Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

Not the end of the world

Thoughtful amusement this week, thanks to the 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. An early, important addition to the literature of “the world as we’ve known it has ended: what’s next?,” done with care and humor. The book came with a deserved reputation, and I finally pulled it off my shelves of held-onto-for-years books so I could read it and pass it along to whomever will read it next.

It felt like three short novels thematically linked, more so than one long novel -- tackling three different eras of the future demanded that -- with nice little (almost accidental) connections between events separated by hundreds of years. Not to mention buzzards. Buzzards are probably going to stick around. Plenty to eat, even when the world’s not on the verge of getting destroyed. And it’s science fiction that uses religion without it being about “the character in this story conveniently fits a prophecy,” which I’d seen in enough of the religious-tinged SF I’ve experienced these past few years to be a little wary of. Religion’s about more than that. There’s more to Christianity than Revelations, to give one f'r'instance, and I think a lot of people slightly forget that. Religion ideally is for helping to give the world order and to improve on the world, giving lessons and suggestions for how to do so. And here are the monks of this novel, trying in several ways to do just that, collecting the random knowledge of the past or building long-lost machinery based on this knowledge, knowing that much was lost to the past but maybe things can be salvaged, because enough such knowledge may, ultimately, help. I think I needed a story like that.

The novel’s core idea is strong enough -- the effort to preserve the memory of past eras, say by monks studying the scraps and shopping lists of our age -- that other writers and artists have used it elsewhere. While reading this novel I flashed on the 4th-season Babylon 5 episode where 33rd-century monks preserve the stories of the show’s 23rd-century characters; the younger monk of that episode even reminded me a bit of this novel‘s Brother Francis. I did feel that the world of the last third of this novel seemed a little too familiar, considering it was 11 centuries from now and the world had been rebuilt from scratch more than once in that span, but that’s likely my perspective from 50 years after the novel was written. Likely I’m sensing the similar works that have come since. Those works built on the ideas, influenced by the next few decades of history, art and thought, including many, many other science fiction stories where we’d blown ourselves up and had had to rebuild. It’s a weirdly optimistic view, and I’m glad to have it reinforced.

A Canticle for Leibowitz reminds me: I genuinely feel that we’re unlikely now to end our world via nuclear war, and for a child of the Eighties like me, this is huge. Somehow, I feel that the Eighties may have been the last period when such a disaster was likely, and our world and even our pop culture were coming to grips with how insane the idea “we can end conflict by maybe setting off those giant bombs!” was. (Maybe seeing Harlan Ellison‘s mid-80s Twilight Zone episode “Paladin of the Lost Hour” has something to do with that. “Won’t happen. No nuclear holocaust… Because it‘s only 11 o‘clock.”) Other threats are happening, more weirdness and difficulty is occurring, but I feel that nuclear nightmares aren’t happening in as many people’s dreams now. In the Eighties, I figure a lot did. I had my share. A Canticle for Leibowitz was written in a period where nuclear kabloozys indeed seemed very likely, and we as a race had less than 15 years to come to grips with that possibility. We’ve had 51 more years to come to grips with that…with no nuclear bombs being used in combat since the first time 65 years ago. How often do we think about that? Really think about that?

Okay, world, don’t make me a liar.
Tags: books

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