Rereading Canticle for Leibowitz as a First Contact Story

Yesterday, took a crazy 5.5 hour drive there, 5.5 hour drive back trip with the Caboose to see Middle Son’s thesis defence at Thomas Aquinas College. Elder Daughter drove up from L.A., so the fam was well-represented. About 20 – 25 of Middle Son’s classmates also showed up, so it was good turn-out, especially considering TAC only has about 400 students total.

He did very well. I am a happy dad. Our kids are a wonderful and undeserved blessing. Also, the 11 hours in the car with our 15 year old son provided an opportunity to throw on the A Canticle for Leibowitz audiobook.

There has been quite a bit of recent discussion among the authors I follow on Twitter (mostly I’m on that silly platform just to follow SciFi authors and Catholics) about worldbuilding. Several writers deplored the evidently common current practice of going overboard with worldbuilding at the expense of plot and especially character. The consensus seemed to be that some writers had taken the wrong lesson from Tolkien. Many, many pages at the beginning of Lord of the Rings are spent describing the preparation and execution of a birthday party, as a way to introduce us to Middle Earth and the Shire. The wrong takeaway is that this long exposition is primarily meant to create a vivid setting. The writers seem to think it is meant to introduce us rather to the main characters, and the Shire and its inhabitants are described as an essential key to understanding those characters.

William Gibson was used as an example of strong worldbuilding at the expense of strong character development. I can sort of see that, except I think Johnny Mnemonic, Trinity Molly Millions and even the Fynn are quite memorable. But, yes, Gibson’s world is vivid in a way that his characters are not, while Gandalf, Samwise, Frodo and Gimli transcend even the glories of Middle Earth.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of my absolute favorite books, I’ve read it many times, and have given copies to a number of friends and acquaintances over the years. So it was natural for me to consider its structure and worldbuilding in light of the more expert opinions of real writers, especially since the Novel That Shall Not Be Named that has been percolating in my head for a decade or two now could hardly help being strongly influenced by it. In fact, the story I’m (very intermittently) trying to tell is about a culture, a civilization, over centuries of time and lightyears of space. No human character can last that long, so it can’t be at its heart about any particular character.

Miller’s masterpiece is the exception that proves the rule. (1) While populated with any number of engaging and sympathetic characters, it cannot be said to be about any of them neatly as much as it can be said to be about the world itself.

In a number of places, Chesterton talks about the world and the Church as being too close, too familiar, to be honestly seen. He suggests that to truly see, a man must approach his own home as a stranger seeing a foreign land for the first time. In ACFL, Miller takes up this challenge. Our own world must be approached as a thing totally alien. He must first destroy the world in order that we might see it. He burns it to ashes to try to save it. He must purge the Church down to the bare visible essentials, a few rag-tag would-be saints stumbling , half-blind, into an uncertain and terrifying future, in order that she may be seen at all. The story is not about Brother Francis Gerard or Lazarus. The story is about a world that needs saving and a Church whose martyrs are the instruments of its salvation.

A Canticle for Leibowitz presents to us the unfamiliar ashes of our familiar world, populated by people that are often only barely recognizable as our shadows or ghosts. The monks of Leibowitz Abbey, with their rituals, discipline and logic, present a humanity far more difficult for a modern reader to see than that in a Ferengi or Klingon. Just as the look of Star Trek aliens is created through the artful application of latex to mundane human bodies, their personalities and motivations are merely emphases of existing human traits. It’s easier for a person today to see the humanity in Gul Ducat or Quark than in Brother Francis Gerard or Abbot Arkos, and to recognize his reflection in the Romulan homeworld than in an abbey full of monks.

In this way, the worldbuilding of ACFL is more nearly that of a first encounter story than any other kind of science fiction or fantasy story. Hidden behind the startling originality of the story, Miller follows a classic formula. He spends the first third of the book describing an alien species and their home world, and the rest of the book showing how these aliens are not so different from us.

Thus ends today’s Sci Fi musings.

  1. Two other exceptions would be: the Foundation and Dune series, where the world is the consistent character in a way none of the human characters can ever be. I’m guessing this is more broadly true in this era of fantasy and sci fi series, but I’m more an old-school guy, so I don’t have much experience in more modern works.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “Rereading Canticle for Leibowitz as a First Contact Story”

  1. This is another one of the classics of SF that I couldn’t finish. The first section about the monk was okay, and the second section about the quasi-medieval barony was fairly interesting, but I wasn’t willing to follow him into a third jump ahead. I might have had more luck if it had been published as three (or more, for al I know) separate books.

    1. Understandable. It’s slow going in parts.

      I was gripped by both the characters and finally finding in sci fi a description of life that matched reality. For some that doesn’t, see Slan, Skylark, most all of Asimov – Thon Taddeo is a perfect stand in for those guys, who both flatter and excuse themselves with the idea technology trumps morality.

  2. Congratulations to your son! That’s terrific news.

    I’m not a sci fi guy at all. Tolkien and Lewis are about as far as I go (well, and Robert Hugh Benson come to think of it). When you mentioned GKC and looking at the world from outside, my first thought was of Manalive and Innocent Smith, but this sounds like a much grimmer version of the idea.

    1. Thanks.

      This can be a difficult book. In an apocalyptic world, a scientist named Leibowitz founded a monastic order to preserve human learning through a coming nuclear wasteland Dark Age. Story begins 600 hundred years later with a young novice out in the desert doing Lenten penance to discern if he has a vocation. Miller needs to recreate for modern readers what monasticism would be like in a dark, harsh and dangerous age. That’s part one, next he leaps up 600 more years to the birth of a new Renaissance. Last part deals with: well, we recovered learning, but have we learned anything?

      He understand reality much better than most sci fi authors, who tend either toward Roddenberry style balloon-headed optimism or Skynet-level despair.

      Miller fought in WWII and experienced horrors he never recovered from. He only wrote this one book, and, while full of gentle humor, it is very grim. I would not be the least surprised if he’d read Lord of the World.

  3. I read Canticle many times in my youth, along with whatever else of Miller I could find, and it’s probably time to re-read him again. I’ll have to find a copy, though. I made the mistake of introducing it to my parents, and my mother frequently would loan my copy out to her new acquaintances. I’d never see it again, and I would have to buy another copy whenever I wanted to revisit Miller’s world.

    For what it’s worth: I read The Lord of the Rings several times in high school, but for about ten years after that I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter.

    1. My wife and I make a habit of scanning the stacks at any used bookstores we visit and buying copies just so that we can give them away. It’s that kind of book.

      I also read LotR in high school, back in the Pleistocene, because all of the very few kids who read stuff were reading it – eh, thought 16 year old me. Then, in the process of falling for my future wife 6 years later, ended up reading it aloud to her and her roommates while they knit (as the one guy who didn’t knit, I ended up doing the bulk of the reading.) Then it all made sense!

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