A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The idea of the post-apocalyptic tale is all the rage these days, a recurring theme in books, stories, and motion pictures. From weird, literally earth-rending Mayan prophecies to legions of the walking dead, the end of the world as we know it appears to be endlessly entertaining. A common theme in these disturbing visions of the near future is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for whatever catastrophe brings civilization down. If we’d been less selfish and more far-sighted, if only we’d refrained from tinkering with the “natural order of things” – usually in the name of greed – we could have avoided these grim fates. We never seem to learn from our mistakes, and so each technological leap makes the next repetition of foolish human behavior more deadly than the last, until in the end – it ends.
Those currently exploiting this interest in violent ends for civilization sometimes seem to think this is all a new way of writing fiction, but of course this fascination with the end of the world is anything but new. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War remember such visions all too vividly, and as all-too-believable realities. By its sheer destructive power, the “bomb,” in the hands of leaders cursed with blind stupidity, seemed destined to bring everything to an end. It was a fearful time to grow up, and frightening fiction was written, and filmed, to point out the dangers we faced. For a long time it seemed no one was listening, but I suppose that when you use giant ants and fleshy-headed mutant humans for cautionary tales, nuclear war becomes a little harder to take seriously. In time the danger was taken seriously and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse now – while still all too real – seems a bit less likely. This was not the case in the ’50s and ‘60s, when I was a child. It felt imminent, and no few of us expected to die very young.
Science fiction writers of the time were in some measures as guilty as Hollywood in exploiting the fear of things nuclear, rather than driving home the idea that this was not only a serious and dangerous business, but an avoidable fate. Published science fiction from that time included many tales of a world in ruins, in which determined men and women struggled to preserve civilization while fending off the mutant progeny of nuclear war. That there might be NO survivors in the end, mutant or otherwise, was a long time entering the popular imagination – Nevil Shute’s grim novel On the Beach being an outstanding exception to the rule at that time. Another author who stands out from the crowd in this regard is Walter M. Miller, Jr., whose post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz stood far enough apart from the rest to be recognized for the exception it was, and to be awarded the 7th Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961.
A Canticle for Leibowitz opens centuries after the Flame Deluge consumed the world, destroying civilization and taking the human race to the brink of extinction. Something like a civilization has risen from the cold ashes of that terrible event. Curiously enough, the Roman Catholic Church has somehow survived and kept its history and traditions alive – more than its own, actually. A new monastic order exists, named for Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, who was martyred trying to preserve the knowledge that made civilization possible, when most other survivors sought to erase the past in a misguided effort to avoid repetition of history through cultural amnesia. The mobs attempted to eradicate science and literature, blaming these for creating the technology that incinerated millions, and left millions more to die less merciful deaths. Leibowitz led a small band of folk who hid books from the mobs, and memorized others, something like the book people of Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The new monastic order grew from these heroic and often deadly efforts to save books, repeating the Church’s earlier medieval roll as a repository of knowledge in a dark age. The story begins with the tale of one Brother Francis, who discovers a cache of pre-deluge material that quite likely is connected to the not yet canonized Leibowitz himself. His grim life and its times set the stage for the next phase in the restoration of civilization, a civilization that evolves pretty much along the path of its predecessor, with the same old greed and lust for power. In the end, over millennia, humanity not only restores what was lost in the nuclear fires of the Flame Deluge, it reaches further, sending human colonies out to the stars. But it would seem that even in a star-faring age, when people still give birth to monstrous reminders of a horrible past, certain lessons remain unlearned.
This is not a “fun” book to read, and it’s quite clear that it was never meant to merely entertain. The B-movie two-headed mutants sprinkled through the narrative illustrate the cost of ignorance, but never really challenge the rebuilding of civilization. They are a burden to it, instead; a reminder of a past that can be willfully ignored, but not truly forgotten, or left behind. It’s a grim and regrettably believable tale, especially for anyone who has made even a modest study of human history. This book asks uncomfortable questions of a sort that have no tidy answers. The writing is some of the best you will find in the genre, with characters as believable as they are at once flawed and determined. No, not the escapism so many assume all sci-fi to be. It is instead a compelling work of literature, and one you will either appreciate for its quality and its message, or hate for its grim reminder that those who refuse to learn history may very well be consumed by it. For while history can be deliberately rewritten, or willfully ignored, its consequences are inescapable. This, in the end, is what I believe Miller is trying to say, a message that remains for the most part ignored, even though the continued popularity of apocalyptic fiction reveals that we are not entirely unaware of our danger.
Perhaps it has to do with their alleged mythic origins. All through the ages, the Muses have been described as elusive beings, evocative of grace and inspiration, who must be coddled and protected, even nurtured. The fear of abandonment by one of these ephemeral creatures is often expressed by poets, artists, composers, and others suffering from related disorders. Even writers, the most afflicted of creative personalities (in my humble opinion) tend more often than not to speak of a Muse in hushed tones, as if concerned she might be frightened off by a careless word or a typographical error. I find all these fears – for all that they have ancient roots in the depths of myth and legend – quite baffling. My experience with a Muse has been – otherwise.
