“Brother John's Day Out” by William P. Roessner
Such a delight to find one of the obscure “Monks in an order” science fiction short stories I’ve been searching for for years. (It’s not over.)
English had not become more precise or efficient. It had devolved into lazy, slurred, shortened inner-city slang. The story makes it apparent that it paralleled lazy thinking.
The monks didn’t speak it. The boys to whom Brother John spoke in the Capital city said “Howz?” and “Fushuh I compa no funna home.”
The monks were in an order preserving more than just the “traditional” standard English. There were the English brothers, and the math and science brothers. All applied their specialties in preserving some specific knowledge and a way of life.
past the animal compound, past the weaving shed where the tweeds were made, past the dairy, past the winery, past the fields with growing things . . . such as they were.
Was it worth it, this obsession to keep the old skills alive when they weren’t wanted or needed and might never be?
But of course it was. The catastrophe would come, in whatever form: war, environmental collapse, another ice age, madness —
Preserving knowledge, to help people start over after a worldwide collapse of civilization: English, math and sciences, animal husbandry, farming, weaving and making their own clothing, tanning hides, leather work, making their own shoes. Doing their own math.
The whole problem is that so few men join the order. The story describes long empty dining tables with only a few men sitting at them.
The story makes occasional references to their habit: their traditional “tweed and leathers”.
I find it reminiscent of the Oxford Dons.
Brother John, an “English brother”, briefly meets a man during his one-day stay in the Capital city, who challenges him: Why do you preserve knowledge -- and what for?
To keep the knowledge through an Ice Age? He says that machines can do all that – people don’t even have to think any more. He is articulate and thoughtful; it is clear to Brother John that the man thinks. He apparently learned “oldstyle” English as a hobby. For something interesting and challenging to do, in a world gone to machine-like people depending on machines and instruments for everything, even thinking.
The story written as recently as 1977 now seems even more prescient to me, even knowing that that’s the job of science fiction.
It’s a vignette that doesn’t end with some conclusive plot and ending. Brother John finds parts of both lifestyles distasteful: both the “outer world’s” completely synthesized food, lazy-thinking English, and dependence on machines to an extent that people decayed into incompetence; and the stringy or moldy food and soured milk and wine in his own order’s dining hall.
There are no easy answers.