Book Talk: *A Canticle for Leibowitz*, by Walter M. Miller Jr. (Faith & Fiction Roundtable)

A Canticle for Leibowitz 
Walter M. Miller Jr.
Eos (2006), Paperback (0060892994 / 9780060892999) (Reprint: original publication date 1959)
Science/speculative fiction, 352 pages
Source: Purchased
Reason for reading: Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion

Opening lines: “Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with gilded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.”

Book description: Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and widely considered one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of twentieth-century literature — a chilling and still-provocative look at a post-apocalyptic future. 

In a nightmarish ruined world slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infant rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From here the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to re-celebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes. Seriously funny, stunning, and tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze.

Comments: As I was coming to the end of my reading of the A Canticle for Leibowitz, we were within days of the promised Rapture. Odds are that if you’re reading this review now, either it didn’t happen or you’re among the Left Behind (me too!). It was unintentional, but interesting, timing.

By my estimate, A Canticle for Leibowitz ranges in time from a century to roughly 15 centuries in the future, but when you realize it was originally published in 1959, it becomes clear just how informed by the Cold War and the post-nuclear nightmares of the mid-20th century this novel is. Centered on a community of monks that endures for generations as the keepers of ancient knowledge in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, one of its primary themes is the repetition of history; along those lines, it suggests that what we might perceive as the “end of the world” may indeed be anything but.

Divided into three sections separated by hundreds of years each, the novel opens after an unspecified man-made disaster (not stated as nuclear war, but certainly implied) has wiped out much of the Earth’s population, and most of what’s left is scattered and damaged. Thanks to a “simplification” intended to eradicate the educated and intellectual, those humans who remain have entered a second Dark Ages. And just as in the first one, the preservation of knowledge has fallen to the Church. The friars of the Leibowitz order have become protectors of the Memorabilia – documents that have somehow survived, although their meaning has been lost. Over the following centuries, the technological and scientific knowledge they contained will be slowly re-discovered…as if it is learned for the first time. And because, as the saying goes, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, the last section of the novel finds the world on the brink of a horror similar to that which preceded the events of its opening third.

While plot summaries tell you what a book’s about, they really don’t say much about a book – and as Ti noted in her review on Book Chatter, it’s difficult to know what to say about Canticle. I found it more accessible than I expected to, and it’s certainly thought-provoking on numerous levels. The premise of a Church (implied, but not stated, to be the Roman Catholic one) that plays a major role in preserving and forwarding secular knowledge – ultimately becoming involved in space travel – reminds me of The Sparrow, although, to be more accurate, it’s likely that Canticle was an influence on Mary Doria Russell’s masterwork, since it was published earlier (in fact, Russell wrote a new introduction to the edition I read). Speaking of the Church, the fact that its language is Latin here is another marker of when this novel was written – pre-Vatican II and the shift to liturgy in local languages.

Despite the commonalities with one of my all-time favorite works of fiction, including transcendence of genre and discussion potential, I doubt I’d have ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz if it weren’t a Faith and Fiction Roundtable choice. Having read it once, however, I think there’s a good chance I’ll read it – and think about it – again.

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