Monday, April 28, 2008

Walter M Miller, Jr's "Fiat Homo" (novella, non-genre): Part 1 of 3 of "A Canticle for Leibowitz" (fix-up novel)

Quote from novella titled Fiat Homo, included in the fix-up novel titled A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, JrSad story of an honest man in a perverted world, told in a generally humorous way but with a sad ending.

You will likely get more out of it than me if you are familiar with Christianity; I liked the story but sometimes found it tedious - there is too much religion based on Christianity here.

Note there are two different things called "A Canticle for Leibowitz":

  1. Original 1955 novella of this title.
  2. Much better known 1960 fix-up novel of this title. "Novel" is really a collection of 3 previously published shorter works - revised as part of fix up. First of these 3 parts is "Fiat Homo", revised & rename version of the 1955 novella titled "A Canticle for Leibowitz". This post is based on a reading of "Fiat Homo".
1955 novella version is one of the two stories that qualified for SF Hall of Fame series but could not be included in published anthologies because copyright owners didn't want, according to Ben Bova's introduction to Volume 2A. (Other was Bradbury's "The Fireman"; the well known novel "Fahrenheit 451" is a fix-up version of this story).

It was this HoF inclusion that made me look out for this work. Since 1960 novel is much easier to get, that's what this post is based on - first of the 3 stories in the "novel".

Note that "Fiat Homo" is much longer than a typical novella - about the length of 2 novella. I'm not calling it novel only because it's part of a larger work also called novel.

Executive summary.

Story begins about 600 years after 1950s or 1960s - say 2550s/60s. It covers about 23 years of the life of "Brother Francis Gerard of Utah". He is 17 at the beginning of the story, & an apprentice monk at a monastery called "Leibowitz Abbey". His murder at the hands of highway thugs closes the story logically, but it lingers awhile after that. The story really ends in the year 3174 AD - nearly 600 years after the death of Francis, with a war looming. I suppose this extension is to better link it up with second story in this novel - "Fiat Lux" (but I haven't read that yet).

The background.

In 1950s or 60s, there is a world war with extensive use of nuclear weapons (known as "Flame Deluge" in later eras) - pretty much destroying civilization. Radiation poisoning of air hasn't spared even uninvolved nations. And radiation-induced mutations have ensured too many mutilated children yet to be born.

Shortly after the end of war - lasting weeks or days - there is a kind of mob frenzy later to be dubbed "Simplification". Mobs blame the government leaders that caused havoc, educated people who helped build these weapons of mass destruction, etc. The Simplification crusades will last 4 generations, will kill pretty much everyone educated or even literate, destroy all surviving machinery/books/documents. This world bears "Simpleton" as a badge of honor - at least they don't help destroy the world.

Isaac Edward Leibowitz, an ordinary electronics technician, is a survivor of the holocaust. But his wife Emily died - he will learn of it 6 years later. That was apparently the only bond he had; we aren't told of any other relation.

After seeing dead Emily, & the madness of the world around, he decided to do something positive. He thinks the Simplification madness will be gone in a few generations - so current human knowledge will be looked up eagerly when sanity returns. He decides to ensure books & other documents - whatever he can locate - are persevered in a cache for future generations.

Since this is not the job of one man, he decides to create an institution. He 'went back to the Cistercians, took their habit, & after more years became a priest. He gathered a few companions about him & made some quiet proposals. After a few more years, the proposals filtered to "Rome," which was no longer Rome (which was no longer a city), having moved elsewhere, moved again, and still again - in less than two decades, after staying in one place for two millennia. Twelve years after the proposals were made, Father Isaac Edward Leibowitz had won permission from the Holy See to found a new community of religious, to be named after Albertus Magnus, teacher of Saint Thomas, & patron of men of science. Its task, unannounced & at first only vaguely defined, was to preserve human history for the great-great-great-grandchildren of the children of the simpletons who wanted it destroyed... Its members were either "bookleggers" or "memorizers," according to the tasks assigned. The bookleggers smuggled books to the southwest desert & buried them there in kegs. The memorizers committed to rote memory entire volumes of history, sacred writings, literature, & science, in case some unfortunate book smuggler was caught, tortured, & forced to reveal the location of the kegs. Meanwhile, other members of the new Order ... began the building of a monastery. The project, aimed at saving a small remnant of human culture from the remnant of humanity who wanted it destroyed, was then underway.'

Leibowitz himself would later be killed by mob, as will be several of his associates & much of their book collections burnt. But bits survived. And now we have this remote monastery in desert, dedicated to the task of collecting & preserving whatever little it can of "Memorabilia" - without understanding the contents of preserved documents. Everyone who can make sense of preserved work is dead, but there is a hope someday someone will be able to get sense out of them.

Story summary

Francis, 17, is at monastery because he doesn't have any other options. He was sold as a slave to someone in his community, & ran away - if he goes back, he will be killed. He has been learning at monastery for a while - mostly Latin, & some bits of "ancient English". Through out the story, we will see his honesty pitted against a world that doesn't deserve him.

He, along with some other "novices", is doing some kind of monastic living ("Lent") in the desert - several miles from monastery. Each novice is alone, cannot talk to others, & must survive among desert wolves - in his own "hermitage". A priest ("Prior Cheroki") visits weekly; so does "Brother Fingo" with minimal rations & water.

