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Cycle of Destruction

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter J Miller, Jr

A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is one of the most important English-language books of the second half of the twentieth century. It is science fiction. It is as good as anything that was written in the ‘mainstream’ at that time.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is about the nuclear Holocaust. It is alternative history. Miller imagines that nuclear war broke out in the 1960s, shortly after his novel was written, and that civilisation was destroyed. A Canticle for Leibowitz is amongst other things a post-apocalyptic novel.

Miller’s history is based on the intellectual history of Europe after the fall of Rome. Miller’s concept of history is cyclical. A very similar intellectual sequence is repeated in the former United States, after the nuclear Holocaust. It is also a pessimistic history, even perhaps fatalistic. After two thousand years the Holocaust happens again.

The novel is in three parts, divided from each other by several hundred years. A Dark Age occurs six hundred years after the Holocaust. Six hundred years later, there is a scientific renaissance, and dynastic states are emerging from the chaos. After another six hundred years, an industrial state emerges. It is sophisticated enough to develop nuclear weapons, and launch another nuclear war.

The action of the novel centres on the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. The Albertian order, to my mind, is a wonderful invention of Miller’s. It is a celibate order, modelled rather closely on the Benedictines. Its abbey is in the South-western desert, on the road to ‘Old El Paso’. The members of the order are Bookleggers or Memorisers. They are tasked with preserving the fragments of the scientific knowledge of the ancient ‘Euro-American’ civilisation. They dutifully conserve and copy; they understand very little of the scientific legacy.

Almost all the action takes place in and around the Abbey of the order. Abbots change and the abbey evolves, but the location of the action in the abbey is consistent. It is one of the devices that unites the three parts of the novel.

Much of the record of the ancient culture has been destroyed. The Simplification was a wave of bloody and destructive lynchings and book-burnings that followed the Holocaust – the ‘Flame Deluge’, as Miller dubs it in a passage of biblical pastiche. One of the martyrs of the Simplification is the eponymous founder of the Order, Leibowitz himself.

Leibowitz was a weapons engineer who lost his wife in the Holocaust. He joined the Cistercians, an offshoot of the Benedictines, and became a priest. After some years he was permitted to found his order and preserve the ‘Memorabilia’, as the fragmentary manuscripts are known. ‘Memorabilia’, I think, is another wonderful invention of Miller’s. Albertus Magnus, the patron saint of the order, was a thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian who was very much involved in the revival of science.

The action of the first part of the novel turns on the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz. It is finally successful, and Leibowitz becomes a saint. In the Dark Ages of the opening chapters of A Canticle for Leibowitz, it is the miraculous that matters. At the beginning of the novel the simple novice, Francis, encounters an enigmatic, cynical pilgrim in the desert. The pilgrim, in an illiterate age, knows not only Latin but Hebrew. The pilgrim sets off a chain of events which result in Brother Francis discovering relics of the Blessed Leibowitz. The reader, though not Francis, soon realises that the pilgrim is in fact Leibowitz – six hundred years after his death. This concealing of information from the characters while it is revealed to the reader is an example of the irony that pervades the novel.

Leibowitz is a mysterious, subversive and thoroughly delightful figure. He is the most complex of the characters, to call them that, in the novel. He survives, by some no doubt miraculous means which Miller never explains, his very public martyrdom and death. He is the pilgrim in the first part of the novel and the ‘hermit’ in the second. In the third and final part, he becomes the old beggar. He is, of course, a Catholic priest, a Catholic martyr and finally a Catholic saint. Notwithstanding his emphatically endorsed Catholicism, he is also a Jew.

Leibowitz is, in fact, the Wandering Jew of Medieval legend. He waits for a Messiah. The Messiah never comes. In the world of A Canticle for Leibowitz, there is no hope of salvation. Christ the Redeemer is not present in the novel. Miller, who for several years after World War Two was a Catholic, had lapsed.

