Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What? Catholic Science Fiction?

A Classic of the Sci-Fi Genre

Just in case you haven't noticed, this blogger and contemplative nun has been a heavy duty reader since fourth grade. That's the year Miss Laventhal walked our class to the local storefront public library. I fell in love; began with the YA biography section; and worked my way thorough shelf by shelf.

In 1961 - OMG - 50 years ago - my parents took my sister and I on a three month long driving tour of  Europe - probably the most educational experience of my life. The trip was noteable on so many counts but is also memorable for the number of times I was sick. TV in my language could not be my distraction so Dad would do one of his favorite things. He would prowl the book stalls for books to amuse me. One of his purchases was A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer Walter M. Miller, Jr., first published in 1960. Based on three short stories Miller contributed to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; it is the only novel published by the author during his lifetime. Considered one of the classics of science fiction, it has never been out of print and has seen over 25 reprints and editions. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel. Recently I re-read this unlikely sci-fi choice for my diversionary reading. I recommend it highly.

Set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the story spans thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it. Sounds like our own historical Dark Ages in which monasteries preserved ancient learning while the barbarian hordes were being fought all around them.

Inspired by the author's participation in the Allied bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, the novel is considered a masterpiece by literary critics. It has been compared favorably with the works of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy, and its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state have generated a significant body of scholarly research.

At first reading when I was sixteen years old I was fascinated by the idea of my own civilization being deciphered by another less sophisticated defining itself hundreds of years after a nuclear war. Like the archaeologist  Howard Carter discovering Tutankamen's tomb, they could only guess at the meaning of their finds. The novel reveals what happens when the technology of the nuclear age is reappropriated; when the science is figured out; when once again atomic tests are being carried out in the desert. There are lessons here about the risks of not being students of history. The novel is also an astounding commentary on what is currently happening in our Church because of its way of doing business, a way light years removed from what Jesus would do. In this aspect, A Canticle Leibowitz, is very much a Catholic science fiction novel. Who would have thought?

BTW, I got my copy from the local public library on inter-library loan. I am still in love with the public library.

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