A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Written in 1959, the book chronicles several centuries after a nuclear war has taken place. The events of the story cover three different eras in the future: about 2600 AD (600 years after the nuclear holocaust), 3174 AD, and 3781 AD. At the center of each part is Leibowitz Abbey (apparently near where Denver, CO, used to be). Civilization (and clear memory of it) died with the nuclear holocaust. The book charts, in 3 separate snapshots, it’s rebirth and development, all previous knowledge having been lost except for some writings that have been preserved as the Memorabilia at the abbey.
In Part I a monk discovers what is later determined to be a bomb shelter that belonged to Leibowitz, a scientist before the holocaust, an individual whom the abbey reveres and would like to see canonized as a saint. He is canonized by the end of this first section. In Part II the abbey plays host to a philosopher of sorts who is skeptical of a great civilization existing before the holocaust--for how could it destroy itself? It would be too far advanced to do such a stupid thing. He examines the Memorabilia and is surprised by the advanced state of that age. In Part III civilization has developed to the point of the space age again, and with it the threats of nuclear violence have returned. The book ends with the abbey destroyed by a nearby nuclear attack.
The church, in particular the Catholic Church, plays a significant role as the keepers of knowledge, even during the 12+ centuries when they have very little idea as to what the knowledge that they keep signifies. In Part I Brother Francis makes an illuminated copy of a blueprint that was preserved from the pre-holocaust age. No one knows what it means, but it belonged to the age of knowledge, so it must be significant. (We the readers know otherwise.)
Politics isn’t in the foreground, but it’s always in the background, especially in Parts II and III. And the world, particularly the various leaders of tribes, empires, governments, etc., is factious and deceitful and evasive and empire-building. Ironically, the Church is preserving all this knowledge for the world, and is always hopeful that the world will use the knowledge wisely (especially does the abbot Dom Paulo feel anxiety about this in Part II), but we the readers realize this isn’t likely.
Violence and destruction seems to be man’s lot. The whole book is book-ended by nuclear holocaust. Did man learn his lesson from the first one? No. Forced back to square one, humanity develops and progresses, eventually to the point of space travel and great scientific capabilities once again (over the course of some 18 centuries). And then he destroys himself again. And it’s not like we couldn’t see it coming, for all the centuries were filled with tensions, warfare, and bloody empire-building. The theme of destruction concludes each part. Buzzards feast on Brother Francis at the end of Part I. In a remarkably similar scene, buzzards feast on a character known as the Poet at the end of Part II. Toward the end of Part III a buzzard hovers around Dom Zerchi as he dies. He waves it off with a “Dinner’s not quite ready, brother bird. You’ll have to wait.” Part III closes with the image of a shark feasting on whiting that had feasted on shrimp. But then the fallout ash hits the water, and dead shrimp and whiting wash up on shore. The shark moves to cleaner waters. Last line: “He was very hungry that season.”
Throughout the Church appears to be portrayed as keeping a pocket of sanity in the midst of an insane world, even trying to influence the world for good (but with little effect in that department, it would seem). The abbots and monks and brothers and novices are not perfect, but they are well-intentioned, and some of them are quite intelligent.
In Part III, the abbot of the day (Dom Jethra Zerchi), in line with higher-ups in the church, convinces a reluctant Brother Joshua to lead a collection of his fellow monks and some families out in space to another colony to establish a place for the Church there, taking along with him microfilm of the Memorabilia. Brother Joshua finally agrees (don’t miss the significance of his name--as Joshua of old needed encouragement [Josh 1] in leading God’s people into a new land). The final loading is taking place as the brethren see evidence of the nuclear explosion many miles away. The last one on shakes the dust off his sandals and closes the door, and the ship rockets off.
The question for the reader is, did he shake all the dust off or not? There is no question that the destruction of man is self-destruction. The seeds of man’s destruction are within him. The buzzards are always present. The shark is hungry, but he’ll return. Does not this new community take with them the very things that destroy them? Do they truly escape? I don’t know Miller’s intent here, because he does paint the Church as different from the world.
Would everyone find this book interesting? Definitely not. The book carries a pessimistic outlook, is science fiction, and deals with medieval characters. These are not characteristics that are overly popular.
I, however, enjoyed the apocalyptic themes (the total devastation of our world’s culture and the rebuilding of civilization over centuries, a rebuilding that in many ways mirrored the development of our own world civilization over the last 4000 years or so). The central issue--man’s self-destructive tendencies--is realistic and biblical. The central role of the medieval-like church was also appealing to me. The pacing was practically perfect: not too fast and not too slow. Bonus for me was seeing how the religious leaders of the church wrestled with the relationship between faith and knowledge--in themselves and in their conversations with the faithful and the secular. As literature, it doesn’t come to the level of Dickens or Dostoyevsky or even Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander), but it’s definitely several notches above much fiction written today.
First line: “Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.”
Last line: (referring to the shark) “He was very hungry that season.”
My ranking (on a 5-point scale): 3 ½