In the second part of the novel there is a revival of interest in science. Pfardentrott, a rather mad scientist from the newly emerging state of Texarkana, has heard of the documents. He wants them sent to Texarkana so that his collegium can examine them. Finally he accepts that he has to go to the abbey.

Pfardentrott is shocked. He is shocked because some of the monks have managed to build a primitive dynamo which powers an arc light. He is also shocked because the texts he finds in the abbey are of great value, and no-one other than the monks knew of their existence.

Pfardentrott and the abbot try to be civil. Finally they clash. Pfardentrott believes that religion is superstition. The abbot believes that scientific curiosity is Original Sin. He believes it led to the Flame Deluge, and that the revival of science will lead to another holocaust.

The monks dismantle the dynamo. They take down the arc light and put the crucifix back. Pfardentrott leaves. It is a hollow victory. At the beginning of the third and last part of A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Holocaust is already impending.

The Order has acquired a spaceship. It has been busily recruiting spacers as monks. Its role is to take the memorabilia on microfilm and ensure the continuity of the Apostolic Succession of the Catholic Church on the colony planets among the stars. The idea of a medieval order of monks with a spaceship is rather wonderful.

Someone starts the nuclear war. The monks give shelter of refugees, many of them sick and injured. An organisation called Green Star relief sets up a Mercy Camp down the road. It offers legalised euthanasia to the incurable. The abbot rows with the doctor who is testing the refugees for radiation. The doctor argues that pain is the only form of evil he can deal with. The abbot responds that in the eyes of the church euthanasia is evil.

This is an argument between the values of humanism and the need for obedience to God’s will. The orthodox interpretation of Original Sin is that it is rebellion against God. It could hardly be more serious.

It is not clear who wins. The doctor leaves. The abbot is nearly arrested for picketing the Mercy Camp. He tries to persuade a very sick woman to refuse euthanasia for her child. He fails.

The small party of monks leave for the stars. The abbot is convinced that human beings will display exactly the same self-destructive tendencies on a new planet. This may be survival, in some sense. It is not salvation.

One of the most mysterious and puzzling stories in A Canticle for Leibowitz is the story of Mrs Grales. Mrs Grales is a tomato seller. She suffers from genetic damage as a result of the Flame Deluge. She has a second head growing from her shoulder. She calls the head Rachel, and wants it baptised.

At the end of the novel there is another nuclear strike. The abbot is dying. Mrs Grales has died, but her second head lives on. The abbot tries to baptise her. Rachel refuses. She is preternaturally innocent. She was not born in sin.

The abbot takes Rachel’s innocence as hope for salvation. It is more ambiguous than that. Rachel is innocent, but she is also a mutant. It is not quite clear that she is human. Is Miller suggesting that humanity can only be saved if it evolves into something else?

A Canticle for Leibowitz is saturated with Catholic images. The theology may be heretical. Miller uses it to make his novel deeply coherent intellectually. A Canticle for Leibowitz prophesies nuclear war. It is prophetic in another sense. It is a fundamentally serious tract for the times.

As a young airman Miller participated in a raid on the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the original house of the Benedictine order. As a young husband, the detonation of a nuclear device over Hiroshima spared Miller being posted to the Pacific theatre to risk his life again. Miller’s reflections on these experiences clearly contribute to the writing of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz won a Hugo. The year before, Miller had won his first Hugo for his short novel, The Darfsteller. In The Darfsteller Miller announces his decision to quit science fiction, and his intention of writing ‘one last great’ before he does so. He also predicts that he will not know what to do with the rest of his life.

The ‘one last great’ was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller was thirty-seven when it was published. He lived for more than another thirty years. He wrote and published very little. After the death of his wife he committed suicide.

He never did figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

Photo credit: RA.AZ via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

All you need to format your ebook

 Six books and three programmes

If you want to format your own file as an eBook, you need just four books. You also need three pieces of software.

Those are the two main ways of formatting an eBook.

