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

Teen Fiction: After the Snow

I have been reading After the Snow by S.D. Crockett.

While my short story, Deer, toyed with the idea of a new ice age, Crockett works through the implications and outcomes of such severe climate change. Her novel is set in a near future, in a Europe caught in the grip of snow and ice. The action focuses on teenager Willo. His father is a ‘straggler’ – a man who has chosen to live in the hills of Snowdonia, growing and trapping his own food rather than living in the city under the government’s harsh, restrictive regime.

Speaking in a slightly distorted English (Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker seems to have had a lasting impact on dystopian narratives), Willo takes us on his journey from the day when he finds himself alone on the mountain – his father, stepmother and siblings having all disappeared.

The interest for Prehistories lies in the first section of the book, set in the mountains. Given the task of setting traps and catching wild animals for food, Willo has run half wild. He has stitched a dog’s skull to the hood of his jacket and talks to the dog as if it is his spirit guide.

Willo’s father, and possibly Crockett too, suggest that by communing with the dog spirit and by spending too long alone in the high mountains, Willo has become too wild, too much an animal. And yet the moral centre of the book lies with the people who are close to the land, who can survive by trapping and gathering food from the wild.

Willo has found a cave up on the mountain, past the “Big stones all sticking up out of the ground like teeth. All in a circle.” This cave is where he offers up the skulls and spirits of all the animals he’s caught and killed.

Deep in these caves lie a secret – a space filled with cave art. Willo takes a girl, Mary (who he’s saved from starvation) to see the pictures. Here she is describing the cave:

‘”There are hares- two hares standing up next to each other. There’s a goat like it’s been carved into the rock. And a deer, it’s got antlers, and a beast wi’ big hairy shoulders.”

Cave Deer-002

  Willo describes ‘the sweep of the ceiling opening up in lines and smudges like it been a grassy plain alive with animals.’

 Willo, and Crockett, are making a connection between the past and a future past. Through his connection with the landscape and his hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Willo has gained sympathy with the people who roamed the hills and mountains in prehistory.

The idea of future pasts in literature, of post-apocalyptic societies less technologically sophisticated than those who come before them, is something I’m keen to write about.

The focus of my interest is on Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban, Gay Hunter by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) and  the Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve, in which people and archaeologists are excavating the (sometime dangerous) technology of past societies. If you know of any other examples, please let me know.

Dr H

Deer by Xanitose