A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter Miller, 1959

After the Flame Deluge that ended civilization as we know it, a new Dark Ages have settled over North America. The setting is an abbey in what used to be called Texas, where Catholic monks painstakingly copy by hand whatever scraps of the vanished civilization they can find, even though they are millennia away from being able to understand such documents as "Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B." Over the course of 1800 years, humanity drags itself back to the atomic age.

Evaluation and commentary
This will be my final nuclear war novel for a while, and I'm ending with one I had already read multiple times and already owned. Needless to say, it's quite good: absorbing, insightful, even darkly funny at times. A lot of the best works of art are those that employ unusual combinations of elements, and A Canticle for Leibowitz is a perfect example: there are lots and lots of novels and stories about nuclear apocalypse, and quite a few about Catholic monasteries — but post-apocalyptic Catholic monasteries? That seems like a fairly odd juxtaposition. But of course it's not! Follow the train of thought: a nuclear war, if it did not wipe out humankind completely, would at least bring about a new Dark Ages... and therefore it is reasonable to ask, what were the previous Dark Ages like? Might not the new ones be similar, with a handful of literate ecclesiastics preserving the relics of a long-dead advanced civilization the way Irish monks preserved pagan Latin literature through the centuries until the Renaissance produced a new audience for these works over a thousand years later? Once you really think about the implications of the phrase "New Dark Ages" you wonder why someone didn't think to write this book before Miller did. It's fortunate that Miller got there first, because he did a good job of it and obviated the need for anyone else to revisit this theme, at least in this way.

Malone Dies
Samuel Beckett, 1956

Some guy makes up stream-of-consciousness stories as he dies.

This is one of the worst books I have ever read. It is not a novel; it is a pile of words. I am tempted to modify that description to "steaming pile." Wikipedia says, "One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or even setting in this novel," and that's not vandalism — that's NPOV. (You know what else one does not get a sense of in Malone Dies? Paragraphs.)

Last semester I crashed a nuclear war class and wrote about a bunch of books that were on the syllabus; the new semester just started, and Malone Dies was the first book on the syllabus for a class on the contemporary novel that I've been going to. This means that I have heard the professor try to justify this book's existence. He started by free-associating about the various Christ symbols in the book. This struck me as an exercise on par with examining some shit and pointing out all the corn.

Eventually he got to a more promising train of thought, talking about how Beckett felt that in the aftermath of World War II, with nuclear apocalypse on the horizon, one could no longer write stories. Malone Dies and the rest of Beckett's postwar work is therefore anti-literature. Very well. I guess that explains why it is also, y'know, anti-good.

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