Future Hell: Nuclear Fiction in Pursuit of History

By Trevor J. Doherty
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 5/6 |

IX. The Relevance of Language

Describing the process by which he had discovered the prison that held the character Lissener, and planned their subsequent escape, Riddley writes in his journal: “I tryd to plot the parbeltys of it and program what to do nex” (78).

Decoding the language of Riddley as he plots probabilities and programs of action, the reader is able to deconstruct and understand what had occurred in the previous cycle of history. Hoban, reflecting on his linguistic experiments in David Dowling’s Fictions of Nuclear Disaster has stated “that language carries in it the ghost of a lost technology… the language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history” (Dowling 201). Looking back on our own civilization, from the vantage point of a devastated future, Riddley Walker suggests that the union of man and machine has already occurred to create the world that Riddley inhabits. One must peel away the strands of the human thesis and the technological antithesis to see how the two clashed and produced these fictional manifestations of the future.It is not difficult to extrapolate what Riddley calls the “Master Chaynjis” was the actual event of nuclear war, the ultimate ‘change’ that could come to any earth bound civilization.

What is more compelling is Riddley’s criticism of the process that led to the “Master Chaynjis,” holding that it was not only human “clevverness” (Hoban 18. ‘rationality’ so to speak) that created the bomb, but also the plotting of probabilities and programming of artificial intelligence that brought about such a calamity. The constituent parts of each culture are smelt together from the heat of the nuclear holocaust, having fused both theological and technological strands into a new cultural dialogue. For Riddley, who must reconcile his own intelligence with his cultural history, a conscious movement towards an anti-technological society is the only logical plan if one is to avoid another round of “Master Chaynjis.” (Hoban Glossary).

Because both the worlds of Leibowitz and Riddley Walker are given the task of inventing civilization all over again, they are empowered through the use and manipulation of symbols and language to describe not only their history, but their future as well. In one regard, the symbols of the Judeo-Christian and Euro-American Culture have survived partially intact, but alongside that is the knowledge that there were once great machines that had brought about the master changes in history.

For the monks at the Abbey of Leibowitz, the moniker ‘Lucifer’ not only is the nickname of the atomic bomb, but it also is an evocation and archetypical symbol of evil that would enable use of such destructive weapons. David Seed points out the multiple uses of the Lucifer symbol: “As usual in this novel Miller signals such ambiguity by wordplay. An incautious monk who gets a shock from the machine exclaims “Lucifer!” By Book III20 the phrase “Lucifer is fallen” has become a coded signal for the detonation of a nuclear device” (Seed Recycling 262). Since both novels retroactively hold computer technology as the science that enabled the construction of the bomb, smart machines, thinking machines, and literally the machina analytica become signifiers for political power, the spiritual ineptitude that employs such destructive weapons as devices to leverage human culture, and the calamitous consequences of replacing human faculties with computers.

Since the authors of both novels place each civilization at the very beginning of their new historical cycles, in a dark age of reason so to speak, the ambition to rediscover science and computing technology becomes a distinct symbol for the political machinations that identify the most antagonistic characters of each novel. These characters, specifically Thon Taddeo of Canticle, and Goodparley and Orfing of Riddley Walker embody the ambitious, yet disquieting drive to utilize technology, not just for their own personal advancement. Using “smart machines” as catalysts for revelation, the technophiles of these novels are not only solving the puzzles of history, but also developing a method by which the historical cycles of the past can be repeated.

Patricia Warrick notes that one of the hallmarks of literature that addresses artificial intelligence is that problem solving instead of classic conflict motivates the actions of the plot.(Warrick Cybernetic 161). The signifier of this character trait, as one motivated to utilize technology to either aid or replace humanity, could be thematically described as automata, a thematic foil to the practice of simulacra that defines the humble heroes of each novel. For example, the puppet box is a form cultural mimesis, Riddley Walker by theatrically simulating cultural dialogues via Punch and Judy, can both entertain and educate people about the lessons he has learned about political ambition and science, hopefully putting the future of humanity on a peaceful trend instead of the violence inherent in the quixotic Eusa dialogues. If one considers the monks at the Abbey of Leibowitz, they too possess a disposition towards simulacra; the illuminated copy of blueprint found in the bomb shelter by Brother Francis in “Fiat Homo” serves as the literal example of simulacra in Miller’s work among others.

