). First, however, there is a more basic question: how good is it?

Leibowitz was not conceived originally as a novel – its material was written as three independent novellas, later modified for combination into a single novel. This tripartite structure is at once a flaw and a strength. On the one hand, the story likely could not have been composed at all without it – both due to the massive scope of the tale and due to the author’s own limitations (a prolific short story writer, Miller never finished another novel, and the posthumously-completed sequel to this book, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, is by all accounts a far inferior work). On the other hand, the three distinct sections, almost totally disjoined in both characters and (primary) themes, are jarring, and damage the integrity of the work. In particular, the end of the first section struck me unprepared, and quite deterred me. In the event, I read the entire novel in one day, because I was travelling and had little else to do – but between the long passages of theological and ethical debate and the brick walls of the two section ends, I can easily see why many people would put down this book at some point and not return to it.

The three sections are named, respectively, Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, and Fiat Voluntia Tua, and each examines in turn three time-periods following a nuclear apocalypse, roughly corresponding to the historical Dark Ages, Renaissance, and Modernity, as seen through the eyes of the monks of the Leibowitzian Order of St Albert – an order devoted to maintaining the few shreds of knowledge that have been passed down from the pre-Apocalyptic world (our 1960’s), at their remote abbey in the wilds of Utah. In the first section, the founder of the order, the Blessed Leibowitz, is coming close to being declared a saint when a young novice, Francis Gerard, discovers a cache of holy relics, with the aid of a mysterious passing stranger. He is elated by the find – blueprints and shopping lists and a skull with a golden tooth – but his Abbot is not so sanguine: will the discovery be seen as too serendipitous, as convenient enough to discredit the order in their quest to have their founder canonised? As events unfold, we see Francis’ life in the monastery, and piece together an understanding of the events that led to the current mutant-infested age of illiteracy and chaos. Some time later, in the second section, as powerful states arise nearby and education is at last available outside the church, we follow an abbot, Dom Paulo, as he welcomes an unusual visitor: the most famous scholar in the world, come to study their holy Memorabilia for clues to advance his own scientific knowledge. Yet the scholar is linked by marriage to a powerful ruler whose plans for pan-American domination bring him into conflict with the new Papacy. Finally, in the third section, we relive the expectant terror of the Cold War as a new civilisation, with nuclear arms and interstellar ambitions, prepares to annihilate itself; the abbot of the monastery, now on the outskirts of a major city, battles with humanitarian doctors on the issue of euthanasia, his battle to save the life of a despairing young Catholic widow and her baby mirroring the global battle to save mankind from fear and despair, while the Papacy concocts a plan to save the knowledge of the age for a future generation.

Personally, I found the first section the weakest of the three, and the second the strongest; a perusal of views on the internet shows me that every possible order exists in some person’s opinion, so I can only conclude that preferences here are strictly a matter of taste. Certainly Fiat Homo comes closest to a conventional story, with a clear objective for the plot to head to, and it also has the strongest vein of humour of the three. The second and third sections are more concerned with ideas – Fiat Lux is a leisurely sort of vignette, with strong characters and numerous interludes, while Fiat Voluntia Tua is tenser, tauter, as the doomsday clock ticks down very close to midnight, though the problems discussed seem the most intractable of the entire novel.

Do not read this book for excitement – though certainly tense at times, particularly in the third section, it is far from barn-storming. Do not read it for laughs, either – though it is certainly funny in places, it is not a funny book, and its humour is strictly the sugar to make the rest of the book go down. Numerous reviews and synopses, including the back of my copy, focus on the absurdity of the naïve priest discovering The Sacred Shopping List – but though the book does not shy away from observing absurdity, it does not take that absurdity to be a refutation, as many satires do. Leibowitz is not a satire – it is simply a book that deals with a subject so dark and absurd that some amount of satire is essential for the sanity of both author and reader.

