It ended with buzzards. It always seems to end with buzzards.
“Fiat Lux,” the second book of Walter M. Miller’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, was just as satisfying as the the first book. The title, which translates as “let there be light,” refers on a literal level to electricity, which one of the monks, Brother Kornhoer, invents using some of the holy Leibowitz documents that have been uncovered since the end of book one. It refers on a metaphorical level to the advancement of science, which is being advocated by Thon Taddeo, an intellectual who comes to visit the monastery in order to study these documents.
The story of part two takes place many centuries after part one and about 1200 years after the Fire Deluge. The world has built itself up again to an almost medieval level, with castles and monasteries and peasants and kings. Anyone who has studied medieval Europe will recognize many of the same themes running through Miller’s text, specifically the struggle between the secular and the religious, the power of the king vs. the power of the church. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz are not adverse to science and progress the way their medieval predecessors were. In fact, many of the men in the order are men of science as well as of the cloth. The real struggle here is over the future–are we to continue down the same path that led to the world’s destruction or are we to steer ourselves down a different path?
Dom Paulo, the new Abbot, is the main character this time. He is funny, intelligent, and is much more sympathetic than the previous Abbot we encountered in the first part. Thon Taddeo, his antagonist, is vain and egotistical and very unlikable when he is first introduced. As the book progresses, however, he becomes a very different character and I couldn’t help but like him in the end. I think that is one of Miller’s greatest talents–character growth in a short period of time using targeted instances instead of dragging the plot out. Both of the main characters share the same encounters for the most part; their growth comes out of how they react to these incidents. There is no long journey, no drawn out exposition. Miller’s prose is very “wham, bam, thank you man” and, in a novel that spans more than a millennium, this is very important.
The passage of time so far in this novel has been very interesting. Each book is a snapshot of time. It looks at specific characters in a specific location in a specific time and then it moves on. It’s almost like the book was framed as a series of flashbacks in a movie. The film rewinds, it stops on a specific moment, it stays there for a bit in order to show us what’s important, and then it speeds up, heading for the next moment in time. These moments last months (“Fiat Lux”) or years (“Fiat Homo”) but they are moments nonetheless.
Fiat Lux features much more dialogue than the previous book. The characterization happens mostly through speech, a departure from the first book, which used description much more than dialogue. I see this as a strength. Part two looks very different from part one in terms of format. The characters interact with each other more often; relationships between characters are expressed on a much deeper level. The dialogue is funny and human. It is realistic. Miller seems to be an absolute genius at finding exactly the right way to convey his story.
Despite their differences, parts one and two end in much the same way. People die and are left to be eaten by buzzards. It is, as always, a cruel world in which these characters live, harsh and unforgiving. I had said during my last review that I wasn’t sure whether I liked this or not, but the parallel structure of part one and part two has made up my mind. I can’t see any other way that these tales could end. Having read the introduction, I’m aware of what’s coming in part three and I see now that Miller is not only foreshadowing the end of the novel, but he is also commenting on the reality of life–we die and our bodies are left to decay. No matter how successful we may have been in life, that is how we all end up. It is how all societies end up.
So far this novel has been nothing short of an absolute joy. Benjamin, the Old Jew, might just make it onto my list of favorite minor characters in literature. His small but significant role in this novel is one of the reasons why I think I like it so much. Miller places so much life and humor and stark reality into one character and allows the rest of the world he has created to pass around him. He is timeless and immutable, just like the lessons of Miller’s novel.
As always, leave me comments. What are you reading? If you’ve read this book, do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying? How’s life in general?
I have a confession to make. I can be an extremely nervous and paranoid person. I’ve been a politically, socially, and globally aware person since I was a kid, a testament to the fact that my family instilled in me the importance of knowing what was going on around you as well as to the fact that I was a lonely and often bored adolescent. The downside to following current events is that you tend to see how much things seem to be going wrong. You start to worry about your freedoms, about whether or not the world is going to look the same tomorrow as it does today. I’m also freakishly terrified of nuclear war, thanks to my father’s insistence on watching The Day After with me in the room when I was a child. So how is it that I came to love dystopian and, even, post-apocalyptic literature?
