omnibus omnia

De nomine

In Art, Books, Catholicism, Christianity, Culture, Faith, God, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Spirituality, Theology on May 28, 2007 at 07:00

Why ‘Scriptorium’? Why ‘Marcus Apollo’?  

To all and sundry, Marcus Apollo is a prelate-diplomat in Walter Miller’s sci-fi masterpiece, A Canticle for Leibowitz.  <spoilers follow>  He appears in only 2 scenes in the novel, but is, nonetheless, convincingly enfleshed as a witty, sophisticated priest with a penchant for serious debate and practical humor, and who is martyred when the ruler of his host country Texarkana launches a schism a la Henry VIII.  (To be honest, I sympathized more with another character in the book, the garrulously just and impulsive Jethrah Zerchi; but a ‘jethrah’ URL seemed a mite too cruel, and ‘Marcus Apollo’ is such a nice name for a web identity.) 

As its small legion of fans can tell you, Canticle is set some centuries after a devastating nuclear war and the ensuing anti-intellectual carnage has erased civilization, leaving the Church to preserve what she can of the obliterated culture–an obvious allusion to her historical role in post-Roman Europe.  (“And this time, thought Dom Paulo, we’ll keep them reminded of who kept the spark burning while the world slept.”)  In 3 story arcs, the novel follows the idiosyncratic history of a monastic Order founded by an engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz.  Its specific “worldly” purpose is to rescue scientific and other knowledge from the book-burners and to preserve it for future generations; hence the monks’ vow to be faithful “bookleggers” and “memorizers”, and their continual effort to recopy faded texts in their scriptorium, complete with cheerful cherubim around logarithm tables.

For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals receded… Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps a resurrection.

Then, starting from the middle of Canticle, Miller depicts the rise of a new intelligentsia that eagerly takes the knowledge proffered by the monks, but refuses all moral responsibility for its use.  The story shows too the rise of new states that first fund the new scholars, and then hire them to make new techniques of war and euthanasia, in outright defiance of an increasingly marginalized clergy. 

“No, no, no, no!” objected the Poet. “…The goat is to be enshrined and honored, not blamed! Crown him with crown Saint Leibowitz sent you, and thank him for the light that’s rising. Then blame Leibowitz, and drive him into the desert. That way you won’t have to wear the second crown. The one with thorns. Responsibility, it’s called.”

And thus the stage is set for the central question propounded by Miller: Can humanity be trusted with knowledge?  Canticle refuses to force an answer-or, at least, stands pat with an ambiguous one-, and the ensuing events in the story stress instead the concurrent dignity and uncertainty of human freedom, alongside the primacy of hope.  For my part, and despite my agreement with Aquinas’ rationalism, I must concur in Miller’s thought, and with his silence.

Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?

Canticle isn’t as famous as Asimov’s sophomorically fun Foundation series or Tolkien’s awkwardly majestic Lord of the Rings, but I agree wholeheartedly with the opinion that it is, with Herbert’s Dune and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, one of the 3 best sci-fi novels ever written.  For one, while it delved deeply into a whole gamut of “ultimate questions” (from the definition of ‘human’ to the problem of suffering, and even, in a humorous aside, to whether computers can have malice), Canticle did so without leaving its plot creaking, though Miller did burp a lot of “expository lumps” (to use the words of Professor Robert Boyer).  Besides, Miller made such sympathetically imperfect characters you could hug them, and such well-drawn ones that they could climb out of the page and whack you-and then versify loudly about it.  His novel  isn’t flawless, but its blending of thought, tragedy and humor easily makes it a classic–and a worthy recipient of the Hugo award–, and that without depending on the classical unities. 

That said, the caveat must be said that Canticle is primarily “warning fiction” from the height of the Cold War, and is consequently more “soft” than “hard” science fiction; that is, it deals less with technology and more with social issues.  Hence, Jules Verne fans might find it too untechnical; Jack Williamsonites might think its pace too unsatisfying; and enthusiasts of H.G. Wells (are there even any?) might find its characters too unflat.  If you are one of these, amice, let me tell you that any pain you feel would be worth it, and that-as I can personally attest after reading Canticle at least 15 times-the book easily bears repetition.  So get thee to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader, Borders, or Strand, or to wherever else you get your books, grab a copy, and read.  Tolle et lege.  You shall not be disappointed.   

<spoilers end>


  1. How strange that Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would be so highly regarded (at least today); while the first half may be worthy of that accolade, the second half is wildly uneven in its organization and style. I’d be more specific, but I’d have to reread my copy of it, and at the moment I don’t feel like leaning backwards and scrabbling for it on the bookshelves. 😀

    Meanwhile, I can’t find either one of my copies of Canticle.

  2. I’ll have to get back to you on that. It’s been a long time since I read Stranger myself, though I remember enjoying its warpedness immensely, having just left my New Age phase at the time. Having later read the Dune series, however, I admit I’ve kind of transferred my esoterica allegiance to Frank Herbert, especially after God-Emperor and Chapterhouse.

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