Science Fiction Studies

#92 = Volume 31, Part 1 = March 2004


SF Intertextuality: Hebrew Runes among the Ruins in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Paul K. Alkon’s argument that “apocalyptic themes in recent fiction are usually not intended to provide a true vision of the future but to raise disturbing questions about the present” (159) certainly applies to Walter M. Miller’s novel (1960), which shows the continuities between older and newer kinds of apocalyptic literature. The millennium of human “progress” spanned by the novel’s three sections mirrors our own Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Age of Space—all eclipsed again by a second apocalypse. By recasting mundane human history as a second future cycle, the author brings readers not to the far future but to the precise historical point where s/he is reading, redefined as a renewed threshold of apocalypse. This is typical of the prophetic mode of literature, which repeats, amplifies, and accumulates.                

In theme, if not in form, Miller’s book recalls Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). Shelley’s global crisis is a plague that reduces the world population to one man, Lionel Verney, a former shepherd. Shelley’s novel undermines romantic themes such as the empowerment of the imagination and the possibility of founding a millennial society, just as Miller’s canticle explores the bleak outcome of Enlightenment progressivism. Shelley’s novel’s fictional idealists, Earl Adrian and Lord Raymond, counterparts to Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, are ultimately crushed despite their utopian hopes for instituting a natural Paradise. Shelley’s “last man” sits in a vernal glade and observes nature’s idylls: “the twitter of young birds,” a wheeling bat, a passing herd of cattle, and the grass rustled by a gentle breeze. Verney muses, “Yes, this is the earth; there is no change—no ruin—no rent made in her verdurous expanse; she continues to wheel round and round, with alternate night and day, through the sky, though man is not her adorner or inhabitant” (459).                

Miller plays out a similar conceit in his three codas describing creatures in nature, though Miller departs from Verney’s vision of pastoral by focusing on predatory animals. The novel’s first two sections conclude with the image of buzzards that feed on Francis and the Poet: idealists become carrion. Miller satirically anthropomorphizes the vultures: “Their philosophers demonstrated by unaided reason alone that the Supreme Cathartes aura regnans had created the world especially for buzzards” (231). The novel’s third section ends with a description of the shark who survives the second apocalypse. Sharks, like buzzards, have no politics, ethics, science, or religion. They need no Memorabilia. Miller outdoes Shelley’s portrayal of a natural world that easily abides without humanity.

In David N. Samuelson’s account, Miller sees religion as “a kind of wisdom, traditional, irrational, humane, which knowledge alone cannot reach, but a kind of wisdom which, divorced from social and technological, and even aesthetic reality, is also inadequate as a guide for conduct” (15). Only the first half of this statement seems to me tenable. Miller is consistently sympathetic to the Judeo-Christian tradition and obdurately skeptical about the progressivism of the Enlightenment. His allusions to the Latin (Vulgate) translation of the Bible in his section headings are satiric, with the satire pointed at human transgression. “Fiat Homo” refers to a human protagonist’s creative and progressive bent, not to God’s harmonious creation of Adam on the sixth day. “Fiat Lux” sardonically proclaims the advent of the light bulb, not God’s brightening of the firmament on the first day of creation. “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” which is the heading for the section describing nuclear holocaust, is moved far from its Scriptural locus in the Gospel of Luke, describing Christ’s sacrifice (22: 42). The headings, like the novel, consistently position Judeo-Christian faith as an inevitably ignored possible cure for the destruction invited by the pursuit of technological “progress.”               

Lazarus is Miller’s foremost representative of an ironic viewpoint. Throughout the novel, this character awaits the anonymous “Him,” presumably the eschatological figure of Messianic Judaism who will come to deliver judgment (162). His predicament is evocative of the myth of the Wandering Jew, an apocryphal figure who mocked Christ on Good Friday. Christ, so the myth goes, riposted, “No, you move on until I return,” after which the mocker was doomed to wander until the eschatological Second Coming.1 Lazarus is the only character who appears in all three sections of the novel, spanning the millennial historical sweep of the novel’s action. Through this gothic Melmoth transplanted into the genre of science fiction, skepticism about the blindness and aimlessness of human progress is strongly conveyed.                

