Friday Open Thread ~ "What are you reading?" edition ~ Canticle for Liebowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr served as a radio operator and gunner in the US Army Air Corps during the Second World War. He was involved in the assault on the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, the experience of which later led him to write his classic SF novel A Canticle For Leibowitz. Walter M. Miller Jr died in 2006.
Miller's 1959 novel follows the Monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz as they attempt to preserve the remnants of civilization after a nuclear war.
A timeless story in a mythic dimension
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a book about cycles and violence--about the cost of progress. But it is also about the persistence of humanity's quest for knowledge and endless resilience. Unlike other post-apocalyptic fiction tropes, it is focused on the lives and goings of everyday people, rather than on the setting itself, and is a critical work to study if you want to understand the post-apocalyptic genre better.
From the Great Books podcast:
Scott and Karl discuss A Canticle for Leibowitz, the post-apocalyptic science fiction classic by Walter M. Miller Jr., first published in 1959. Scott says, “It's a story about how fragile civilization is, how fragile knowledge is, and what people’s responsibility to that may or may not be." As the plot goes, the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz work to preserve the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the world is again ready for it after a devastating nuclear war. Divided into three parts, the book spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself, harboring themes on the cyclical nature of technological progress and regress. The separate novellas share a nostalgia for things that have been lost. “Post-Megawar stories are about an afterlife,” Miller writes, “Survivors don’t really live in such a world; they haunt it.”
The most dedicated peace activists you’ve never heard of are headed to federal prison amid a deadly pandemic: More than two years ago, Trotta and Hennessy, two of seven activists known as the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven, peacefully broke into the naval base in Brunswick, Georgia — risking their own lives to protest the suspected nuclear arsenal housed within. Armed only with vials of their own blood, hammers, GoPro cameras, spray paint, protest banners, and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg’s book, the activists symbolically attempted to disarm the nuclear weapons located on the Trident submarines at the base.
Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice's Lenten fast in the desert.
Never before had Brother Francis actually seen a pilgrim with girded loins, but that this one was the bona fide article he was convinced as soon as he had recovered from the spine-chilling effect of the pilgrim's advent on the far horizon, as a wiggling iota of black caught in a shimmering haze of heat. Legless, but wearing a tiny head, the iota materialized out of the mirror glaze on the broken roadway and seemed more to writhe than to walk into view, causing Brother Francis to clutch the crucifix of his rosary and mutter an Ave or two. The iota suggested a tiny apparition spawned by the heat demons who tortured the land at high noon, when any creature capable of motion on the desert (except the buzzards and a few monastic hermits such as Francis) lay motionless in its burrow or hid beneath a rock from the ferocity of the sun. Only a thing monstrous, a thing preternatural, or a thing with addled wits would hike purposefully down the trail at noon this way.
Brother Francis added a hasty prayer to Saint Raul the Cyclopean, patron of the misborn, for protection against the Saint's unhappy protégés. (For who did not then know that there were monsters in the earth in those days? That which was born alive was, by the law of the Church and the law of Nature, suffered to live, and helped to maturity if possible, by those who had begotten it. The law was not always obeyed, but it was obeyed with sufficient frequency to sustaina scattered population of adult monsters, who often chose the remotest of deserted lands for their wanderings, where they prowled by night around the fires of prairie travelers.) But at last the iota squirmed its way out of the heat risers and into clear air, where it manifestly became a distant pilgrim; Brother Francis released the crucifix with a small Amen.
The pilgrim was a spindly old fellow with a staff, a basket hat, a brushy beard, and a waterskin slung over one shoulder. He was chewing and spitting with too much relish to be an apparition, and he seemed too frail and lame to be a successful practitioner of ogreism or highwaymanship. Nevertheless, Francis slunk quietly out of the pilgrim's line of sight and crouched behind a heap of rubbled stone where he could watch without being seen. Encounters between strangers in the desert, while rare, were occasions of mutual suspicion, and marked by initial preparations on both sides for an incident that might prove either cordial or warlike.
Seldom more than thrice annually did any layman or stranger travel the old road that passed the abbey, in spite of the oasis which permitted that abbey's existence and which would have made the monastery a natural inn for wayfarers if the road were not a road from nowhere, leading nowhere, in terms of the modes of travel in those times. Perhaps, in earlier ages, the road had been a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso; south of the abbey it intersected a similar strip of broken stone that stretched east- and westward. The crossing was worn by time, but not by Man, of late.
The pilgrim approached within hailing distance, but the novice stayed behind his mound of rubble. The pilgrim's loins were truly girded with a piece of dirty burlap, his only clothing except for hat and sandals. Doggedly he plodded ahead with a mechanical limp while assisting his crippled leg with the heavy staff. His rhythmic gait was that of a man with a long road behind him and a long way yet to go. But, upon entering the area of the ancient ruins, he broke his stride and paused to reconnoiter.
Francis ducked low.
There was no shade amid the cluster of mounds where a group of age-old buildings once had been, but some of the larger stones could, nevertheless, provide cooling refreshment to select portions of the anatomy for travelers as wise in the way of the desert as the pilgrim soon proved himself to be. He searched briefly for a rock of suitable proportions. Approvingly, Brother Francis noted that he did not grasp the stone and rashly tug, but instead, stood at a safe distance from it and, using his staff as a lever and a smaller rock for a fulcrum, he jostled the weightier one until the inevitable buzzing creature crawled forth from below. Dispassionately the traveler killed the snake with his staff and flipped the still-wriggling carcass aside. Having dispatched the occupant of the cool cranny beneath the stone, the pilgrim availed himself of the cool cranny's ceiling by the usual method of overturning the stone. Thereupon, he pulled up the back of his loincloth, sat with his withered buttocks against the stone's relatively chilly underside, kicked off his sandals, and pressed the soles of his feet against what had been the sandy floor of the cool cranny. Thus refreshed, he wiggled his toes, smiled toothlessly and began to hum a tune. Soon he was singing a kind of crooning chant in a dialect not known to the novice. Weary of crouching, Brother Francis shifted restlessly.
While he sang, the pilgrim unwrapped a biscuit and a bit of cheese. Then his singing paused, and he stood for a moment to cry out softly in the vernacular of the region: "Blest be Adonoi Elohim, King of All, who maketh bread to spring forth from the earth," in a sort of nasal bleat. The bleat being finished, he sat again, and commenced eating.
The wanderer had come a long way indeed, thought Brother Francis, who knew of no adjacent realm governed by a monarch with such an unfamiliar name and such strange pretensions. . . .
NPR Presents, A CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ In 15 Parts
This post-Apocalyptic award-winning tale of Catholic Monks who preserve learning to rise from the Dark Ages when society's survivors blame education and kill anyone having to do with technology and nuclear science in particular, is perhaps the best narrated of all audiobooks with multiple narraters and sound effects.
A monk novice, Brother Frances discoveries a fall-out shelter 600 years old, containing the tooth and skeleton of the wife of the Blessed Liebowitz, the founder of the order who taught his monks to collect books and memorize them and or pass them along AKA Bookleggers.
Blessed Liebowitz had been a nuclear engineer who sought refuge in Holy Mother Church. He is later betrayed by a friend and was martyred.
Hope is carried by the bookleggar monks but the ending is cyclically chilling but hopeful in the stars.
This may be the best-produced audiobook dramatization of a novel in the English language--and if not the best, none excels and few come close. Professionally produced by Karl Schmidt who was an Emeritus Professor at University of Wisconsin.
“What's to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder's been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there's no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is bloodier. Evil, on evil, piled on evil. Was there any justification for what they did—or was there? We only know what that thing says, and that thing is a captive. The Asian radio has to say what will least displease it's government; ours has to say what will least displease our fine patriotic opinionated rabble, which is what, coincidentally, the government wants it to say anyhow, so where's the difference?”
― Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz is a philosophically rich and intricately gorgeous book. What makes this philosophical SciFi novel so compelling is an endearing slate of characters. The Canticle is full of philosophical and theological discussion, yet from beginning to end it is about the characters in the world.A Canticle for Leibowitz isn't a perfect book, but its imperfections can
be valuable. The great deal of Latin shows how our world has grown, but even in the 50s it is meant to be somewhat alienating and gives something that roots the SF world. And, yet, that starts to break down in the third book. The world is becoming unhinged, and the third section shows that dissolution as a way of performing the plot.