A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a science fiction novel published in 1960. The novel, divided into three parts, takes place between 600, 1200, and 1800 years in the future, respectively, chronicling a new Dark Age in the aftermath of a nuclear war. As in the Middle Ages, the Church survives and preserves learning over the centuries until a new Renaissance can occur. However, with the rebirth of knowledge and technology come the same forces at work a millennium earlier, and once more the world stands on the brink of nuclear destruction. Wishing to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that (you can read more in the linked Wikipedia article above). I certainly encourage everyone to read it–no summary does it justice. In my mind it’s one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, and probably the greatest sf novel dealing with themes of faith and religion. Despite this, I think anyone of any religious persuasion can enjoy the novel, and more importantly find food for thought on the topic of knowledge and whether or not mankind can use it responsibly.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a bit of an enigma. He is considered one of the most important writers of science fiction of the mid-20th Century, and yet his output was small. During World War II, he was part of the crew of a bomber that participated in a series of raids against the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino. Monte Cassino is the historic monastery founded by St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, and as such the mother house of the Benedictine order. During the Italian Campaign in 1944, British intelligence erroneously thought that the monastery was being used as headquarters for German troops, and therefore ordered the bombing raids against it. The monastery was almost completely destroyed, with the only casualties being Italian civilians who had fled there for shelter, rather than Germans. Ironically, German troops later did camp in the ruins of the monastery, which were good cover. Miller was deeply traumatized by the effects of this tragic error, and the effects of this–what we’d now call PTSD–lingered for years. After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism, which was to be a major influence on his work.
During the 1950’s, Miller published many short stories and wrote scripts for television, winning a Hugo Award for his much-lauded short story “The Darfsteller“. From 1955 to 1957 he published a series of novellas dealing with an order of monks dedicated to preserving human knowledge in a distant, post-apocalyptic future. The novellas were originally titled “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, “And the Light is Risen”, and “The Last Canticle”. In 1959, Miller substantially edited and reworked the material in the novellas and published them in novel form as A Canticle for Leibowitz. The three-part structure was preserved, with the sections being renamed as “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man”), “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”), and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy will be done”). The novel won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1961, and has been in print ever since. After this, Miller never published anything again during the rest of his lifetime. Despite his small oeuvre, Miller is widely considered to be one of the most influential science fiction writers of his time.
Sadly, as the years progressed, Miller became increasingly reclusive, avoiding even most of his family and refusing even to meet with his literary agent in person. He struggled with depression and the aftereffects of PTSD. Though he published nothing, he worked for years on the manuscript of a sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz titled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. “Sequel” is perhaps not quite the right word–the second novel takes place in the time between the events of “Fiat Lux” and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” in the original novel. In any case, Miller completed some six hundred pages of manuscript over a period of many years. By the 1990’s, though, he was in ill health and suffering from writers’s block, so he commissioned sf novelist Terry Bisson to complete the novel. According to Bisson, the vast majority of the work had been completed, and he merely tidied up the text and tied up a few loose ends. Tragically, in 1996, shortly after the death of his wife, Miller committed suicide. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published the following year.
I’ve posted this before, back on March 28th, 2014 as part of my “Daily Whitman” series; but it’s a great poem for the Fourth of July, non-jingoistic and speaking of what makes the American project truly great. May we continue to emulate it. Enjoy, and Happy Independence Day.
I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
The two books that are perhaps the most famous children’s books of the Victorian Era were written by an unlikely author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pronounced DOD-son–the “g” is silent) was an Oxford don–a professor of mathematics, specifically–a skilled amateur photographer, and a deacon in the Church of England. Despite the expectations of his father, Dodgson did not emulate him by going on to the priesthood. Rather, taking advantage of an exemption made for him by the dean of the college, Dodgson remained at Christ Church College, Oxford, for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and occasionally preaching sermons as a deacon.
