Post-Apocalyptic Fiction: A Return to the Medieval
By Jeremiah Reyes
Paper given at the 3rd Global Conference, held at Mansfield College, Oxford (2014)
Abstract: A specific theme in post-apocalyptic science fiction is a return to a new medieval context. Our paradigm example is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr., which depicts a worldwide nuclear holocaust followed by the preservation of modern civilization’s knowledge by a new generation of scribes and monks, and a restructured Catholic church. Its obvious inspiration being the preservation of knowledge by the monks after the fall of the Roman empire in the dark ages. Interestingly, the book ends with a second nuclear war centuries in the future, as an indictment of the human capacity for violence and destruction.
The same theme, set also in the distant future, can be found in The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, a story interspersed with distinctly medieval elements, such as its crucial and cryptic hagiographical references, and also in Dune by Frank Herbert, where the “Butlerian Jihad”, a war against artificial intelligence, leads human beings to develop their natural capacities to unprecedented levels and towards a new kind of medieval feudalism.
I would like to outline the distinctly Catholic and medieval elements in these three works, and I would like to use the De Civitate Dei of Augustine as an interpretative key in my analysis, namely, the weakness of human civilization in contrast to forms of divinity. Walter Miller Jr. and Gene Wolfe are both Catholic authors. Frank Herbert was born and raised Catholic, but leaned more towards Zen Buddhism in later life. Nevertheless one can detect connected themes. The new saints and papacy in the Canticle, the Christ-figure Severian and cryptic hagiography in the New Sun, the messianic prophecy of Paul Atreides and the role of the Orange Catholic Bible in Dune.