Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

St. Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman

St. Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman is a completely different type of story than A Canticle For Leibowitz. For one thing, it is a single cohesive novel rather than disjoint novellas. But that’s a trivial difference, as much a contemporary marketing consideration as anything else. After all, how many classic SF novels of the 40s and 50s were mosaic in form, only to have their 70s and 80s sequels be single novels that were twice as long as the original series? There are precious few mosaic novels written anymore.

The important difference between St. Leibowitz and Canticle is their overall approach. The original was a thought-provoking theological / philosophical tract on how humanity’s hubris causes it to fall from grace not once, but twice, in the same manner and for similar reasons. Its plot was minimal, intended to be no more than a framework on which Miller hung his speculations and musings.

St. Leibowitz, however, is a true novel in intent as well as in structure. It is still primarily character-driven, but where previously the characters were mostly representative of their roles in Miller’s speculation, in the sequel they are true people, not so much representatives of philosophical positions as they are representative of different aspects of humanity. And where previously Miller was only interested in developing them inasmuch as he needed them to develop his philosophical / theological speculations, in the sequel he spends 400+ pages developing both his characters and their world.

St. Leibowitz is a very political novel. There was definitely politics in Canticle, but that was unavoidable. Miller could not examine humanity’s hubris without delving somewhat into the quintessential representation of that hubris: the development of political views and political battles that probably shape humanity’s relationships as much as–if not more than–any other single human activity. But in St. Leibowitz the politics are not an unavoidable aspect of the novel, they are the novel. Miller’s main concerns are how humans develop organized religion and politics and, going a step deeper, how humans are influenced by their participation in both of them.

The plot of St. Leibowitz is a thirty-third century parallel of the mid-Renaissance struggles between the Italian city-states themselves and their joint struggles with the temporal authority of the Catholic Church. It takes place shortly after “Fiat Lux”, when the United States is subdivided into numerous political units, and the Church is headquartered in the city of Valana where it fled from New Rome several centuries ago because of fear of Emperor Hannegan whose forces surrounded the city supposedly to protect them against the barbarian hordes called Nomads (similar to the Roman Catholic Church’s flight to Avignon, France). Following that, there were anti-popes and schisms, and eventually reconciliation, but a fragile reconciliation with Eastern Church and Western Church still very suspicious of each other, as well as wary of the temporal rulers to whom specific bishops owe their allegiance.

At the time of St. Leibowitz, three popes have died in a period of several brief months, two of them under suspicious circumstances. The early portion of the book concerns the journey of Cardinal Brownpony and his delegation to Valana for the Papal Conclave to elect a new pope. But what a delegation it is! Brownpony himself, although a member of the College of Cardinals, is not only a layperson, but also the bastard son of a Nomad mother and a Christian father. He is accompanied by his secretary, a full-blooded Nomad nicknamed Nimmy who had been a novitiate in the abbey of St. Leibowitz before losing his vocation–although not his religious zeal–and being asked by Cardinal Brownpony to accompany him in lieu of being dismissed from the abbey; a Chinese bodyguard who was the former executioner to Emperor Hannegan before falling from grace and seeking sanctuary at the same abbey; another full-blooded barbarian who is descended from the last King of the Nomads and who is possibly in line to become the next king himself; and a mysterious old priest who seems to have closer ties to the pagan Nomads than to anybody else.

The election itself is reminiscent of Renaissance-era papal elections. The populace of Valana is so disgusted with schisms and endless conclaves that they barricade the electors in the papal hall without food or water (or even the removal of their waste products) until a pope is elected. Meanwhile, a local priest/hermit named Amen Specklebird has become a large cult figure to the Valanca citizens, so they begin advocating his candidacy as pope. Cardinal Brownpony is both a longtime advocate of Nomad rights and an outspoken opponent of the powerful Texark cardinal who as a crony of Emperor Hannegan is perhaps the most powerful prelate in the Church. So Brownpony not only champions the cause of the somewhat heretical Specklebird but manipulates the electors into selecting him as Pope Amen.

After the election, the plot becomes quite complex: Pope Amen appoints Brownpony as Advocate to the Nomads; he announces his intention of returning the papal seat to New Rome in the midst of the Texark Empire even though the Texark Church does not recognize Amen’s election; Brownpony’s secretary Nimmy–who is the narrative point of view of much of the novel–discovers that Brownpony is smuggling weapons to the Nomads unbeknownst to Pope Amen; Nimmy falls in love with a genny–a genetic mutant–which is illegal and immoral, yet he sires a child by her.

And what slowly develops is the realization by Nimmy that Brownpony is actually fomenting a rebellion of the Nomad tribes against the Texark Empire, a rebellion that becomes a crusade when Pope Amen Specklebird resigns, and subsequently dies, and is replaced by Pope Amen II–Cardinal Brownpony!

What follows is several hundred pages that more closely resemble a war novel than anything else. But what a colorful war novel it is! Pope Amen II arms and organizes the Nomad tribes until he believes they are ready for an invasion of the Texark Empire, an invasion that he declares a Crusade and leads by himself, along with a coterie of cardinals. Through the eyes of Nimmy we watch the crusade develop, see the interactions of Church leaders and Nomads, and watch Pope Amen II deteriorate before his very eyes as Nimmy questions the morality of all that is taking place. The novel builds to an exciting climax that, surprisingly and quite happily, is largely free of battle, although not without the burning of an entire city complete with a mass exodus of the population. The climax is quite unexpected, and much more thoughtful than the warlike buildup would lead you to expect, until you remember that Walter M. Miller, Jr. was its author and even in his declining years he was much more than a mere hack writer.

Because Nimmy is the point of view character, the novel maintains an undercurrent of theological and philosophical speculation throughout, although it is much more undercurrent than raison d’etre. At times it seems almost forgotten in politics and plotting, but it never vanishes totally, so that the novel’s climax is not so much surprise as fulfillment.

Overall, St. Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman was a very satisfying novel whose beginning and ending sections made up for a long, often slow-moving middle section. It is unfair to compare it to A Canticle For Leibowitz since they are totally different birds residing on entirely different philosophical plains. As a sequel to perhaps the most thought-provoking, philosophical SF novel ever written, it succeeds better than it can really expect to have succeeded. Taken entirely on its own merits, it is quite worthwhile and highly recommended.

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