You can format the file yourself as an Epub or Mobi file – the two most common Ebook formats – and upload the file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords. That gives you control of the formatting and, most importantly, of the appearance of your book.

Alternatively, you can clean up your Word manuscript – or your Libre Office file, or whatever wordprocessing software you use – and let Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords and let them convert the file to an eBook.

This saves time and effort. You don’t have to learn new software. And it doesn’t cost anything extra.

If you want to use this method, and upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords, relax. Each company makes a manual available.

This isn’t really the place for a thorough discussion of the respective merits of the different approaches. What it is important to realise is that people tend to be partisan. You rarely find a fair account of both alternatives in the same book or post.

People who advocate formatting the file yourself are very deprecatory about uploading the wordprocessing file. They say the publishers often make a horrible mess. They tend not to give examples.

People who recommend uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords don’t usually mention the possibility of doing it yourself. It’s as if the other way doesn’t exist.

The best-sellers sometimes dismiss the writers who format their own books as hobbyists. I think they are artisans. It’s a question of personality.

I would not recommend online conversion services. You don’t know what software they are using and you don’t know what the results are like.

Some word processing packages enable you to output an Epub or Mobi file. Don’t. Guido Henkel is emphatic on this point: ‘…word processors‌—‌ and that includes “Scrivener”‌—‌are not very good at what eBooks do, and are therefore the wrong tools for the job when the time comes to create an eBook from your finished manuscript.’

Scrivener is designed for drafting long documents. I don’t think it’s even very good at word processing. I certainly wouldn’t use it to output an Epub or a Mobi file.

I would not recommend paying anyone else to turn your word-processing your file into an eBook for you. Even if you are very rich and very busy, I suggest that you find out what would be involved in the other methods first.

The books

  1. EBOOKS 101: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO E-BOOK FORMATTING, Teo Kos, 2015

This books is exactly what it says. It takes you through the rather limited amount of HTML and CSS you need to format an eBook and shows you how to do it. You can use EBOOKS 901 as an introduction, but it is designed as a manual. I have it open when I do more formatting, and I toggle back and forth.

Ana Jevtic Kos, Teo’s wife, is an artist and designer. Together they run First Ink Studios, an eBook design and formatting service. Teo Kos is also a writer. He knows the business from both sides.

Mr Kos writes science fiction as Viktor Kowalski. Apparently this means ‘John Smith’ in Polish.

If you can explain to me why a respectable Croatian professional calls himself ‘John Smith’ in Polish when he writes science fiction, I will award a small prize. A copy of my first novel as an eBook, perhaps?

It’s £1.99 on Kindle. You can go directly to the product page on Amazon by clicking here.

2. ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTINGGuido Henkel, 2015

Mr Henkel is vastly experienced. He formats his own books and has vast hordes of customers for his fomatting service. His great strength as an author is that he doesn’t just know eBooks and the web. He also knows print.

Mr Henkel makes the differences between print and eBooks very clear. He is also very good at explaining why we format eBooks the way we do. He explains concepts like reflowable in simple terms.

I would recommend this very highly as an introduction. Mr Henkel does not write solely for beginners and his advice is sometimes quite sophisticated. It was from Mr Henkel’s book for example that I learned how to insert a clickable link. I love inserting clickable links.

Mr Kos’s book and Mr Henkel’s complement each other very well.

ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTING costs £3.77 on Kindle. The direct link to the Amazon product page is here.

Mr Henkel’s email, which I am sure he will not mind me publishing for the millions, is ghenkel@guidohenkel.com. To visit his website, click here.

3. HOW TO MAKE AN E-BOOK COVER for non-designers, Kate Harper, 2012

The manuals of self-publishing, the how to books and the guides all agree on one thing: you can’t design and create the covers for your own eBook.

Oh yes, you can. And Ms Harper is going to explain how.

If you’re doing down-market genre fiction and selling large quantities, a professionally designed cover will make a measurable difference. If you haven’t yet got any money coming in from sales, you need to look a cheaper options.

