Posts Tagged ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’

August favourites #6: science fiction

August 6, 2018

As I prepared to post this, I noticed that today is Hiroshima Day. Appropriate.

I’ve read so much science fiction in my time, particularly since I researched it for a higher degree; a lot is tosh, as the venerable Theodore Sturgeon noted (in rather pithier language, too) but there’s a lot of good stuff. I tend to go for the utopian end, which I may write about later, and the dystopian, too, as well as encounters with alien intelligences. I first came across Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz as a teenager, and have returned regularly to it ever since. It’s a dystopia, set in a wasteland United States after a nuclear war. An order of monks helps preserve the knowledge of the past, and seeks out lost information among the ruins; the pace is slow as over centuries humanity gradually rebuilds itself and creates a new ‘technological’ civilisation, only to fall into the same mistakes and repeat the catastrophe a second time. It fits the pessimism and dark days of the Cold War, but seems peculiarly relevant to me nowadays as once again I find myself reflecting on our species’ inability to learn from our past. It’s a very well-written story, a classic both of its time and the genre.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids

December 29, 2017

41XXnBs1XZL._AC_US218_This – probably the best-known of Wyndham‘s novels – was turned into a film with an abysmal ending at some point in the 1960s, when black and white films were still being made. As a novel, it works well because of its first-person narrative. A puzzling start, with the narrator in hospital surrounded by everyone else blinded by a super-bright comet, is followed by a lengthy and tedious but necessary flashback as the history and origins of the triffids is outlined, along with some rather crude Cold War propaganda and attitudes, which later turn out to be rather more prescient than it initially seemed: were the triffids a sinister product of biological and genetic manipulation in a laboratory somewhere, and were the bright lights which blinded everyone another sinister Cold War weapon which went off by accident?…. we are in the hands of a read science-fiction writer here, no doubt.

Triffids are deadly, mobile and carnivorous plants which can communicate with each other; without sight, humans are doomed, so here we are in disaster-novel territory, though not one quite so appallingly horrifying as Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, a novel which I honestly don’t think I could face reading again…

Wyndham’s characters and their attitudes are seriously dated now – the novel was published in 1951 – but his plot is plausible, even convincing in its development once the premise of the triffids is accepted. Changes to people’s behaviour and morals would be necessary if the species were to survive and regenerate after the collapse of civilisation, and many novels of this era consider this problem from a number of angles – think Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or George Stewart‘s Earth Abides. These are real questions, though framed in 1950s terms. We are inevitably soon in survival of the fittest territory; various attempts at group survival fail, in London and in the countryside, particularly ones run along millenarist, Christian fundamentalist lines. Among many of the survivors a curious hope in the Americans coming to the rescue is seen…

There can be no satisfactory ending to such a novel, of course, only a glimpse of hope and optimism, which is where Wyndham perhaps differs from other writers of the time and genre who are rather more pessimistic; a settlement on an island large enough to be self-sufficient, and from which the deadly plants can be eliminated, is possibly a start.

Leigh Brackett: The Long Tomorrow

August 3, 2015

9780575131569I’d never come across the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ until I read the introduction to this SF novel from the 1950s; it’s an interesting label, referring to a cluster of stories from the US which imagined that a nuclear war was somehow survivable. This got me thinking: given the size of the United States, and the relative emptiness of a lot of it, even a major attack (major for then being rather different from major nowadays) would leave large tracts ‘relatively’ unaffected; the same would never be true in the crowded small island that is the UK, which is why our post-nuclear tales are rather grimmer and more horrific…

Novels like this take us back to a simpler age, perhaps even in a romanticised frontiersman fashion. In the post-war world of The Long Tomorrow, a 30th amendment to the US constitution has forbidden settlements of more than a thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile: immediately we are back with the small-town US that existed before today’s complex world. Another particularly American trait of such novels is the re-emergence of fundamentalist religion in myriad forms, embracing the frontier-days violence which (to an outsider) always seems to lurk just below the surface. Religion enforces ignorance and social conformity.

Leigh Brackett explores the obvious question: should the survivors attempt to recreate the complex civilisation of the previous time? can knowledge, once gained, ever be forgotten? Religion complicates the issue by suggesting it’s forbidden knowledge and the war was God’s warning.

