Dark Futures book 8: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  This week we start after the end of the world, and spend some time with the Science Monks. And no; not Anathem, decades before that!

I am forced to the conclusion that after On the Beach almost anything I read would feel significantly upbeat, and therefore it should be no great surprise to find that I found A Canticle for Leibowitz an engaging and moderately uplifting book – at least by the standards of books featuring nuclear holocausts.

So to start with the book itself, Canticle is split over three acts, in three distinct time periods. The first, several hundred years after a nuclear war, is in the early years of rebuilding, a dangerous, faux-medieval period and centred around the expected Canon-isation of (soon to be) Saint Leibowtiz, a survivor of the war who, in the dark days that followed, was instrumental in preserving what information he could from the crazed and vengeful ashes of civilisation. The second is the worlds’ second renaissance, as secular powers grow and spread, and science and learning returns to the world in the service of kings. And the third, final act, shows man’s hubris returning the world to fire and death, as the Order prepares to leave for a new start amongst the stars.

Each act uses separate characters but is careful to show links between them, not just the aging Abbey itself. Each ends with a somewhat cathartic death of one of its characters; each features a wood effigy of the Saint passed down the generations, and in a nod to the books unambiguous spiritual undertones, each features an appearance by a character who may (or may not) be the Wandering Jew. (it should be fairly obvious, although never stated in the book, that this is a Catholic Religious Order named after and following the works of, a Jewish engineer. It’s a good example of the reader knowing something none of the characters ever do).

There is a strength to this structure in that they story can skip ahead between the parts, and show the full circle that the author wants to put across, and the effort made to show continuity of reference stops them feeling to disjointed. It also allows each part to explore a different theme, although if I’m being honest its the central one that I like the most, with its central conflict about the nature of science and knowledge and what to do with it that is the most compelling, and probably the one most worth exploring.

It’s an old and compelling question at work here, played out as a battle of will and philosophy between the Abbot of the Monastery and a visiting Secular Scientist beholden to a growing state. A world recovering from nuclear war, where the scars of a lost civilisation still litter the plains, throws the debate into sharp relief; are you culpable, as a keeper or seeker of knowledge, for the action done with that applied knowledge? What are you preserving (or uncovering) this for, if it is not to be applied, irrespective of consequence? What right do you have to keep information underlock and key, and what authority do you have to decide to what you release and what do don’t? These are all big questions, questions that still apply today, in a myriad of contexts.

So underneath a story of Science Monks in a fire-ruined world, there are some big arguments being put forward here.

And as much as I like the book, I’m still a little conflicted about the ending, and the final third generally. After all, the species learns nothing, goes in a big circle, and blows itself to hell all over again, and for a book with major themes of faith, hope and endurance, that ‘s a little bleak. On the other hand, this second attempt has already reached out to the stars, and Order goes with it, in the end, to the new worlds, to carry its message, and strangely, it feels an upbeat ending even though I’m not entirely sure it should.

Next time:  Ultraviolence and Beethoven, in Anthony Burgess’ somewhat notorious A Clockwork Orange.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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