Monday, July 14, 2008

What I'm reading, Chapter 1

So, for this first (first of many, I'm hoping) installment, I'll talk about A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, which I have just finished.

In short, it is a post-apocalyptic epic spanning hundreds of years after a devastating nuclear holocaust which wipes out nearly all human civilization. It is very much a "cold war book", in that Miller remains pessimistic and cynical throughout about the seeming inevitability of Armageddon, like many of his contemporaries back in the 1960s.

The story follows the monks and abbots of the Order of Leibowitz (the Catholic church survives) as they attempt to preserve the "Memorabilia" (the surviving texts of our destroyed civilization, many of which are incomprehensible to our backwards descendents) through the ages. Leibowitz himself (eventually canonized) was an engineer who lived at the time of the "flame deluge" (the monks' term for the holocaust) and tried to save as many books as possible from the frenzed mobs of survivors who attempted to wipe out all traces of the scientific knowledge that they held responsible for the destruction.

There are three separate novellas within the book, each representing a specific stage in the development of human civilization. It is captivating and well-written, with judicious use of Latin (the monks speak a hybrid Anglo-Latin as their first language), and includes many interesting philosophical debates concerning the morality of euthanasia, the double-edged sword of technological progress, and the depressing regularity in which humanity repeats the same mistakes over and over again. Miller also reminds the reader of the crucial role the church played in preserving knowledge after the fall of the Roman Empire.

There are some minor anachronisms (in a futuristic society which has mastered space travel, computers nevertheless remain enormous) and it may not seem as relevant now as it was in 1960, but 48 years later, it remains a classic of the science fiction genre.

Check it out here.

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