The Faith and Fiction Roundtable’s third book of 2011 was the science-fiction classic A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (reviewed here last week). Wait – a “science-fiction classic” for the Faith and Fiction Roundtable?
Science and religion do not have to be opposing forces, although history has shown that they often are. They both offer ways to confront the world’s most complex questions, and the conflicts between them usually arise from a belief that their approaches are mutually exclusive. While that often turns out to be true in practice, I don’t consider that to be strictly necessary myself. Since Miller’s novel follows an order of monks (implied to be some variation of Roman Catholic) that plays a major role in preserving and forwarding secular and scientific knowledge – ultimately becoming involved in space travel – through the centuries following a devastating man-made catastrophe (not stated as nuclear war, but certainly implied), I suspect he didn’t consider the disciplines mutually exclusive either.
The monks in Canticle reminded me of the Jesuits in The Sparrow, although, to be more accurate, it’s likely that Canticle was an influence on Mary Doria Russell’s masterwork, since it was published earlier (in fact, Russell wrote a new introduction to the edition I read). I think Russell blends the science and faith elements more smoothly and I like her characters better, but I could see similarities.
A Canticle for Leibowitz covers a time period ranging from a century to roughly 15 centuries after our own time. A scene early in the novel depicts the discovery of a once-used, now-ancient underground bomb shelter – a reminder that it was originally published in 1959, and clearly informed by the Cold War and the post-nuclear nightmares of the mid-20th century. One of the questions the FnFRT group discussed was whether the story remains timely – several of us think that it does, because as one person stated “The threat that we could destroy ourselves is always there.”
As previously mentioned, Miller’s monks have been charged with the preservation of knowledge in the new Dark Ages that follow the disaster. The friars of the Leibowitz order have become protectors of the Memorabilia – documents that have somehow survived, although their meaning has been lost. Over the following centuries, the technological and scientific knowledge they contain will be slowly re-discovered…as if it is learned for the first time. And because, as the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, the last section of the novel finds the world on the brink of a horror similar to that which preceded the events of its opening third. I think this is another reason for the book’s continued timeliness and relevance. As the pace of life and the flow of information seem to speed up every day, there’s so much to process that people are losing touch with history; and yet, much of the knowledge we’re exposed to really isn’t new. It’s just been forgotten, and we get caught in loops, repeating and re-learning and not remembering.
The science-fiction aspects of the novel seemed strongest to me during its final third, as the world (again) faces potential destruction and a group of the monks are sent away with the Memorabilia, to continue their mission of safekeeping it on a new planet. At the same time, this section also contains some of the strongest faith elements as it explores responses to extreme human suffering. Much of the FnFRT e-mail discussion revolved around this portion of the book.
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