In a conversation with Abbot Dom Paulo, Lazarus asks the Abbot to discern the Hebrew letters on the other side of a tradesman’s sign (165-66). The Hebrew letters spell out the Shema of Jewish liturgy and prayer.2 The Abbot, abashed at his ignorance, remarks that “[t]here’s a wall slightly in the way.” This image of a screen standing between man and the word of God critiques technological innovation for distancing humanity from traditions and their received wisdom. Lazarus wryly responds to Don Paulo, “There always was [a wall in the way], wasn’t there?” (166). And this scene is not the first instance of Miller’s use of a wall as a symbol of technological hubris.                

Miller offered another image of a wall in the first section of his novel, “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man”), in which the first action described is wall-building—more precisely, a miniature St. Peter’s “dome” that is being constructed by the novice Brother Francis (17). Francis should be meditating, yet he cannot abstain from the labor that his monastic rule prohibits during fasting. There is no place for contemplation in Francis’s Lent. The Latin words for “Penance, Solitude, and Silence” that he proudly inscribes on a large flat stone for all to see are ideals rudely violated by his activity (15). Francis lacks the dome’s keystone, which has a “strange shape” (18). When Lazarus arrives on the scene, he sings “a kind of crooning chant in a dialect not known to the novice” and speaks the Word of God, “Adonai Elohim” in Hebrew (13). Ignorant Francis thinks him a pagan using an “unfamiliar name” and “strange pretensions” and hisses the New Testament koine Greek “Apage Satanas!” (15). In the gospels, Christ utters these words, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” twice; but the instance to which Miller refers is to Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness:

And Jesus ... was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered. And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread. And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. (Luke 4:1-4)

Miller’s Lazarus mockingly recognizes that Francis, inverting Christ’s resilience, would literally rather have a stone than bread. Lazarus, though no Satan, does tempt Francis, providing the means for humanity (through Francis) to renew a pursuit of progressive ambitions. For it is Lazarus who miraculously discovers the exact stone for the arch’s keystone that Francis has been laboring to find since mid-morning. The hermit offers it to him to “[t]ry it or not, as you please” (19).

When Francis comes upon the stone, Lazarus has freshly marked it with two runes that are illegible to Francis. Miller transcribes the characters for the reader: the markings are the two Hebrew letters lamed-tsade. Phonetically, these characters produce an “ls” sound. Francis is incapable of recognizing it as the Masoretic consonantal root of a Hebrew word. Even senior members in his order incorrectly interpret it as signifying an abbreviated form of “Leibowitz.” There is only one Hebrew word that uses lamed-tsade as its Masoretic consonantal root. That word, a substantive verb, means “mocker” or “scorner.” The mocker, or “lets,” is a proverbial type like the fool. He or she commits blasphemy, ridiculing God. The noun is found in Proverbs and the book of Isaiah, particularly in eschatological sections, at climaxes, and at turning points. Isaiah 29:30 reads: “For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner [lets] is consumed.” Proverbs 21:24 warns that “Proud and haughty scorner [lets] is his name, who dealeth in proud wrath.” The lets always meets with a nasty end. Lazarus gives the novice Francis the choice to be the “proud and haughty scorner,” breaking his fast to fulfill his ambitions—“or not” (i.e., to resist temptation). The outcome of Francis’s choice will affect human history far beyond Francis’s own imagining. For to take the keystone is to finish the first rationally constructive project in the book. The novice makes what is, for Miller, an inevitable decision, and determines that the crude version of St. Peter’s dome will stand.               

