Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Post-Apocalyptic world, full of humanity and wry humour, as well as pity and terror.

Seen from the viewpoint of a remote desert monastic community, where, against the odds, the survivors of the nuclear flame deluge attempt to preserve the last fragments of mankind’s lost knowledge, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” chronicles the long slow rebuilding & eventual fall, again, of civilization through three linked novellas.

As in the mediaeval dark ages, the Catholic church becomes the home of scholarship and the preserver of lost knowledge.

First we meet the naïve and likeable Brother Francis Gerard, who makes an important discovery after meeting a strange and scrawny pilgrim.

Brother Frances, does not discover working weapons or high technology that will enable man to leapfrog over generations of slow rediscovery : that is where the genius of the first section lies.

The scraps of information he finds : a grocery list, a hurried note, and a blueprint, are perhaps relics of the Blessed Leibowitz : ironically a Jewish engineer and survivor of the nuclear apocalypse: who was instrumental in attempting to save books and documents from the book-burning anti-science backlash which followed, and was martyred as a result.

Brother Francis devotes his life to preserving and embellishing scraps of knowledge, along the way showing us the life of the community, and the optimism that helps man to slowly stumble back towards civilization.

In the middle segment, generations have passed and city-states war with each other and the mutant wildmen of the wilderness : this is western movie territory, also echoing the European reformation when secular power attempts and partly succeeds in displacing the power and learning of the church.
The monastery survives, and as ever, the buzzards thrive.

Finally, again generations in the future, man has regained space technology, but is threatened by the ever-greater certainty of another nuclear war.
Plans are laid to convey the consolation of the church, and the hoarded wisdom of the generations, to the stars.

Meanwhile, “voluntary” euthanasia is offered to radiation victims in military camps reminiscent of the Holocaust.
The ethics of both these developments are debated and exemplified by the Brothers of St. Leibowitz,

The book ends on a bittersweet, hopeful yet despairing note as the Earth plunges again into nuclear night, while the last ship escapes.

Will the cycle repeat yet again, or will man this time break free and build a long-term sustainable future in the stars?

Or will the mutants who survive this time do better: as is hinted in the last pages by the development of Rachel, the saintly, intelligent conjoined twin of Mrs Grales, the simple old “Termarter woman”?

I hadn’t read this before, but I will certainly return to the book more than once.
It is rich, sad, funny, philosophical, and full of wry humanity.
It says more about the human condition than many of the other powerfully bleak post-apocalyptic novels that came after it

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