Future Hell: Nuclear Fiction in Pursuit of History

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

XI. Human or Beast?

The outcome of the mechanical replacement of the enlightened mind, begs the reader to ask, whether or not man is safer living in a more bestial state. The aforementioned animal facet of humanity is reworked in these novels as a positive force to combat the negative scientific characters. The monks at the abbey of Leibowitz by the conclusion of the novel have learned to commune with wolves, and Riddley also triumphs over the political bodies that would exploit him by being in league with lupine accomplices. Both authors use this intertwining of animal and human natures as a thematic foil to the symbols of power manifest in pure and applied science, which are coolly detached and highly cerebral. In Stapeldon’s book, one stage of future humanity is imagined as huge advanced brains existing in storehouses, humankind existing as collective entities pure thought, devoid of animalistic qualities that shade the values of these post-nuclear characters. The wolf is a unifying symbol of animal natures in both texts.

When being questioned by the ecclesiastical lawyers as to how Brother Francis has even found the bomb shelter, Brother Francis explains that he had to build the shelter in order to protect himself from the wolf packs that had been threatening his life22 (Miller Canticle 68). This is one of the most profound instances of the dialectic at work in Canticle, suggesting that the rabid civilization brought to life in this novel is the result of a terrified human struggling to avoid being eaten by wolves. Since the Hegelian model of the dialectic must find synthesis in competing bodies over time, there could only be one logical conclusion to the respective interests of Brother Francis and the wolves that would devour him. In “Fiat Voluntas Tua” Brother Joshua manages to evade the pesky character of Mrs. Grales by diverting his attention to some dogs making a commotion near the gates of the abbey. “Grryumpf! Brother Joshua repeated, Rowf! Rowf!” in an exchange with the canine that trails the likes of the bicephalous Mrs. Grales, Joshua is inadvertently demonstrating the dialectical synthesis of wolves and humanity begun in the opening chapters of the novel.

This relationship between the monks and the local fauna is developed as Brother Francis upon his return to the abbey from his hermitage demonstrates an aptitude for communing with the wolves of the desert. Instead of evolving separately, the monks of Leibowitz have grown in synthesis with the wolves of the Utah desert. The symbolism of the wolves and God’s flock living in relative harmony is especially poignant in a world illuminated by Judeo-Christian conventions, where the wolf is usually representative of satanic forces culling the pious herd. Not one iota of irony is lost considering that is the legacy of Leibowitz that delivers the atomic bomb “Lucifer” to the world once again (Miller Canticle 273).

This identification with beasts is a symbol of humility for the monks, who believe that all creatures are herded by the will of God. This acceptance of one’s place in the great chain of being, so to speak, represents the rejection of the ambitious scientific personality of Thon Taddeo, who sees himself as one whose responsibility is to lift people from out of their lowly stations and achieve a higher ecological status through invention and the cultivation of the cerebral and technological. Looking down from the window of a palace in “Fiat Lux,” Thon Taddeo muses upon a syphilitic peasant laboriously wheeling a broken cart from the town market.

“Can you believe that that brute is the lineal descendant of men who supposedly invented machines that flew, who traveled to the moon, harnessed the forces of nature, built machines that could talk and think?” (Miller Canticle 128-129). Thon Taddeo doesn’t fully realize that the same inventions he is striving to discover were invented by the same people who had used these same machines to nearly destroy all civilization on Earth. For Riddley, who like a wolf must survive in this wild incarnation of England, the enlightened cultural structure that represents this elevation above and away from the beasts is the puppet theatre, a machine that is literally dependent upon the human to function and exist.

One skit in the Eusa play describes wolves begging Eusa not to employ nuclear technology, the wolves carting off the sons of Eusa as punishment for this horrible deed. It is important to note that the reconciliation and synthesis of human and bestial values within Riddley empowers him with the survival skills and mindset necessary to triumph over his would be destroyers. His association with the wolf pack sustains him when he is hungry, lost, and unsure of his mission. The contraption of the theatre box may not be as complicated as the computer technology that birthed this world, but it represents a distinct symbol that sets humanity apart and possibly above the lower orders of creatures, just as the arch that Francis builds in the opening scene is a technological advantage over his would be devourers.

For the inhabitants of Miller’s arid desert, evolving in league with the wolves and creatures of the wild engenders a similar bestial affinity found in Riddley Walker, who constantly identifies with the ‘big black one with yellow eyes” during his adventures (Hoban 1). Even the abbot of “Fiat Lux,” when musing upon his approaching death thinks that another “grim dog” will be the one to replace him, remarking in Latin the familiar phrase Cave Canem[23] (Miller Canticle 154).