The fact that the monks in Canticle consider their work to be only a reflection of the greater design in the universe immediately makes it known to the reader that they are content with their station in the great chain of being. Even though the monks in “Fiat Homo” have no foolproof way to accurately interpret the preserved or “booklegged” documents from the past, they are developing a rational system in which to tease the truths of history from out of the charred rubble and singed documents. The concept that humankind was made in the image of god in the book of Genesis serves as the textual basis for the characterization of the monks. However, Brother Francis’ humility and predilection for simulacra is tested by the forces of civilization at large.

The main act of “Fiat Homo” is the theatrical debate between the Advocatus Diaboli and the Promoter Fidei - two ecclesiastical lawyers who must sift through the artifacts of Leibowitz uncovered by Brother Francis, and thus determines whether or not to canonize him as the martyr to science and the representative saint of pre-flame deluge civilization. The process they develop is a perfect model of the Hegelian dialectic, two opposing ideological forces clashing to determine some unified and greater revelatory truth. David Seed notes: “At every point of its narrative, A Canticle demonstrates an awareness of how texts are constituted, circulated, and validated” (“Two Exemplary Fictions” 260).

The validation of Leibowitzian documents in this ecclesiastical court in a sense is the validation of the rational process that monks are developing, the act of validation allowing for the devouring of one dialogue by another to produce a new ideology via the dialectical synthesis. In one regard, the two lawyers fighting over Brother Francis’ testimony become a personified machina analytica, a machine specifically designed to evaluate truth. Later, the machina analytica becomes the disembodied device that is so powerful that it supplants human rationality itself as the seat of decision making. In Miller’s eyes, the only machine capable of rendering all human discourse on good and evil useless is the one machine capable of causing total extinction. Miller is smart enough not to place the blame on the bomb itself; that would be about as logical as blaming the apple for the fall from paradise. Instead he holds humanity’s scientific curiosity accountable for recreating the doomsday machine.

The two lawyers represent the most basic function of this process of inquiry. That scientific dialogue and institutional thinking will gain enough momentum over generations of people to redevelop nuclear weapons is inevitable for Miller. In the comedic, yet weighty exchange between the inquisitor and the young aesthetic Francis, this method of winnowing away false evidence to validate the truth of the matter at hand is literally Hegelian dialectic in action:

Brother Francis attempted to explain. The advocatus diaboli interrupted with periodic snorts and sarcastic queries, and when he was finished, the advocate raked at his story with semantic tooth and nail until Francis himself wondered if he had really seen the old man or had imagined the incident. (Miller 93-94)

It is easy to laugh at the terrified monk confronting these intimidating characters who would just as soon rip him in half as they would sit down and politely question him. What is at stake is not just Brother Francis’ hide, but whether or not what he has found is real or just simulacra. This process is the infancy of logic, and it is the nursery of the scientific mind, as the long term ramifications of this method of revealing truth has disastrous possibilities programmed into the later stages of its evolution. The authenticating of Leibowitz ultimately taints the legacy of the monks, who really seem to prefer practicing reflections of nature via art, instead of inventing machines which pry open and reveal nature of things. Due to the society that evolves around them, even the monks are gradually replaced by machines and automata.

X. Machines

In a joking twist in “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” Saint Leibowitz has become the spiritual benefactor of electrician’s guilds. However, in reality, the servants of Leibowitz and Riddley Walker are the dialectic half that opposes automata, the representative force of technology and applied science. Nearly all of the examples of technology in Canticle represent an automated process replacing the people who had originally done the job; the most comical example of this is the translation machine in the third novella, “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” where the techniques of language and textual interpretation preserved by the monks over the centuries are incorporated into a machine that frequently goes haywire.

The automaton of nuclear technology is associated with moral force because so much is at stake when it is employed. Miller ironically uses the monk’s criticism of the translation machine to address the possibility that if artificial intelligence is to gradually replace human faculties, one is left to wonder when the decision-making faculties of humankind may be computed in binary code and ferocious explosions.

