Friday Open Thread ~ "What are you reading?" edition ~ Canticle for Liebowitz

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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.

Chapter One

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.

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enjoyed reading that story many moons ago
the strange old man wandering the desert
was my favorite character
crazy like a fox

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Lookout's picture

Also read the sequel St Leibowitz and the wild horse woman.

Dystopian novels seem to be appropriate in these times.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Shahryar's picture

@Lookout

I took it out of the library a few months ago...no, it had to be longer than that because of covid...so maybe early 2020. But I had too many books out and never got around to reading it.

what did you think of it? Worth the time? I can't get it out now until late December because the library is shut down again.

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Lookout's picture

@Shahryar

it wasn't as good as the Canticle.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

enhydra lutris's picture

which takes me waay back. It was odd growing up with the constant knowledge tht nuclear armeggadon was right around the corner, any second of any day. One alternated between viewing such works as moralizing "dystopian" myths and as prophetic works that, given human history, were at least highly probable of coming true.

That's a ton of listening, just thinking about it is intimidating. How to allocate or block out the time is going to be an issue I suspect. Perhaps something for the next road trip.

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

, early-mid 60s, this book insinuated some truly subversive thinking in the cloak of orthodoxy. I mean, nuns were teaching demonic possession with all the stuff in the later movie. Coeval with "Turn, Turn, Turn" and all that jingle-jangle. Turn, turn, turn, indeed.

I recently saw it in the "literature" section of the library, not the sf section which was full of trash, because sf is trash, right?

OT: I liked the Latin mass better. As a friend said many years later, "the sunday morning magic show".

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If I'm wrong, it's the first time I'm happy to be confused. -Don Van Vliet

magiamma's picture

Thanks for the listening list. Berkley’s own Phillip K Dick comes to mind. Some parts are too close for comfort. Will share the link.

Take good care everyone and be safe.

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snoopydawg's picture

Here is an interesting story about 2 men who flew patrol in the San Fran area during the war looking for Japanese submarines.

In 1942, a war blimp fell out of the sky onto Daly City. Its crew was never found

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For 78 years, many have tried to answer a simple question about the "ghost blimp" that fell out of the San Francisco sky: What happened to the crew?

At first, people didn’t notice anything wrong with L-8. The Navy blimp made regular flights over and around San Francisco. It was Aug. 16, 1942, and Japanese submarines had been seen prowling the waters off the coast. L-8 was a reminder that war was here, but also a reassurance that the Bay Area was being looked after.

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“Restoring the soul of this nation” is just MAGA with more words

Twitter is like a game of telephone

Dawn's Meta's picture

The old guy in sandals is Christ??? Just re-read about three months ago. It is good. A tweedy, leather-elbow patched teacher of English lit, Walter Poeping, introduced us to this book. It has stuck with me many decades. Thank you for featuring it.

Went to Wiki and read up on the WWII air and artillery assaults on Monte Cassino. What a mess that was. Didn't know about the connection to the author.

We read Norton's Anthology of English Literature as well. He wouldn't allow us to take notes in notebooks. We underlined, marked and noted in the books. I still have them. As he predicted we would remember every comment when we saw our own writing in the books from his lectures. I do.

A Canticle for Liebowitz is truly a classic novel. I was surprised to find I enjoyed it this go round. Different times, and a lot of experiences and reading later, it holds up and reads as if new.

Thank you.

I want to add that I have read Steven D's book 'My Travels with a Dead Man'. If it comes up, would like to ruminate about it. Thanks Steven.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

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lotlizard's picture

@Dawn's Meta

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Dawn's Meta's picture

@lotlizard reading, triggered the Christ thinking. Of course I can't find it now. No longer marking in books. Thanks for your thoughts.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

Consider helping by donating using the button in the upper left hand corner. Thank you.

@Dawn's Meta

We underlined, marked and noted in the books
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I've seen lots of changes. What doesn't change is people. Same old hairless apes.

Dawn's Meta's picture

@The Voice In the Wilderness rules. Mr. Meta has the same response. We were all brought up with books are sacred. It really did work. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and onward. They are indelible to me.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

Consider helping by donating using the button in the upper left hand corner. Thank you.

lotlizard's picture

after a friend — who grew up here when it was still East Germany — passed from this earth.

Making an entry into a FileMaker Pro database for each volume (mostly paperbacks). There are hundreds of books. So far I’m up to 87 catalog entries.

I think of using the card catalog, a large array of small, deep wooden drawers, at the old Library of Hawaii in Honolulu when I was a child. Breathing in its unique scent. Kind of like incense in church.

I try to sort things so there will be a whole box containing only science fiction. Didn’t know anything about the SF author Iain Banks. I move stuff around so that all the books by him are in that box.

Later, a web search reveals that, even though the German publisher displays the words “Science Fiction” on the back cover, several of the Iain Banks novels I put in the SF box are in fact not science fiction.

I see that one of the books in the latter category, Die Wespenfabrik / The Wasp Factory, has been called, by a reviewer for The Irish Times, a work of “unparalleled depravity.”

Shudder.

Sigh.

On Wednesday I learn that that friend’s father, who was over 90 and lives only a few blocks away from here, has also passed away.

So it goes.

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gendjinn's picture

@lotlizard Got to hang out with him a few times after. He wouldn't call himself a socialist per se, because he was much further down the anarcho-syndicalist path. Ken MacLeod and Charles Stross were fellow travelers, both in SF and politics. It was Ken that suggested the re-order of Use of Weapons chapters. I just wish Iain and spent some more time honing the wording, but he was a bit of a lazy bugger and only worked two months a year to produce a novel. Still and all, a true gent, a great wit and his impressions of Terry Pratchett were accurate and hysterical. As were Terry's of him.

The Wasp Factory was what got him published, out of the day job as a legal assistant in London. It doesn't represent his writing, and the over reaction in the media at the time is akin to the over reaction to Reservoir Dogs. Besides, the publishers actively played up the depravity angle to get it sold. It's not my favourite but it is a good novel.

Of his straight fiction I'd unreservedly recommend Walking on Glass, The Bridge and Espedair Street in that order. The Crow Road and Complicity are my next favs. Of his SF Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Against a Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn are some of the best of 20th century SF.

He went through a bit of a dark period and his writing suffered, he did recover and while others vehemently disagree, I do not think he recovered his former level. If you read Complicity I would say he was both protagonists, he had his demons.

Iain passed away in 2013, if you look at the last battle scene of Monty Python's The Holy Grail you can see him as an extra during his undergrad days.

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lotlizard's picture

@gendjinn  
— in German translation — except for three: Espedair Street, Use of Weapons, and Excession.

Unless, of course, they are lurking in one of the boxes I haven’t gotten to yet.

It’s really cool that you got to meet and hang out a bit with Mr. Banks in person.

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Situational Lefty's picture

by Eduardo Galeano

A classic I wasn't aware of until I came across it at the book store a couple weeks ago.

It's kind of dry, but very enlightening about the history of the exploitation of Latin America under capitalist imperialism in the age of Columbus.

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"The enemy is anybody who is going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on." Yossarian