Another character associated with animals in Miller’s work is The Poet, who in a comedic fashion is identified with the blue-headed goats that have evolved in the irradiated landscape. Supposedly Benjamin’s longevity is the consumption of their fetid milk. In the most climactic scene of “Fiat Lux,” apart from the lighting of the arc lamp in the basement of the monastery, the Poet willingly allows himself to be a “scapegoat” for all the ills of the world, mocking the ambition of Thon Taddeo by suggesting that either he or one of the goats be held literally responsible for the machines of death foreshadowed in the imagination of Thon Taddeo. “They say you are writing equations that will one day remake the world. They say a new light is dawning. If there’s to be light, then somebody will have to be blamed for the darkness that’s past. Ah, thence the goat… a sickly jest” (Miller Canticle 205).

Both authors may be suggesting that coming to terms with one’s place in an ecosystem may be the single most effective means of sending humanity off the track of scientific enlightenment. It is not difficult to understand that by being in league with animals, humanity could avoid the cultural destination of nuclear war, living simply and close to the earth does not create a need for advanced gadgetry and innovative science. Ironically, it is the base Darwinian competitiveness that enables political rivalries and social ambitions of secular characters. There are no clean cut distinctions, but for these characters the choice between the bestial and cerebral is the flashpoint that forever propels the cyclical nature of their histories. In many ways, the two prongs of simulacra and automata are revealed by the proximity of characters to their animal natures. The monks and Riddley, by imitating and employing animal behavior. are rejecting the automation and usurpment of survival by machines.

XII. Conclusion

With all of these things in mind, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the scope of the Hegelian dialectic, but it is a clear sign that in this new millennium, nuclear war is still considered to be the most devastating fate within easy reach of humankind.

One of the most successful film franchises of the past two decades, The Terminator[24], starring the notoriously robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger, is predicated upon possibly preventing a nuclear war induced by an artificial intelligence developed to facilitate political and military means of cultural advancement.Even in the new critically acclaimed film, The Watchmen[25], wherein superhuman characters battle for the control of civilization,the most devastating possible conclusion to society is still the detonation of a massive nuclear warhead. Until a new technology is discovered that can surpass the force and grandeur of atomic science for good or evil purposes, this literature will remain topical and provocative to any reader that stumbles upon it.

One of the most humorous meditations on the themes of cyclical history, artificial intelligence, and the violent nature of humanity this year come from the popular musical group Flight of the Conchords, whose song “The Robot Song (The Humans are Dead)” is told from the perspectives of futuristic conscious computers who have annihilated the human species with poisonous gasses.26 It seems that the limits of the human imagination are shrouded in the fission and fusion of objects invisible to the eye, and the unweaving of fundamental concepts as time and history. Very little of interest can be envisioned in a world devoid of recognizable things or perspectives, as these fantastic leaps of imagination are still limited by the scope of human nature itself.

Both Canticle and Riddley Walker would be worthy fodder for any ambitious filmmaker who is able to look past the flashy technology of the bomb, and focus on the greater conflicts of spirit and imagination that seem to haunt the possible futures of humanity. Possibly the most humanist concept in the entire canon of post-nuclear fiction can best be summed up in the words of Riddley Walker: “Membering when that thot come to me: THE ONLYES POWER IS NO POWER.” (Hoban 197)


Asimov, Isaac, Martin H. Greenberg, and Patricia Warrick, Eds. Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots and Computers. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.
A comprehensive anthology of the short stories that specifically deal with the impact that technology and artificial intelligence has had on the development of Science Fiction in the twentieth century. Some of Miller’s short stories are reproduced, illustrating the profound affect that artificial intelligence had on the author, predicting for several of the most startling revelations to be found in Canticle. In particular, Miller’s short story “I made you” (1953) addresses the relationship between a man and a wayward machine possessing intelligence. Also featured as a companion text to Miller’s work is Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I must Scream” (1967)

Bennet, Walker. “The Theme of Responsibility in Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.” English Journal 51 (April 1970), [484-489]
A short article that examines the importance of morality and choice in Miller’s novel, and how that morality is manifest in both religious and secular characters in the course of the story. It does not address “choice” as a possible component of the “dialectic.”

Brians, Paul. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1987.
Brians maintains that Miller’s novel, among others produced in the nuclear age, is a direct action to philosophically address the implications of a nuclear catastrophe in modern culture. The importance of survival, as a historical necessity in prolonging human life following a nuclear catastrophe, adds a unique ecological perspective on the ‘arid irradiated desert’ in which Miller’s future history takes place.

