Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
Post-apocalyptic science fiction meets an historical analogy of the Middle Ages in an enjoyable, if a little disjointed, tale of what happens when the church once again becomes a repository of learning. The Order of Leibowitz transcribes the printed matter that’s survived a nuclear exchange and the subsequent mass murder of any scientists, engineers, or intellectuals left. That included the Order’s founder, a scientist driven the religion by his experiences.
The book episodically covers several centuries, starting with the experiences of a novice’s discovery of an ancient fallout shelter that leads to Leibowitz’ canonisation; through the later battles of small statelets fighting in the ruins alongside the recovery of scientific knowledge from the disjointed artefacts and texts; and culminating in the destruction of a later civilisation again unable to manage the existence of weapons of mass destruction but managing (this time) to send out emissaries to the stars.
The view Miller takes of the church is quite balanced, neither fully supportive nor dismissing it as archaic. And on balance it seems likely that the church and church forms would survive a holocaust of anything did: it’s the only institution, along with the universities, to have survived continuously from the Middle Ages. The end result sees humanity unable to move beyond repeating history, learning little new science and no new ethical or social self-knowledge along the way. In this it’s at least partly a product of its time (being first published in 1959), but the fact that the risks it explores remain equally valid today is itself enough to have it read more often.
3/5. Finished Tuesday 4 August, 2015.
(Originally published on Goodreads.)