Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This week I'm looking at another older example of science-fiction, and another Hugo Award winner in this case: A Canticle for Leibowitz. This book actually was recommended to me by the same friend who foisted Fitzpatrick's War upon me, and there are some similarities. Both are speculative future histories, although while Fitzpatrick's War covers the lifetime of one character, A Canticle for Leibowitz covers the lives of characters at various points over about twelve hundred years of history. Also Leibowitz is a more traditional narrative and is almost three short stories put together while Fitzpatrick takes a slightly more unique approach. 

A Canticle for Leibowitz (St. Leibowitz, #1)

For me, the book started off really interesting and then started bogging down in the middle and took a really bad turn for the worse at the very end. So my overall impression was mixed. The plot starts off with a typical mid-twentieth century science-fiction plot. Atomic war has finally happened between the superpowers and it's destroyed civilization as we know it. About six hundred years after the great Fire Deluge humanity is scraping by, but is definitely in the middle of a very long, new and terrible Dark Age. Monks of an order founded by the beatified Leibowitz have been recovering lost scraps of knowledge from the previous age of civilization and meticulously copying and protecting them in their monastery in anticipation of a day when they will be able to be used again. Francis, a novice of the order, stumbles across a bundle of papers he believes belonged to the blessed Leibowitz, causing great commotion in the abbey and eventually leading to Leibowitz's full canonization as a saint. 

The thing I really liked about the early part of the book was just the idea of a community of monks, living out in the desert, keeping scraps of knowledge alive through laborious hand written manuscripts. I've never seen an illuminated algebra textbook, but I'm sure they'd be a lot more interesting than the ones I had in school. There's a major plot point around Francis creating an illumination of a blueprint from Leibowitz himself, creating a beautiful copy over the course of years. But Francis doesn't understand the blueprint at all. Without the necessary context he, nor any of the other monks, can fathom it whatsoever, but they dutifully copy it out to preserve it in the hopes some future generation will. I just found the whole concept kind of neat and vaguely like the Adeptus Mechanicus. Although I have the suspicion the Adeptus Mechanicus was partly inspired by this book.

The second portion of the book jumps forward to when technology and learning are starting to come back to the world, and it looks like there will be a start of a Renaissance, and the third portion includes a highly technological society that's managed to send colonies to locations such as Alpha Centauri. I'm lumping these two together because they definitely have a different tone from the first third of the book. While in the first third there's a real reverence for the items they're collecting and copying out, in the second two thirds the monks have developed serious doubts about technology and while unwilling to hide it from the world they definitely question the wisdom of its use. What follows is an argument about whether humanity should have technology to make the world a better place or if humanity should become good enough to be trusted with technology.

The conclusion is resoundingly bitter. Humanity falls once again to its own hubris and uses technology in new and interesting ways to kill itself. Overall it's a really negative view of technology and I just don't like it. Are there problems with technology? Of course. Everything comes with problems. But that doesn't mean we can't use technology to fix problems. If we wait for people to be responsible with technology we'd still be eating meat raw. It just seemed weird to me that it took an anti-technology bent later on and it bothered me.

I was also bothered by at the very end a debate about the role of pain and suffering in the world. I'm not exactly sure how close it is to modern Catholic theology, largely because I left the church years ago so I'm not up to date on it, but there has in the past been this attitude that suffering is good for you, and doing things to relieve certain types of suffering are bad because it removes divinely-ordained suffering. At least, it feels that way. I'm honestly probably mincing the argument but I was really bothered by some of the arguments at the end of the book, about how humanity needs pain and suffering to keep them from becoming monsters, and I felt like it just wasn't well done. So it really decreased my opinion of the book.

I think I would recommend reading the first third of the book because I thought it was pretty interesting and made a good story. The second two thirds kind of get into philosophical and theological arguments and I felt like they didn't work as well once Miller started wandering into those realms. So it's interesting, but it goes to some really dark places and I don't think it was quite well equipped enough to do so. 

- Kalpar

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