Monday, January 29, 2007

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Written in 1959, A Canticle for Leibowitz is meant as a dire warning of man's technological hubris. It has three sections, each set in a different time, but all of them after the "Flame Deluge", a nuclear battle that throws humanity into a centuries-long dark age. But the book is about a monastery, and an order of monks.

The first section, "Fiat Homo" (Let there be Man), is about a monk in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, some six hundred years after the Flame Deluge. The monks of the Order of Leibowitz are, as they call themselves, "bookleggers and memorizers," tasked with preserving what little remained of humanity's pre-deluge knowledge in the form of books hidden safely away in the abbey, called the Memorabilia.

The next section, "Fiat Lux" (Let there be Light), is the beginning of the renaissance, when knowlege is again beginning to be revered. The monks keep the Memorabilia for this time, but those who return to seek the knowledge are as those who allowed the Deluge to happen in the first place: men too afraid for their own gains to allow themselves to act to stop the inevitable march of Destruction. But the Order is not idle. Although the time has come for knowledge to be restored to the world, the monks themselves don't simply hand it over. They become active participants in the quest for knowledge, as they were for a time before the deluge; scientists as well as monks. And so we pass into the third section of the book...

...called "Fiat Voluntas Tua" (Thy Will Be Done). Humanity has surpassed the technological prowess of its former state, but is it wise enough to keep from (nearly) destroying itself again? This section also explores the question of humanity's responsibility to relieve suffering, and how far to go in such a quest.

I first read A Canticle for Leibowitz in 10th grade, as an assigned book. I have adored it ever since, and so when I was looking for a book to finish off my gift certificates, I picked it up without hesitation.

It is a masterwork of science fiction and of literature, because it forces us to contemplate on not only our actions and their consequences, potentially centuries down the line, but the actions of those who have come before us and shaped the world we live in today. Miller doesn't exaggerate his characters or the setting. It is what it is, following naturally from the events of the Flame Deluge. Throughout the book, although the setting is desolate and the outlook grim, there remains a kernel of hope, as represented by the Order of Leibowitz. Even at the very end, the Order is resolute in its calling, to preserve the knowledge of mankind.

I can relate to this ideal. I don't know whether I have always considered myself to be an "archiver", or whether this book planted the idea in my head, but it has always resonated with me. And the warnings of the book are relevant today, even if the specific threat of the flame deluge is not.

Finally, a couple of passages from the book:

"Ignorance is King. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. ... They press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges." (From "Fiat Lux", chapter 20)

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they—this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. (From "Fiat Voluntas Tua", chapter 26)

EDIT:Ok, so apparently I don't know how to spell knowledge. Also fixed other typos.
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