The Muse who was assigned to me by the Powers That Be is neither graceful nor shy, and is most unlikely to wander off and leave me in a creative muddle for any reason at all. Far from being a gentle, soulful mythic being, the Muse looking over my shoulder (and smirking) as I write these words is… Well, let’s just say she can be a bit insistent. Merely offering inspiration isn’t her favorite technique, although she has proven capable of such subtlety from time to time. This Muse has a work ethic, and she doesn’t take her work lightly. Other writers describe their assigned Muses in terms that make them sound like a cross between a fairy godmother and Tinkerbell.
Mine has more in common with Mae West and Lara Croft.
This Muse is a hard ass, plain and simple, a bundle of attitude that accepts no excuses when I find things to do other that write. She’s aware of all the potential stories and characters rolling around in my head, and of the pressure to escape they exert. As with all writers of fiction, the risk of cranial detonation exists, but this Muse will have none of it. “Not on my watch!” she likes to say. “How could I stand among the other Muses and hold my head up if I allowed yours to explode?” She has a good point, there, so on that level at least we do understand each other.
My Muse is not one of the originals, those nine daughters of Zeus and the unforgettable Mnemosyne. I don’t hold this against her, of course. She is a product of the Expansion Draft held at the dawn of the Renaissance, when the rapid increase in the number of artists and scientists stretched the original nine beyond the limits of even immortal beings. (As an aside, I once pointed out that it was curious that Tolkien also chose the number nine for the enumeration of the evil Nazgul. My Muse threatened to “inspire” me to write erotic sci-fi horror novels involving dinosaurs. I dropped the subject.) That Expansion Draft was designed not only to increase the number of available Muses to accommodate the great awakening of the Human Spirit, but to provide gainful employment for a host of mythic beings who were being forgotten, and therefore disenfranchised, by story tellers. There were many, many positions to be filled and, frankly, the Powers That Be may have been less selective than might otherwise have been the case. (And yes, I’ll pay for that one later.) Hippocampi, Panes, Sirens (for song writers mostly), Harpies, Kobaloi, and Furies (among many others – and yes, it’s possible Edgar Allen Poe’s Muse was, in her youth, a Gorgon) were all invited to try out. Some went in the first round and headed straight to the major leagues, of course. Sirens mostly, which explains many aspects of Renaissance music, come to think of it. Others, among them Furies and Kobaloi, spent some time in the minors, where they encouraged those who refined such inventions as the printing press and the other technological marvels of the age. As a result, they developed a rather different approach to the idea of inspiring the creative impulse, and my Muse apparently was part of this Next Generation wave of Muses that was finally brought up to the major leagues just in time for the First World War. I’m reasonably sure that was a coincidence.
When it became apparent to the Powers That Be that I’d need a Muse (and to be fair, the Powers did their level best to spare me such a fate – but I refused to listen), the first choice was Urania, the Muse of Astronomers. Unfortunately, she was still in therapy at the time. That episode with Percival Lowell and his imaginary canals on Mars apparently took a toll. This Muse who ended up assigned to me may have been a Harpy, once upon a time, but it’s hard to be sure, since among Next Generation Muses there is a strict “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Whatever her origin, she doesn’t so much inspire me to write, as goad me into it. She is relentless. If Muses were allowed to own firearms (they aren’t American citizens, so the 2nd Amendment doesn’t apply), I fear she’d be standing behind me when I’m at the computer, pointing a weapon at the back of my head. “No surfing for you!” All kidding aside, anything I do that doesn’t involve stringing words together into more or less meaningful sentences is bound to arouse her ire, sooner or later. Cooking dinner, for example, is a process that prompts reminders that there are fast food options out there that would get the job done in a fraction of the time. Reading a book when I could be writing a book? For shame! Hobbies? Maybe when I’m rich and famous. Maybe. Fortunately, I often get ideas or resolve plot quandaries while in the shower, so that gets a pass. And the day job? Don’t go there. Please.
You might wonder how it works, having a wife and a Muse in the same residence. My wife and I have never really discussed the matter, but so far I get the impression they basically ignore each other. Or that my wife thinks I’m mad as a hatter. Either way, I have no intention of encouraging any change to the status quo. Just sayin’…
Science fiction is often described as a genre of ideas and informed speculation, anything but the “mindless fluff” the librarian in my home town, for example, believed it to be. The wildest, most outrageous sci-fi tales I’ve read have all been built around an idea. Only those completely unfamiliar with science fiction, judging its books by their often lurid covers, could for a moment believe this genre was dominated by “mindless fluff.” In science fiction, the idea’s the thing.