Two curious boys rebel against the small-town mentality, seek and eventually find the mysterious settlement where a small group still secretly pursue the learning of the past; it is not what they expect and in their different ways they are challenged; there is real tension between the dangers of stasis and the impossibility of turning back the clock; equally, to go back to the mistakes of the past is no solution.

Something which struck me forcefully as I read were the uncanny similarities between this novel and one of my favourite-ever SF novels, Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was written a few years later, and is still, for my money, the more powerful and moving of the two, perhaps because it is less cosy; I wondered how much, if at all, Miller had been moved or influenced by Brackett’s earlier novel. Both are set in a post-nuclear war US, both posit a highly religious society springing up in the aftermath, both explore the idea of the preservation and rediscovery of the dangerous knowledge of the past; Miller is more pessimistic in his conclusion.

The Long Tomorrow is a really good, fast-paced read; perhaps the ideas are rather predictable, but it’s a novel to make you think about us as a species.

Post-apocalyptic futures…

February 24, 2015

I’ve been thinking about the taxonomy, or classification, of various types of what might loosely be called science fiction, in the light of earlier posts on this blog. There are differences and overlaps to consider, before I come on to today’s topic.

For instance, some utopias and dystopias might also be classified as alternative futures: Ernest Callenbach’s visions of California turning itself into an independent state run along ecological lines (Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging) might have been considered alternative futures in the 1970s when they were written. Many dystopias are clearly also alternative futures, or were when they were first written. And I suppose the argument might be made that all utopian visions are alternative futures, although that doesn’t actually get us any further.

But then it seemed to me, as I thought first about Richard JefferiesAfter London (see the preceding post) that the classification also needs to take post-apocalyptic visions into account, as many of these may also be alternative future scenarios…

Enough theorising, time to consider some of my favourite examples. One of the best science fiction novels ever (see my listings pages) is Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, also one of the most pessimistic visions of humanity I can call to mind. Hundreds of years after a nuclear war, monks – still the repositories of knowledge – preserve the relics of the ancients (us) as civilisation slowly and painfully rebuilds itself, over many centuries, until it reaches such an advanced state that it can once again build nuclear weapons. And yes, da capo. Double post apocalypse yes, dystopia? I’m not sure. in M P Sheil’s The Purple Cloud, poisonous gases wipe out humanity permanently; in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, it’s only temporary.

Apocalyptic scenarios were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s when consciousness of the fact that our species had reached such a high point in its development that it was now capable of not only destroying itself, but possibly most life on the planet, gradually dawned on writers. Not all visions used nuclear war as the trigger, in George Stewart’s Earth Abides it’s a disease, in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids it’s genetically-engineered plants plus laser weapons in space, though in The Chrysalids there has been nuclear war and attendant mutations.

Wyndham and JG Ballard are perhaps the obvious masters of the post-apocalyptic in different ways, although Christopher Priest, with The Death of Grass and The Empty World, rates a mention. All of these writers bring to science fiction, and to post-apocalyptic writing as a new genre, a consciousness of the ultimate fragility of our species, and indeed, of sentient life. Perhaps the first to consider this in a scientific fashion was HG Wells in The War of the Worlds, and interestingly Christopher Priest provides a marvellous twist on this story and on The Time Machine in his wonderful novel The Space Machine.

However, this is all to view everything from a twentieth century perspective, where science fiction itself is a recent notion, allowing us to ignore or forget writers from longer ago who also considered such notions, which brings us back to Jefferies, and of course, to Mary Shelley and The Last Man, which still gets my award for one of the best post-apocalyptic novels, for who can resist her fantasy of having the whole world to oneself to do with what one likes (with only oneself for company)?

Ronald Wright: A Scientific Romance

August 14, 2014

51769EB1CML._AA160_My post on dystopias (24 July) sent me back to apocalyptic fiction, as I thought it would, and firstly to another re-read of Wright’s splendid A Scientific Romance.

