A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.

  General / Favorable Reviews
  Critical Reviews
  Lucifer is Fallen *****

This novel from the 1950's is a deserved classic among the sci-fi intelligentsia. Maybe its laborious title has kept it from being noticed by the popular masses, but this book is a hidden gem for those looking to broaden their horizons. This is probably one of the earliest stories to speculate on a post-nuclear apocalypse, and here Walter Miller created one of the most imaginative and far-reaching examples of that motif. Later nuclear winter stories would get predictable and formulaic, but not this originator. In this masterpiece of storytelling, three ages of human development pass by over the course of 1800 years, but in the end we see that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. While it's a bit dated in places, this brilliant and disturbing novel will keep you thinking for a long time after you're done reading it.

In addition to its unique take on historical processes, this book is essentially about the pros and cons of organized religion. In Part 1, humanity is stuck in the middle of several centuries of dark ages after a nuclear war, and once again the Catholic Church (or what's left of it) holds sway over a fearful and unenlightened society. Among the few records of the pre-war world that have survived are some inconsequential notes and blueprints by a minor scientist called Leibowitz. The church has made Leibowitz a saint, and here Miller appears to be commenting on the reverence of organized religion toward matters of doubtful authenticity and importance. Is religious belief built upon weak foundations? In Part 2 humanity is entering a new renaissance of knowledge, with religion being unable to adjust to the new enlightenment. In Part 3, humanity has reached a new technical age, but society is again oppressed by nuclear paranoia and mutually assured destruction. Humanity is about to destroy itself once again in this 1800-year cycle. Miller then takes us on an examination of the strength and relevance of faith in the face of such suffering and destruction. However, for the entire 1800 years and more, the disciples of Leibowitz have kept faith and hope alive. So is organized religion the curse or savior of humanity? Walter Miller contemplates these issues with great lucidity in this lost classic.


(from amazon.com)

  A classic, but.... ***

I dislike post-apocalypse stories--possibly unreasonably so--because of past experience. For every Alas Babylon, there were real dogs like The Postman or The Day After. This is the main reason why I had never read Walter M. Miller's classic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. Since it kept appearing on my Alexandria Digital Literature recommendation list, and several people had expressed amazement that I had never read it, I decided to overcome my bias, and at least give it a try. It started out bad--the main character avoiding a possible mutant in a desolate Utah setting that included a fallout shelter (and the word fallout had new meaning, describing a "scary" monster of the past). Yawn. But I persisted, and it got better.
Split into three equal sections, each covering a different main character and time period. The first section, "Fiat Homo," is the least interesting, or maybe, the most irritating, describing the young initiate Francis and the results of his Lenten fast; nuclear devastation has driven science underground, preserved by a strange order of Catholic monks. This live-close-to-nature aftermath scenario is the type so over used to be annoying, yet Miller's version, which I initially disliked, actually has something that all the imitators lacked depth. The priesthood role of preservation, initially a silly concept, is quite fleshed out by Miller until it achieves believability. Compare this with, say, Waterworld, where the groups of people and technology have no rational logic. . .

The middle section, "Fiat Lux," occurs a few centuries later, when human society is being rebuilt, as well as new scientists trying to re-work the old knowledge. The interplay here is between the monks who wish to preserve the old information until the time is right, and the new scientists, who insist that the time is now. The opening of this section, describing one of the nomad groups of the plains, reads too much like Robert Adams' interminable Horseclans novels, but Miller can be forgiven that, by not only being first, but also for having the good sense to stop after one chapter.

It is the last section, "Fiat Voluntas Tua," that really sets this novel apart from the crowd, and, in my opinion, confirms its classic status. Set in the far future, when all of society has been rebuilt, including the nuclear technology that caused the first cataclysm, the Abbot of the preserving order finds that humans did not learn from the past, and that preparations must be made for another period of darkness. As in the other sections, Miller is able to make this future scenario entirely believable.

If A Canticle for Liebowitz had been confined to just one of these sections, I would have hated it. But the three sections are basically inter-connected novellas that do manage to create the semblance of a single novel at the end. Miller did nothing to change my aversion for post-apocalyptic works, but I did gain appreciation for his take on it.

"Glen Engel Cox

(from amazon.com)





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