A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter J. Miller

Morality: A
Writing: A+

The post-nuclear holocaust story is a venerable cliche in science fiction. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with the idea per se, as A Canticle for Leibowitz triumphantly proves. After the death of civilization in nuclear war, an ex-physicist named Leibowitz founded an order to preserve the remnants of knowledge. The novel follows the story of the monks living at Leibowitz Abbey in Utah over hundreds of years, from the dark ages not long after the holocaust until the second fall of civilization.

There is really no way to describe this book except “classic.” Divided into three parts which were originally novellas before Miller stitched them together into a novel, it does not follow any one character or storyline. Rather, it’s an extended meditation on original sin, the search for Eden, and the impossibility of ever regaining it. As one character says: “It never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day.” Yet A Canticle for Leibowitz is not fatalistic or depressing, but ends with hope.

Miller’s writing is excellent; he handles with great skill a subject which could easily become silly. He successfully paints a world in various stages of disrepair, as well as the odd, sympathetic characters who inhabit it. Moreover, he is able to employ humor without mockery. The meek Brother Francis, who spends fifteen years making an illuminated copy of a circuit diagram he cannot understand, would in most other novels be merely a figure of fun. But while Miller is aware of the humor of the situation, he has a profound sympathy for Brother Francis–and in the end, a deep admiration for the attempt to preserve knowledge, however fragmented it may have become.

Along with humor, the book is also capable of a majestic poetry. For instance, at one point the a monk reads aloud an account, written several hundred years ago by another monk, of the nuclear war that destroyed civilization.

“And a great stink went up from Earth even unto Heaven. Like unto Sodom and Gomorrah was the Earth and the ruins thereof, even in the land of that certain prince, for his enemies did not withhold their own vengeance, sending fire in turn to engulf his cities as their own. The stink of the carnage was exceedingly offensive to the Lord, Who spoke unto the prince, Name, saying: ‘WHAT BURNT OFFERING IS THIS THAT YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME? HAVE YOU MADE ME A HOLOCAUST OF SHEEP OR GOATS, OR OFFERED A CALF UNTO GOD?’

“But the prince answered him not, and God said: ‘YOU HAVE MADE ME A HOLOCAUST OF MY SONS.'”

Or again, there is the litany that Brother Francis prays during his Lenten fast in the desert:

“From the place of ground zero,
   O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of cobalt,
   O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of strontium,
   O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
   O Lord, deliver us.

As you have probably already guessed, this is not only a well-written book but a profoundly religious one. It is drenched in Catholicism and will therefore probably have more meaning (and humor) for Catholics, but I think that Christians of all stripes will appreciate its message of sin and hope. Read it, and then sit on your friends until they read it too.

Posted by Rose | September 2, 2003

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