Writers’ fascination with HG Wells is easy to understand: his two novels, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are early masterpieces of speculative fiction. Christopher Priest wove the two plots together marvellously in his tribute The Space Machine, which I also thoroughly recommend. Wright’s take is different: Wells’ machine is scheduled to re-appear at the end of 1999 and does so, and is taken possession of by another traveller who ventures five centuries into the future…

The novel was written in 1998; the threat of BSE and CJD as well as HIV (don’t medics and scientists love acronyms!) inform Wright’s future, as well as the effects of climate change; civilisation apparently collapsed in the mid 2040s; after a melancholy exploration of the remains of the land, he comes across a small group of survivors clustered together, clinging on to the remains of civilisation on the shores of Loch Ness…

One could, uncharitably, argue that there’s nothing original here: he’s lifted the concept from Wells, and imitated 19th century apocalypses like Mary Shelley‘s The Last Man and Richard JefferiesAfter London, or MP Shiel‘s The Purple Cloud (and re-visiting this one is next on my list), and Wright acknowledges these in his notes. And yet, it’s a stunningly good novel – first novel – which won awards when first published.

It’s framed well, by an expired love triangle remembered with fondness by one of the members addressing the others; it’s erudite, abounding in references to texts from the past as he writes about our vanished present which has become a lost past in the year 2501; it’s for our times not the 1820s or 1880s or 1900s: it gains n some of its power from the aspects of our very own lives that we can see becoming our nemesis in the near future. For a genre that often leaves characterisation very thin, Wright does well: his central characters do come to life and haunt us. I think in my league table he comes pretty close to A Canticle for Leibowitz.

After the Apocalypse…

August 3, 2014

Thinking about utopias and dystopias in recent posts reminded me of post-apocalyptic scenarios. It might seem as if that particular strand in literature must be a relatively recent one, in that only since the invention of nuclear weapons have we been forced to accept the possibility that we could annihilate ourselves as a species.

But no: back to Mary Shelley, author of the more famous Frankenstein. She wrote a novel which I think I prefer, because it’s rather less frantic and over-written than the former – The Last Man, which describes just that situation: a plague gradually kills off all human beings save one, who travels through the empty and deserted remains of civilisation, reflecting on his fate. It’s an astonishing effort of the imagination, and deserves a wider audience. Early in the twentieth century, in The Purple Cloud, M P Shiel imagines a similar series of events.

Perhaps because we are such a social species, writers have striven to imagine the opposite. Perhaps because we are a warlike species, they have sought to imagine us ultimately defeated, by greater forces than ourselves – H G Wells could have had us completely annihilated by the Martians in The War of the Worlds, but chose not to, developing a different message for the human race by pointing out the fragility of any organism when faced by unknown microbes or bacteria.

And then there’s the fantasy element, as we read any of these novels: what would I do in that situation? What if I had the world to myself, all its resources and riches: how would I play with them all? Where would I go? Shelley’s hero wanders through the beautiful places of Europe…

John Wyndham imagines a combination of elements dealing the death-blow to humanity in The Day of the Triffids: another warning about humans over-reaching themselves. Deadly plants which can communicate with each other wipe out the blinded human race, except for a small enclave which retreats to the Isle of Wight, there to exercise constant vigilance against the dreaded weeds.

One of my favourite tales is Earth Abides, by George Stewart: a storyfrom the 1950s again sees humans almost wiped out by a plague; there are some survivors, but what interests Stewart is how they would struggle to survive in small numbers, with their limited and compartmentalised knowledge, how much they would need to re-discover and re-invent in order to sustain civilisation, and how inevitably with the passage of time and generations, so much knowledge and ability would be lost, and the gradual sinking into primitiveness and savagery would be hard to avoid. It’s a poignant tale, perhaps somewhat dated now, but good for making one think about the fragile veneer of civilisation…

I think the best, and most harrowing and haunting, at least to my knowledge, has to be Walter M Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s set in a remote, post nuclear holocaust future where a bastardised version of the Catholic Church strives to preserve the knowledge of the past in its monasteries; slowly and painfully, civilisation is re-established, but only for humans to gradually and inevitably make the same ghastly mistakes all over again: nuclear weapons are re-invented and wreak their horrific toll once more. Such a pessimistic vision of the species and its history could only have come out of the 1960s, with the threat of annihilation hanging over the world. It’s beautifully written, painfully described, and leaves us with no hope.

But now, I’m off to re-read a novel from the 1990s: A Scientific Romance, by Ronald Wright, in which a Wellsian time machine maroons a traveller in a post-apocalyptic Britain…

 

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