Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.
Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.
This week, we have a guest post written by Brian Martinez! His topic is the completely wonderful, eerie, horrible, stayed-up-until-dawn-to-finish-it novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Martinez advises that those who wish to remain unspoiled might want to stop here.
The Cold War was still a thing when I came of age in the 1980s, but by then it had taken on a slick Hollywoodized gleam, captured in movies like WarGames and Red Dawn and even (God help us) Rocky IV. The closest I came to a nuclear holocaust was losing my last city in Missile Command. It never felt as palpably close as it must have in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Joe McCarthy looked for Communists under every rock and typewriter, and schoolkids practiced “duck and cover” drills in case the Russkies unleashed the Big One. That was the Cold War observed by Walter M. Miller, Jr., who went on to write a series of novellas, first published in science fiction magazines, that became A Canticle for Leibowitz. Published in 1960, and a winner of the Hugo Award, it is one of the definitive novels about a post-nuclear apocalypse. I first read Canticle in high school and have re-read it several times since, and it has not lost its power to evoke both laughter at humanity’s foibles and sadness at its prolific and horrifying talent for self-destruction.
Miller himself participated in some of that destruction, serving on a bomber crew in World War II, and taking part in the bombing of an ancient monastery allegedly being used by the Germans for strategic purposes during the battle of Monte Cassino. The experience helped shape the focus of his novel: a monastery established in the aftermath of a major nuclear war, dedicated to preserving what scientific knowledge remained after the so-called “Flame Deluge” had destroyed most of it. The monastery’s founder is Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer who, like Miller did following World War II, converted to Catholicism, and made it his mission to save any books and documents he could find, which became the “Memorabilia” and the monastic order’s raison d’être.
The central theme of Canticle is the cyclical nature of human history — its birth, rise, eventual destruction, and rebirth. It starts a few hundred years after an event common to many religious mythologies: a creator-deity, pissed off at its creation, triggers some type of calamity (usually a flood, or “deluge”) to wipe the known world away, aiming to rebuild it better than before. In Miller’s novel, it’s humankind who sets off the Flame Deluge to scrub the world clean. It leaves behind few survivors, many of whose descendants suffer from horrible genetic mutations due to radioactive fallout. Others, blaming advanced technology for allowing nuclear weapons to proliferate, begin the “Simplification”, a mass destruction of books and other stores of knowledge, hence Leibowitz’ desire to protect as much of these materials as possible. He is eventually martyred for his cause.
Canticle is told in three acts, each separated by about 600 years; the first, “Fiat Homo” (Let There Be Man), is analogous to the beginning of a new Dark Age, where the church is the main cultivator of knowledge, and guards access to it jealously; much of the population remains uneducated, focused on daily survival. Life is a Hobbesian experience, brutish and short. The second section, “Fiat Lux” (Let There Be Light), is a renaissance period, as the church slowly opens its Memorabilia to the outside world, inevitably bringing it into conflict with the rise of increasingly secular city-states (in particular, Texarkana, ruled by the ambitious Hannegan). After Hannegan proclaims that his city is no longer subject to rule from New Rome, the church excommunicates him, declaring he no longer possesses the moral authority to rule. Finally in “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let Thy Will Be Done), civilization has reached 20th-century levels of technology and beyond, with starships and human colonization of space — and again, nuclear weapons. The Flame Deluge ultimately has not changed the course of human history; it just set the mile marker to zero.
Dom Zerchi, the abbot of the Order of Saint Leibowitz in the final act, comments on this apparent futility, after a retaliatory nuclear strike (“Lucifer has fallen” in the vernacular of the time) has wiped out Texarkana:
“What’s to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder’s been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there’s no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier. Evil, on evil, piled on evil….And Christ breathed the same carrion air with us; how meek the Majesty of our Almighty God! What an Infinite Sense of Humor–for Him to become one of us!–King of the Universe, nailed on a cross as a Yiddish Schlemiel by the likes of us. They say Lucifer was cast down for refusing to adore the Incarnate Word; the Foul One must totally lack a sense of humor! God of Jacob, God even of Cain! Why do they do it all again?”
Zerchi is my favorite character in the book. Bold, acerbic, and world-weary, he gamely stands on the foundation of his church’s doctrine even as the world literally explodes into chaos around him. Of the abbots chronicled in the novel, he is the most at odds with the state. When a doctor employed by the “Green Star” relief agency (the book’s analogue to the Red Cross) arrives at the abbey to assess victims of the nuclear attack, Zerchi enjoins him not to recommend voluntary euthanasia for any of his patients, no matter how grim their prognosis. He has some choice words for the government’s approach to dealing with nuclear disaster instead of preventing it in the first place:
“The very existence of the Radiation Disaster Act, and like laws in other countries, is the plainest possible evidence that governments were fully aware of the consequences of another war, but instead of trying to make the crime impossible, they tried to provide in advance for the consequences of the crime. Are the implications of that fact meaningless to you, Doctor?”
Eventually the doctor does break his promise, recommending that a young woman and her child, both suffering from severe radiation poisoning, visit the euthanasia camp down the road from the abbey. This sets up yet another confrontation between Zerchi and his novices and the state agents protecting the “mercy camp.” It is clear the Church can no longer reconcile the natural laws which “bind men to Christ” and the laws of man, who allow nuclear holocaust and then sanction death for those unlucky enough to survive. But as the Church views itself as eternal, by then it has already made plans to continue its existence off-world, if need be.
If this sounds like an exigesis more than a review, perhaps it’s because Catholic doctrine and imagery permeate Canticle. As an atheist I will not pretend to have any deep understanding of Roman Catholic teachings, but I still find Miller’s exploration of them fascinating. The Church of Canticle is an eternal force in the world, changing little from one age to the next. Miller liberally uses Latin throughout the story, even though the real Catholic Church had begun to abandon its use in everyday liturgy shortly after the novel’s publication. It gives a strong impression of traditionalism which helps ground the dynamic rise and predictable fall of civilization. Miller leavens it all with humor and sharply witty dialogue. Even though the technology of Miller’s future world seems overly mechanical and unimaginative by today’s science fiction standards, it readily fades into the background, bringing into focus what really matters in the book: its ideas.
In each era of the story, the monks of Saint Leibowitz and their leader struggle with the temptations of the world while maintaining their devotion to Christ and the mission of their order. Miller confronts them with some tough questions — What is the nature of humanity? How does one recognize the inherent dignity of other humans? What moral authority grants states the power to govern? Will science and technology ultimately set humankind free, or enslave it and eventually, condemn it to destruction?
To his credit — and the reason why A Canticle for Leibowitz remains such a powerful and affecting novel more than a half-century later — Miller never answers these questions definitively, save perhaps the last. The nuclear explosions which light up the horizon at the end of the novel is Miller’s affirmation that humankind is doomed to self-destruction. It proved a sad foreboding of the author’s own life. According to author Terry Bisson, Miller faded from the science fiction scene following the release of Canticle, and had alienated himself from fans and fellow writers, as well as his own family. Suffering from depression following his wife’s death and his own health issues, Miller committed suicide in 1996 (a grim irony given the passionate opposition to suicide in Canticle’s third act). He left behind an unfinished novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which was completed by Bisson and published the year after Miller’s death. There was no happy ending for Miller, nor for humankind in Canticle — but its story may yet begin again.
Brian Martinez is a full-time software developer, part-time blogger, and donktastic poker player. He lives in Denver. He blogs at The Libertarian Standard and his own site, A Thousand Cuts. Follow him on Twitter as well.