#48 – A Canticle for Leibowitz Review – Walter M. Miller

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Science Fiction has always had a tenuous relationship with religion and religious themes in general. Most Sci-Fi books are set in technologically advanced societies and civilizations that have outgrown the need for religion or at least seen it take a back seat to the “Church of Science.” Those that do feature some sort of religious element, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Hyperion, often present it as either a fraud or an agent of repression and conquest. While speculative fiction often deals with issues of spirituality and the potential for human transcendence, it usually comes in the form of contact with a superior alien intelligence or power (à la 2001 or Childhood’s End) rather than the work of a formal religious order such as the Catholic Church. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. is the rare exception to this rule. In Miller’s masterpiece, the Church is the preserver of knowledge, technology and learning rather than the suppressor of it. In a world that has grown violently suspicious of anything even resembling technology or intellectualism, the members of the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz” are the ones struggling to preserve the knowledge of mankind amidst widespread cultural regression.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Summary: Beginning six centuries after our current civilization is decimated by a nuclear war (referred to as the “Flame Deluge”), the book is told in three parts, each separated by about 600 years. In the first section (“Fiat Homo” – Let There Be Man) we learn of the “Simplification,” a violent backlash against the culture of advanced technology that brought about the nuclear war. During the years immediately following the war, mobs of angry survivors burn books and kill anyone who can read or possesses any practical knowledge. In order to preserve the last remnants of human knowledge and learning, an electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz founds a monastic order in the Southwest United States that aims to hide, smuggle and reproduce these forbidden texts so that they can be used when mankind is ready to accept them again. The preservation of the sacred memorabilia and writings is continued by the order long after Leibowitz is martyred, beatified and eventually sainted. In the 26th century, a monk named Brother Francis Gerard stumbles across new relics in the desert which are rumored to be from Leibowitz himself. The relics, including a withered shopping list and the blueprints for mechanical and electrical devices, are used to help make the case for Sainthood for Leibowitz.

The section section (“Fiat Lux” – Let There Be Light) continues 600 years into the future in which the world is slowly starting to come out of the dark ages and into a Renaissance of learning and technological discovery. The Albertian Monks of the order of Saint Leibowitz are still at the center of the story, having used the preserved memorabilia and relics to start developing simple electrical devices and other basic technologies. While the Monks try to decipher and analyze the remaining artifacts, we also learn about the rise of civilized city-states such as Laredo, Texarkana and Denver and the struggle for power and security in the newly burgeoning world. The third section (“Fiat Voluntas Tua” – Let Thy Will Be Done) moves ahead another 600 years to a world in which mankind is even more technologically advanced than our own – with nuclear energy, weapons of destruction, and even starships and colonies among the outer planets. A conflict has been brewing between the two world superpowers and is in danger of turning into a full scale nuclear conflict. In preparation for this eventuality, the Church begins to make contingency plans for the evacuation of their members and the holy memorabilia and information that they still protect. The crumbling of their world around them as they escape from the dying planet is a sadly fitting coda to the story of civilization and the cyclical nature of human technological advancement and regression.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Review: The idea that human civilization can be seen in terms of cycles of enlightened progression and catastrophic regression is a powerful theme in this book. Scholars more observant that I am have noted that the three parts of the novel also correspond roughly to the three stages in the history of Western civilization – beginning with the Fall of Rome and concluding with our current age of technological wonders and dangerous scientific discoveries. The fact that Miller is able to weave these heady themes into a tale that is both intriguing and readable is a testament to his considerable skill as both a writer and a thinker. While it’s sad to think that this was the only novel that he published during his lifetime, it helps to know that at least it was one of the most cherished and widely studied books in all of Science Fiction. No matter what your views are regarding the Church or the role of religion in general, you’re sure to find something to fascinate you and make you think in this book. As we as a civilization try to learn from our previous mistakes in the hopes of breaking the ongoing cycle of progress and self-destruction, it helps to have reminders like this of where we are and how the choices we make today will effect the future. The great part about Science Fiction, in my mind, is how it can allow us to learn from the future as well as the past – especially since the two are so often intertwined.

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August 20, 2010

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