Ever since reading Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s wildly thought-provoking classic A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) for the third time a few weeks ago – it’s the featured title this month over in Barnes&Noble.com’s Fantasy & Science Fiction forum – I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance, and ultimate mission, of science fiction. One statement that keeps resurfacing in my mind is something that Lou Anders, the editorial director at Pyr Books, wrote in the introduction of the 2007 anthology Fast Forward 1:

“Science fiction is skepticism. Science fiction is rationalism. Science fiction is the notion that there are other perspectives out there, other modes of thinking, other ways of being than those in front of your nose, worlds beyond your current understanding. Science fiction opens the mind to the notion of change. Science fiction is enlightenment packaged in narrative.”

Enlightenment packaged in narrative. I love that line. I can’t tell you how many science fiction novels and stories have illuminated me and changed the way that I look at the world… Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood's End, Jon Armstrong’s Grey, John Varley’s The Persistence of Vision, Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes… the list goes on and on. My life has been made immeasurably richer from reading these books and I am a more sympathetic, open-minded, and hopeful person because of it.

And then there’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-apocalyptic masterpiece that follows a monastic order as it struggles to preserve – and decipher – remnants of knowledge from the ancients as humankind annihilates itself with nuclear weapons again and again. There’s nothing subtle about the “enlightenment” in this novel. It’s like being punched between the eyes with brass knuckles or kicked in the groin with a steel-toed boot. Repeatedly.

Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the book:

“Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk. Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America — burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion...”

If you have never read this book, I urge you to do so as soon as possible. And although its implications are disturbing, depressing and downright chilling, A Canticle for Leibowitz couldn’t be more relevant than it is right now in 2009 – exactly 50 years after it was written. Just a few days ago, Muhammad el-Baradei, the outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that 10-20 countries could soon develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons. And President Barack Obama recently stated: “It is absolutely imperative that America takes leadership, working with not just our Russian counterparts but countries all around the world, to reduce and ultimately eliminate the dangers that are posed by nuclear weapons.”

Once again, Miller’s question is loud and clear: “Is the species congenitally insane, Brother?”

Let’s revisit Lou Anders’ statement: “Science fiction opens the mind to the notion of change…” Can we as a species change our self-destructive tendencies before it’s too late? Is it already too late? How can we stop – or at least slow down – our headlong charge towards oblivion? I believe a good place to start is to read and recommend books like A Canticle for Leibowitz. Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s visionary look into the future is like the grim spectre of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the Dickens’ classic and we collectively as a species are Ebenezer Scrooge. Will this speculative glimpse into our distant future help spur some kind of transformation, some type of transcendence?

I pray it does – not just for you and me but, more importantly, for our children and our children’s children...

“Is the species congenitally insane, Brother?”

Message Edited by paulgoatallen on 05-20-2009 10:58 AM
Comments
by on ‎05-20-2009 11:33 AM

Paul,

 

Your articles and comments are always great and get me looking at Science Fiction/Fantasy in a new way.  Thanks again.

 

Toni

by on ‎05-20-2009 12:09 PM

Very timely message, Paul. I read this morning that Iran has developed missiles that can reach eastern Europe.News article. And there is the ongoing struggle in Pakistan, a nuclear country, where its nuclear armament could fall into the hands of the Taliban. The news doesn't look good!

 

Nadine

by on ‎05-20-2009 12:10 PM

“Is the species congenitally insane, Brother?”

 

Absolutely, Paul. As Cormac McCarthy wrote in his own prescient post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, "There is no God and we are his prophets." Prophets of Doom I'm afraid.

 

Great piece by the way!

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎05-20-2009 12:36 PM

Great post, Paul.

 

I just read Canticle for the first time a few weeks ago and it really does hit you between the eyes.  You.  Go.  Read.  NOW.

by Chomp on ‎05-20-2009 03:11 PM

 

I very much enjoyed your post, Paul, as post-apocalyptic and dystopian are my favorite types of SF. The cautionary tale aspects of the genre can be creepy, scary, and sometimes even hopeful all at the same time. These books often reflect the time in which they are written, but are always pertinent.

 

It has been a few years since I read Canticle, but I agree with you -- much from the book resonates long after the actual reading is over.

 

Carol

About Unabashedly Bookish: The BN Community Blog
Unabashedly Bookish features new articles every day from the Book Clubs staff, guest authors, and friends on hot topics in the world of books, language, writing, and publishing. From trends in the publishing business to updates on genre fiction fan communities, from fun lessons on grammar to reflections on literature in our personal lives, this blog is the best source for your daily dose of all things bookish.

Advertisement

Since 1997, you’ve been coming to BarnesandNoble.com to discuss everything from Stephen King to writing to Harry Potter. You’ve made our site more than a place to discover your next book: you’ve made it a community. But like all things internet, BN.com is growing and changing. We've said goodbye to our community message boards—but that doesn’t mean we won’t still be a place for adventurous readers to connect and discover.

Now, you can explore the most exciting new titles (and remember the classics) at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Check out conversations with authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Gary Shteyngart at the B&N Review, and browse write-ups of the best in literary fiction. Come to our Facebook page to weigh in on what it means to be a book nerd. Browse digital deals on the NOOK blog, tweet about books with us,or self-publish your latest novella with NOOK Press. And for those of you looking for support for your NOOK, the NOOK Support Forums will still be here.

We will continue to provide you with books that make you turn pages well past midnight, discover new worlds, and reunite with old friends. And we hope that you’ll continue to tell us how you’re doing, what you’re reading, and what books mean to you.

Categories