Dowling, David. Fictions of Nuclear Disaster. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.
Dowling’s book is a survey of modern fiction concerned with nuclear weapons and the effect that such technology may have on the fate of humanity. He gives due credit to the concepts of the ‘cyclical’ history and artificial intelligence as players upon the modern nuclear stage. Most important is the chapter “Two Exemplary Fictions” in which Canticle and Riddley Walker are discussed as the capstones of the ‘post nuclear genre.’

Fried, Lewis. “A Canticle for Leibowitz: A Song for Benjamin.” Extrapolation 42, (Winter 2001) Kent State University Press, Ohio [362-373]
An astute treatment of Miller’s novel focusing primarily on the religious symbolism and the latent stereotypes of the Semitic characters present therein. Contextualizes Miller’s novel as morosely Christian, and only pays lip service to Riddley Walker as an interesting companion text.

Hegel, Georg. The Essential Writings Ed. by Frederick G. Weiss. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974
This is the best compilation in English of Hegel’s theories and methods. This is a crucial text for the understanding of Hegel’s role in the discourse of philosophy and the impact that he has had upon the philosophical community at large. Therein, the Phenomenology of the Spirit and Verstand are reproduced, detailing the philosophical constructs of the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis that make up the process of the historical dialectic. Also included is a treatise “With What Must Science Begin?” that takes into account rational and spiritual conventions as competing ideologies within historical dialectic of humanity.

Hoban, Russell. Riddley Walker 1980 Rpt. First Indiana University Press Ed. 1998

Herbert, Gary B. “The Hegelian ‘Bad Infinite’ in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for   Leibowitz.” Extrapolation: 31 (Summer 1990), [160-169]
Herbert’s essay finds many examples of competing ideologies within Canticle that ‘define’ as much as they disdain one another in the process of the dialectic. Herbert’s focus is mostly on the possible negative results of the dialectic (‘Bad Infinite’) rather than on the examination of the dialectical process itself.

Manganello, Dominic. “History as Judgment and Promise in A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Science Fiction Studies 13 (1986), [159-169]
An excellent article that shows how Canticle can be considered a literal history of the future, and how over time a cultural memory has the ability to misappropriate symbols and skew historical dialogues. He illustrates how ‘logos’ is literally up for grabs when spread over several generations of thought and cultural revolution, citing Miller’s Thon Taddeo as the principal player in the historical process of Canticle.

Miller, Walter Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. 1959, Rpt. New York: Doubleday, 1997

Miller, Walter Jr. and Martin Greenberg Eds. Beyond Armageddon Copyright Walter

Miller and Martin Greenberg 1985 New York: Primus Press
A thrilling anthology of post-apocalyptic short stories edited and introduced by Walter Miller. Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” is featured and praised by Miller. In the introduction, Miller takes ample space explaining his disgust with the modern nuclear nation, how language barriers only exasperate political tension, and how art is an important diversion to hawkish politics.

Mullen, R.D. “Dialect, Grapholect, and Story: Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker as Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 27 (November 2000) [381-417]
An extensive exploration of “Riddleyspeak’ and the linguistic trends that unify the language employed in the novel. Also highlights contrasting points of view from other science fiction authors (notably Norman Spinrad who wrote an introduction to Canticle in one of its reprints) Extremely useful in decoding Riddleyspeak, as well as in showing how language is the signifying article of the ongoing historical process.

Mustazza, Leonard. “Myth and History in Russell Hoban’s Riddley WalkerStudies in

Contemporary Fiction 31 (Fall 1989), [17-26]
Mustazza expertly illustrates the importance of myth in its relation to history within cultures that are primarily oral in the transmission of cultural information, specifically citing Mircea Eliade’s construction of myth. Mustazza also shows how Riddley’s creation of his own identity through the act of writing, and his decoding of the Eusa myth, illustrates a metamorphosis from an oral culture to a text based culture.

Percy, Walker. “Walker Percy on Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Rediscoveries, ed. David Madden. New York: Crown, 1971, [262-269]
Percy explores the nature of symbols and the importance that they have to the development of Miller’s plot. Also illustrates that because Miller’s novel is a collection of symbols and themes (a novel per se), the text becomes self reflexive with the knowledge that all texts and symbols are transient and open to interpretation.

Porter, Jeffrey. “‘Three Quarks for Muster Mark:’ Quantum Wordplay and Nuclear Discourse in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.Contemporary Literature 31 1990 [448-69]
Porter contextualizes the importance of nuclear technology and atomic theory within Hoban’s novel and modern examples of literature at large. Also, he keenly illustrates how ‘dialect’ (not the Hegelian dialectic) is a natural process by which language evolves through the development of ‘anti-languages.’ Also, shows how the preservation of texts and the evolution of language in history thematically unite Miller and Hoban as artists.

Rank, Hugh. “Song out of Season: A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Renascence 21 Summer 1969 [313-321]
One of the earliest critical evaluations of Miller’s novel; explaining the importance and groundbreaking nature of Miller’s work, identifying cyclical themes, the importance of a historical consciousness, and the comedic nature of the monks who toil in service to their Christian idealism.

Seed, David. “H.G. Wells and the Liberating Atom” Science Fiction Studies 30 (March, 2003), [33-48]
Along with Warrick’s historical analysis, this article best situates any reader of texts that deal specifically with nuclear weaponry and its associated catastrophes. Specifically outlines how much of the fiction produced after World War II that deals with nuclear war is constructed in the form of ‘future histories.’ Seed outlines the philosophical implications that arise from man’s ability to master the atom, and the effect that this power has had on twentieth century thought, citing many examples in contemporary science fiction.

Seed, David. “Recycling Texts of the Culture: Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Extrapolation 37 (Fall 1996), [257-271]
This article best articulates the roles that texts and language play in the context of Miller’s novel, by showing that without the ‘memorabilia’ the course of history for this futuristic world would have been very different. Also includes a thorough examination of short stories by Miller (“Dumb Waiter,” among others) that illustrate the popular and recurrent themes of his work: the future of humanity, the soul, and the technology that enables the future and the presence of history.

Senior, W.A. “From Begetting of Monsters: Distortion as Unifier in A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Extrapolation 34 (1993) [329-339]
An excellent article that illustrates the innate tension and ‘distortion’ that arises out of dialogue and linguistic exchange. Most importantly, Senior finds many examples of how misappropriated symbols can have disastrous effects when employed out of context, such as Benjamin’s strange glyphs on the arch-stone and Thon Taddeo’s disgust with his inability to fully decode some of the memorabilia.

Spector, Judith A. “Walter Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz:”A parable of our time?” Midwest Quarterly 22 (1981), [337-345]
A short article that examines how stories set in the future can be used as parodies of our own times. Specifically addresses the folly of nuclear armaments in general, and how Miller’s novel unabashedly attacks the culturally embedded arguments in man’s soul that leads to the development of nuclear weapons.

Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster” in Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1966.
A very useful article when reading any work in which world wide destruction is the subject matter. Contextualizes the profound impact that violence can have upon artists and the communities in which they live and work. Although not quoted directly, this book is an essential resource for understanding many of the literary methods utilized in describing massive deaths and catastrophic destruction.

Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men 1930 Rpt. Dover Publications 2008

Stapledon, Olaf. Philosophy and Living, Vol. 2. London: Penguin, 1939 [304-307]
Explicitly illustrates the importance of the Hegelian dialectic to not only Stapledon as an author and philosopher, but also to writers of cyclical histories in general, as it is widely considered that Stapledon was immensely influential on the entire canon of Science Fiction in the twentieth century. This book serves as the crucial hinge between Hegel’s philosophy of history and the literary experiments in cyclical dialectic histories undertaken by Hoban and Miller.

Wagar, Warren W. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Wagar’s book is an insightful study that contextualizes and explains many of the popular conventions of apocalyptic literature.

Warrick, Patricia S. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction 1974 Rpt. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge MA 1980
Aside from Hegel and Stapledon, Warrick’s book is probably the most important critical work for illustrating the historical relevance of nuclear technology, the impact that artificial intelligence has had on the Science Fiction community, and accurately predicting many of the themes and literary constructions found in both Canticle and Riddley Walker; even though neither of the two novels receive mention in the work.


1.) Inspectah Deck is the nom de plume of Staten Island’s Jason Hunter. His lyrical content on the song “Triumph,” which addresses the importance of song in apocalyptic times, has helped to propel the album Wu-Tang Forever (RCA/Loud 1997) to the highest realms of contemporary cultural status, selling over half a million copies in its first week of release.

2.) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb (1964 Columbia Pictures), based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, is widely considered to be one of the darkest satirical reflections of Cold War politics and warfare.

3.) The largest storehouse of radioactive waste in the terrestrial western hemisphere: Hanford, Washington.

4.) Hegel and nearly the entire canon of Western philosophy universally define this as the ability to make rational decisions based on empirically/phenomenologically derived data from the mind/senses. When something as catastrophic as the total extinction can be made with a “rational decision,” this faculty of the mind has come under attack by artists, scientists and those associated with politics and religion fervently since the dawn of atomic warfare in the twentieth century.

