On the surface, this is a story about religion in a post-apocalyptic society, but scratch things a bit and it’s less about religion and more the preservation of knowledge in a primitive society that has vague recollections of the good old days. In primitive times, religion takes a firmer grip. In the remains of north America, that grip comes from the crumbled remnants of the Catholic Church, well preserved in terms of doctrine and ritual.
The religious trappings and rituals go on too long many times, but considering the starting point, it’s reasonable, given the primitive conditions and the survival of the Catholic church (and apparently a handful of Jews somewhere, but no other religion?), that the monastery hoarding and preserving of manuscripts would be a primary source of stored knowledge. What religion that stems from is almost secondary.
Except it isn’t. The arrogance of Catholicism is also present. Not only is there an early undertone of “believe or burn in hell”, whatever remnants of the Catholic church existed after the “flame deluge” (nuclear war of some kind) elected a new pope in America and picked a new place for a new Rome, which then moved several times, and proceeded to interfere with and control secular affairs as much as possible. That interference, and slowly waning influence, is portrayed nicely in through the course of the narrative.
We actually get three stories here, separated by centuries, all concerning members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz. First, the rediscovery of some bits of knowledge, and the tribulations of the young monk who made the discovery, in the heart of a new set of dark ages. Next, a time to mirror the late Renaissance with the church still powerful but not absolute and bright secular minds rediscovering lost knowledge on their own, or with occasional help from monastery-store knowledge, paired with the rise of a new political power that would eventually span the continent. Finally, in the waning days of the church and the Order, a time more advance than we achieved, with interplanetary and interstellar colonies, but with Earth on the verge of a fresh nuclear war. In the closing days of that civilization, the remnants of the Catholic church enact a plan to send a collection of adherents off world so that the faith will survive and spread among the colonies.
If I seem like I’m being harsh with the presentation of the Catholic church in the story, I probably am, but that’s part of what I take from it. Miller chose this representation when writing the book, and he did it with one of two ideas in mind, I think. Either this is the way he saw the church – critical to the survival of knowledge, and our species – or he wanted to drive home the Church’s sense of self-importance and its continued interference in worldly affairs. Maybe it’s both.
But it’s also a story about people. You can’t help but feel the injustice Brother Francis makes for his discovery and his steadfast refusal to be anything other than honest and true to himself and his faith.
Father Paulo struggles with his health and effectively understanding the evolving politics of the world around the ever less-isolated monastery, especially when it knocks on his door.
Dom Zerchi has to deal with an understanding that the world is truly coming to an end, once again through the stubborn greed of the human race, and pushing forward with the Church’s plan to establish a presence for itself among the off-world colonies. And then he has to suffer through that world’s ending.
It’s a story about decent people, trying to do the right thing in the world as they see it, and yes, their faith frequently has the deciding factor in what is or is not moral to them. Just because I don’t subscribe to the idea of an externally imposed objective reality, especially one that matches with the Catholic Church and it’s (somehow still unchanged for the next 2000 years) doctrine, doesn’t mean I can’t like the characters.
Are there messages here? Is history truly cyclical? Are we, as a species, really too stupid to learn from our past mistakes? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves, and most of the rest of the planet, in a fire of aggression?
Maybe those are meant to be the messages and maybe they’re meant to be warnings. Maybe they’re just meant to make us think.
Overall rating: 4 stars. Nuclear war and its potential aftermath were a common theme in science fiction during the cold war years, right up until the Soviet Union began to crumble. But this is an early one, and the nuclear war in question is merely a set piece, a part of the background. It’s the characters who drive the story and make it one worth reading.by
If you have me on Good Reads, you may have already seen this review. If not… well, here’s my impression of the winner of the first Hugo for Best Novel.
Are you a Babylon 5 fan? Picture the Psi Corps. Now make Bester (as played by Walter Koenig) a fine, upstanding head of the Psi Cops. Change his name to Lincoln Powell. Human, telepath, all around good guy. Capable of screwing up, but very good at his job. This book is where the inspiration for the Psi Corps came from.
Not a Babylon 5 fan? Telepaths are real and come in three levels of power, able to read the conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious parts of the mind. They serve in a variety of jobs, but are all members of the Esper Guild. Lincoln Powell is an upstanding guy, member of the highest strength group of the espers, and a police prefect.
A business-motivated murder completes all the plot summary you need to dive into this story. Except maybe it’s not just business-motivated. A little research tells me that this is actually an inverted detective story in a science fiction setting. The speculative element is key to the story, so it’s not just a detective story. Inverted as in, we know how the crime was done because we watched it happen, but the fun is in seeing how the hero figures things out.
The first section of story is devoted to the villain, Ben Reich, attempting to get away with the first pre-meditated murder in more than 70 years, the planning and execution of the crime. After that, we mostly follow the exploits of the hero, Lincoln Powell, although more of this than I would like is less about Powell’s actions than descriptions of the actions taken under his orders with him commenting once in a while. As a result, the narrative moves quickly, and we only get the scenes Bester actually wanted to give us. A few more of them might have been nice.
Unfortunately, the resolution of the story is kind of a rabbit out of a hat, flavoured by the MacGuffin of the “Mass Cathexis Measure”, a dangerous telepathic thingy that lets the hero construct an artificial reality around the villain and then slowly close it off until the villain is the only thing left.
Bester does a few neat little things in the narrative, the biggest one being how telepaths talk. Mind to mind is easy enough to keep track of, even when there’s more than one thread going on at a time, but for group conversations, Bester sets up mental conversational patterns and has the characters all going at it at once and the reader left to figure out the real content of things. It’s fun, but it’s also good it doesn’t happen too often. This is actually the only thing I remembered well from reading the book the first time back in the early 1990s.
He also has another point of fun with language, replacing parts of some names with standard symbols the reader can pronounce as if they’re letters, like @kins and Wyg&. Not sure you could get away with this now, but it’s fun. My favourite is ¼maine. Makes me smile every time.
Technology isn’t too big a part of the story, at least beyond standard easy tropes that, even by the time this published, are just part of the background and not really creative, but don’t look too closely at the supercomputer and you won’t have to think about easily dated technological concepts.
Overall rating: 4 stars. While I wish the end of the story shouldn’t require so much explanation (not quite enough clues were placed for the reader for the ending to completely make sense without explanation, but then Bester was an SF writer, maybe not so much a Mystery writer), the story is quick and the characterization is great – even the minor characters have voices of their own and stand out, adding to the background and realism of the world this is taking place in. If gender roles and balances aren’t quite what I like in my fiction these days, I do have to recognize the time period it was written in (the 1950s) and extrapolated from.
One interesting note, that I’ll let the reader find in the text, is that Bester seems to come down against capital punishment, though how it’s different than Demolition, the death of personality, used as sentence against capital crimes, is up for discussion.by