Creating your own cover can be one of those options. And it’s fun.

Ms Harper covers finding and editing images, as well as laying out type, colour, integrating the different elements, formatting and uploading.

My only disagreement is over software. Ms Harper recommends either Word, which is limited, or Adobe Photoshop, which is expensive.

She suggests using a free thirty-day download of Photoshop, or accessing it in a public library. My hair curls.

I recommend Gimp. See below.

HOW TO MAKE AN EBOOK COVER is £2.10 on Kindle. The Amazon product page is here.

4. HOW TO GIMP: The Gnu Image Manipulation Program for Complete Beginners, Katherine Landreth, 2013

Kat Landreth’s HOW TO GIMP is the essential complement to Kate Harper’s book. HOW TO GIMP is a compehensive, step by step guide to Gimp, the powerful software package of choice if you want to create covers.

You can use Gimp (more details below, under software) to create cover images for print layout programmes like Scribus. You can also use it to create eBook covers for upload to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords.

You can contact Ms Landreth via the publishers, Three Dots Press, who are at 3126 Cary Street, Richmond, VA 23221.

£7.78 on Amazon here.

Software

All the software I am recommending here is open source. It has been developed collectively, and it is free.

A. SIGIL

Sigil is a text editor like Notepad. It is designed specifically for eBooks. It allows you to toggle from a ‘code view’ to a ‘book view’, which is very useful. It will generate an automatic table of contents. It won’t let you save your work unless it is a well-formed HTML file. It’s very much the software of choice.

B. CALIBRE 64 BIT

Calibre can be used to organise a library of eBooks, and as a reader. Its main use in self-publishing is to convert a file from one format to another.

The industry standard for eBooks was originally a protocol called Epub. Some people still need files in this format, and this is what Sigil outputs.

Kindle uses a protocol called Mobi. Amazon can’t use the industry standard.

Calibre converts your Sigil file from Epub to Mobi while you wait.  Use the Save to Disc command to save the converted file in a folder.

The conversion is easy. Mobi is in fact based on Epub. One wonders why Amazon…. No. We know why Amazon.

You will see separate icons for each format. You can then upload the Mobi file to Kindle.

If you think the name Mobi is weird, it is. Amazon bought the software from a French firm called Mobipocket, who sold – guess what? – pocket mobile phones.

C. GIMP

Make your images, including cover images, and create eBook covers. Gimp is the open source equivalent of Photoshop.

It has powerful resources, most of which you probably won’t need. It can do pretty much everything you want.

NB: I have seen very positive remarks on line from people who make their own covers using a design programme called Canva. I haven’t used it myself.

The Manuals

If you upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords you will need to clean it up or it won’t format properly.

You have to strip out the page numbers and the running heads, and any tabs or carriage returns you have used to create paragraph and page breaks, and extra spaces at the end of paragraphs. Use the formatting commands on the menu bar.

By the time you have written your first novel you will probably be able to find your way around your wordprocessing package fairly easily. If you can’t, consider asking a fourteen-year-old nephew. Fourteen-year-old nephews understand about these things.

Both Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords have thoughtfully provided manuals. You only need one.

5. BUILDING YOUR BOOK FOR KINDLE, Kindle Direct Publishing

It’s free and it’s here.

6. THE SMASHWORDS STYLE GUIDEMark Coker, 2012.

Smashwords now convert to a range of formats. They prefer you to upload  a properly prepared wordprocessing file, rather than an Epub.

Mr Coker’s author page on Smashwords is here. His Facebook URL is this.

You can of course get the STYLE GUIDE from Smashwords. For completeness – since I have given the Amazon product page link for every other book in this post – you can also get it here.

Example

You can see details of the latest book I did with this software and using these books here. It’s not bad.

Photo credit: pyramidtextsonline via Visual hunt / CC BY

The public letter writer

I have been intrigued by the idea of the public letter writer for about forty years. In my twenties I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight in Ghana. That was wonderful in a number of ways. My enduring memories include the slave fort at Cape Coast, and a funeral at Elmina where the dancers were wearing costumes based on eighteenth-century grenadiers, floppy tasseled caps and all.

