A Canticle for Leibowitz

Read A Canticle for Leibowitz, after having it on the shelf for maybe a decade.
If you haven’t read it, it is an early and classic work of postapocalyptic science fiction, published in 1959. The main setting is a monastary, after civilization has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. The book has three sections: the first set in the dark ages, when the monks preserve without comprehension a record of a technical civilization; the second set in a renaissance period, when society is starting to develop secular scholarship and aggressive, imperialistic political leadership; the third section is set in a rebuilt, high-tech civilization on the verge of destroying the world once more with nuclear weapons.
I liked the book as a work of art — the book builds a compelling and grim set of future worlds. Through those worlds, it explores a conflict between religion and science.
In the dark ages, the actions of the church are absurd. The monks revere every scrap of evidence from the fallen world, including the grocery list of the “blessed Leibowitz”. Leibowitz was a low-level engineer who tried to preserve technical knowledge when angry mobs try to destroy the people and knowledge that led to civilization’s destruction. He becomes a saint of the order, and there’s a bureacratic and absurd process of canonizing the “saint”. A simple and ignorant monk makes an illuminated copy of an ordinary blueprint circuit diagram, adding gold leaf, scrolls, shields, and curlicues.
But the book’s underlying philosophy is very Catholic; redemption through suffering; the values of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Despite the absurdity of elements of religious belief and practice, the author sympathizes with the monks. In the section set in the dark ages, he sympathizes with the simple monk, who suffers for his actions in discovering and preserving the mysterious ancient texts. In the section set in the renaissance, the author sympathises with the scholarly abbot, who sees the secular scholar character as a victim of hubris and a sellout. In the section set in the renewed technical civilization, he again sympathises with the abbot, who sees a secular doctor practicing euthanasia on victims of lethal doses of radiation as the self-deluded agent of totalitarianism and suffering.
I realized why I’d never gotten through the novel before. The first section is almost entirely without love and compassion. The main character is a simple, innocent, and ignorant fellow who is treated cruelly most of the time. It is hard to identify with the characters and hard to watch the cruelty.
The second two sections have more complex main characters, and some compassion in the interaction among characters. So it becomes easier to read, though the book on the whole is quite grim.
Individual characters suffer and die, humanity suffers from fatal hubris, the vultures have a great time.

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