Friday, April 27, 2007

A Canticle for Leibowitz

First post-baby book finished and first book finished for the Dystopian Challenge and for my own dystopian fascination.

The premise for this book is so interesting, especially if you read the jacket copy on the edition I have,
By the time of the 32nd century: The atomic Flame Deluge was over. All knowledge was gone. In a hellish, barren desert, a humble monk unearths a fragile link to 20th century civilization. A handwritten document from the Blessed Saint Leibowitz that reads: pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels--bring home for Emma.

That idea, of our everyday objects being ancient artifacts to future beleaguered civilizations, is really what drew me to the dystopian genre. There is a fair amount of that in the movies Waterworld and The Postman and those were pretty much the ones that made me realize there were a whole lot of books on this topic. And yet, there is so much more to a A Canticle for Leibowitz than one of those classic dystopian plots of two enemy groups battling against each other for survival, one striving toward a new organized version of civilization and one adapting to the harsh, animal-like conditions of the post-war landscape. Instead, Canticle tracks the history of an abbey of monks somewhere in the vicinity of what used to be Colorado. It is located next to an ancient highway that, "in earlier ages, . . . had been a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso. . ." Now it's cracked and broken with pieces of asphalt salvaged by generations of survivors, covered in sand, and has desert weeds growing up through the cracks.

The story begins in the 32nd century and continues for about 600 years. Miller fits a lot of time into a 313 page book. I won't go into the whole plot here but basically this group of monks was formed in the 1960s, just after the devastating war. Saint Leibowitz was a survivor who strived to keep modern knowledge alive by saving what books he could from the riots and chaos that followed the war. After his death, these monks continued his mission for the next 1800 or so years, becoming first crusaders saving books from destruction, and later librarians, archive keepers, and perpetuators of the ancient knowledge, waiting for a time when there arose a society ready to use it again to create a new civilization out of the ignorance and violence of the current times.

The book is very philosophical, dealing with big, broad themes of right and wrong, good and evil, moral responsibility, and religion versus secular society, and has a lot of religious discussion, but generally not in a boring, didactic way. Occasionally, just when the philosophy starts to get to be a little much, the action and character development pick up again. And there's a lot of humor in this book, too, although much of it is subtle. I found so many parts of it funny and amusing.

One other thing to note is that Canticle was published in book form in 1959. Parts of it had previously appeared in "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" in the mid-fifties. And so, when Miller describes a computer in the year 3781, he describes it as occupying all the shelves in the abbot's office and covering one-third of his desk. The printer of the machine he describes as going, "Clatterty-chat-clatter-spatter-pip popperty-kak-fub-clotter." If anyone even now in the year 2007 (or in the past 10 or 15 years, for that matter) has a printer that makes noises like that, then something's wrong. Miller did have a great imagination for how technology might be in that year, but his descriptions have a decidedly fifties bent, amusing, but understandable.

Aside from The Giver trilogy, this was my first dystopian novel and I think it makes a good introduction to the genre because it gets you thinking about the big issues of nuclear war: life and death, civilization vs. chaos, knowledge vs. ignorance, right and wrong, good and evil, greed and materialism vs. appreciation for life and nature. There is so much packed into the 300 pages of this book that I could write a whole paper or two on it.

Recommended, but only if you're in the mood.


Blogger nomadshan said...

Thanks for the review! McCarthy's The Road is on my summer list - looking forward to it.

10:35 AM  

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