However, do not turn away from the book because you aren’t looking for a book about the Cold War. There were a great many books written once upon a time about the impending nuclear holocaust, and most of them now longer feel relevant. Leibowitz transcends its moment by not treating the Apocalypse as an event that happens to the world, but as an integral part of man’s history in his pessimistically cyclical view of the world, something that lies both behind and ahead. Because the first two sections deal with a distant future that for all purposes is located in our own distant past (and in particular Fiat Homo, for all that it is set in the far future, is one of the best depictions of the world of our dark ages that I have seen), it does not matter that the third section is set in a world that would have seemed current or futuristic to Miller but that now seems a tad passé to us – it is simply another time that we have passed by, and another time that is, if we believe Miller, waiting for us. It is worth noting that Miller’s fatalism is not as naively pessimistic as that of many other writers of such fiction – while it is true that he (appears to) set his first “Flame Deluge” in our 1960s, shortly after the development of nuclear weapons, the crisis that we see in Fiat Voluntia Tua is explicitly not the first such crisis of that age. The people of that time develop nukes, and back away from using them long enough to get out into space. But the serpent, once born, is undying – the people of FVT refer to the nuclear threat as “Lucifer”, an obvious enough code, but one that to us should suggest the image of the ultimate weapon as a sort of serpent in our Eden, that whispers to us whenever things get bad. No matter how many times we fight off the temptation, we only have to give in once – and so where other authors look naïve, Miller continues to act as a warning, saying to us “you’ve survived it this time, but it’s still there – don’t get too complacent”.

[This topic, incidentally, illustrates the paradoxes at the heart of Leibowitz. Lucifer, the Bomb, is a serpent like the serpent of suicide that whispers to the young widow, and Miller seems to consider nuclear holocaust as a sort of suicide of humanity. But the serpent in the Bible implores us to eat from the Tree of Knowledge – and such images are frequent in the second section, Fiat Lux. The metaphor is reinforced by the choice of ‘Lucifer’ rather than ‘Satan’ or any other name – Lucifer is the Bringer of Light, which makes Fiat Lux the story of the triumph of the Devil. The quest for knowledge brings us to destruction, a common theme in both FL and FVT – not a rare suggestion in SF from this age, but here made more psychological, in accordance with the Platonism that underlies Catholicism. And that reduction, that move away from the contingencies of science to the underlying essence, brings us a radical idea: the quest for knowledge is in essence the desire for suicide. But Lucifer is not the only bringer of light: ‘fiat lux’ is a quotation from God, just as the electrical light of the story is created not by the scholar but by the monk – and the preservation of Knowledge is the very purpose of the Leibowitzian Order, while the parlous state of the world in FH is as much due to the anti-intellectual destruction of knowledge as to the knowledge-driven apocalypse that preceded it. This conflict between knowledge as death and knowledge as life is one of the central paradoxes of the novel, and in particular of Fiat Lux.]

The book does have its flaws, and not only the scene breaks mentioned above. Once or twice it seems to stack the deck in favour of its heroes – in particular, Pfardentrott’s new theory of history in FL is introduced with far too little justification, which makes Dom Paulo’s response too easy to really be effective. It may well be claimed that Miller is too enamoured of our own history, and makes his future too closely resemble our past, even in details. It seems as though the only religion to have survived the Flame Deluge is Catholicism, though certainly others arise later – while it’s reasonable to assume that Catholicism is at an advantage (through education, monasticism, and a strong organisational structure that has dragged it through bad times before), it seems strained to imagine that no other religion at all has made it, at least in North America. Not impossible, to be sure – but a strain. And of course like many novels that are filled with both intellectual debate and deep symbolism, there are moments when Leibowitz moves beyond taxing and into bewildering, in particular in the cases of the outsider-characters, Lazarus and Rachel. If you don’t like not being able to work out what something is meant to represent, you might find this infuriating from time to time. Likewise if you don’t like your novels to force you, at gunpoint, to think about the nature of science, or about euthanasia.

I didn’t find these obstacles. The bewildering moments are small enough that I can cope with them; indeed, they added to the book. In a book you do not trust, the incomprehensible is suspect. In a book you trust, the incomprehensible is reassuring, a sign that things are more than superficial. (Hence my reference to Wolfe above). And I found the ethics fascinating. In particular, I’m from a Catholic background but am more attracted to hedonism of the Epicurean variety – so when a book is shown from the point of view of Catholics who mostly believe that hedonism is Satan incarnate, I’m inclined to listen. In the end, I think that both Catholicism and Hedonism stagger out of this book badly bloodied.

Finally, however, a cry for tolerance: despite any appearance to the contrary, Leibowitz is not a ‘difficult’ book. It’s a book that everyone can get something out of – especially in FH, and to a lesser extent in FL. It is very, very well written. Characters are believable and sympathetic – moreover, even the intellectual antagonists of the two later sections, Pfardentrott and Cors, are portrayed sympathetically and understandably. A good thing, as I imagine most readers will instinctively side with them over the monks. The accounts of painful illness in FL are, in particular, deeply affecting, as is the desperation of the main character in FVT. It’s very far from being a dry book.

I think that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great book – mostly because several weeks after reading it it’s still haunting. I sat down and tried to make a list of things in it that I’d like to make a few comments on – and quickly found that I was running out of electrons, and that the longer I thought the more quickly I thought of more things that I wanted to talk about. When the book ends, it seems to end fully and completely, and so it can be swallowed like a pearl – but on digestion it opens up an unending array of petals.

It is not, however, one of the greatest books. I put this down, again, to its structure. Though the characters are painted vividly, none are in the book long enough to really engage with fully – and the intellectual ruminations further distance us from the people and events. Both of these, alas, are inalienable parts of the book – it sacrifices its chance at glory in order to attempt something perhaps less powerful, but in a way just as valuable due to its rarity. And so my reaction is to have it rolling around in the back of my head, stinging me occasionally – while the greatest books have the power to reduce me to my knees. It is not without emotion, to be sure – it is more affecting than most books you will read – but it is not as affecting as the best books of all.

I was going to leave this here (actually, I was going to cut away to some ruminations of my own, but I’ll leave those to Part Two), but while I’m here perhaps I ought to actually have some sort of rating system for things I review. So, my system (first draft):

–         there shall be ratings on the basis of Adrenaline, Emotion, Thought, Beauty, Craft, Endearingness, and Originality; and finally an overall score.

–         Adrenaline shall indicate how page-turning it is

–         Emotion shall indicate how much affective impact it has

–         Thought shall indicate how thought-provoking it is, and how coherent its ideas

–         Beauty shall indicate the strength of the aesthetic response I have to it

–         Craft shall indicate how admirable its construction is – the lack of plot-holes, the convincingness of details, the disguise on plot twists, and so forth

–         Endearingness recognises the fact that two books otherwise equal can differ in how likeable they are. This is mostly here as my ‘guilty pleasures’ excuse for books that are heartwarming or silly or funny or otherwise… endearing.

–         Originality shall indicate how ingenious and unique it appears to me, and how hard it would have been for me to have thought of the same ideas

–         Overall will not be calculated from the other scores, but me my own independent valuation. The other scores will be there to indicate the reasons for the final score, not to produce it.

Overall scores out of seven: physically painful, bad, bad with some redeeming features, not bad really, good, great, and incredible.

Individual scores will only be out of five, since they are more indicative.

So, Leibowitz:

Adrenaline: 3/5. Large parts happen without excitement, but there are real moments of tension, too. So average.

Emotion: 3/5. Some affective sections, particularly in the third part, but that’s not really the point of it.

Thought: 5/5. Packed with food for the brain. This isn’t meant to indicate perfection, though – these are very broad scores. This is more “can’t expect more”, not “no book can offer more”.

Beauty: 4/5. Some beautiful bits of prose, some beautiful images, but overall too fussy to be stunning.

Craft: 4/5. As I say, there are structural flaws and occasional missteps, but by and large the quality of both vision and prose is distinctly above average.

Endearingness: 3/5. Too much death and ignorance and despair to be a real book to cuddle up to, but the humour is touching, particularly in the first section, so I can’t mark it down on that.

Originality: 4/5. It is  a Cold War “We’re All Going To Die Isn’t It Terrible” novel. But it does also go beyond that, and its consideration of religion is nuanced and detailed enough to make it a book you’re unlikely to find a twin of.

Overall: 6/7. As I say, perhaps it is a tad too cold, a touch too stilted, to really be one of the uppermost echelon of books. But I’ve no doubt that this sits on the rung just below that tier. This is a better book than most good books, and one not forgotten quickly. It certainly deserves to be considered one of the greatest Science Fiction works of all time.

NB. Further, and more spoilerific, thoughts on the book can be found in Part Two, HERE.


6 thoughts on “A Canticle for Leibowitz: Reaction, Part I.

  1. Being something of a sucker for both post-apocalyptic fiction and theological/ethical debate (I remain convinced that I’m the only person in the UK who remembers “The Last Train” at all, let alone fondly), I have to say that “A Canticle for Leibowitz” has been on my “to read” list for quite a while now. Your reaction to the book has definitely moved it a couple of notches up the list now. A question: aside from the Major Issues of euthanasia, the impending apocalypse etc, what would you say are the key issues that the book raises?