5.) Georg Hegel (1770-1831) was a German philosopher who was profoundly affected by the French Revolution and the extraordinary figure of Napoleon. His major work The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807)established him as one of the most important philosophers of the European enlightenment. Therein, the concept and method of the dialectic was originated, outlining the concepts of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as the basic modes in which competing historical ideologies assumed mastery over one another through the processes of social and political discourse.

6.) “Understanding” A corollary section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, in which the basic tenets of the historical dialectic are imagined and discussed: the apprehension of concepts and the naming thereof as the first crucial step in the process of forming dialectical ideologies that will ultimately be subverted or consumed in the course of history. Hegel and Miller both allude to the story of Genesis, where the serpent promises the knowledge to differentiate between “good” and “evil” to Eve and society.

7.) “Short lyrical song or melody”

8.) The year in which “Fiat Homo” occurs is supposedly the “Year of Our Lord 3174,” which would be the approximate equivalent of our own 1215, the immanence of nuclear war provoking Miller to subtract the 1959 years of civilization that had passed since the first beginning of Western.society. The Year 1215 is a watershed year in Western civilization, not just for the historical artifacts such as Magna Carta, but also what it represents to Miller as a reflection of human history: a time when the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to establish itself, when war, disease and superstition are rampant, and the first lights of the modern rational mind are beginning to twinkle in the arts, sciences and humanities for the first time in the West since the fall of the Roman empire. For Miller, this is where Canticle really begins.

9.) Through the rediscovery and innovation upon the classical humanist arts of Rome and Greece, these three luminaries established the enlightened Western mind and scientific discourses which enabled the development of modern civilization.

10.) Three of the most distinguished atomic scientists of the modern nuclear age, whose united work and distinguished research created the first atomic bombs sewn into the political and social fabric of history. Texts bearing their names, among other scientists, are discovered by Thon Taddeo while rifling through the library of preserved pre-holocaust texts.

11.) See R.D. Mullen’s article “Dialect, Grapholect…” for a comprehensive analysis of “Riddleyspeak.”

12.) Riddleyspeak: “connexion man” (Hoban 53).

13.) Not only is the theatre box one of the oldest forms of entertainment in Western culture, the characters of Punch and Judy show are one of the few puppet shows that have attained celebrity status through centuries of performance in both Europe and America. See Illustration 1 “Punch” (Doherty 2009).

14.) Riddleyspeak: “some poasyum” (Hoban Glossary)

15.) Apart: Sex is moot point in both novels, as Riddley is twelve years old, and the cloistered halls of Leibowitz do not feature any women as protagonist characters. When mentioned at all, conjugation is only featured as a passing reference to motherhood or as a functional component of survival.

16.) The reason for Benjamin’s longevity is never fully revealed by Miller, but Lewis Fried contends that Benjamin is a reflection of the archetypical wandering Jew, commonly found in many thematically religious texts that deal with the Diaspora and its related literature. The Poet muses in “Fiat Lux” that perhaps the consumption of an irradiated blue headed goat’s milk is the secret to eternal life.

17.) Heat Death: An era in the projected history of the universe in which all of the stored fuels and energies found in stars, and other natural phenomenon of the cosmos, achieve equilibrium and no kinetic forces are at work to continue the expansion and modulation of space. The essential feature of Hegelian synthesis is reaching an equilibrium or compromise among competing forces or ideologies.

18.) Lat. “Thinking Machine”

19.) “Sulfur,” which is known as “yellow stoans” in the world of Riddley Walker is the volatile element which has a sickly yellow pallor and scent, is one of the three essential ingredients of gunpowder. The “1 Big 1” or “atom bomb,” is the abstract goal of he characters in Riddley Walker that seek power. (Hoban, Riddley Walker, included glossary in Kent State Edition.)

20.) “Fiat Voluntas Tua”

21.) The mysterious hypothetical origin of the universe, in which all of the matter found in the cosmos was suddenly created and sown outwards into space-time.

22.) See Illustration 2 “The Arch of Brother Francis” Doherty 2009

23.) “Dog Eat Dog”

24.) The Terminator, (1984 Orion Pictures), Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991 Metro-Goldwyn Mayer), and Terminator III: Rise of the Machines (2003 Warner Bros.)Dir. James Cameron, Jonathon Mostow

25.) The Watchmen (2009 Fox/Warner Brothers Pictures and Distribution) directed by Zack Snyder, based on the original graphic novel The Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons, DC Comics 1987

26.) Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, “The Humans are Dead,” featured on The Flight of the Conchords’ The Distant Future (Sub Pop 2007) Best viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGoi1MSGu64

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