A comparison of the fitting of Francis’s mocker-stone, or keystone, with Mary Shelley’s The Last Man has an unmistakably apocalyptic resonance. Lionel Verney visits Rome, “the eternal City” (460). Shelley satirizes “the majestic and eternal survivor of generations of extinct men” in the face of the plague’s desolation and the grim presence of a sole survivor whose death will signify the extinction of the human race. Verney walks Rome’s empty streets, “the crown of man’s achievements,” and inscribes on Rome’s landmarks “with white paint, in three languages, that ‘Verney, the last of the race of Englishmen, had taken up his abode in Rome’” (456). In the final pages of the novel, Verney, like Miller’s Lazarus, determines to wander “around the shores of deserted earth” (470). But before he departs from Rome, Verney waits for the first day of the new year, 2100; in Roman Catholic tradition, Shelley informs us, the Pope commemorates the new year by driving a nail in the gate of the temple of Janus. Verney recounts that “On that day I ascended St. Peter’s, and carved on its topmost stone the aera 2100, last year of the world” (467).                

Whether conscious or accidental, this image of decline and fall is echoed from one apocalyptic text to another. Verney’s sardonic inscription on the keystone of St. Peter’s dome, the flower of Western civilization, is Shelley’s coda to humanity’s now concluded history. Lazarus’s mocker-stone, serving as a keystone to Francis’s impoverished miniature dome, is, in its turn, Miller’s satirical omen presaging the second nuclear apocalypse. Where Verney’s keystone declares the end of intelligent life at the beginning of a new year and a new century, Lazarus’s, at the beginning of humanity’s second post- apocalyptic cycle—the dawn of a new civilization and a second chance—points toward its catastrophic end. Miller criticizes not Francis the man, but the impulse that drives him. His one small impulse resonates over the course of the novel’s post-apocalyptic history. Just as in Genesis 4:15 and 24, in the fratricide of Cain and the homicide of Lamech, the penalty for successive perpetrators exponentially magnifies; ultimately, Francis’s lapse has horrific consequences.                

The mocker-stone functions in the novel as a key, or more fittingly, as a trigger. Before Francis makes his choice, Miller ominously describes clouds as “blotting out the sun” (20). Francis chooses to use the keystone and, in so doing, becomes the scorner of its chalked inscription:

The novice pried the stone free from the rubble and rolled it over. As he did so, the rock mound rumbled faintly from within; a small stone clattered down the slope. Francis danced away from a possible avalanche, but the disturbance was momentary. In the place where the pilgrim’s rock had been wedged, however, there now appeared a small black hole. (20)

 The novice has uncovered Leibowitz’s fallout shelter, initiating the history of the Memorabilia and the second doomed cycle of human history. Miller describes the hole leading to Leibowitz’s shelter as one “that seemed to have been ... tightly corked by the pilgrim’s stone” (21). The word choice here is very deliberate—the passageway to renewed technological knowledge has been “corked” like a genie in a bottle, sealed up like a Pandora’s box of woes.                

Miller adds one final touch. Lazarus remarks on the “strange shape” of the stone, that of an “hourglass” (18), an ominous presaging of time’s running out. At the novel’s disturbing close, a spaceship travels to the stars in a desperate human exodus from the ravaged earth. Time has indeed run out for human existence on this planet, although the inclusion of children on the ship—principally manned by celibate monks—suggests that the human cycle of rise and fall may begin again at some other site. Miller’s “mocker” stone reminds us that the more humanity continues to overreach, the more it guarantees the means of its own destruction.—Russell Hillier, Selwyn College, Cambridge

                1. For an informative study of this myth, see Anderson.
                2. The shema is derived from Deuteronomy 6: 4-7: “Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad,” or “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The prayer is an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in one God. As well as being incorporated into the Jewish liturgy, it was expected that each member of the believing community should recite it every morning and night. 

