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A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller , Jr.
reprinted by Bantam Spectra, 1997
(first published 1959)

review by John Tintera

Now that the cold war is over, it’s possible to reflect on some of the positive, if indirect, benefits of the standoff. On the one hand there were incredible advances in the pure sciences and technology. On the other hand, the Cold War fired the imaginations of an entire generation of painters, sculptors, novelists, screenwriters, musicians, and playwrights. From Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, countless artists tapped into, reflected upon, and excoriated the paranoia and the propaganda that resulted from the Communist threat. While some of this material now seems dated, one work to come out of the Cold War with all of its power intact is the 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller.

A haunting tale of post-apocalypse America, A Canticle for Leibowitz chronicles the struggles of a small community of monks living in the Western desert as they try to preserve a library of books salvaged from “the flame deluge.” While Miller offers a fatalistic view of our prospects for avoiding such a catastrophe, the mere writing—and reading—of this tale reminds us how high the stakes are in these games we call politics.

Miller, who was born in Florida and raised in the South, was 19 when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He quickly signed up for the Army Air Force and came of age flying bombing missions over Italy and the Balkans. By all accounts, a major turning point in his life was participating in the sortie that targeted the Catholic monastery at Monte Casino—the monastery that was founded by St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism and began writing stories. A Canticle for Leibowitz, the novel for which he is best known, is informed by a love for the minutiae of Catholicism, the kind typical of a convert to the faith, and its main action takes place in a monastic setting. Much of the novel’s satisfying sense of otherworldliness can be attributed to Miller’s knowledge of the details of pre-1960’s Catholicism.

The larger setting of Leibowitz is post-nuclear-holocaust America. The first part of the story begins 600 years after modern civilization is wiped out by nuclear war and its after-effects. In Miller’s scenario, late twenty-fifth century humanity has reached a status roughly equivalent to the Dark Ages and is starting its long ascent back toward technological sophistication. Bands of uncivilized mutants roam the land making travel treacherous and preventing the kind of communication that makes any renaissance possible. The main repository of human culture is a monastery that was founded by Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer who survived the cataclysm. In the opening scene we meet a young postulant to the monastery who has been forced to build a shelter in the wilderness outside the monastery in order to test his vocation as a monk. He’s required to live there during the 40 days of Lent. Although the young monk is considered by his superiors to be something of a dunce, he has a vision in which an old man points out to him the resting place of some papers that are eventually confirmed as having belonged to Blessed Leibowitz. Ironically, the papers found are nothing more than a grocery list and a simple electrical diagram, yet the monk eventually devotes his life to copying them in a florid illuminated style.

The following two parts of Leibowitz, which were originally published as short novellas, give snapshots of the monastery during a period of renaissance and one roughly equivalent to our own. Because the monastery houses so many books salvaged from the 20th century, it serves as a focal point as the world begins to reinvent such things as electricity and nuclear technology. Creating a mirror image of our own society, Miller reflects on the current state of our world. Like any moralist worth his weight, he clearly takes a dark view of our prospects in a nuclear age. Reading Leibowitz reminds us that the specter of nuclear annihilation is a permanent fixture of human existence.

Some science fiction critics believe Leibowitz to be our finest exemplar of the genre. Unlike most other practitioners of sci-fi, Miller did not feel compelled to fill a whole library with his offspring. As the only novel Miller finished in his lifetime, it’s clear that he wrote with great care, yet the result, unlike many first novels, is not overly crafted. In fact it’s refreshingly light on its feet. What’s more, Miller is able to surprise us with both characters and descriptive details, a natural ability which can never be simulated by careful rewriting. Those who may have shied away from sci-fi in the past could do a lot worse than start with Leibowtiz. And for those who love great stories and aren’t afraid to travel to the distant future, Leibowtiz offers the perfect blend of great storytelling and healthy examination of conscience.

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Copyright ©2004 John Tintera

A Canticle for Leibowitz

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