Monday, March 21, 2011

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz is famous, Hugo-award-winning, and recently read by me. It takes place in three acts (separated by hundreds of years), all in our future, set after the worldwide failure of a nuclear standoff to stand off: countries bomb other countries to the destruction of all. Postapocalyptic riots of survivors blame the destruction on the educated inventors of the weapons, and so a massive movement attempts to burn all books and knowledge-holders: even literacy is shunned. The titular Leibowitz, a literate survivor, founds a monastic order dedicated to rescuing, hiding, protecting, and copying books in order to preserve knowledge for future generations.

The first act is a few hundred years later, and focuses on the canonization of Leibowitz; the second act features the re-discovery of electricity and nation-sized warfare; the third act completes the cycle by describing the planet's impending mutually assured nuclear destruction (and conflicting press/propaganda reports thereon), even as the monks of Leibowitz's order board a secretly-prepared spaceship to preserve their knowledge and religion in extraterrestrial colonies.

This three-act structure fragmented my enjoyment likewise. As soon as I got really interested in the story, it was abruptly cut short, and then fast-forwarded to a point when everyone misremembered it. This prevented me from ever really caring about the characters, or the society, or the planet, despite the fact that it is supposed to be this planet, the one we all live on, Earth.

The book was decent, but I am not crazy about it. Perhaps it was written for a different genre of people: those who brooded on global nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, or those outside of academia to whom the mysterious workings of science resemble the mysterious workings of God. Simply put, I never believed that the book was our future. It seemed like a thought experiment about humanity's warlike nature, and the structural (and perhaps philosophical) similarities of scholarship and monasticism. Several conversations in the book directly highlight these issues; if I were writing a high school essay, I would focus on those explicit, moralizing, judgemental authorial moments.

One last note: the Wandering Jew appeared variously through this book. He has appeared in other works I enjoy (Cryptonomicon especially), and is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters.

This post's theme word is guidon, "military pennant."
This post written like H. P. Lovecraft.

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