Sunday, 18 July 2010

A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller.

This novel from 1959 is a classic, post nuclear holocaust view of the future.

SF writers, have course, had been on to the possibilities of nuclear weapons long before the mainstream got near them. In the book, Doomsday Men, P.D. Smith recounts how the famed ‘pulp’ magazine Astounding Science Fiction had security experts at the Los Alamos atomic bomb project in an absolute uproar over some of the science fiction that Astounding was publishing while the atomic bomb project was still underway, and top secret. Robert Heinlein’s, Solution Unsatisfactory being one of them. This story features using radioactive dust as the primary weapon rather than a nuclear bomb. But at the time it appeared the use of dispersed radioactive materials, as a weapon, was being seriously considered by the allied military powers.

Such stories were a far cry from the Utopian visions of earlier science fiction. And the view of the future got darker still and by 1946. Churchill, at times not mean clairvoyant said of nuclear weapons, “The Dark Ages may return—the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of Science.”

This, of course, is the future that Miller is writing about in Canticle. 600 years after the nuclear war that has destroyed mid 20th Century civilisation a religious order have attempted to preserve some of the old knowledge describe the war thus:

“It was said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age, amongst them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of hell, and that God had suffered these Magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince: ‘Only because thine enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know thou hast it also, and fear to strike.”

“But the princes, putting the words of the wise men to naught, thought each to himself: ‘If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there shall be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine.’

“Such was the folly of princes, and there followed the Flame Deluge...”

At the time, all the powers who could afford it were spending immense amounts on nuclear weapons. Once the first prince got them the other nations, now knowing what could be done, and what its destructive powers actually were, spared no expense. Even Churchill seems to have been unable to grasp just how powerful nuclear weapons would become. “Although personally I am quite content with existing explosives, I feel we must not stand in the path of improvement.”

Small wonder then, that the man in the street had no real concept of what was possible. The 1950s was a time when governments, now no longer able to justify having the ultimate weapon, had to perpetrate the myth that nuclear wars would be survivable. The famous Duck and Cover public information ads were part of this propaganda.

In part one of the book, 600 years after the war, all grasp of 20th century science has been lost. Any fragments of knowledge found are preserved as Holy Relics.
Francis, a novice monk, has discovered an ancient circuit diagram of some trivial electronic sub-system. He is copying it, in fact making a beautiful, illuminated version of it, in his spare time.
He is being mocked by a colleague who asks him what the diagram depicts.
Francis, who has no clue, ventures the following,
“..perhaps it does depict an object but only in a very formal stylistic way.....there was once an Art or Science called electronics (Francis goes on to explain) and the subject matter of electronics was the electron.”
“What pray was the electron?”
“Well, there is one fragmentary source which alludes to it as a ‘Negative Twist of Nothingness.”

Later, the post nuclear holocaust vision became a sub-genre all of its own and numerous memorable stories have been written about it. Miller’s novel, after an initial frosty reception from the mainstream, eventually got the recognition it deserved.
Time finally said of it "an extraordinary novel even by literary standards, which has flourished by word of mouth for a dozen years." Other attempts by popular mainstream writers such as Nevil Shute, with ‘On the Beach’ seem pedestrian by comparison.

The SF boys, who’d been first on the scene with the news continued to be up there, telling the public how things might really pan out.
As Ray Bradbury put it, “It isn’t my goal (as a science fiction writer) to predict the future, but to prevent it.” Miller, in this wonderful novel, had the same goal in mind, and he succeeds totally.

PS Earlier predictions from Churchill.
"May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives even of the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp or dockyard?

— Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill  'Shall We All Commit Suicide?'. Pall Mall (Sep 1924).

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