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?”