Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Fiat Lux

Continuing in a science-fictiony vein, I just finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. I've seen the book on various lists for most of my life, and was vaguely aware that it was science fiction but knew nothing about it. It turned out to be a really good read: engaging and thoughtful, with some real concerns that speak to the darkness of our times without wallowing in it.


The book starts off roughly 600 years in the future, after a global thermonuclear war has destroyed virtually all of civilization. It's focused on one tiny pocket of society left, a monastery in the desert of former American Southwest. While Rome was destroyed in the war, the Catholic Church was not, and, much like during the Dark Ages, the monks have helped preserve the knowledge of a former era.

The dated technology of this book is unintentionally fascinating. The monks pore over the secrets of carbon copies and blueprints. For Walter Miller, these are "modern" and top-of-the-line tech. From our perspective in 2020, though, they are incredibly ephemeral: they just existed for a couple of decades between older and newer technology. While that does date the novel, I think it actually serves to underline some of its big themes: the relationship between the medium and the message, the fragility of recorded knowledge, how strange our cultural assumptions seem outside of our current context.

The overall concept of monks + science is really cool and compelling; the book most recently came back on my radar after reading a comparison of this book to Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which envisions a  secular monastery with a somewhat similar focus. The novel strikes a really nice balance of the personal and the political, with detailed looks into the lived experiences of individual characters, then telescoping out from that to show the broader landscape in which they live. You really viscerally feel Francis's ordeals in the desert, the heat and the thirst and the cracked lips and desperate hunger. And you gradually realize that this desert is about as good as it gets in the 2500s: at least he isn't being chased by mutants or completely starving to death.


But it gets even cooler when it telescopes out again, not just in space but also in time. We've been progressing day by day and year by year through Francis's life, seeing him grow up and start feeling the aches of middle age. And then we abruptly jump another 600 years into the future: a new world, but one that grew directly out of the old one. I found this incredibly powerful; the laser-like focus on Francis makes us keenly feel his passing, and also abruptly shifts perspective, simultaneously showing how important and how unimportant he was in the grand scheme. You can see the huge arc of history, which is created by humans and which they don't see in their own lifetimes.

I've only encountered similar time-skips a few other times. Neal Stephenson is a great example; not in Anathem, but Seveneves did something very similar. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut gets a similar awe-inspiring sense of scale, though his actual narrative is mostly rooted in the present.

The jump in time does a lot of things, but one is highlighting what is important and what isn't. In the first section of the book, Brother Jeris gains status and influence by making the abbey's scriptorum more efficient, cutting back on the time for art projects and instead directing the monks to craft lamp shades that can be sold to benefit the monastery. In contrast, Brother Fingo "wastes" his time with a woodcarving of the (not-yet-sainted) Leibowitz, which all the other brothers find odd and a little unsettling. But, 600 years in the future, we see all the generations of faithful who have loved Fingo's icon, drawing solace and meaning and inspiration from it. Brother Jeris's lampshades are completely forgotten. It's nice to get another perspective on what lasts, what matters: Nobody remembers the name of either brother, but one of their works lives on in the lives of others.

The second section of the book sees civilization starting to rebuild, and it's not a pretty sight: cruel and ruthless warlords create security and order, spreading civilization and terror at the same time. The monks have long labored to protect the "Memorabilia", the collection of all written records from the 20th century that they were able to rescue from the Simplification. Now, their dream is at last close to fruition as a university is started and natural scientists are re-discovering principles of math and science; but those scientists are openly hostile towards not only their faith, but even concepts of humility and peace and mercy. A well-reasoned fear begins to seep in, that mankind has learned nothing from its mistakes and is missing an opportunity to rebuild itself on more humane lines.

I absolutely loved the first two sections of the book. The third section was fine. It's set another 600 years in the future, in the 3100s, as humanity has finally built itself back up to where it was in Miller's lifetime: Radio communication, nation-states, press conferences, highways and automobiles. It's even gone a little further, with self-driving cars, colony space ships. Oh, and it also has nuclear power. Again.

Throughout the book, I was mildly curious if Walter Miller was a Catholic or not. He's definitely knowledgeable about the church and generally portrays the monks and hierachy sympathetically, though fortunately not universally so. But lots of other authors, like Stephenson and Cather, are knowledgeable and sympathetic when writing about religion without personally being believers. By the end of the third section, I became pretty convinced that he is Catholic, mostly due to what felt like an interminably long sub-plot where Abbot Zerchi debates with Doctor Cors over euthanasia for people dying of terminal radiation poisoning. I strongly favor Cors' perspective and found these exchanges grating, but I did like how the Green Star doctor was presented: he isn't just a straw man for us to hate or who puts forward flawed arguments, but a thoughtful, likeable and very well-intentioned secular humanist who's just coming at this from a completely different angle.

Looking back over the twelve centuries of history in the book, it's interesting to see how the focus of the monastery has shifted over time. It starts out primarily worried about preserving knowledge; interestingly, though, it isn't a pure-minded mission, and the Abbot is already very political, more worried about how revelations will play out with New Rome than what they mean in themselves. Later, that focus on preserving knowledge shifts towards propagating knowledge. And in the end, the knowledge no longer seems relevant: their original mission fulfilled, the Abbot is mostly focused on what feel like more spiritual concerns. (Though spiritual concerns that are very rooted in the acts of flesh!) This progression makes me think of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A world with more comfort and stability has the capacity to focus on more abstract and emotional systems.

But, the irony is that the civilized world actually has less stability, because its capacity for destruction is so much greater. Earlier generations of monks worried about barbaric tribes of mutants wiping out civilization; now they need to worry about civilization wiping out all life on planet Earth.

And so, they have to go beyond Earth. It's a somber and evocative thought. They are sending people into space, to avoid the physical destruction on earth, but that really isn't the point. They are sending along the Memorabilia, which may help provide a future lifeline for restarting civilization if the worst happens. And they are seeding a new Church: This is the part that struck me (a non-Catholic) as particularly stunning and ambitious, but the intent seems to be to establish a new Patriarchate. Three bishops, with the authority to name a new Cardinal, who can continue the lineage of the Catholic Church in outer space if all the hierarchy on Earth die in armageddon.

For me as a Protestant, it seems overly complex and convoluted: "Just read your bibles and pray! God's out in space, too." But it is impressive to think of this single organization lasting for four thousand years and continuing within the stars.


Like a lot of people, I've been wondering what value post-apocalyptic fiction has in our world today. We're living in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, here in California I've been breathing in smoke from endless wildfires for the last two months, a reality TV show host is the President, the Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing, the bees are dying... with all the disasters we're facing in the real world, do these nightmarish scenarios offer an escape, or a call to action?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is particularly interesting in that regard because its post-apocalyptic scenario is one that's mostly receded from our concern: written in the 50s, it saw doomsday coming from ICBMs, not climate change or plague. Personally, that makes it a little easier for me to stomach, since at least it's a different disaster than the ones in my newsfeed.

Each apocalypse is different, but they're all bad, and we'll face many of the same challenges when we come out the other side, if we do come out the other side. What to hold on to from our past that's worth keeping. How to rebuild. And, if we're very lucky, how to avoid the mistakes that brought us to ruin.

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