Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Technology and Modernization

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Technology and Modernization

Chapter 2

Brother Francis found himself slightly confused by the Warning, but he intended to heed it by not touching the door at all. The miraculous contraptions of the ancients were not to be carelessly tampered with, as many a dead excavator-of-the-past had testified with his dying gasp. (2.8)

It's Francis's job to preserve science and knowledge in the Memorabilia, but he and the other bookleggers are clearly out of their depth. They preserve, but their lack of understanding sometimes proves deadly. And other times it simply proves hilarious. You take the good with the bad.

Chapter 6

And that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince: "Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike. See to it, m'Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought." (6.7)

This passage may be written like it's trying to get added to the King James Bible, but it details the very modern nuclear deterrence theory. There are ten perceived flaws in the theory, which are detailed at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. A wicked combination of flaws two, three, four, and five seem responsible for the undoing of Leibowitz's world.

Chapter 7
Brother Francis Gerard

"All right," Francis sighed, "I don't know. But I have a certain faith that the 'electron' existed at one time, although I don't know how it was constructed or what it might have been used for." (7.83)

The key word we picked out in this passage is faith. Francis puts his faith in science and technology the same way he'd put his faith in God because, at this point in history, neither can be proven. But once science enters the world as a physical thing—by way of technology—will it still be worthy of Francis's faith?

Chapter 13

"Kornhoer moves something to make room for a piece of equipment. Armbruster yells Perdition! Brother Kornhoer yells Progress! and they have at each other again. (13.57)

Kornhoer and Armbruster's argument over an arc light is silly. But it is also important to our tech savvy world. Perdition is basically a fancy word for hell, and progress always carries with it a feeling of ascension—of being lifted out of one's current lowly state. So which is it: is our technology lifting us up, or letting us down?

Chapter 18

The sixth monk climbed the shelf-ladder and took his seat on the top rung, his head bumping the top of the archway. He pulled a mask of smoke-blackened oily parchment over his face to protect his eyes, then felt for the lamp fixture and its thumbscrew, while Brother Kornhoer watched him nervously from below. (18.30)

Notice how the monk has to go all Manfred Mann for the light to work. This is the first subtle hint of technology injuring someone for the sake of progress. Oh, and let's not forget those poor monks running on the treadmills. We think that's very dehumanizing, in a Brave New World kind of way.

The abbot, who had neither witnessed the testing of the device nor credited extravagant claims, blanched and stopped speech in mid-sentence. The clerk froze momentarily in panic and suddenly fled, screaming "Fire!" (18.39)

Lots of foreshadowing packed into this one little light bulb. The clerk's confusion links the arc lamp to the technology of the future (like the nuclear bomb). The light unknowingly becomes the evolutionary first step to mass destruction. Eep.

Chapter 22

Brother Kornhoer hesitated. "My vocation is to Religion," he said at last, "that is—to a life of prayer. We think of our work as a kind of prayer too. But that—" he gestured toward his dynamo "—for me seems more like play." (22.20)

On the one hand, Kornhoer's vocation prevents his technology from reaching the wider world and helping more people. On the other hand, it also prevents his technology from reaching the wider world and hurting more people. Is this one of those catch-22 thingies?

Chapter 24

They contemplated the squiggles, quiggles, quids, thingumbobs, and doohickii in mystified silence. (24.89)

Father Zerchi's struggle with the Autoscribe is described using almost the exact same wording as Brother Francis's struggles to understand the blueprint. 1,200 years later, technology still confounds man's ability to understand it.

Chapter 25

Economic corpuscles in an artery of Man, the behemoths charged heedlessly past the two monks who dodged them from lane to lane. To be felled by one of them was to be run over by truck after truck until a safety cruiser found the flattened imprint of a man on the pavement and stopped to clean it up. The autopilots' sensing mechanisms were better at detecting masses of metal than masses of flesh and bone. (25.75)

Remember the monk who risked blindness for technology? Now that technology has grown and spread throughout the world, the dangers posed by technology have also grown exponentially. In this case, it's literally running people over in the streets, Frogger style.

Chapter 26

The starship is an act of hope. Hope for Man elsewhere, peace somewhere, if not here and now, then someplace: Alpha Centauri's planet maybe. (26.56)

Technology destroys humanity's home planet, and much of humanity with it. Yet it is only through technology that we can find the hope to counter the doom brought on by technology. There's some serious irony brewing here, friends.