How that idea is used to tell a story makes all the difference. Handled properly, the idea informs the story and gives it purpose. Handled otherwise, and you end up with a novel such as Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, the sixth novel to be given the Hugo Award, and an otherwise well-executed sci-fi novel that for me has a serious flaw.
Starship Troopers is a coming-of-age story set in a future in which several of the author’s political views have come to be realized, a world in which one Johnny Rico stumbles through his youthful idealism and into a military career. This is a first person narrative, from the point of view of someone who is looking back over his life as he prepares for one more mission in the long war that has come to define him. Rico’s views make perfect sense for a man examining the experiences he’s had, and the trials he has survived. They also make sense in a novel written by someone who undoubtedly knew veterans of the Second World War, which was anything BUT ancient history when Heinlein wrote the book. You can see something in this novel, I believe, of the mindset that allowed a generation to survive the greatest conflagration in human history. The ideas that drive this story are for most part the politics of Heinlein’s time and his recent past, extrapolated – at times somewhat naively – into a none-too-distant future. And as should be the case, this is all intertwined with both a well-developed imaginary culture and an adventure that, together, give the tale a plausible context. As I started rereading the book for the first time in decades, it held up well to my youthful memories of an exciting space opera.
Until Chapter Eight.
When I first read Starship Troopers in my mid teens, the political undercurrent of the book was completely lost on me. (That some people actively disliked the book because they disagreed with the author would never have occurred.) I read the adventure, the coming-of-age tale, my mind’s eye filled with images of soldiers in high-tech powered armor battling alien “bugs.” What, if any, reaction, I had to Chapter Eight back then I can no longer recall. I reacted to it in this reading, however, with a certain amount of annoyance.
In Chapter Eight, which takes place during Rico’s basic training, a fellow recruit gone AWOL has been brought back to the camp to be executed for the crime of murdering a child. At first this event unfolds as another grim learning experience, to be endured because the murderer was “one of them,” and the military service to which Rico and the others belong insists on handling the matter. Left to this, incident would hardly comprise a few paragraphs, not a full chapter, but as Rico watches the execution his mind drifts back to a high school lecture that suddenly seems relevant to him. It’s at this point that the novel hits a speed bump. The story, which is well-paced up to this point, comes to a dead halt while the author, through both the imaginary teacher and Rico, pontificates on what Heinlein apparently believes are factors that will lead to the downfall of 20th Century Western Civilization – current events when Heinlein wrote the book. The lecture is, in part, a history lesson, and the history being examined from the perspective of this imagined future is nothing less than our own. The reason for its fall is summed up bluntly and naively as being due to fatal flaws in liberal politics and policy, as if any episode in history could possibly be put neatly into a little box that could be labeled “This Explains Everything.”
I do not agree with what Heinlein is saying; no honest student of history, aware of its complexities, would be comfortable with such a convenient summary, aimed at supporting a single political point of view. But that’s not what made me set the book aside for a day or two. This very same political philosophy is everywhere evident in the novel; so much so that at least one publisher rejected the book as being too controversial. You can’t escape it; what he is saying about duty and responsibility, however one-sided, is impossible to miss. And yet I was still able to enjoy the story as a thought-provoking exploration of those ideas. These being ideas I don’t entirely agree with, it says something about the skill of the author that I kept reading. I reacted with annoyance when I did because Heinlein stopped the story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon.
It hurts the story, kills its momentum, its pacing, which was very well handled to that point. It took an effort for me to shake off my annoyance and go on reading.
I said before that I mostly disagree with Heinlein’s politics as revealed in Starship Troopers, even though I recognize some elements of truth in his over-simplifications. My objection to the blatant preaching in Chapter Eight is not political as much as the annoyance of a reader and a story-teller to a disservice done a good tale. It was an unnecessary diversion. Heinlein was already presenting the ideas at the core of the novel deftly and clearly as the story flowed along. If you were to read this book while skipping Chapter Eight you would, in my opinion, miss nothing. The message contained within the novel would have remained intact. Only authorial self-indulgence would be lost, and that’s rarely a bad thing.
I did go on, however, and cringed a bit as a small amount of similar lecturing occurred later in the book, while Rico is in officer training. To be honest, that material might not have bothered me much at all, because what Rico learns then is a part of the flow of the story. He is, after all, being challenged by teachers who are trying to determine whether or not he has what it takes to lead mean in combat. I was sensitized to these otherwise minor diversions by the speed bump I’d hit earlier. By rubbing my nose in the ideas central to the book, Heinlein made it impossible for me to simply let the story do its job. I was still shaking my head when I finished and set it aside.