I can’t remember where it was I saw the letter writers. It wasn’t a big or impressive market. Some of the traders -mostly women – were just sitting on the bare ground with their meagre stock spread in front of them waiting for customers to come.

At the edge of market there were a couple of folding tables. Behind each was a folding chair. You cannot have an office without at least a table and a chair.

Each of the tables was protected by a tall umbrella from the sun. The umbrellas were secured in the ground. They must have had a spike at the end of the handle.

In the centre of each of the tables was an old Underwood or a Remington. I was still using my father’s old Remington at the time. I loved it.

Around the typewriters was the rest of the stock in trade. A packet of envelopes, a sheaf of paper, a pile of printed official forms.

The proprietors of the businesses were standing a little to one side. Business must have been a little slack.

They weren’t laughing or joking. These were serious men. I have the impression that one was wearing a traditional Ghanaian shirt with trumpet sleeves, and perhaps a skullcap, and that at least one of them was looking scholarly in glasses.

Public letter writers exist to write what their clients would have written if they could have written it themselves. I thought it was wonderful.

I hadn’t really settled down to anything when I left college. The fantasy of being a writer was still too strong. I was in and out of short-lived, unsatisfactory jobs.

If I had thought there was a market for public letter writers in England, I would have wanted to be one.

I have heard of public letter writers in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The narrator of Naguib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is a letter writer. He is the first person in the Alley to have made a living from writing. Nobody understands him.

Public letter writers must have been fairly widespread in the Third World at one time. When there is a modern government which does its business on paper, a population which is largely illiterate and unemployed school leavers public letter writers are going to exist.

I would imagine they were an urban phenomenon. There can’t have been enough business in the villages for full-time specialists in letter writing.

Nowadays the public letter writers are being made redundant by computers. I feel sad.

Many years later I had the opportunity to work as a community mental health advocate. My sister says I was paid to make trouble, and did it.

I used to do correspondence for vulnerable people, and fill in forms for people who were paralysed by their anxiety about the bureaucracy. I was instructed. I was supposed to do what the clients wanted, and not what I thought was good for them. I often used to see the resemblance between what I was doing and what a public letter writer did.

The young woman whose story eventually prompted me to write In the Night the Men Come approached me about a housing matter. On one occasion I made an appointment for her to approve a draft of a letter before I sent it.

We met in a community centre on an estate that I had occasional use of. It was much more convenient for her.

We sat round the corner of the big meeting table. I watched her read the letter with full attention.

When she put it down she said, ‘That is what I would have written if I could have done it myself.’

I felt completely validated.

She knows about In the Night the Men Come. All she said was ‘Wow’. She hasn’t kept in touch. I wasn’t able to offer her a copy.

I don’t think it’s what she would have written at all. I have been very careful to make sure she can’t be identified. I have changed almost everything. Anything else would have been presumptuous.

I still do public writing. My flatmate is the chair of the local community association. When she needs a flyer or a press release she cajoles me. She is very proud of her literary lodger.

I wonder about the novels.

I don’t think I write the stories that readers would have written themselves. But maybe I can write stories that my readers need to have told?

Photo credit: via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Writing in retirement

A self-published writer enjoying his retirement in idyllic surroundings

Writing in retirement is such a cliche. Even my flatmate teases me about writing my memoirs, and my flatmate likes me. I walk the dog and feed the cat.

I reached 65, normal retirement age for men of my generation, just under three years ago. A few months before the small local charity I was working for lost the contract that funded my post.

I hadn’t assumed that I would retire. I thought I would continue working, at least part-time, till I was seventy. I applied for a few jobs in my field and got a couple of interviews. I came second.

Coming second in a job interview is a bit like coming fourth in the Olympics. You don’t get anything.

