log(book)

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Cover of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Damn, rating this book is hard! The first part had me thinking that it was just standard (though not standart then, of course!) far-future post-fallout sci-fi where humanity lives in its own ruins. And then the second part was alright, eh. And then the last part was suddenly really fucking intense and painful in a good way.

So there’s that.

Look, I have a tag called “Space Monks”, of course I’m a fan. It goes without saying.

What doesn’t go without saying? The description of quasi-medieval monks holding on to knowledge and literacy in a post-fallout world (picturing the Fallout as a monster lurking in shadows of history) is drawn so well I took it for granted at first. This book is sci-fi that understands religion and treats it with both respect and humour, and I can count the books that manage both without losing integrity on one hand. There is actual Latin in there (I’m an asshole about bad Latin). There’s an O Antiphon for the fallout. And that’s just backdrop, of just the first part! Along with clever observations about (“pre-Deluge”) English, and Dominicans fighting New Rome on questions of not even theological significance, and orders trying to wrangle a beatification or even canonisation for their own. (And the Wandering Jew, tantalising, in between all this.)

I didn’t remember much of the second part, with its politics and its people rediscovering electricity. It was alright, but didn’t amuse me (like the first part) or punch me in the face (like the last one).

The last part was great. Painful, and great. The believable modernity, with the eye for detail shown in the other two parts. The consequences. The humans with actual human feelings. I got full on shivers and a Pale Blue Dot kind of feeling from the things that happened there. … And then I wished the book had ended a bit earlier, on account of the Big Yikes.

When I first read Josef Pieper’s theological work, I loved it. Later on I read his autobiography, which tainted his entire work with a shadow, and I haven’t been able to enjoy it fully since. The same thing happened here: When towards the end of the third part the topic of assisted dying comes up, Miller reveals parts of his soul that I cannot quite forgive, and that made me re-think the book in its entirety. (This weighs even more heavily on my mind thinking of Miller’s life, and death.)

(You’ll notice it’s still a five star read, but now it’s a grudging, uncertain rating rather than a fiery, convinced one.)

Quotes

Brother Francis visualized a Fallout as half-salamander, because, according to tradition, the thing was born in the Flame Deluge, and as half-incubus who despoiled virgins in their sleep, for, were not the monsters of the world still called “children of the Fallout”?

From the place of ground zero,
   O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
   O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
   O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
   O Lord, deliver us.

“Bless me, Father; I ate a lizard.”
Prior Cheroki having for many years been confessor to fasting penitents, found that custom had, with him, as with a fabled gravedigger, given it all “a property of easiness,” so that he replied with perfect equanimity and not even a blink: “Was it an abstinence day, and was it artificially prepared?”

He has a mind like a loaded musket, and it can go off in any direction.

“Yes, yes, but the freedom to speculate is essential–”
“No one has tried to deprive you of that. Nor is anyone offended. But to abuse the intellect for reasons of pride, vanity, or escape from responsibility, is the fruit of that same tree.”

Be born then, gasp wind, screech at the surgeon’s slap, seek manhood, taste a little of godhood, feel pain, give birth, struggle a little while, succumb. Dying, leave quietly by the rear exit, please.

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.