Alkon, Paul K. Origins of Futuristic Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1987.
Anderson, George Kumler. The Legend of the Wandering Jew. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1991.
The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament. Ed. John R. Kohlenberger, III. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987.
Miller, Walter M., Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961.
Novum Testamentum Graece. Ed. Alexander Souter. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1910.
Samuelson, David N. “The Lost Canticles of Walter M. Miller, Jr.” SFS 3.1 (March1976): 3-26.
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. 1826. Ed. Morton D. Paley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.

Wells on Film. Michael J. Anzelone’s review of Don G. Smith’s H.G. Wells on Film (SFS 30.3 [November 2003]: 531-32 ) states that “For the scholar, Smith’s book provides a useful index, an excellent annotated bibliography, and insightful readings of Wells’s texts, including the lesser known works.” In fact, those familiar with Wells’s work and the films it has inspired will recognize Smith’s effort as filmography at best, though even as a filmographer, Smith is often inaccurate. According to Anzelone, Smith’s book provides:
                1) “a useful index.” While it is true that Smith’s work is the most comprehensive index of films made from Wells’s stories published to date, it suffers from elementary omissions. No mention is made of The Hollow Man (2000), Armageddon (1998), or Independence Day (1996), generally recognized as remakes of The Invisible Man (the former) and The War of the Worlds (the latter two). As Smith’s book dates from the same year as the recent Time Machine film (2002), he could not critically assess it, but some mention of it might have been in order, considering that it had been in the making for several years. Finally, Smith ignores an experimental film of 1936, Extinction (based on Wells’s “The Red Room”), which is mentioned in Alan Wykes’s H.G. Wells in the Cinema (1977); he does not mention Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), based on Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes.
                2) “an excellent annotated bibliography.” Although there are few other studies of Wells in the cinema, Smith’s annotated bibliography refers to Wykes’s book (which he miscalls “The Films of H.G. Wells by Allan [sic] Wykes”) too slightingly: “Supplies scant but important information on some lost Wells films. Otherwise, except for being the first book on the Wells cinema, it is useless.” This dismissal of Wykes’s pioneering, though admittedly not scholarly, work is ungracious given that Smith relies on Wykes’s accounts of some of these “lost” Wells films (in the case of Bluebottles, The Tonic, and Daydreams [all 1928]); he furthermore cites Wykes’s work uncritically with reference to The Door in the Wall (1956) and Kipps (1921).
                3) “insightful readings of Wells’s texts.” On this point, Anzelone is misleading. Although he describes Smith as “Clearly at home in the sf genre,” he fails to point out that Smith’s readings of Wells’s sf are heavily influenced by Leon Stover’s The Annotated H.G. Wells (also published by McFarland in 8 volumes, 1996-2003). As the reviews of Stover’s volumes in SFS and elsewhere demonstrate, Stover’s criticism is far from mainstream. While his views are tolerable in monographs defended with evidence (and, in my opinion, consequently exposed for their flimsiness), in Smith’s work, where no critical debate occurs, using Stover’s views as standard opinion is mentally lazy. For further comment, see my review of H.G. Wells on Film in The Wellsian (no. 26, 2003).—Dr John S. Partington, University of Reading

British Comics and “The Boom.” An important matter not discussed in your “British SF Boom” issue (SFS 30.3 [November 2003]) is the part played by comic books in the Boom—not least, in the formation of the writers and readers who have made the Boom happen. The 2000AD comic (1977-) is never mentioned, for instance; and it is a matter of some regret that the “Reading List of the British Boom” includes only one contemporary comic-book writer, Neil Gaiman (presumably mentioned because of the novels he has published). Where is Alan Moore? Where are Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Warren Ellis, Michael Carey, Garth Ennis, and others? This is not a small point. Several of the contributors complain (correctly) of the marginalization of sf by the literary establishment in Britain, while adopting the same exclusionary attitude toward British comic-book writers.                

