And Then I Read: A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller Jr.


© Walter M. Miller, Jr. estate.

This is one of those classic science fiction novels that I somehow never got around to reading. It won the Hugo Award in 1961. Miller wrote a number of short stories for the SF magazines in the 1950s, and put this novel together from three long related ones. It was the only novel published by him in his lifetime, though a lengthy sequel was a lifelong project, and was assembled and published after his death.

Science fiction at its best is about exploring ideas of every kind, and in the 1950s the SF world was still a niche market, barely out of its pulp roots. No one was paying much attention, there wasn’t much money to be made by anyone, and writers had the freedom to write about nearly everything except sex (that began in the 1960s). Religion as an SF topic was a fairly common theme, one which is rarely encountered now. Classics like James Blish’s “A Case of Conscience,” and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” come to mind. This book is in that vein.

The first section focuses on a young and not terribly bright acolyte, Brother Francis, who has been sent out into the desert for a long Lenten fast and prayer session. Days long. He is attached to a monastery which reveres a man called Leibowitz that they hope will someday be named a saint. He founded the monastery some few hundreds of years earlier, and they hold his records and relics, as well as some of the few surviving books from that earlier age. As the story progresses, Francis meets a wandering old man who shows him a buried entrance to a secret shelter. Inside are more documents and relics belonging to Leibowitz, an amazing discovery! So amazing, that Francis spends years trying to convince his abbot that they are, in fact, authentic.

So far, this could all be a story from mediaeval Europe, but as the book reveals, it takes place hundreds of years in our own future. The dark ages of this world came after a nuclear holocaust that destroyed our own civilization. The remaining rulers, scientists and literate men were then hunted down and killed by angry mobs of survivors, now ravaged by radiation, and living in a broken world. Leibowitz was an engineer in that pre-holocaust society, and his plan was to try to save a few bits of knowledge for the future. The abbey he started continues that plan, now as part of a revived Catholic church, one of the powers struggling for control of a savage America.

The second part of the book comes a few hundred years later, when civilization is beginning to recover, and scholars are once more able to study and learn. One such scholar comes to the abbey to learn from the relics of St. Leibowitz, on the eve of a new cataclysmic battle for control of the area by warring factions.

The third part takes place at a much later time, when civilization has come full circle, and nuclear war is once more an imminent threat. The abbey has a plan to carry their knowledge to the stars, but will they have time before the new holocaust hits?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which kept surprising me. At first I thought it was gently mocking religion, with humor. Later I realized it was showing how religion can be a refuge in dark times. And later still, how rigid beliefs can bring even the best intentions to ruin. The story is told with wit, pathos and insight. We, the readers, know the meaning of many of the relics in the story, while the characters are often in the dark, which adds a layer of humor and interest. We never get to know anything much of the real Leibowitz except from these relics, creating lots to think about. Then there’s the character of the wandering old man. He turns out to be quite important in all three parts of the story, and perhaps lets in a little religious fantasy to keep us thinking.

The final section is deeply affecting. Instead of following the launch of the church’s envoys into space, where they hope to found a new church on some distant world, we stay with the current abbot as he tries to find a way through disaster, fighting a hopeless battle for his beliefs. In a way it brings it all full circle.

This book, now over 50 years old, seems dated in only very minor ways. Much of it applies to us just as it did when written. We still live with the possibility of nuclear holocaust, and science fiction’s question: “If that happened, what then?” is always worth exploring. This is one of the best looks at that question I’ve yet encountered. Highly recommended.

A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr

2 thoughts on “And Then I Read: A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller Jr.

  1. Michael Rawdon

    Canticle is one of my favorite books. I sought out a second-edition hardcover just because I wanted to own it in hardcover. It holds up really well after several re-reads, it’s just one of the most effective post-apocalyptic novels ever, both in painting the big picture and in portraying the abbey as a believable place full of its own details.

    I’ve never read the sequel, which Miller was unable to finish in his lifetime (due to one of the biggest bouts of writer’s block in the history of the genre, apparently). It’s hard to imagine it living up to Canticle, but that’s praising it with faint damns.

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