Walter M. Miller, Jr.
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A Canticle For Leibowitz

J.B. Lippencott, HC, © 1959, 320 pp, ISBN #553-06883-125
Reviewed November 1997

A Canticle For Leibowitz is the seminal post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, revolving around a Catholic abbey set up following the third world war to preserve a few pieces of written knowledge following the "Simplification" in which men of knowledge and learning were vilified for creating the atom bomb. The book takes place in three parts. The first, Fiat Homo ("Let There Be Man"), occurs during the dark ages several centuries after the war. The world is still in a state of barbarism, and the Abbey is one of the few sites of relative civilization. While fasting, novice Francis Gerard encounters a strange man who inadvertently leads Francis to discover a survival shelter from before the war, which seems to have actually been used by Leibowitz!

Although the world is depicted as grim and sparse (the abbey is in the middle of a wasteland), the essential optimism of the monks, as well as the lengthy tedium of their lives, is expertly depicted. Francis desperately wants to become a priest, but his encounter with the traveller and the impact his discovery has on the possible sanctification of Leibowitz - the abbey's patron - puts him in an awkward situation. Francis is perhaps none too bright, but he is earnest and honest, which prove to be his greatest strengths, even as they frustrate his fellows.

The chapter also reveals Miller's facility with words, as despite the subject matter there are many amusing moments interspersed amidst the drama.

The second part, Fiat Lux ("Let There Be Light"), occurs a few centuries later, as warring nations around the Abbey are about to have a final clash resulting in the birth of a great empire on par with Rome. Science is being rediscovered, and this part focuses on the visit of one nation's great scientist to the abbey to examine the many texts they've been keeping safe.

Here we see that the secular world has caught up to the level of civilization preserved by the church, and is on the edge of surpassing it technically. The chapter is very much a passing of the baton from the keepers of civilization during the dark age to those who would shape the world in the emerging civilization, very much symbolized by the generator and arc light which one priest has constructed in the abbey basement.

Alas, it becomes clear that although the monks are well aware of what's going on in the world outside, their power to affect it is swiftly dwindling. Even more tragically, although the chapter is full of people who want to do the right thing by their fellows, their people, and even their enemies, they're consistently unable to bridge the gulf which separates them, and unable to quite figure out why.

The final part, Fiat Voluntas Tua ("Thy Will Be Done"), takes place yet centuries later, when the world has surpassed 20th century technology, but is at the edge of another nuclear war, as the North American capital city is destroyed by its Asian rival. Everyone sees a possible second armageddon around the corner, but the world powers either can't or won't take the necessary steps to stop it.

The abbey of the first two chapters is now located outside a large city and is forced into administering to the victims of the nuclear strike on the capital. Even as the church plans to survive what might be yet another dark age, they struggle to figure out how to do right by the living and the dying of the world today, a daunting task given their conflicts in morals with the world outside, and sharply diminished power to act.

Although there are doubtless many religious interpretations to be made of Canticle, in my own way I saw it almost purely as secular (even the character who seemingly survives the centuries between parts, who might simply have some benign mutation in that way). The faith of the monks is deep but, as in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, it doesn't keep them from seeing and relating to the secular world on its own terms where appropriate. These monks are neither fools nor fanatics. What they are are a society whose fundaments are not based on technology or a need for progress, but on a simple need for faith and a feeling that whatever they're doing, no matter how long it takes, is in a good cause.

The characters, too, are sharply drawn and generally likeable, whatever their differences with the reader's own outlook. In a society populated by only a few hundreds, the abbot of the first part is an expert politician, as he must be, given that there's nowhere to go outside the abbey that doesn't run a great risk of death. The abbot of the second part feels friendlier, but less certain, presiding with less of an iron fist. The abbot of the third part acts quickly and firmly on the few convictions he can actually act upon, but perhaps seems cruel in a way, but caring in another. The supporting cast - most notably the admirable but tragic Francis - are equally engaging.

For its era, this must have been a surprising and unusually powerful book. It eschews the plot-driven approach typical of the era, and presents little high technology. It's the arc of history which carries the story, and the cautions it presents for the Cold War world of the late 1950s. One could debate endlessly how it presents man's flaws as both endearing and fatal. If it is heavy-handed at times, consider its era, and also consider that it's a far more nuanced and intricate story than much SF published at the time.

Along with John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, this is an essential post-apocalyptic novel, which in many ways set the stage for Richard Cowper's The Road To Corlay or David Brin's The Postman. It's not to be missed.

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