These writers have achieved considerable critical and commercial success in the US. Since the 1980s, a generation of outstanding writers and artists have found gainful employment on the other side of the Atlantic, usually working for DC’s “Vertigo” imprint. Alan Moore, one of the giants in the field, is best known for his Watchmen series (original comic, 1986-87), but also has to his credit such substantial works as The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984-86), V for Vendetta (1982; moved to US in 1985), and From Hell (1991-96). In a remarkable burst of creativity, he has more recently produced League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2002-03; in a different league, it must be said, from the film), Tom Strong (1999-), and Top Ten (1999-), among other works.

Other noteworthy titles are Garth Ennis’s The Preacher (1996-2000), a ferocious assault on organized religion, and Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan (1997-), a science-fictional confrontation with the horrific Clinton-Blair phenomenon. (Ennis has yet to get the measure of the even more horrific Bush-Blair phenomenon.) Grant Morrison produced a number of wonderfully surreal episodes for The Doom Patrol series (1989-92) as well as the postmodern Animal Man comic (1988-90); but he really came into his own with The Invisibles (1998-2000), a tale of situationist revolution. His recent The Filth (2002-03) is also worth a look. These are all important contributions to sf in its broadest sense. These writers can be meaningfully situated on “the left” and are radical in their engagement with the world.

The horror comic Hellblazer, going strong since 1987, is also noteworthy. Throughout most of its history, this comic, too, has been firmly planted on the left. Its resounding success in the US (the series focuses on the adventures of a Liverpool spiv/magician) is something of a mystery; indeed, the casting of Keanu Reeves as protagonist in the planned film is a weird event in its own right. Over the years, Hellblazer has been written by some of the best British writers in the business, starting with Jamie Delano, who also wrote the outstanding 20:20 Visions (1997-99). At the moment, Hellblazer is being written by the excellent Mike Carey, who also produces the splendidly Miltonesque Lucifer (2001-). Another notable recent project is Warren Ellis’s and Colleen Doran’s Orbiter (2003), the strange tale of the return to Earth of the Space shuttle “Venture” ten years after its disappearance.                

I would contend that these writers for comics and graphic novels have had the greatest impact in the US of any of the British Boom authors. Their body of work, it has to be insisted, is not some sort of poor people’s fiction—literature for the slow reader—but is a distinct art form in its own right. As graphic literature, the comics operate far outside the boundaries of the “respectable,” and for that reason alone are worthy of attention. One last point occurs: perhaps the time has come for a special issue of SFS on comics and science fiction? —John Newsinger, Bath Spa University College

Jules Verne at the Library of Congress. The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, What If ... (the sf and fantasy forum of the Library of Congress Professional Association), and the North American Jules Verne Society are pleased to announce that the next conference of the Society will be held at the Library of Congress on May 13-15, 2004. The conference will be open to the public, as well as to Library staff and members of the North American Jules Verne Society. A special feature will be the opportunity to see, in the Rare Book Division, the Library’s Verne collection, the largest such collection in North America. Proposals are encouraged for presentations and papers on Verne and related international literary and cultural topics. For further information, contact Brian Taves, 110 D Street S.E. #515, Washington, D.C. 20003-1815, <>.—Brian Taves, Library of Congress
New Publisher for FEMSPEC. I am happy to announce that Lexington Books will be taking over the publication of FEMSPEC, the respected journal of feminist speculative fiction. Back issues are available from <CaddoGap@> for $4 each; time to stock up for classes.—Batya Weinbaum, Editor, FEMSPEC

Conference: Fantastic Genres. The intersections of sf, fantasy, horror, and children’s literature will be explored in a three-day conference (April 30-May 2, 2004) at the State University of New York, New Paltz. Among the topics are the persistence of myth, the quest, genre tropes, teaching outside the canon, magic realism, and horror and the academy (Lovecraft to King). The guests of honor are Elizabeth Hand and John Clute. Address queries to the conference co-directors, Heinz Insu Fenkl, Director of Creative Writing and the ISS (Interstitial Studies Institute) <> or John Langan, Department of English <>.—CM

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