  2. jstrocel says:

    I read “A Canticle For Liebowitz” two years ago and I loved it! It was so refreshing to see SF wrestle with religion as an actual concept rather than dismissing it as a neurosis of a bygone age. I wrote my own review, if you’d like to take a look.

  3. vacuouswastrel says:

    Hey Dew. Flattering to see you over here.

    The other Major Issue (in the sense of being a plot point) is the whole science vs religion thing, particularly in the second section, and whether scientific progress is good. Scientific progress is shown to not only lead to bloodshed but to spring from bloodshed and walk hand-in-hand with bloodshed – the rennaissance only occurs with the establishment of large states, which, though spreading order, are also tyrannical. Yet at the same time not only does the Order preserve scientific knowledge, it’s also a haven for early scientific experiments – as was the case in our history. So should the monks have reservations about sharing knowledge with dictatorial rulers who will lead Earth back to destruction – or, as the scholar says, should is this just demanding that people be wise before sharing wisdom with them? If so, what’s the point of protecting knowledge they do not want shared?

    The underlying issues, though, seem to me to be threefold: hope vs despair, the nature of the meaning of life, and responsibility. The book is littered with examples of futility, most obviously the fear that not only is the nuclear holocaust inevitable, but it is inevitable again and again in a dark cycle of history, just as individuals are all going to die, and there are frequent references to buzzards, who think that humanity (and everything else) exists to feed them. Does this recurrence of failure mean that mistakes are made along the way, or can we do exactly the right thing and still end up in the wrong place? And does all this make our lives meaningless and barren, or can we find some sort of meaning nonetheless – and will we be deluding ourselves if we do?

    It seems as though nihilism, hedonism, an abdication of all responsibility, and despair are all grouped together, and associated with modern and secular society. This would be preachy, but as I say it’s not clear that the Catholic viewpoints are entirely right in the book. In particular, there’s the troubling figure of the Jew in the second section who seems to view the monks in the same way as the monks view the rest of the world – just as they accuse the rest of the world of rejecting responsibility by their lack of a belief in any being higher than themselves, the Jew seems to see them as rejecting responsibility by passing it all up to Jesus. Are the monks just deluding themselves to avoid the burdens of responsibility?

    I think one of the aggravating (in a good way) things about this book is that there’s lots of issues that just seem to be out of reach of expressing them, and that all feel as though somehow they connect together simply, but in a way I can’t quite see.

    I will say, though, that a lot of the book is strangely Nietzschean – Nietzsche, of course, was no fan of Catholicism, but a lot of the Catholic positions in the book seem to share a sensibility with Nietzsche. As though they both saw the same problems, and addressed them in different ways, while the rest of us didn’t see the problems at all.

    For myself, though, the biggest issue is religion, or the religious viewpoint, by which I mean really just a viewpoint that isn’t a modern one. And that isn’t, as some modern religious accounts seem now, the modern secular belief system with a god stuck in it. As someone who finds religion something fascinating (mostly because of its power to challenge other beliefs, including mine), to find, as jstrocel says, a book, and a SF book at that, that actually deals with religion seriously, that doesn’t just view it as superstition, that really challenges unbelievers, was immensely refreshing – while at the same time it doesn’t just wave a wand to make religion ‘right’.

    In particular, I think jstrocel has an extremely good point about easiness. Atheist critics of religion often characterise religion as something nice, an easy way out, something that is all about being easy. They challenge the religious to face up to the harsh realities of the real world. And often the religious live up to the insult – many preachers do seem to offer religion as a pain-killer.
    But in aCfL, this is reversed. Here, it is the Catholics who accuse the Hedonists of not facing up to harsh realities. At one point one of them thinks that the whole tragedy of human history is the result of people being desperate to avoid pain: the religion in this book is all about pain and suffering – and hope.

    jstrocel: thanks for the link – I think your comments are exactly right.

  4. […] April 7, 2009 at 9:07 pm (Ramblings, Reviews) Tags: Analysis, Catholicism, compassion, Consequentialism, Empathy, Epicurus, Ethics, Faith, Fantasy, Hedonism, Hope, Leibowitz, Love, Religion, Responsibility, Reviews, Science Fiction, Self-preservation, Sympathy, Utilitarianism, Walter M. Miller Jr Well, here we are at last. The second part of https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/a-canticle-for-leibowitz-reaction-part-i/. […]

  5. […] A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (further thoughts HERE) […]

  6. […] A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, […]

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