Theological science fiction

Through the glass darkly

My title is not a sop to what one writer has wittily dubbed the ‘Dawkins Ascendency’, a group which no doubt would be delighted to banish theology to the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Into the dustbin with one of the oldest ways mankind has used to throw light on the fundamental questions of existence. And only a blinkered arrogance would dare discard any means or methods we possess in trying to answer them.

In fact, science fiction – the best of it - has explored some of these fundamental questions with both imaginative daring and intellectual sophistication. From Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov to Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick, matters more conventional novelists might shy away from have been tackled with a subtlety and thoughtfulness that would surprise those hesitant to stray outside the familiar boundaries of fiction.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr, published in 1960, was inspired by the author’s experiences during World War II, when a bomber on which he served destroyed the Italian monastery of Monte Cassino founded by St Benedict in the sixth century. After reading about how the Benedictines preserved the learning of the classical world that eventually became the seed of a new civilisation, he not only began to write his novel about an order of monks who perform a similar service in a post-nuclear world, but also converted to Roman Catholicism.

Canticle is in three parts – Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man ), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light ), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Your Will Be Done ) – each separated by 600 years. The first is set in the 26th century, long after the ‘Flame Deluge’, a global nuclear war, has destroyed civilisation. What has followed is a fierce backlash against science and technology, and a reversion to barbarism and lawlessness.

The only global organisation still functioning is the Church. The novel begins in a monastery in the American southwest desert belonging to the Order of Leibowitz, a Jewish scientist working for the military before the war, who, as a horrified survivor, converted to Catholicism and founded an order, near his old military base, dedicated to hiding and copying books so that the knowledge of the past may be preserved. Looking for a place to make his retreat, a novice monk finds a fall-out shelter containing documents that turn out to have been written by the Blessed Leibowitz himself, leading to the order’s founder being canonised as St Leibowitz.

Six centuries later the Dark Age is passing into a new Renaissance. However, with the revival of civilisation, in large part due to the work of the monks, all the old problems return as well, in particular the struggle for power and the control of the new technology being rapidly developed in ways that cause the Church grave concern.

Another six centuries pass. Mankind has nuclear weapons again, as well as the ability to travel to other planets and star systems. Two world superpowers – the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy – are on the verge of war. Meanwhile, disillusioned by the dire consequences of technological knowledge without the moral discernment required to use it wisely, the Order of St Leibowitz has returned to its old task of preserving the accumulated learning of the past, this time for an uncertain post-war world.

Inevitably, one side – the Atlantic Confederacy - launches nuclear weapons against the other, with cataclysmic results. The Church, gathering as many refugees and non-combatants as it can, activates Quo Peregtinatur Grex (Whither Wanders the Flock ), its plan for perpetuating the Church and the learning of the past, and carrying a ‘remnant’ to another world. As the last of the Church’s starships departs, the earth is rocked by a devastating series of nuclear explosions, destroying every trace of life.

A Canticle for Leibowitz deals with profound theological and ethical questions in a brilliantly thought-provoking novel that has never been out of print since its first publication. One of the major questions it asks is: Can man escape the consequences of his own flawed nature? Or will he carry what theologians call original sin with him wherever he goes, and whatever he does?

And if not, is there any way he can confront and manage the disastrous potential evils of which history demonstrates he is so distressingly and repeatedly capable? Put simply, can knowledge, especially technological knowledge, be used for the good of society without a strong moral compass?

Here is a book which is as timely today – perhaps even more urgently so – as it was when it first appeared at the height of the Cold War.


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