Patricia Warrick makes it very clear that this was a common concern among the popular canon of science fiction writers who engaged machines that could possibly overthrow, destroy, or replace human beings. Walter Miller, in 1953, had written a short story called “I Made You” in which a robot trained for tactical warfare on the moon holds its programmer and commanding officer (a human) hostage in a lunar cave, both the hostage and keeper struggling to find meaning in their relative positions. The terminus of this line of thinking is that machines could eventually replace people, having superseded their creators in areas of logic, reasoning and self perpetuating technology. The monks in the Abbey of Leibowitz know that the knowledge of good and evil is a power that should be left to God alone. A machine that could usurp humanity’s ability to distinguish between good and evil would be the ultimate finale to the human story. For this reason, in “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” the abbot of the monastery rails against the mechanistic government officials who attempt to coolly rationalize the death of an irradiated mother and child.

The replacement of human faculties, such as compassion and social responsibilities, by literal machines is prefigured in a comic scene between an Abbot and one of his clerks. A translating machine in which the abbey has acquired frequently goes haywire and ruins the messages that monks try to send to different appendant bodies of the church. The hilarious bunch of mistranslated texts provided by Miller would not have been possible if the monks had not relinquished their trade unto the machine. The fact.that the monks, who apparently for centuries found meaning in copying and studying texts, are being replaced by machines, undermines the monks’ roles as agents of literacy and civilization in the long dark age since the first round of atomic wars:

“Well, Domne, they say your predecessor was fond of gadgets, and it is convenient to be able to write letters in languages you yourself can’t speak.”

“It is? You mean it would be. That contraption, listen, Brother, they claim it thinks. I didn’t believe it at first. Thought, implying rational principle, implying a soul. Can the principle of a ‘thinking machine’ -man-made- be a rational soul? Bah! It seemed a thoroughly pagan notion at first. But do you know what?”


“Nothing could be that perverse without premeditation! It must think! It knows good and evil, I tell you, and it chose the latter. Stop that snickering will you? It’s not funny. The notion isn’t even pagan. Man made the contraption, but he didn’t make its principle. They speak of the vegetative principle as a soul don’t they? A vegetable soul? And the animal soul? Then the rational human soul, and that’s all they list in the way of incarnate vivifying principles, angels being disembodied. But how do we know that list is comprehensive? Vegetative, animal, rational, and then what else? That’s what else, right here. That thing. And it fell. Get it out of here…” (Miller 252)

Even though the preceding scene is a comic meditation on the interaction between man and his wayward toys, the fact that the monks speculate that the machine could possibly have a malevolent soul has profound reverberations for adherents to a Christian faith. The serious tone of Miller’s work is filtered through many comical and ironic characters, such as the two monks above, who cannot see the bind in which the machines have their souls and society. The possibility that a computer that could think, and that people entrusted with nuclear warheads are supposed models of rational thinking. are also compelling concepts to Hoban. Nearly all of the characters in Riddley Walker refer to the people who enabled the nuclear war as the ‘Puter Leat.’ This set of people and machines that comprised the “Puter Leat” or computer elite in contemporary English, are the counterpart to Miller’s machina analytica. The union of machine with soul in Canticle, and the mysterious rank holders of the ‘Puter Leat’ represent a synthesis of humanity and machine. When Riddley employs language riddled with signifiers of computer technology, he is an unwitting cultural byproduct of the dialectic between the soul of humanity and artificial intelligence. Many times throughout the novel, Riddley describes his thought process as pulling data, programming, and with other technological symbols - for example: “I begun to get a cited then thinking on them things. I wudve liket to gether with Goodparley right then and pul datter wyltst my mynd were running hy like that. Thinking like that I begun to wish I hadn’t programmit nothing with Lissener agenst Goodparley” (156). This quintessential welding of human thought with mechanical processes is the result of and is the starting point for all human cultural conventions in these histories. This is manifested in the unified symbols of language and technology.

Since the text itself becomes a device by which Riddley can invent himself, like Goodparley and Orfing plan to do with gunpowder, language itself becomes a representative system of power. It is made clear by Riddley that who has the control over the puppet shows effectively has control over the every day lives of the people, notwithstanding the political clout that would come with being the proprietor of powerful weapons. The corrupting and confusing effects that political machinations have upon the evolution and use of language is evident in the novel, as Riddley uses his voice to not only criticize those who had relinquished responsibilities over to machines, but also to warn any readers that language can also serve as a veil under which this process can be hidden. By generating a personal dialogue in the form of a journal and a new Punch and Judy show, Riddley is able to make a stand against the hegemony of the Eusa play, and also create for himself a forum in which he can express his disgust with civilization’s reliance upon technology. Through the empowerment of his own voice, Riddley makes an all out attack on the propensity of humanity.to turn their.labor over to machines, because the machines he discovers can only really strengthen those that would repress humanity for political gain. Riddley tells the reader how the previous civilization had come to ruin by developing machines that only enhanced their materialism, but also put into their hands weapons that could destroy others that would wish harm upon them.

