Monday, August 01, 2011

The Transient and the Enduring: Rereading "A Canticle for Leibowitz"

Films and novels are not the usual fare in this blog, but every so often I come across a fictional work that embodies a truth so important to engineering ethics that I want to bring it up. Such a work is Walter M. Miller Jr.’s prize-winning sci-fi trilogy A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I recently reread after seeing it mentioned by another blogger whose name I’d mention if I could remember it.

The book combines what at first glance seem an unlikely pair of premises: the near-destruction of the world by a nuclear war (the book was published in 1960, at the height of the Cold War), and the 1700-year history of a Roman Catholic monastic order founded shortly after the nuclear war in order to preserve scraps of knowledge that escaped the flames. At the time Miller was writing, two things seemed nearly certain. One was that sooner or later, some madman would start a nuclear holocaust. The other was that the Roman Catholic Church, which was then near the zenith of its post-World-War II flourishing in the U. S., would endure no matter what.

Regarded strictly as technological prophecy, Miller’s work scores pretty well. Toward the end of the book there are dictation-taking computers (which break down), self-driving automobiles, and interstellar space flights. But of far more interest are the essential points of conflict that Miller explores between the oldest continuously functioning institution of Western culture (the Catholic Church) and the scientists, technologists, and government agents with whom the monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz have to deal.

It would be hard to make a movie out of the novel, but it has a few memorable scenes of cinematic quality. In one, a clever monk, after piecing together scraps of technical information, has managed to build a dynamo-powered arc lamp, the first electric lighting the world has seen in several hundred years. It works great as long as the four monks pushing the cartwheel in a circle don’t get tired out. In order to avoid spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it, I won’t give the context of the second scene. But it involves a fight (first verbal, then physical) between the abbot of the monastery and a government-paid doctor who wants to set up a portable euthanasia center and crematorium for victims of radiation poisoning who are beyond help.

Every age asks questions about fundamental issues: What is life for? What should we do with wealth and power? How should we deal with knowledge? In his novel, Miller takes the answers that the Church has had two millennia to refine, and contrasts them with the answers that the secular world typically comes up with. Tribal chieftains commit gruesomely gory murders; civilizations rise, destroy each other with nuclear bombs, and rise again; cultures forget nearly everything that makes modern civilization possible, and then slowly re-acquire the scientific and technological knowledge that previous ages had achieved. In all this, the monks of St. Leibowitz play relatively minor roles on a larger scale. But the continuity of their own records and the fact that theirs is the only historical memory that endures, creates a thread that ties the different ages together and brings up recurring themes.

Where Miller was truly prophetic, I think, was the way that the Church has preserved its stance on the absolute sanctity of life as the shifting legal sands have washed away prohibitions on first abortion, and now euthanasia in some states. When the book came out, the infamous Roe v. Wade decision was thirteen years in the future. But its promulgation brought to reality a forecast that Miller made, which was that the Church would always protest the taking of innocent life—whatever the age of that life, whatever its form (healthy or handicapped), and whatever its usefulness to society. Canticle is a working out in fictional form of various ways that technological man can go wrong, both individually and collectively.

To his credit, Miller poses no easy answers. A colleague I recently loaned the book to said it was “dystopic,” and I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But as engineers know, you can sometimes learn more from mistakes and accidents than from successes. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a long case study in how 1950s-era technology (most of which is still with us today) can go wrong and combine with original sin to do really bad things. There are a lot of things to avoid doing in this novel. And the heroes, such as they are, are men and women of faith. That, too, is a lesson to ponder, I think.

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