I think it started with 9/11, ironically enough. Or, at least, with the Bush administration after 9/11. I was in ninth grade when Bush was elected president, just as liberal and slightly Marxist then as I am now. I witnessed the planes hitting the Twin Towers and I knew that war was just around the corner. At the time, of course, I was expecting mushroom clouds, air raid sirens, and a new-found ability to glow in the dark. I was also expecting a bid by the government to usurp people’s rights and to increase the power of the executive branch. One out of two isn’t bad, right? To make matters worse, Fahrenheit 451 was one of the assigned books for my Honors English class that year and it just gave me such an uneasy feeling. I liked it, but I also couldn’t help but feel that that was where we were all headed.
With the advent of the Patriot Act, I found myself worrying that the day would come when I would no longer have the right to speak out, when people would be beaten into submission, when all hope for a better future would be lost. Cheerful, huh? Around this time I started to read more fantasy and science fiction, burying myself into worlds that were better than I perceived my own to be. I avoided anything that even hinted that the end was nigh, choosing instead to stick my head in the proverbial sand and wait for the worst to be over. Then college came.
I got my Bachelor’s degree from a fairly liberal college. I found that the students there, unlike those in my small, rural hometown, actually cared about what was going on in the world and were willing to discuss it, to debate it. I found a faculty that was willing to talk about how we viewed the world. I even found one who was arrested for protesting the president! It was in this atmosphere that I rediscovered my grandmother’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I had borrowed it in the eighth grade because I wanted to look smarter than all the other kids and I read it with relish right up to the part with the political pamphlet that Winston and Julia read. I couldn’t understand half of it so I tossed it aside in frustration and hadn’t gone back to it. That year (I believe it was my sophomore year) I started reading it again. This time I flew through it, devouring it page by page, including the political pamphlet. I finished it on a sunny, warm spring day sitting on a park bench near the library on campus and even though the ending is depressing and hints at a worse tomorrow, I couldn’t help but feel wonderful–liberated, almost. It was like I had gone through some sort of crucible and had come out of it at the end completely unscathed.
After that I read Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange, and several of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. I began to read dystopian fiction like it was candy. I couldn’t quite explain why I liked them so much, but I always felt better about things after I had finished one of these books. It was the same way with disaster films. If it had asteroids hitting earth or giant ice storms eating the east coast, I gobbled them up. I came to see that not only were these books and films a way to face my fears, they also gave me the opportunity to say “Hey, at least things aren’t that bad.”
Brave New World, however, changed all of that.
I didn’t read Huxley’s novel until last semester. I don’t really know why. It was always in the back of my mind, nagging me, telling me to read it. Yet, somehow I managed not to for years. When my friend John started to talk about it and I realized that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, that’s when I decided it was high time to take it out of the library. It was an incredible experience. I don’t think a novel has made me that angry…ever. The book itself is wonderful. It’s well-written and has become one of my favorite books of all time. But I couldn’t help but look at the world around me as I was reading it and realize that, in many ways, Huxley’s world has become reality.
It wasn’t the book I was angry at; it was the world. How had we gotten to this point? Why had we allowed ourselves to become so enslaved to our own culture? I obviously don’t have the answers to these questions, although they continue to haunt me. But I did gain something from the experience: A Brave New World gave me yet another reason to love dystopian fiction: it reveals our darker natures, makes people think about who they are, who the people around them have become. It shines a light on the inequalities in society, the sheer madness of politics, religion, technology, etc.
I am, and will continue to be, an avid reader of dystopian novels. Whether the world improves or deteriorates even further, I will take solace in and comfort from these tomes. I will also use them as a lens through which to see the world. And that, in a nutshell, is why the first month of this blog is devoted to dystopia.
Walter M. Miller, Jr’s first novel (and the only one published before his death), A Canticle for Leibowitz, is broken up into three parts: “Fiat Homo,” “Fiat Lux,” and “Fiat Voluntas Tua”. Each part is a story in its own right and revolves around different characters. For this reason, I’ve decided to give a review of each part separately before giving a final review of the book as a whole.
“Fiat Homo,” or “let there be man,” is, at heart, the story of a group of monks waiting for their Beatus, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, to be canonized. The twist is that this group of monks is living in a post-apocalyptic world that has simplified itself after a nuclear holocaust, the “Flame Deluge.” This story takes place centuries afterwards in a time when no one understands the past, even though these monks are recopying texts and blueprints. Most people are illiterate by choice because they blame academics–specifically scientists but anyone who can read is fair game–for the disaster that destroyed the earth.
