Saturday, July 29, 2006

Hawt/A Canticle for Leibowitz: A Weather and Book Review

It's hot today, and it will be even hotter in the future:

In Fresno, the morgue is full of victims from a California heat wave. A combination of heat and power outages killed a dozen people in Missouri. And in parts of Europe, temperatures are hotter than in 2003 when a heat wave killed 35,000 people.

Get used to it.

--For the next week, much of the nation should expect more ''extreme heat,'' the National Weather Service predicts.

--In the month of August, most of the United States will see ''above normal temperatures,'' forecasters say.

--For the long-term future, the world will see more and worse killer heat waves because of global warming, scientists say.

The July burst of killer heat waves around the world can't be specifically blamed on global warming. And they aren't the worst ever -- they still can't quite hold a melting candle to the scorching heat of America's 1930s Dust Bowl. But the trend is pointed in that direction, experts say.

Heat waves and global warming ''are very strongly'' connected, said Kevin Trenberth, climate analysis branch chief at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. The immediate cause of the California heat wave -- and other heat waves -- is day-to-day weather, he said.

A persistent high pressure system in the upper atmosphere prevents cooler jetstream air, from making it into the West, said National Weather Service meteorologist Dennis Feltgen. ''You can't tie global warming into one single event,'' he said.

But what global warming has done is make the nights warmer in general and the days drier, which help turn merely uncomfortably hot days into killer heat waves, Trenberth said.

I just finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a dystopian novel written in the late 1950s about a post-apocalypse world. The first novella of the three that make up the novel begins like this:

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice's Lenten fast in the desert.

Never before had Brother Francis actually seen a pilgrim with girded loins, but that this one was the bona fide article he was convinced as soon as he had recovered from the spine-chilling effect of the pilgrim's advent on the far horizon, as a wiggling iota of black caught in a shimmering haze of heat. Legless, but wearing a tiny head, the iota materialized out of the mirror glaze on the broken roadway and seemed more to writhe than to walk into view, causing Brother Francis to clutch the crucifix of his rosary and mutter and Ave or two. The iota suggested a tiny apparition spawned by the heat demons who tortured the land at high noon, when any creature capable of motion on the desert (except the buzzards and a few monastic hermits such as Francis) lay motionless in its burrow or hid beneath a rock from the ferocity of the sun. Only a thing monstrous, a thing preternatural, or a thing with addled wits would hike purposefully down the trail at noon this way.

It's a hot and parched world, this post-apocalyptic world Miller writes about, and events don't turn out any better than what you might expect. In short, the post-apocalytic era is also a pre-apocalyptic era, beginning with the reappearance of a monastic-cum-pagan age, then the age of barons and ending with the age of technology and better weapons. And the age of another end to this thing we call human civilization, except that this time the monks board a spaceship to spread the contanimation to the stars. Contamination, by the way, is my interpretation, not Miller's view.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is an odd book. In parts it's hilariously funny and in parts it's as coldly chilling as a book about a hot and doomed world might be. It's slightly dated because of its roots in the cold war era, though the future might fix that problem for the readers. Its take on the struggle between religion and science strikes a cord today, but Miller's religion is a fairly tame sort of classical Catholism and doesn't compare with the fanatic cults we see today on the conservative right. So in some ways his dystopia is not dystopian enough. He might write a different book today if he were alive.

Miller's dystopia has no women until the last novella, and then the important woman sells tomatoes (those squashy, slimey, red things sometimes called love apples), appears mentally subnormal and has two heads, one of which turns out to be the new Eve. So it goes. It's possible to read almost a whole book about the human civilization without any need to create women. Of course, it helps to set the book in a monastery to achieve this.

Miller was completely within his rights to create a dystopia about a world of men. What isn't quite as all right is the reception the book received. It was seen as one of the greatest dystopian treatments of the nuclear arms race and so on. To then point out that everything in the book took place in a monastery of celibate men seems petty and shrill. But think about it: A whole worldview where women don't matter at all except as myths (Virgin Mary to pray to, a new Eve to replace the old one). And the reviewers were blind to this.