I didn’t know what to expect from A Canticle for Leibowitz, because despite being aware of its classic status, nothing that I read about it really prepared me for it. So I’m going to try to leave you with a clear (but spoiler-free) idea of what this book is about so you will be encouraged to dive into it. It is deservedly a classic, eminently accessible, and very interesting. If you’re one of those people who shy away from science fiction because you’re not that into “spaceships and ray guns,” this is a book that might make you reconsider that conception of the genre label.
Loosely put, this is three related vignettes that together form a post-apocalyptic novel. It reminds me a bit of The Dying Earth in its setting, but with the resurgence of science (as opposed to the rise of magic) as the main conceit. Walter M. Miller seizes on the idea that, as they did during the so-called Dark Ages, monasteries preserved a great many works of literature and philosophy during widespread periods of illiteracy—this time during the centuries following a nuclear winter. Humanity, somewhat and occasionally mutated, is spreading across the world again, but rediscovering literacy and technology is low on the list.
Miller’s proposition is basically that our ancestral tendency towards tribalism does not disappear as we advance technology. It is what sets off the conflagration, impedes rediscovery of science afterwards, and indeed, contributes to a second apocalypse a mere 1500 years after the first. So it goes.
Within the stories, then, Miller explores the tension between our curiosity, our need to discover, and our ability to fuck it up. There are characters who favour rediscovery and reinvention, and there are characters who urge more caution. Of course, one of the tragedies of such disasters is that the imperfect retention of information means it isn’t always clear what caused the apocalypse. It is interesting to see how Miller allows legends of the nuclear war filter down to these descendants, as seen most obviously in the canonization of the eponymous Leibowitz.
“Fiat Homo,” the first novella, is largely about the state of life at this point after the apocalypse. Miller points to signs of nuclear winter—the main character discovers a fallout shelter. One of the recurring themes here is the inexorable passage of time: Francis spends years as a novice, enduring numerous vigils; thereafter he spends fifteen years toiling on his reproduction of the blueprints; his colleague monk spends a lifetime working towards restoring a few pages of damaged manuscripts. Progress at the monastery comes not in months or years but in decades and centuries, a microcosm of how progress happens in human society at large.
Of course, not everyone would agree that more technology is progressive or a good thing. Miller entertains this argument in “Fiat Lux.” Set five hundred years after the events of the first novella, this story takes place in the same monastery. The surrounding countryside is more formally organized, if not more civilized, and finally there are some outside scholars attempting to rediscovery what was lost. This leads to political tension, as well as hints at religious and philosophical quandaries. I loved when the visiting scholar gives a little lecture to the monks, who are totally fine with the science stuff, and when one of the monks suggestions a Darwin-style theory of evolution of humans, the scholar gives the equivalent of a snort—like it’s just that unreasonable.
That’s something I wasn’t expecting: the keen humour. For some reason, maybe the dour cover or the mis-remembered reviews I’d long ago, I was expecting something much more sombre. And while there are the more conventional moments where Miller asks us to consider the insanity of nuclear warfare, he also displays a sense of compassion and wit that nicely balances the macabre plot. This is especially true in the final novella, “Fiat Voluntas Tua.” Even as nuclear war looms on the horizon again, and as people voluntary euthanize themselves because of overexposure to radiation, we have a fiery fightin’ priest who takes issue with these ideas. It is a very lively way to confront the idea that our history is, alas, cyclical: as Head Six says on Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.
A Canticle for Leibowitz also reminds me of Always Coming Home. While Le Guin’s fascinating and unconventional book is a more utopian conception of a “less progressive” but happier world, Miller’s novel touches on similar themes but with less optimism. Almost Vonnegutian in temperament, if not in delivery, Miller makes the case that we are inherently flawed, à la Hobbes. Is that enough name-dropping for you?
This is a great book. It’s not just a classic of science fiction; it is a great book, full stop. And it’s short. It’s easy to follow, despite being set in the far future after our cultures have disintegrated. There are moments that might truly be considered “downers,” including perhaps the ending (that depends, I suppose, on your perspective). But it’s such a beautifully written and considered work that even such cynicism gives way to glimmers of hope. That is to say, Miller might admit to the faults of our species, but even he sees the potential for redemption within the hopes, dreams, and actions of a brave few. It is these, I suppose, who we call saints.