Review of A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter Miller

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/19/05


  Having grown up watching 1950s sci fi I was familiar with many of the Doomsday tropes from such films as The World, The Flesh, & The Devil, & On The Beach. Most were fairly pessimistic. So, I was a bit surprised when I picked up & read Walter Millerís A Canticle For Leibowitz, in that it both used & subverted the genre & its tropes. The book is not really a novel, but 3 linked novellas that follow the Resurrection of Mankind after a 20th Century nuclear exchange, through the prism of a secretive order of Catholic priests, in the Utah desert, that prevent the total barbarism of what was once the United States of America. The 3 novellas are set about 600, 1200, & 1800 years in the future.

  The 1st of the 3 books is Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man) is a bit of a comic tale about a priest named Brother Francis Gerard who stumbles upon an old fallout shelter that may or may not be the shelter of an I.E. Leibowitz- a 20th Century engineer whose post-nuclear attack work raised him to icon status. He was a booklegger- someone who moved books from place to place at great risk. He was caught & executed. The church made him a martyr, & the Albertian Order of Leibowitz is trying to make him a saint, & searches through the ruins for evidence of Leibowitzian miracles, only to constantly misinterpret ancient things, such as a creased, brittle shopping list- ĎPound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels--bring home for Emma.í- having some higher meaning. This, & other articles of Leibowitz, are accorded holy status simply for having survived the attack & its aftermath- the flame Deluge & nuclear Fallout being accorded the status of demons, prompting queries as to why the ancients would build shelters for their demons. Then came the Age of Simplification, where the survivors turned on the intelligentsia for having wrought their disaster. A new Dark Age was upon the planet, & the survivors reveled in being called Simpletons. Yet, the Order of Leibowitz, from their abbey, preserve the faith with their Memorabilia, & a loyalty to New Rome.

  Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) picks up the tale 600 or so years later. Mankind has rebounded & nation-states have formed- such as Denver & Texarkana. While the Leibowitzians have succeeded in getting sainthood for him their Order has seen the re-embrace of technology. This section has the least interesting character development & is the weakest section, focusing more on burgeoning political empires & co-existence. It lacks the narrative force of the 1st section, & the more philosophical nature of the last. In a sense the middle section is an espionage thriller sort of tale, with the emperor of Texarkana scheming to seize power. It also follows a scholar & poet- Thon Taddeo- who is helping to rediscover the secrets of the 20th Century- including the electric light bulb.

   Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done) leaps ahead another 6 or so centuries & the 20th Century level of technology has been equaled & surpassed. Mankind is now venturing out to the stars. It is a 2nd Nuclear Age, & the point where the overall novel 1st goes from plain fiction/fantasy to true science fiction. All the events in parts 1 & 2 are plausible today, whereas part 3 is where speculation takes off. Colonies are now common in space- & even headed towards nearby stars like Alpha Centauri. Even were the 2nd Nuclear Age to end as the 1st did on earth, Mankind, freed to the stars, will not suffer another Dark Age. This tale starts with a nuclear explosion & concerns the Leibowitzians attempts to export Roman Catholicism to the stars, in the form of the Holy Memorabilia, & whether or not to sanction mass suicide to avoid the horrific end of the 1st Nuclear Age. As mankind heads for the stars we find out that a new sort of racism has plagued man- genetic purity that scorns mutants- walking reminders of the 1st nuclear holocaust.

  The 3 sections of A Canticle for Leibowitz give, at the same time, a cyclical view of history thatís pessimistic, yet hopeful. Even the long suffered for knowledge of the past the Leibowitzians preserved cannot save humanity from near-annihilation, yet it is only near-annihilation. Humanity perdures. There is also a watcher- the only character that appears in all 3 tales- a combination of the desert wandering Jew & Lazarus- a deathless figure.

  The book deals with many issues- large & small. For example, there is the recurring theme that most people work for purposes they have no grasp on. In part 1 Brother Francis wastes 15 years copying a Holy Liebowitzian artifact, only to have it stolen. In Part 2 Brother Kornhoer follows ancient blueprints & builds an electric light, unaware that he was doing so. Another theme is how history is shaped as much by its recorders as its participants. Just how much we think we know of the Mayas, Phoenicians, Chinese, Minoans, or even Neandertals, etc. may be our own imposition of biases, rather than fact.

  Given that the book was written in 1959, during Cold War hysteria, yet is still relevant, is a good endorsement of its timeless quality. Yes, the idea that any organized religion- in this case Roman Catholicism- represents an answer, rather than a problem, is a bit of Millerís own nšive-tť &/or bias leaking through. After all, he portrays the Church as an unchanging vehicle for ignorance whether it be in the Dark Ages, our time, or the 3 future periods of mankind- a highly suspect proposition in the post-9/11 world. This is but a minor quibble, though, for the overriding point is itís a good tale- whose overall narrative takes precedent over any individual.

  Although most post-Apocalyptic tales tend to be either to too gloomy or too optimistic, A Canticle For Leibowitz strikes a believable balance. Would that its subjects could do the same the book would be as superfluous as the devotion to the Blessed shopping list!

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]

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