The main character is Brother Francis Gerard, a young man hoping to profess his vows and formally join the monastery. During his Lenten fast in the desert, he meets an old man who inadvertently (?) helps him to find a fallout shelter containing possible relics of Beatus Leibowitz. What follows is the story of his journey to becoming a monk and, in the end, helping to bring about Leibowitz’s canonization.
When I first began reading the book, I expected it to be slow and boring. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was engrossing. As a non-religious and barely spiritual person, I’m only familiar with Catholicism because of a few courses I took as an undergraduate. Even still, the book was written in such a way that even I could understand the process. There are, of course, dozens of instances in which the author used Latin without giving a translation of it, but many of these were decipherable through context. The ones that weren’t didn’t take away from the story or make it incomprehensible so I can’t really complain about it too much.
Miller’s characters are easy to relate to and are surprisingly well-crafted for such a short book. The dialogue is sparse, but smart, and often funny, as is much of the rest of the book. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Francis is exploring the shelter and he misunderstands what a fallout shelter is for:
If Fallout Shelter’s Sealed Environment contained a Fallout, the demon had obviously not opened Inner Hatch since the time of the Flame Deluge, before the Simplification. And, if it had been sealed beyond the metal door for so many centuries, there was small reason, Francis told himself, to fear that it might come bursting through the hatch before Holy Saturday. (p. 28-29)
This simple misunderstanding, that a fallout shelter is to protect from nuclear fallout, not to protect a demon called Fallout, is just one example of the genius of Miller’s prose.
One of its biggest strong points, however, is how visual this book is. Miller does a good job describing things in very few words. I was able to create this world in my head without having to place these characters in a setting that I had experienced myself. This is rare for me. Usually when I read something a bedroom is my bedroom, a kitchen is my grandmother’s kitchen, and so on. Miller’s words placed me in an utterly alien and stark world, a world so different from our own even though it takes place on this very planet. It was this, I think, more than anything else that drew me into A Canticle for Leibowitz.
As for the ending of part one, I won’t give anything away, but I will say that I wasn’t expecting it to end the way it did. I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not. Perhaps the rest of the book will make my mind up one way or the other.
There are two parts left to read and I’ll be commenting on each of them in the next few days.
Until then, let me know what you’re reading. Or, if you’ve read this book before, tell me your thoughts on part one. I’d love to hear what you have to say.
In an attempt to give some structure to this project, I’ve come up with a tentative list of the monthly themes for this year.
- March: dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction
- April: religion and faith
- May: novels of the ’60s and ’70s
- June: 1001 Books to Read Before You Die
- July: biography
- August: best-sellers
- September: banned books
- October: horror
- November: science and science fiction
- December: children’s/YA literature
- January: philosophy
- February: love…in all it’s forms
Obviously this is subject to change and probably will change several times.
Tomorrow I’ll be posting on my thoughts so far of A Canticle for Leibowitz. For now, if you’re reading this, leave me a message with what you’re currently reading.
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” -Groucho Marx
Once upon a time, there was a man named Gabriel. He loved to read and, what’s more, he loved to talk about what he had read. But he found that there were not a lot of people around him who liked to do the same. Those that did had generally not read the books he had. So he sat and he thought and he thought and he thought. And one day he decided to start a blog so that even if he couldn’t talk to people in his own life, he could talk to people online.
That’s what this is. My way of discussing the books I read–both fiction and non-fiction–with other people who like to read. Feel free to leave comments about what I’m reading (as long as you don’t give away the ending before I’ve gotten there), as well as to leave suggestions.
My goal for the first year of this blog is to read 1-2 books a week. As a grad student with two jobs, that may prove more difficult than I’m anticipating but I’ll at least try to keep up the pace. The idea as of now is to have a monthly theme, but that may prove too limiting and is subject to change in the future.
For this month, the theme is dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels, which is strangely one of my favorite types of literature. When I looked online for a list of books of a dystopian nature, I realized that there weren’t a lot of them left that I hadn’t read. So I opted to add post-apocalyptic books into the mix as well. Since I’ve already missed the first week of the month, here’s the three novels that I’ll be looking at for the next few weeks:
- A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
- Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov