A Canticle for Leibowitz, religion, and the failure of SF

What is that strange thread of Catholicism running through SF? Having just finished reading Walter M. Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, I felt a number of observations beginning to crystallize into thought. Full disclosure: I do not share in the what appears to be near universal acclaim given this book. Yes, it is interesting in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic society, until about halfway through the “Fiat Voluntas Tua” section. Up to this point it had been fairly dispassionate (or unpassionate) and interesting examination of the role of a monastery in such a society, one by turns ignorant and fearful of scientific progress, as a repository of the isolated and frayed threads of knowledge. Then there is a swerve into a narrative on the abuse secular powers inevitably make of science, one which is crowd-pleasingly cynical, marking this book as a product of the Cold War.

There is an honourable naivety of the monks in the earlier sections, attempting to preserve the last shreds and shards of civilization in their simple isolation. The monastery at this stage is but an outpost of what is called New Rome (a strangely uncatholic name, if Catholicism seeks to maintain what it claims to be an unbroken continuity), but the political tendrils are there, as ever. The simplicity of the monks is, as ever, only apparent. We are all post-reformation, and so the political aspect of this creed cannot be ignored. The actions of the Pope as ever betray the aspirations to secular power, whatever the claims of being “in the world, but not of the world”.

Reading this immediately after Neal Stephenson‘s Anathem, I found in it many prefigurations of what Stephenson would examine from a more rigorous perspective. Disappointingly, the last section of Canticle loses it completely, as the author’s Catholicism takes over. Admittedly, in saying this I sound like I am a victim of the biographical fallacy, but I do think Miller’s beliefs warrant mention, because he was not born into this religion, and it partakes of the fervour of the convert (Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s More Tales From My Father’s Court has a wonderful short story on this need to be “more X than the X themselves”, in Singer’s story X is Jewish, in Miller it’s Catholic). This part of the book makes little sense unless you happen to agree with that Church’s brutal (but according to its own theological premises, logical) theodicy, and seems to function as little more than an apologia for Miller’s beliefs. Another author might have attempted to present Zerchi’s position in the abstract, thus giving the sceptical reader something to engage with. Miller abdicates such a difficult task, and instead implies that if you do not agree with his position (through the mouthpiece of Zerchi) you are not just compromised, but guilty.

As a genre work, it is an important part of the post-apocalyptic canon. As literature, it is decidedly third-rate, and buckles under the weight of its leaden ironies. I cannot help but feel it is so highly revered because it engages – crudely – with some spiritual themes often absent from SF. Also, echoing an observation in Brian Aldiss’s Trillion Year Spree, that grand overview of SF, where he notes that the love and loyalty we SF readers have for our genre often blinds us to the serious flaws in a work simply because it is SF. All that is wrong with Canticle is overlooked because of its place in the SF canon, but by the measure of literature as a whole, it cannot be allowed to go without mention.

An author such as Stephenson is capable of engaging with such themes as the role that social organization takes alongside technological advancement and theoretical research, without compromising the hard-headedness for which he is held in such high regard. In contrast, Miller is is lobotomized. In terms of literature on the whole, aside from the SF genre, Hesse‘s The Glass Bead Game manages to consider the role of knowledge in the abstract (admittedly sans apocalypse) and yet you don’t feel that you are being bashed over the head. Consider also that Hesse began planning his book in 1931, and it was only published in 1943 in Switzerland, after being rejected in Germany. That too is a book which cannot but be rooted in a historical context, but it manages to maintain the integrity of knowledge, without pimping it out to a vast, coercive social organization.

It is an interesting effort, but put in the context of both later SF, and literature in general, it is a period piece. What I concerns me, beyond this, is where it stands within SF. I like to follow Harman’s taxonomy of philosophy, whereby he considers thinkers in the same breath if they can be regarded as interacting with the same idea or set of ideas, regardless of  whether they are seen as “analytic” or “continental” philosophers. Applying something of this to fiction, there is a strain of a kind of religious (or, more accurately, but clumsily, religish) SF. Canticle is part of this, so too is Anathem, and The Glass Bead Game. I would also include the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, with the Catholic planet Pacem and Pope Teilhard (or should that be popes…). Then we could extend matters to include Dune, Lord of Light, Absolution Gap, and perhaps even those high-priests of space fantasy, the Jedi. But we won’t.

What is interesting in all this is that religion or its echo has a heuristic function in each of these fictions. For some it is a structuring device, a means of organizing the society in that narrative (it is thus in Hesse and Stephenson), and so it is a formal matter. By contrast, it is telling how religion qua Catholicism in terms of content features in Miller’s work, because it is not simply formal. Miller clearly seeks to communicate something. The Catholicism is integral, not incidental. In Simmons, Catholicism is examined externally, and so we come to see the contradictions that this worldview inheres, and the need for a separation of church and state becomes ever more apparent. In Canticle, such a line is blurred, and Miller thinks this is salutary. We see that this is not the interrogation of an idea, as in Simmons, but it is a canticle in the true sense, “a hymn, psalm, or other song of praise.”  This is not a work of literature, if we consider literature to be an engagement with ideas and new ways of living and thinking. It is propaganda. It is the abdication of thought. It manifests an unwillingness to take on the responsibilities that attend serious speculation.

The difficulty is that which attends all SF, namely what I have previously called the “time wall”. There is a difficulty in thinking beyond our present material and cognitive limitations, and it is the challenge which all thinking in a speculative mode must face, be those thinkers writers, engineers, philosophers, or scientists. Miller found a solution to this which was to his satisfaction, namely to ignore that there is such a problem. The answer is found in a piece of Bronze-age literature, and we have nothing new to learn or discover. Our moral imagination is exhausted. Don’t try to do something new. It is the stick-your-fingers-in-your-ears-and-shout-na-na-na-na-na-na school of thought.  Simmons, with his space-Jesuits, shows their position being overcome and challenged, but in quite a fantastical way.

What endures for me, and what got me thinking about all this is that we seem to have simply given up attempting to articulate a new morality. We either rail against the old form, or we seek to fillet it to our own a-la carte tastes, with increasingly micro-ethics. I do not have an alternative. I do want to point out, however, that contrary to our moral ideology, an alternative must be possible. It is the responsibility of SF as the avant garde of human thought to engage with this. A first step is to admit our past failures, and A Canticle for Leibowitz is one such failure.

Postscript: Thinking about an alternative, one approach which popped into my mind was Isaac Asimov’s short story, “The Last Question” which I have always enjoyed.

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One thought on “A Canticle for Leibowitz, religion, and the failure of SF

  1. Pingback: A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ: on the misconstrual of the mode of existence of religion | Xeno Swarm

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