Yael's Reviews > A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
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Nov 30, 08


Where do I start? A Canticle for Liebowitz, first published in 1960, is one of the greatest English-languge novels. I first read it the year after it was introduced to the public, when I was 16, and it drove home an understanding of just what global nuclear war was likely to do to the world. Somber, heart-wrernching, the novel is nevertheless written with wry, sardonic humor that counterbalances the horror of what has happened to the world . . . until it dawns on the reader that what is sardonically humorous are the human attitudes that got the world into that state in the first place. This is not a book for light reading or mild entertainment -- but it is one that every thoughtful adult ought to read, lest we fall into the trap of suffering the repeat of a history we tried to ignore . . . or creating a future even more hideous than some of history's blackest periods.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American Walter M. Miller, Jr., is based on three short stories which Miller contributed to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; it is the only novel published by the author before his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1996. Considered one of the great classics of science fiction, according it has never been out of print, and has seen over 25 reprints and editions (or so according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Cantic.... I tried looking for it on amazon.com this evening and came up empty; only amazon.ca had it; it may not be currently in print). Appealing to mainstream and genre critics and readers alike, it won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

Inspired by the author's participation in the Allied bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, the novel is considered a masterpiece by literary critics. It has been compared favorably with the works of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy, and its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state have generated a significant body of scholarly research.

The novel is, with rare, short exceptions, set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the desert of the Southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war. The story spans nearly two millennia, beginning with the Flame Wars, or 20th century global nuclear holocaust, and covers the slow, torturous rebuilding of civilization through the devoted work of the monks, nomad raids, police actions by civil authority, and all the rest of what constitutes the history of any civilization. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the day the outside world is again ready for it -- but is man ever ready for that?

One of the things that has deeply moved me every time I've read and reread A Canticle for Liebowitz over the years is the devotion, courage, and grace of the Albertian monks as they strive over the centuries to preserve what is left of the scientific and other texts of a suicidal civilization from the fires of raging mobs of simpletons, i.e., ordinary citizens, whose hate for "those smug bastards who did this" has led them to root and burn not only texts, but those who wrote and taught them, not to mention any monks who, like Isaac Liebowitz, founder of the order himself, have been unfortunate enough to be caught with such texts on their persons or in their near vicinity. Since the end of the 20th century, all the way to the 32nd century and the beginning of the recovery of late 20th-century technology, the monks live all their days doing everything possible to protect the books and documents that preserve that technology, so that their contemporaries can begin the work of rebuilding an advanced global civilization. But even as technological progress once more begins to unfold with lightning speed, it becomes evident that the human soul hasn't changed at all, and that history is very likely to repeat itself. Which it finally does -- humanity doesn't want the moral maturity of the monks, only the toys the plans for which have been preserved so lovingly by the monks, and once again the world is wrapped in radioactive fire, possibly for the very last time.

The novel begins with Part I, "Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man)." Set in the 26th century, Part I describes the time taking place after the Age of Simplification, a time of popular revolt against scientists inspired by the nuclear Flame Wars. Part II, "Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)," takes place in the 32nd century, when humanity rediscovers the light bulb and the use of electricity to turn motors. But to his horror, the monastery's abbot discovers that once again, science and true wisdom are beginning to diverge in ways that promise to be radical, and that science and, with it, engineering will always be the preferred studies of the rulers of men, while wisdom is sent to weep in the corners of the world, watch as disaster comes ever closer, and be powerless to do anything to stop it. In Part III, "Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done), set in the 38th century, the vast, technologically advanced civilization built on the ashes of the 20th century is destroyed . . . by another global thermonuclear war. This time, it may be that all that is left of Earth's life is what has been transplanted to various interstellar colonies before the nuclear balloon went up, though, at least, it is noted at the end of the novel, a shark survives, but only by moving to particularly deep water to avoid the fallout, and thereafter he experiences a time of great hunger. The Order of Liebowitz, however, survives -- offworld, on one of Earth's struggling interstellar colonies, along with a great number of orphans that those monks assigned to crew the ship and settle the monastery in at the new colony have taken with them.

Life's long history is one of endlessly repeated tragedies. Miller's great testament was an attempt to get the world to pull back from carrying out the worst tragedy of all: the end of civilization and with it, possibly, humanity as a species and even Earthly life itself. At least so far, we have managed to avoid that fate. If God is kind, Miller is smiling at that in the heaven reserved for those who do all they can to prevent murder on the largest possible scale.
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