A Canticle for Leibowitz: A must-read for any true SF fan

science fiction book reviews A Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr

It’s the Dark Ages again. A 20th century nuclear war spawned a “Flame Deluge” which destroyed human civilization’s infrastructure and technology, killed most of the people, and created genetic mutations in many of the rest. Then there was a backlash against the educated people of the world who were seen as the creators of both the ideas that started the war, and the weapons that were used to fight it. They were persecuted and killed and all knowledge was burned up. After this “Simplification,” people took pride in being illiterate and the only institution that seemed to come through intact was the Roman Catholic Church, just as it did during humanity’s first Dark Ages.

Walter M. Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is divided into three parts, which were originally published as three separate stories. In the first story, “Fiat Homo,” which takes place 600 years after The Simplification, we find a cloister of monks who are applying to New Rome to have their martyred patron, an ex-electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, sainted. Leibowitz’s monks have been collecting, preserving, and copying fragments of the Earth’s previous civilization. As keepers of pre-Deluge history, they attempt to piece together knowledge and history, without knowing for certain what they’re looking at. One day, while maintaining a vigil of silence in the desert around the abbey, Brother Francis stumbles upon the entrance to Leibowitz’s fallout shelter containing precious relics, such as a circuitry blueprint and a deli shopping list. These relics cause quite a stir in the abbey.

“Fiat Lux” begins 600 years later. Genetic mutations caused by the fallout are still affecting mammalian DNA, and the monks of St. Leibowitz occasionally wonder whether there really ever was an advanced civilization on Earth, but progress is gradually being made. This is especially true in the abbey of St. Leibowitz where the monks are safe from the tribal wars that are common in surrounding Texarkana. Their studies of the fragments they’ve been collecting have prepared them to ignite a new renaissance.

Another 600 years pass. In “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” humans, though still affected by “genetic festering,” have reached the pinnacle of civilization and culture, progressing beyond what had been experienced before the nuclear war in the 20th century. But there’s been a cold war going on for 50 years between the two world superpowers and they both have nuclear weapons. At the abbey of St. Leibowitz, the monks wonder if humans are destined to repeat the cycle and, as keepers of the world’s knowledge, what is the abbey’s responsibility to humankind?

Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? …. Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing? This time, it will swing us clean to oblivion… Back then, in the Saint Leibowitz’ time, maybe they didn’t know what would happen… They had not yet seen a billion corpses. They had not seen the still-born, the monstrous, the dehumanized, the blind. They had not yet seen the madness and the murder and the blotting out of reason. Then they did it, and then they saw it… Only a race of madmen could do it again.

Obviously, the main theme of A Canticle for Leibowitz is the repetitive cycle of human history and the role of our advancing knowledge and technology in our own destruction. This provides the reader with plenty to think on, but Miller also addresses issues that the Roman Catholic Church has tackled during its history, such as its role in state politics and its insistence that euthanasia is a sin. While the novel is meant to be a serious consideration of these ideas, and while its predictions and warnings are frightening, A Canticle for Leibowitz still manages to be amusing and agreeably quirky all the way through. Though there’s a powerful and unforgettable message here, it is the irreverent, eccentric humor that makes it so enjoyable to read.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a classic piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction that had mass cross-genre appeal when it was published in 1960, won the Hugo award in 1961, and has never been out of print. Thus, it’s a must-read for any true SF fan. I recently tried the audio version which was just released by Blackstone Audio and narrated by Tom Weiner. Audio readers, even if you’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz before, you won’t want to miss Blackstone Audio’s first-rate production of this imaginative, chilling, and humorous novel.

~Kat Hooper

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a book that defies standard categorization. I suppose it has enough future-world, post-apocalyptic concepts that it falls in the science fiction realm, but it’s not your basic laser beam and alien fare. This story goes much deeper.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is made up of three stories that span thousands of years. Each story focuses on a distinct time period, looking progressively further into a post-apocalyptic future. The setting is the same abbey in the American West, founded to protect and preserve the learnings of the pre-apocalyptic society. Specifically, they’ve developed a myth around a martyred scientist named Leibowitz.

The first story revolves around Brother Francis who accidentally discovers certain original papers created by Leibowitz, including the blue prints for a technological device. The second story centers on a new technological awakening where future theorists come in contact with ancient (modern) technology. The sequence comes full circle in the third story as our future world is faced again with mutual mass destruction.

Miller wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz in the late ’50s when World War II and the atomic bomb were still visible in the world’s rearview mirror and the cold war threat was very much a reality. Much of Miller’s discourse is on the cyclical nature of cultures and societies, the interconnections between religion and science, as well as death and politics. It’s clear that much of the evocative emotion stems from Miller’s time in the military and a youth grown up during a World War.

The story is at times light and humorous but threaded with a very heavy and serious undertone throughout.

The root story I found very interesting — how this future-world’s archaeology is our modern world’s past. I felt that the first two segments of the book were strongest and was only saddened that each couldn’t have more ink themselves. In reflecting upon the discoveries of their past, and their promises of hope for the future, Miller writes:

For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded… Truth could be crucified, but soon, perhaps a resurrection.

The development of religion, while always founded in Christianity, morphs over the course of the story and we see a mythology grow over time. A Canticle for Leibowitz is successful on many levels… as simply an intriguing story with attractive characters, and as literature built upon a foundation of religion and war. It’s solid story telling at its best, with heart, emotion and intelligence layered on top of the tale from start to finish.

~Jason Golomb

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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  1. I’ve been meaning to read this forever. Great review. I definitely want to bump it up on my TBR list now.

  2. One of my all-time favorite science fiction novels. I highly recommend it. Excellent review, Kat.

  3. It’s nice to see a review of this classic. Thanks, Kat.

  4. Thanks, guys!
    Definitely one of the best audiobooks put out this year.

  5. I have to admit, this has been on my must-read list for far too long. I remember starting it a few times back in highschool, but just not getting into it. I definitely need to give it another shot.

  6. Yesterday The New Yorker published an interesting article about A Canticle For Leibowitz: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/science-fiction-classic-still-smolders

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