Dodgson never married nor had children of his own. However, throughout his life he had many child-friends, mostly young girls. One in particular, Alice Pleasance Liddell, made him famous. Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and a formidable classical scholar (he was co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, still in use after 175 years). Dodgson became friends with Alice and her two sisters closest in age to her, Lorina and Edith. They would often go on excursions, during which the girls would plead with Dodgson to tell them stories. He was always happy to comply. On one such excursion in 1862–memorialized by Dodgson as the “golden afternoon“–Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three girls on a boat ride down the Isis River.
As usual, Dodgson, at the girls’ request, told one of his stories. This time, at the end of the day, Alice implored Dodgson to write it down. Eventually he did so and presented the result, Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice Liddell. Later, at the suggestion of his friend George MacDonald, he expanded and reworked the book for publication. The result, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll (by which Dodgson is usually known), was a sensation, and has never been out of print since. In 1871 Dodgson published the equally well-known sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. In 1876 he published the long comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, which, in modern parlance, takes place in the same universe as the Alice books; and in 1895 he published the two-part children’s novel Sylvie and Bruno. Sylvie and Bruno is largely forgotten, considered by most to be Dodgson’s weakest work. The Alice books, along with The Hunting of the Snark, are his masterpieces.
The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
–T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent; courtesy of Wikiquote.
Someone I follow on Tumblr had a post recently discussing what makes for good writing in a fan fiction context. The conclusion was “good technical skills”. The idea is that, while writers and readers of fanfic may have different criteria of what makes a fic “good” than do the gatekeepers of “mainstream” fiction, and while those differing criteria are valid, good technical skills are universal, allowing you to develop the story you want to tell and to say what you need to say. Technical skills may not be the end-all and be-all; but you have to be able to control what you’re saying if you want to get anything across to the reader. I totally agree with this.
Anyway, I reblogged and added a response dealing with an aspect of fanfic that I think isn’t often realized or understood. It occurred to me that it might be worth putting up here, too, especially since I’ve been discussing pop culture–which of course includes fanfic–in the course of writing my series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“. I have edited it very lightly for publication here, but it’s substantially the same as the original form. Enjoy!
Well, I’ve worried some about, you know, why write books … why are we teaching people to write books when presidents and senators do not read them, and generals do not read them. And it’s been the university experience that taught me that there is a very good reason, that you catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with … humanity, and however you want to poison their minds, it’s presumably to encourage them to make a better world.
–“A Talk with Kurt Vonnegut. Jr.” by Robert Scholes in The Vonnegut Statement (1973) edited by Jerome Klinkowitz and John Somer October 1966), later published in Conversations With Kurt Vonnegut (1988), p. 123; courtesy of Wikiquote
Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī. In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).
Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát. This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines). The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar. Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent. The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”. However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason. Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in). Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát. This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.
This is a follow-up of sorts to my recent post on aliens, robots, and perpetual motion. There, I rather harshly criticized the tendency of many science fiction (henceforth SF) writers to portray robots, androids, and sometimes aliens as being capable of functioning with no energy inputs of any kind. It gets a bit irritating for those of us who are scientifically inclined, and it would be nice, once in a while, to see someone actually address the issue—having a robot being charged, for example.
Despite this, I have still enjoyed many books, movies, and TV series with such perpetual-motion robots. I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation throughout its run, despite the fact that Data never once was shown being charged. I also have read all the robot stories of the granddaddy of robot stories, Isaac Asimov. Even he, to the best of my knowledge, never explained how robots are powered (I am open to correction on this if anyone has any references). Certainly, Asimov knew better. The thing is that, as he himself pointed out, the appeal of robots in fiction is not mainly about how they work, but our fascination with human-like beings we ourselves have created. It is the mixed fascination and fear, expressed as far back as Frankenstein—fascination that we ourselves become like God; fear that our creations will rise up against us. The very play that gave us the word “robot”, R.U.R. (an abbreviation for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), by Karel Čapek, expresses this fear explicitly—the robots rise up and overthrow mankind.
The point is that sometimes SF gives us potent themes that are more important than details that get the science exactly right. This leads to the topic I want to talk about here: What should one expect from good SF in terms of scientific accuracy? That is a long-debated topic, and I make no claims to come to a definitive conclusion here; but I do want to look at some of the things that work for me, personally, at least.