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Future Pasts: A Canticle for Leibowitz

In my After the Snow post I mentioned my interest in literature discussing “future pasts”- that is societies less technologically advanced that those that preceded them. I’m especially interested in books, such as Ridley Walker by Russel Hoban and The Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve, in which people, and archaeologists, are actively digging up past remains, searching for lost technologies.

Fresca sent me off to the library to look for A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. Originally published in 1959, this book won the 1961 Hugo prize for literature, with its glimpse into a possible, post-apocalyptic future.

Set after a nuclear war, or the Deluge as it’s known, the story focuses on successive generations of monks whose job it has been to preserve and protect remaining documents that survived the “simplification” in which rulers, scientists, teachers and their books/ sources of knowledge had been destroyed by mobs who held them responsible for the nuclear war.

There is a great deal to be gleaned from the book, including its discussion of Church and State and the lessons to be learned (or not) from history. For more discussion of its major themes visit theSF and Fantasy Masterworks site.

In terms of archaeology and the unearthing of old knowledge, A Canticle for Leibowitz takes a familiar line in suggesting that stirring up the past can be a dangerous thing.

In one incident Boedullus, a monk and archaeologist, sends a letter to the abbot say they have found the site of an intercontinental launching pad. “His letter to the abbot was the last that anyone saw of the Venerable Boedullus, his party, his ‘launching pad’ site, and the small village which had grown up over that site; an interesting lake now graced the landscape where the village had been…

The leader of the Plains tribes is deeply suspicious of archaeology. He notes how the academic passing through his lands spends “half of his time digging in the earth down by the dry riverbed and the other half jotting mysteriously in a small book. Obviously a witch, and probably not to be trusted.

I especially enjoyed the depiction of the Abbey’s librarian “whose task in life was the preservation of books, the principle reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually. Usage was secondary, to be avoided if possible.” Possibly there are some museum curators out there who feel the same way.

Miller’s humour is bone dry – understandable given the subject of the book and the impending threat of nuclear war at the time in which he was writing.

Next up in my ‘future past’ reading was Railsea by China  Miéville. Train tracks, giant moles, philosophies, alt-salvage…

But that’s a whole different story…

Dr H

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5 responses to “Future Pasts: A Canticle for Leibowitz

  1. Fresca

    I must reread this–I recommended it from a 30-year-old memory!
    I couldn’t quite tell from your post—did you like it?

  2. Dr H

    Hi Fresca. I did enjoy it – though it took me a little while to tune into the author’s voice and bone dry humour. I really liked some of the characters, including the abbots in sections 1 and 2. It was angry and sad and funny all at once, and still raising relevant questions about knowledge and ethics. Thanks for suggesting it!

  3. Fresca

    OK, thanks! I will definitely re-read it then. I used to work with a librarian who actually said in all seriousness that his goal was to keep the books ON THE SHELVES (i.e., not circulating).

  4. Elizabeth

    I love this book as well as Railsea. What a great topic of posts!

  5. Dr H

    Thanks Elizabeth. I can recommend the Philip Reeve Mortal Engine books if you haven’t encountered them. And Lewis Grassic Gibbon/ Mitchell’s time travel stories Three Go Back and Gay Hunter. Do let me know if you have any more recommendations.

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