- Author: Walter M. Miller Jr
- File Size: 975 KB
- Print Length: 354 pages
- Publisher: Gateway (December 22, 2014)
- Publication Date: December 22, 2014
- Language: English
The HUGO AWARD-winning novel of Earth after the apocalypse
In the depths of the Utah desert, long after the Flame Deluge has scoured the earth clean, the rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of knowledge.
By studying the Holy Relics of the past, the Order of St Leibowitz hopes to raise humanity from its fallen state to one of grace.
But is such knowledge the key to salvation? Or the certain sign that we are doomed to repeat our most grievous mistakes … ?
Walter M. Miller’s acclaimed SF classic A Canticle for Leibowitz opens with the accidental excavation of a holy artifact: a creased, brittle memo scrawled by the hand of the blessed Saint Leibowitz, that reads: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels–bring home for Emma.” To the Brothers of Saint Leibowitz, this sacred shopping list penned by an obscure, 20th-century engineer is a symbol of hope from the distant past, from before the Simplification, the fiery atomic holocaust that plunged the earth into darkness and ignorance. As 1984 cautioned against Stalinism, so 1959’s A Canticle for Leibowitz warns of the threat and implications of nuclear annihilation. Following a cloister of monks in their Utah abbey over some six or seven hundred years, the funny but bleak Canticle tackles the sociological and religious implications of the cyclical rise and fall of civilization, questioning whether humanity can hope for more than repeating its own history. Divided into three sections–Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done)–Canticle is steeped in Catholicism and Latin, exploring the fascinating, seemingly capricious process of how and why a person is canonized.
An amazing novel. Anyone who starts questioning why they’re reading it, during the first few chapters (as I did), my advice is to stick with it. There’s too much here that needs to be heard. Miller combines futurism, history, faith, science, cynicism, sarcasm, allegory … to warn us, from his vantage point of a half-century ago, about a future some now see on the distant horizon. And then it will be repeated all over again. The book is downright scary in that respect.
Keep in mind that Miller was writing in the 1940s and 1950s. Among other things, he has characters argue or mull over intelligent design, euthanasia, “removable” conscience, politicians placating their country’s “patriotic opinionated rabble,” the line between church and state, and the destruction and rise of civilizations over millennia. Two examples of some phrases that jumped out at me:
– When scholar Thon Taddeo questions how a great civilization could destroy itself, the answer from the monsignor is “Perhaps … by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.”
– Brother Joshua, about to colonize space in order to save shreds of civilization as his current world implodes, thinks that, “the closer men come to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well.” Joshua thinks that a dark world can yearn and hope, but a world “bright with reason and riches” begins to “sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye,” and the realization rankles.
My one complaint is that Miller uses way too many Latin phrases that I didn’t take time to look up the first time through. (And I’m Catholic and even studied Latin in high school.) I will re-read this book with a dictionary at hand in order to mine even more from its depths.
Out in the desert, a young would-be monk labors. He is on a mission for his monastery, a week of fasting and privation that all initiates must go through. As he works to create a shelter for the coming night, he sees a traveler approaching. No one travels the desert so he is filled with fear. The man approaches. He is a skinny old man, barely dressed and ready to fight anyone who he sees. He threatens the young man, then after a while, helps him by marking a stone to finish his shelter. After he leaves, the initiate removes the stone he has marked and finishes his shelter. Removing the stone creates a landslide and steps are revealed.
What has been buried is the entrance to a bomb shelter, for this is the age after the world has gone through nuclear annihilation. Few people remain and those that do mistrust each other. Roaming tribes kill everything in their path and intellectuals are disdained as they were the ones who created the bombs that ruined civilization. As the initiate explores, he finds a box with fragments of writing. Even more amazing, the fragments carry the name of Leibowitz, who is the man for whom the monastery exists. For these monks are charged with preserving what little writing and knowledge exists. They bury barrels of writing material in remote places and copy the words of existing manuscripts, even when they have no idea what the words mean.
What follows is a bleak exhibit of humanity. The reader sees the world through the eyes of time. Over the centuries, men start to value knowledge again. They rediscover the natural principles that underlie all progress, and painstakingly, over centuries, civilization rebuilds to the point that sophisticated machines and computers once again exist. Yet, every time progress is made, it is accompanied by the human nature that cannot help but tear it down again.
This novel is considered a classic of science fiction. It demonstrates a fear of learning and an underlying negativity about human nature. Yet, along with the bleakness, there is always a tendril of hope, someone who risks all in order to learn and spread knowledge. This book is recommended for science fiction readers.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a very highly regarded work of post-apocalyptic fiction. The story is presented in three “acts”, each roughly 600 years apart. The first act is set about 600 years post nuclear holocaust. Society has devolved into a virtual hunter/gatherer society. The scene is set at a southwestern United States monastery. The monks were tasked with collecting and safeguarding books and written material dated prior to the fall of civilization. In this part of the novel, we are given some insight into the nuclear disaster, the fallout and the collapse of society which ensued. We are also introduced to the monastery’s patron (in line for sainthood) Leibowitz, apparently a nuclear engineer who founded the order and tasked it with the preservation of textbooks and technological information.
Fast forward roughly 600 years and society has advanced to a feudal level of warring principalities. Certain budding philosophers and “scientists” have discovered the trove of data maintained by the monks. Rapacious and immoral princes and warlords are beginning to use technology to acquire increased power and territory.
Another 600 passes and society has not only reached, but far exceeded the technological advancements attained prior to the Armageddon of the 20th century. Superpower rivalry has again reached the point of nuclear confrontation in an age of interstellar travel and colonization. What roles do the monks of St. Liebowitz have in this new age? With the nuclear holocaust of the 20th century well known, how could anyone allow such a condition to develop again?
I found the book to be quite interesting and thought provoking. Having read quite a bit of post-apocalyptic literature, it touches many of the same bases, but has a broader scope, both in time frame and cultural landscape than most others I’ve read. Not the best, but well worth the time required.