Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Walter M Miller, Jr's "A Canticle For Leibowitz" (fix-up novel): A collection of 3 related but independent novellas

It's funny - calling a book superb that is also simultaneously an extremely tedious read & an extremely dark one. Yet that is what it is.

The book makes two noteworthy points - neither original, but both well presented:

  1. Given the cyclical nature of human civilizations through history, how to preserve whatever knowledge can be preserved from one enlightened era to next - kind of making some knowledge survive the intervening dark ages.
  2. The pioneers' pain of handing over the baton to those who will run through the next stage of a project. If you've gone through incubating a project, & didn't realize when it was time for others to take over the growth stage after incubation, you know what I mean. I've gone through it, & it was quite a shock. This point comes across forcefully in the second story.
This is a sort of tie-up post. I've already posted a separate article on the first of the 3 stories separately, & will hopefully be doing so for other two too. This post is to give a kind of overview of the book.

Each of the 3 novellas included was originally published independently, & under a different name. The versions included in this novel are supposed to be edited ones.

All stories are set in the US, mostly in a single institution under the auspices of Roman Catholic Church. It's especially tedious read for those unfamiliar with Biblical faiths, but I doubt it will be smooth sailing even for the familiar.

Here are the 3 novellas, in order they occur in the story:
  1. "Fiat Homo": Set about 600 years after the mid-twentieth century, it tells us of a nuclear war that annihilated much of mankind, & ended up creating way too many mutants.

    Riots followed targeting those who brought this about - government officials, rich, & even the educated: if knowledge has brought the world to this, we don't need it. And the world fell back to dark ages. Only a quasi-religious organization called the Albertian Order of Leibowitz has been trying to preserve the isolated documents from a better informed era - often under threat of death.

    This story traces the life of Brother Francis Gerard of Utah - a monk of the Order who has devoted his life to this document preservation, without understanding the document contents.

    This is a somewhat humorous story, in a dark background.

    This story is a fix-up of a novella titled "A Canticle for Leibowitz", originally from F&SF, April 1955. Variant title or original: "The First Canticle". This original 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.
  2. "Fiat Lux": Set 600 years after the events in Fiat Homo, we have a world that is beginning to shed its fear of knowledge & reluctantly getting comfortable with scientific pursuits. This is the story of a physical scientist, Thon Taddeo, who has discovered the treasures preserved by monks of the Order of Leibowitz.

    You see hope in the story - the world seeing light after darkness. You see baton-bearer's pain - as the monks who have preserved the documents so far are quickly becoming irrelevant as the scientific method & the secular scientists takes over.

    But this story is told against extremely dark background of warlords & psychopaths.

    This story is a fix-up of a novella titled "And the Light Is Risen", originally from F&SF, August 1956.
  3. "Fiat Voluntas Tua": Another 600 years have passed since Fiat Lux. World is in a technology state way beyond mid-twentieth century. Oh - and there is star travel, & some extra-Sol worlds have been colonized; this will play a part in the story,

    World has two major political polarizations - Atlantic & Asia. An uncontrolled nuclear war has began when the story begins, & by the time story ends, the world would have plunged back to where the background of story Fiat Homo started - annihilation of civilization, & promise of another long drawn dark age.

    We see pain & mutilation of victims of nuclear attack, & we see arbitrary & high-handed diktats of government.

    But Order of Leibowitz had a contingency plan ready for this eventuality. Memorabilia - the documents they have been guarding, presumably augment with new knowledge of this era - is sent along with a small group of monks to a colony in Alpha Centauri system. Mankind might die on earth, but its knowledge will live elsewhere.

    This story is a fix-up of a novelette titled "The Last Canticle", originally from F&SF, February 1957.

Fact sheet.

First published: 1960.
Rating: A
Winner of Hugo Award 1961 in novel category.