A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. is the sort of book I wish I had known about sooner. A post-apocalyptic novel that tracks the fortunes of an abbey dedicated to St. Leibowitz (blessed Leibowitz at the beginning of the novel), A Canticle for Leibowitz is engrossing, amusing, and minutely detailed. It’s Catholic, it’s Science Fiction, and an award winning novel. What’s not to love? To be entirely futuristic, I listened to the audible audiobook version rather than reading it. Here are my thoughts.
One thing that makes A Canticle for Leibowitz a joy to read (or in my case, listen to!) is that it has some very intelligent theological themes. By this, I don’t mean that it preaches at you. Many of the positive reviews I skimmed on Goodreads before picking it up were from non-religious people. I mean that the setting and characters are thoroughly fleshed out. The setting is a monastery and the characters are monks. Naturally, bits of Latin and references to rosaries, moral theology, immaculate conception, preternatural grace and lauds permeate the story without much explanation. As someone who likes theology, it really added a lot to the story. Sometimes understanding the point or humor of a situation depends on understanding these pieces and how they fit together.
In addition, the novel was originally three separate but related stories bound up together and tweaked in a single novel. You will not be able to stick with the same characters you started with. Most annoyingly, the second story introduces a conflict between the monarch and Pope but then leaps forward six centuries without so much as a backwards glance.
The three stories are individually satisfying and interesting, though to my mind the first was the most interesting. There are some memorable characters woven into the narrative and great pieces of understated humor litter the book. A likable novice named Francis discovers a “Fallout shelter” and wonders if it is a shelter for fallouts (he’s not sure about his pre-deluge English.) When Francis copies blueprints in the monasteries to save them, he illuminates them with cherubim and gold leaf. The monks blindly copy such documents, unsure what the contents might mean.
As the novel wears on, and introduces the other two stories, the humor fades to the background. The post-apocalyptic world becomes something we can recognize from our own history. The second story is clearly modeled on the Middle Ages and the final story takes us to a near future world that does not seem so distant from our own. The saying from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” seemed like it would be right at home here.
In each story, we are shown the contributions the monks make to society. In the first story, they preserve mystic, half understood knowledge in the midst of a violent and primitive world that has little use for it. In the second, they try to survive the growing power of the State, hoping their knowledge will be put to work for good rather than evil. In the third, they begin planning for the future in the midst of what they think of as a decaying culture. Their knowledge is no longer mystical, or desired, but ignored.
The monks are not lionized. They are imperfect and relatable, though compelling, characters. Some are narrow minded; others argumentative. Miller’s monks talk about science and faith like philosophers rather than modern scientists. There’s an interesting theme in the story between embellishment and skepticism (both of the secular and religious kind) obscuring while simultaneously preserving the core truths of the knowledge entrusted to the monks. It’s a thoughtful book, and one I’d like to read again.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a good, potentially great, read. If you are Catholic, and you like science fiction, it’s a marvelous merging of two loves… provided you enjoy stories that are firstly about great events and the sweep of history and secondly about particular characters. It won a Hugo award in 1961 for best science fiction novel, so if you only love science fiction it’s still a good read. Read it!