Thursday, April 12, 2012

#16: Rendezvous with Rama, #48: A Canticle For Leibowitz

Rendezvous with Rama:

“If such a thing had happened once, it must surely have happened many times in this galaxy of a hundred billion suns.” 
“Even by the twenty-second century, no way had yet been discovered of keeping elderly and conservative scientists from occupying crucial administrative positions. Indeed, it was doubted if the problem ever would be solved.” 
“He had a suspicion of plausible answers; they were so often wrong.” 
“Training was one thing, reality another, and no one could be sure that the ancient human instincts of self-preservation would not take over in an emergency.” 
Rendezvous With Rama is regarded as one of SF grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's masterpieces simply because of the fertile imagination he exhibits in this work. Rendezvous is essentially a novel focused on what it would mean to explore something completely unknown and alien. Characterization and plot become secondary in Rendezvous with Rama, in which the main character truly is Rama, the massive, cylindrical object found floating through the solar system.
The novel details how a team of Earth astronauts explore Rama, finding many strange wonders inside, but no definitive answers as to what kind of alien form of life actually made this gigantic spacecraft, or what it was made for. Inside the giant cylinder, the astronauts find what is essentially an enclosed ecosystem, with rivers, grass, natural landscapes, and "biots", a mysterious type of biological robot--formed out of organic material, but serving a robotic purpose, apparently the upkeeping of Rama.
This is a novel shrouded in mystery and infused with the excitement of the exploration of the unknown. In general, Rendezvous with Rama is a funner, easier read than most hard SF. I found it more enjoyable as a reader with little scientific background --a reader more concerned with the ideas of Science Fiction, than the actual science of it -- than Larry's Niven's Ringworld. This may be due to the fact that Clarke does not harp on technical details too much; rather, he masterfully conveys the sense of wonder, mystery, and the starkly alien in an engaging, readable way.
However, Clarke's novel still remains a masterwork of hard SF to this day. Its influence on real-world science is apparent in the modern world as well. Just take a look at the January 2013 issue of National Geographic for an artist's rendition of a giant generation ship that could be built in the far future to take masses of humanity to distant stars. Looks a lot like the vast cylinder of Rama, no? Indeed, Clarke's novels are always full of big, realistic, scientific ideas. You'd expect nothing less from the man who gave us the idea of the man-made satellite.
A final statement on the importance of humanity is made at the novel's conclusion when Rama absorbs fuel from our sun and blasts back off into the cosmos--and the astronauts' impact has apparently gone unfelt by the massive alien artifact. The Ramans apparently could not care less about humanity: their artifact takes its fuel and blasts off without a second thought. Clarke's novel concludes soon after, with more questions arising, and very few answered...much the way science and discovery goes in real life. The last sentence of the novel is a cryptic statement suggesting the sequels that came soon after this acknowledged masterwork of science fiction: The Ramans do everything in threes...
Although Rendezvous with Rama is not a deeply philosophical work attempting to delve into the psyche of humankind (it is in fact quite the opposite, as mankind is relegated to the status of unimportant observer), it is a deeply interesting, creative, imaginative adventure story, and a cornerstone work of science fiction. Try reading Rendezvous after a dystopian, dark, bleak work of SF (and there are many...), and you'll find its infectious enthusiasm for exploration a joy to behold.

A Canticle For Leibowitz:

You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.” 
“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they became with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier to see something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”
“Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry. But that is how I see it.” 
“Listen, my dear Cors, why don't you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn't allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things.” 

A Canticle For Leibowitz is, in my view, one of the greatest Science Fiction novels ever written. This post-apocalyptic tale of the monks of the Order of Saint Isaac Leibowitz, retains its power upon successive readings, and can hold its own when compared with masterworks of SF such as Dune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Star Maker, or the Foundation Trilogy.
The novel is told in three parts, split up over hundreds of years, documenting the monks and their attempts to preserve the lost arts of science, technology, and philosophy, after the great Flame Deluge, a great nuclear war that almost ended all life on Earth. The other inhabitants of Earth are lost in ignorance, barbarism and darkness, making war and acting savagely while the monks work to rediscover science and experience pioneering breakthroughs in the field.
In the first part, Fiat Homo, or "Let there be man", Brother Francis, a young monk of the order, discovers some sacred documents of Saint Leibowitz, including a normal, everyday grocery shopping list, which the monks soon come to revere. This is just one touch of the blackly humorous tone that Miller flirts with throughout the novel. Brother Francis's discovery of these documents is aided by a strange pilgrim, who shows up in each of the three sections of the novel, the only constant character in this centuries-spanning work.
In the next section, Fiat Lux, or "Let there be light", the monks discover and begin to work with electricity, and attempt to deal with barbarian outsiders such as Hannegan II of Texarkana, a warlord who poses a threat to the lone beacon of civilization left on Earth, the monks of Saint Leibowitz.
 In the final novella-length section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, or "Let thy will be done", Earth has once again cyclically developed into what it was right before the Flame Deluge, with spaceships, cameras, and advanced nuclear weaponry once again present in society. It is in this section that the Abbot Zerchi gives his famous speech on the evil of euthanasia. He formulates this justifiably famous speech into in a parable that he tells to a woman about to choose to kill herself and her daughter. The parable is about a cat he once killed to "put it out of its misery", and his powerful experience in committing such an act. This speech is just one of the reasons that the last few chapters of Canticle are as powerful as any group of scenes I've ever encountered in Science Fiction: they form a tragic, bleak vision that is awe-inspiring to behold. There is no doubt that Miller is a master author, and these concluding scenes prove the power of his writing. As the story ends, still the monks of Saint Leibowitz hold strong, eventually taking a spaceship into the cosmos for the fear that history might soon repeat itself, as it has apparently begun to.
A Canticle For Leibowitz is perhaps the first book that I would recommend to a person who is beginning to read in the genre of SF, because it shows that genre Science Fiction can be powerful and well-written enough to be considered true "literature". It is probably the best example of a bridge between SF and "serious Literature", because it hasn't been claimed by the serious literature crowd in the same way works such as Nineteen Eight-Four, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and Fahrenheit 451 have. It is still Science Fiction and it is still undeniably brilliant. This is a powerful, extremely imaginative, thought-provoking book that I would recommend to anyone. It's one of the very best that science fiction has to offer.

No comments:

Post a Comment