The following passage is a colloquial history that describes how our contemporary civilization had come to its conclusion, describing the process by which technology can only strengthen the competitive and paranoid aspects of those in a struggle to survive and prosper. Pay attention to how counting machines and computers seem to be developed solely for the purposes of giving one an upper hand over one’s neighbor or competitor. This Darwinian programming is a touchy subject for both authors, who would ultimately prefer that humanity find peaceful means of sharing natural resources. It is this revelation that compels Riddley to reject the ways of Goodparley and Orfing (who represent the forces that would reestablish this method of living on a local and futuristically global scale). Most devastating though is how the resulting society is incapable of being independent from the machines on which they have come to rely:

Counting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire they had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fractiont out the Power of things. They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the Power of the air and all workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air and picters on the wind. Counting cleverness is what it wer.

When they had all them things and marvelsome they cudnt sleap realy they dint have no res. They wer stressing ther self and straining all the time with counting. They said, ‘What good is nite its only dark time it aint no good for nothing only them as want to sly and sneak and take our parpety a way.’ They los out of memberment who nit ewer. They jus wantit day time all the time and theu wer going to do it with the Master Chaynjis. (Hoban 18-19)

The above is a poignant commentary on the nature of humankind, which even in eras of enlightenment humanity cannot escape violent impulses and childish behavior, the only ultimate conclusion being nuclear war. From the Hegelian standpoint, once the civilization under scrutiny had advanced to this level of sophistication, the natural entropy of the dialectic ensures a cyclical overhaul. Since the input of human nature into the machine of the dialectic includes base competitive instincts and scientific innovation, the ultimate fruit of this union is disaster. Since the stakes are that of nuclear weapons, the “Master Chaynjis” can be.used to describe the point at which the previous cycle of civilization had come to an end and the world in which Riddley inhabits had been created.

The human race had apparently developed technology to the point that it had surpassed the control of its inventors, humankind developing machines that were able to replace the imaginations and consciences of the race at large. Russell Hoban in an included glossary to Riddley Walker defines ‘Master Chaynjis’ as “The big transformation; also means infinity and the mysterious origins of everything” (Hoban 233). One cannot help but think how this echoes the Big Bang Theory21, the mysterious origins of our own universe hidden under countless eons of cosmic space time.

The characters of Riddley Walker do not know what an atomic bomb is per se, but they are aware that there once existed people like them who had evolved in their ‘cleverness’ so that the powers of the ‘sun,’ ‘moon’ and the rest of the universe had come under their influence. This of course is only a conflagration of pride; the scale of our most advanced weaponry is tawdry in comparison to the forces at play in the greater cosmos. What the above passage explicitly illustrates is that problems of owning property and over-consumption of natural resources brings out the competitive nature of humanity, who like a beast will use any means necessary to dominate and survive in the harsh wilderness of the universe, even if that means blowing everything the race knows into smithereens.

The machina analytica described by Miller, apart from finding manifestations in the wayward translation machine, was also a mythologized machine that was able to think and analyze at a rate that human capacities lagged behind, resulting in technology that led to the atomic bomb. In Hoban’s novel, “cleverness” is analogous to the superhuman calculating powers of the machina analytica. Both novels seem to strive towards the same insight, that technology and language are only superficial constructions over humanity’s tiny foothold in their own biologically competitive niche. When humankind puts their power of reason (which ironically is the same faculty that can peacefully alleviate political and humanitarian strife) and imagination (the human ability to invent possible scenarios of resolution and future history) into the hands of machines, they have effectively sealed their own fate. How these two novels differ in the realization of this insight is evident in the varying perspective of each novel, and also speaks to the ultimate conclusion at the end of each novel. Whereas Miller feels that humanity is eternally chained to the unseen and deterministic gears of the dialectic, in “Fiat Voluntas Tua” invoking the metaphor of spoiled children destroying everything they had created, Hoban holds out hope that with the example of Riddley’s rediscovery of literacy and the invention of a new Punch and Judy show, human civilization could be weaned slowly away from the cyclical trauma of nuclear holocaust.

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