I might as well say straight up that I’m not suggesting that anyone else reads this. After a discussion with friends about what constitutes science fiction, as opposed to speculative fiction and to fantasy fiction, I remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). It was one of the first of what I then called ‘science fiction’ stories that I had read, and, I thought, an impressive one. So I read it again. And it is impressive. It’s also a heavily Roman Catholic treatise on original sin. What was I thinking? And the re-reading didn’t really help with the science/speculative/fantasy fiction distinction either.
The book is in three sections. It is set somewhere that is just recognisable as North America in 3000 and something, the second section coming some hundreds of years after the first, and the third more hundreds after the second. In the first section, the world is barely surviving after a nuclear holocaust sometime in the past, the great ‘simplification’ that followed it – ie a purge of scientists and intellectuals – and the destruction of all but the most basic technology. An abbey in the desert founded by Father Leibowitz, a former technician, has a mission to preserve and propagate what little scientific knowledge remains; it has a meagre store of scraps of unrelated technical information, blueprints and manuals that no one now understands. An apparently chance meeting with a pilgrim leads Brother Francis to a buried fallout shelter, where further documents are found. Will this help or hinder the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz?
In the second section, small independent waring states have emerged, with a vestige of civil society. There are now a few secular scholars, and one of them wants to examine the memorabilia held in the abbey. Thon – a title a bit like Dr – Taddeo is a brilliant young natural philosopher. The abbey’s mission has been the preservation of literacy and learning. What possible danger could there be in his examining the abbey’s holdings? Taddeo says that he seeks ‘truth’, but he clearly represents technology designed to serve the power of the secular state. We get a hint of the incompatibility of church and state beliefs, more strongly developed later, when Taddeo looks at a peasant and sees a man who is ‘illiterate, superstitious, murderous.’ The cleric with him sees the ‘image of Christ’. Back at the abbey, the monks have deduced the idea of electricity from the fragments of information they hold, and have built a dynamo; they are apparently not opposed to technology as such. But for them, secular might and power count as nothing in the face of religious truth. The abbot welcomes Taddeo to the abbey, hoping a bridge can be built between the secular and the religious vision of knowledge. But is this possible?
In the third section, major powers have arisen capable of space travel, and again armed with nuclear weapons, this time located in space. But surely they have learnt the lessons of the past?
For all that the subject matter of this book is grim, Miller mostly writes with a light, even humorous touch. Readers are invited to smile at the superstitions of the monks, and to sympathise with the dilemmas of the abbots. We are given both sides of the debate, as in the rightness or otherwise of euthanasia in the third section. But the secular view is never allowed to win and underneath, there is a hard line Roman Catholicism at work. The themes of the rise of technology, the meaning of Christianity and the lust for secular power – the result of unrestrained original sin – tie the sections together. The mysterious pilgrim also plays a part in all three sections.
The book needs to be read in the context of Miller’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1940s and the ramping up of the Cold War in the 1950s. His war service also left him traumatised, particularly his part in bombing the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, as a result of which he embraced pacifism. The possibility of nuclear annihilation now seems less urgent than other threats to the world and its environment, but in the 1950s the crazy danger of the MAD policy – Mutually Assured Destruction – practised by both the Soviet Union and the West was a daily threat. Talk of fallout shelters and how they could be used was commonplace. Miller’s diatribe against the horrors of nuclear war may appear a bit over the top now, but would have seemed perfectly rational when the book was written, and when I first read it.
So is this science fiction? As I’ve noted before, Margaret Atwood makes a distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction where the latter is an extension of existing technical capabilities taken to their logical extreme. This leaves ‘science fiction’ as fiction dealing with wholly imagined physics and/or technologies. But what might have been only imagined in 1959, like the possibility of wholesale space travel, is merely ‘speculative’ now. (The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, so it wasn’t entirely ‘new’, even then.) And where does the ‘dystopian’ label come in? I think perhaps that labels aren’t much use after all, and certainly not in books like this where the genres meet.
You can read a little more about Walter Miller here.
PS. Comparisons are probably as futile as labels, but I can’t help myself. Where else do we find monastic communities preserving learning after ‘sackings’ (read simplifications), while secular societies rise and fall around them? These same elements, and others I won’t give away, also appear in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) – reviewed here. I’d love to know whether Stephenson ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz.