Apocalypse Avoided, Revisited
LOS ANGELES — Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman
By Walter M. Miller
Bantam Doubleday Dell
432 pp., $23.95
Until now, Walter Miller was a one-book author. That book, "A Canticle for Leibowitz," is a science-fiction classic. It is arguably the best novel written about nuclear apocalypse, surpassing more popularly known books like "On the Beach." It offered a restrained presentation of a bleak, centuries-long post-apocalyptic struggle, first to retain fragments of civilization lost and eventually to rebuild.
Then, at the end of the cold war, Miller began work on a second novel, "Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman," just published posthumously and set in the same post-apocalyptic world.
Interpolated snugly within the much longer story of "Canticle," the new book forsakes the theme of nuclear holocaust for a wide range of conflicts - spiritual, interpersonal, cultural, religious, political, and military - internal to that world. The major forces are the nation-state of Texark, the Roman Catholic Church and the matrilineal nomadic tribes whose goddess takes the form of the Wild Horse Woman. It's a world in which, due to radioactive fallout, nothing is genetically pure.
The main protagonist, Brother Blacktooth, is from nomad stock, but nomads who've been settled since the last big war against Texark, which they lost - a historical event central to "Canticle." In that book, the Order of Saint Leibowitz and the church are forces that first preserve, then redevelop civilization. In this book, the Order of Saint Leibowitz is oppressive to Blacktooth's spirit (though he's devoted to the saint), and the church is riddled with internal strife, deeply at odds with Texark.
Everyone seems to have at least two, if not three or more names. The exception to this rule is a character who causes a scandal by keeping his given name when he becomes pope. Yet, the ideal of purity and singular identity remains. Genetic mutations are a bane, and - like lepers before them - their only protection lies with the church.
In short, it's a deeply ambiguous world, a close mirror of our own, though nothing like ours in outward form. The book can be read as pure fiction about a far future that's now most unlikely to ever come. Then again, it can be read as a spiritual x-ray of our times. We escaped causing the apocalypse, but we can't escape having had our finger on the trigger.
* Paul Rosenberg, a writer in Los Angeles, is founder of the organization Reason and Democracy.