Opening episode plays a very important role in the story. Francis has been digging a hole & making some kind of cover with locally available stones as protection against night wolves, but he's not finished. That's when an old man ("pilgrim") with a leg missing & obviously lettered comes towards him - via a trail that rarely sees a visitor.

There will be initial misgivings between the two, then cautious trust on the part of visitor. Eventually, visitor decides to help him find a stone of a shape that will complete his shelter - but Francis is not yet trusting. Pilgrim will locate a stone nearby, mark it with some symbols, tell Francis of it & go towards monastery seeking shelter. We will later learn that monastery has no record of his visit - either no one noticed, or he skipped the visit.

Later, when getting the stone, Francis will be puzzled by incomprehensible mark pilgrim made on stone. Removing stone reveals an underground cavern - a "Fallout Survival Shelter". He will spend a while, discover a tool box with some papers, & skull of someone long dead. Some of these papers are signed "Isaac Edward Leibowitz"; there is also a mention of "Em" - presumably short for Emily Leibowitz. In a shock, he will simply use the stone for shelter & sleep.

All hell breaks lose when Francis' discovery becomes known - but for the wrong reasons. Someone will suggest the marks made on stone by pilgrim can be interpreted as "Leibo" in Hebrew! Some people will look at his find as "miracle" - Leibowitz visiting him & pointing to cavern holding the holy skull of Emily etc. Others - particularly his superiors - will call him a crank. He will get many beatings & hardships, even though he never said anything about miracles.

Now the bosses of monastery are very insecure folks. And they have been lobbing "Vatican" for years to get Leibowitz recognized as a Saint! Rumor mills in the light of Francis' finds is making them feel even more threatened - that they will become laughing stock for declaring a false miracle.

For 7 years, Francis will live through hell for his find. That's when "New Rome" sends a messenger informing the monastery the case of Leibowitz's sainthood is being reopened, thanks to rumors triggered by Francis' finds. Only then he will be recognized as something his peers got years ago - allowed "to profess your vows", & became a "monk of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz". He is assigned to department that copies documents (by hand). Here he will make a beautiful & stylized copy of one of the circuit diagrams of Leibowitz included in his find - without slightest clue to what the picture represents, over a 15 year period (in his spare time) beginning a year after starting as "apprentice copyist".

11 years after Francis' discovery of relics, Vatican will end up sending two teams - one to argue for sainthood of Leibowitz (headed by Malfreddo Aguerra), other to argue against it (headed by Monsignor Flaught). Both will be won over by honesty of Francis.

It'll be 23 years after Francis' discovery when Vatican is finally ready to recognize Leibowitz as saint! Francis has been invited for the ceremony, & will travel alone - along with original relic (circuit diagram), & its beautiful copy as present for Pope.

He will be waylaid by robbers on the way who will take everything on his person, but spare his life. On much persuasion, he will be returned the original ugly relic - robbers want a ransom for the beautiful copy, mistaking copy for original!

Well - Pope will gift him ransom money along with certificate of Leibowitz's sainthood. When waiting where he was waylaid with ransom money, he will be killed by the same gang of robbers - presumably to take his current possessions.

Rest of narrative - a couple of paragraphs - tells us of the birth of city-state in this new world, & the looming war - in the year 3174 AD. We will likely learn the details in next story.

Fact sheet.

First published: F&SF, April 1955 under the title "A Canticle for Leibowitz". Revised & renamed to "Fiat Homo" for inclusion as first of 3 novellas in 1960 book also titled "A Canticle for Leibowitz". This post is based on book version of the story.
Rating: A


Rusty said...

Excellent review Tinkoo,

I read the book several years ago, but this story sounds exactly the same, so perhaps very little was changed for inclusion in the novelized version. I did enjoy the story, however, and your summary brought back warm memories for me.

In case you weren't aware, Lent is the time that a large portion of Christians give up something in preparation for Holy Week and Easter. For example, I have known several people who gave up meat, alcohol, coffee or cigarettes during this time. I believe that the first part of this story is showing how the novices are giving up the "comforts" of the monastery as well as speech, during this time of Lent.

I thought the story was cool in that it demonstrated how (Western) society could easily revert to "the Dark Ages" again, and how the Roman Catholic Church might once again fulfill the role of "preserver of knowledge" - similar to what happened during the Early Middle Ages.

Anyway, have you read the novel? In it the ending of this story leads nicely into the next one.

tinkoo said...

Thanks Rusty.

"Lent" sounds almost like corresponding Hindu practices - though we don't have a single name for it. Usual terms here are "fast" & "maun-vrat" - later means no speaking for the duration. Since fasts are of many kinds, & different families & individuals observe different constraints - that's pretty much your specifications for Lent.

"Roman Catholic Church" is a an institution completely out of Hindu experience. There have been attempts by power-blocs through history, but Hinduism has always been a very decentralized religion - no central authority to give advise or dictates.

And I find the idea of somebody granting sainthood on someone else completely unfathomable. I mean, we have our own saints - but saints are made because public at large believes they are saints - whether out of political canvassing, conning, or an actually admirable man or woman. Somebody "granting" sainthood on another individual sounds so presumptuous - I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with the idea.

Have only read first of the 3 parts of novel. But I intend to read rest of it - should post over next couple of weeks.