After about eighteen months I realised I liked not being tired and stressed the whole time. I think that is the point at which I accepted that I had retired.

I started In the Night the Men Come a few months before I left the job. At that stage I wasn’t writing in retirement, and I wasn’t expecting to retire.

I had been doing a lot of personal writing, off and on, for a long time. I had got to the point where I  wanted either to finish it, or stop.

I was trying to write about childhood sexual abuse. I was worried about narcissism, and there was quite a difficult technical problem. There appeared to be two timescales, one for the events and the other for the memories. It was difficult to reconcile them.

I had done an edit. I was trying to force myself to read it over, so I could make a decision.

I couldn’t do it. At that point I knew I had abandoned the project.

I asked myself if I would ever write again. The answer was, ‘Yes, probably.’

I asked myself if I would ever write fiction again. I was in the office at work. The answer was, ‘If I had a story’.

I realised at that moment that I did have a story. A client of mine had been gang-raped in prison in her country of origin by the security forces. They were trying to get her to denounce a close family member as a spy.

The young woman was still traumatised. She had had a very difficult time before she got ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the United Kingdom. She was still struggling in some ways.

I had done what I could. I would have liked to do more. I was angry.

Within twenty-four hours I had a complete outline. The next morning I went to my local Ryman’s and bought an imitation Moleskin notebook.

I thought that was really weird. There I was. I was sixty-four years of age. I was on my local high street buying a writer’s notebook.

I struggled with the book. I stopped writing for a while before I left the job. I was just too tired.

I took time off and did something else between drafts. The ‘something else’ was usually a draft of an essay. I haven’t yet completed them.

I did a lot of revision. I did each version in a different colour. By the end the manuscript looked wonderful. It was also completely illegible.

I did ‘substantive editing’. I kicked whole chapters out and wrote new ones.

That made me nervous. I have never liked writing to order. It gave me a lot of confidence to find that I could imagine something new when I needed to.

In the Night the Men Come took about two years, off and on. The City that Walked Away took six months, and Survivor took four weeks.

I didn’t do a lot of revision on either The City that Walked Away or Survivor, and I didn’t do any substantive editing. I had found a technique and a style. The first draft was pretty good and the writing was easy.

Writing in retirement clearly allowed me to be more productive. I wouldn’t have written nearly so much if I had been working, even part-time.

I had a security I hadn’t had before. My old age pension is almost like a citizen’s income. Day to day I don’t need to worry.

I also in an almost ideal environment. I had to move about the same time I lost the job, which was a little nerve racking. In my new home I have room for a desk, I have four bookcases and I have a balcony. It’s perfect.

Clearly if I hadn’t realised I had a story I wouldn’t be writing, or at least I wouldn’t be writing fiction. I would probably be volunteering.

There are other processes involved. They are longer-term.

In 1993 I self-published an offset-litho paperback novel. It was a disaster. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I was manic.

That was bruising. I solemnly abjured fiction. I had in fact already become very sceptical about fiction. I wrote the novel anyway.

I decided that if I wanted good mental health, I needed to do the same things that everyone else did. I didn’t need to be special and different. That was essential to mental health recovery.

I also dismissed my conviction that I was a writer as a narcissistic adolescent fantasy. That was going too far.

I didn’t read fiction again until 2003. I was really angry with Tony Blair. I wanted find out more about the Arab world.

I stumbled across Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz restored my faith. I collected his novels avidly. I am not usually a collector.

I realised it wasn’t fiction I had a problem with. It was contemporary Euro-American fiction, and more generally ‘bourgeois realism’.

When I moved and retired, I had the leisure to develop my new-found interest. I discovered contemporary Chinese fiction. I am not just writing in retirement. I am reading in retirement as well.

Writing in retirement gives me the leisure to write and frees me from distraction. Retirement is a necessary condition for productivity.

It isn’t a sufficient condition. I had to regain my faith in fiction, and I needed good mental health. And I needed a story.

Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida via Visualhunt.com / No known copyright restrictions