Time and experience change the way you interpret the world around you. When I was fifteen years old and atrociously naïve myself, the ideas at the heart of Starship Troopers were largely lost on me. I knew Heinlein back then from works such as Red Planet and Between Planets, and with such stories in mind, I read Starship Troopers. I took in the futuristic adventure and nothing more, and so remembered the book fondly. As an adult, and having some understanding of politics, (enough to detest it on general principle, even as I recognize its necessity), I couldn’t let it go as a simple escapist adventure. Heinlein clearly didn’t intend the book to fill such a purpose. I can politely agree to disagree with people on political issues if they offer the same level of respect, but self-righteous pontification puts me right off. Unfortunately, Heinlein indulged in such in this story, interrupting a good tale in the process, and lost me.
This book won the Hugo Award in 1960. Apparently more people than not either enjoyed the story in spite of the politics, or agreed and enjoyed seeing their ideals cast in a tale told by one of the masters of the craft. Had the vote been taken in 1971, when I was 15 years old, I’m willing to bet I’d have voted for Starship Troopers. In 2013, at the age of 57, most likely not.
Believe it or not, a year has passed since the last time I attended a science fiction convention. I’m about to amend that by attending TusCon again this year.
I will be attending TusCon 40, this coming weekend, November 8, 9, and 10. My novels The Luck of Han’anga and Founders’ Effect will be available for sale at the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore table in the dealer’s room.
Check here for the current program: http://tusconscificon.com/
I’m currently scheduled to participate in the following:
Has Future Shock Turned Into Future Fatigue? Sat.9am Ballroom
Mass Autograph Session Sat. 4pm Ballroom
Good Twists and Bad Twists: What are the keys to making plot twists unpredictable but still believable? 10pm Panel Room 1
How to Rewrite Right Sun. Noon. Ballroom
If you’re in town, check it out!
On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.
I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.
If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.
For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.
An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.
When I was a boy and first encountered Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes, a passage in the first of them, in which the reader is introduced to Holmes, startled me. He tells Watson (who shared my surname as well as my puzzlement) that he considered his mind a storehouse in which only things relevant to his work would be kept. This was all to explain to Watson why Holmes was entirely ignorant of matters to do with then-current theories regarding the solar system. The concept of only learning “relevant” things seemed very strange to me. It ran counter to my upbringing, raised as I was by curious folk who delighted in pointing out and naming birds and trees, and who encouraged me to read on the widest possible range of subjects. Why anyone would remain willfully ignorant of the solar system, just because it wasn’t relevant to his day’s, work left me baffled. I found many aspects of the Holmes character fascinating, even admirable, but Sherlock Holmes was never a role I wanted to inhabit for myself. I was too curious about – well, everything!
Well, almost everything. So-called physical education left me cold, but that might have been different if the “coaches” I encountered hadn’t all been so keen on whipping us into sufficient shape to march off and die in World War Three. I remember very clearly one of them explaining that the endless calisthenics were necessary if we were to be prepared for the “next war.” This was shortly before the end of the Vietnam War, and given the cultural climate of those days, it wasn’t a sentiment likely to inspire the young. It surely did not instill a love of push-ups in this one, that’s for sure!
But as for everything else, I was wide open. Even math fascinated me, though it also frustrated me terribly. (I eventually got over that, and though algebra has never become intuitive, I survived quadratic equations and such, and did so with respectable grades when I finally completed my degree, years later.) I was always most receptive to science and history, but all sorts of things in school caught my fancy, and I enjoyed school to a degree that caused me some sadly predictable social problems. I grew up in a time when being a nerd or a geek was anything but fashionable. It was not always the best of times, and there are no “glory days” memories of high school for me, but I don’t regret the mental habits that developed in my youth.
And habits they were, habits that stuck. I left school, but didn’t let mundane life stop the learning process. The curiosity never died. I can’t explain how it worked out that way. This wasn’t a deliberate effort on my part; it was just the way my brain was wired. I simply couldn’t help it. So I charged on into adult life, trying to find my path and make a living, all the while reading and making inquiries and steadily filling that mental storehouse in a way that would likely have caused Sherlock Holmes to shake his head in disgust. That’s fine, the judgment of imaginary beings having so little weight. I’ve found this life of learning liberating, and enormously entertaining. Those things alone would have kept me motivated, but it turns out now there’s something more. Because of these old but lively habits, I can write.
Or, I should say, write more effectively. All this nonessential information, this useless in day-to-day terms knowledge, “informs” my writing, though not always in obvious ways. I’m rarely conscious of it when it happens, but that lifetime of curiosity pays off when a story takes shape, and I need to give it the texture it needs to come alive. The details of the worlds I imagine, and the memories of starry nights I’ve put in print, all of these are easier to bring to life because of the time spent acquiring knowledge that had no immediate practical value. My muse carries a well-worn set of encyclopedia.
Next time I’m asked to provide an example of an oxymoron, my answer will be, “useless knowledge.”