Thursday, February 4, 2010


A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Published in 1959, this novel is what I would call an accidental science fiction classic. By accidental I mean that it mainly a thought-provoking, philosophical drama dealing with the pride of mankind and our self-destructive natures which happens to accomplish the task using great characters, vivid imagery, keen insight and a futuristic setting. In other words, the author is more interested in telling a great story and dealing with difficult issues than he is with writing science fiction. And that is why I believe it may be one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read.

For me, great science fiction – whether in print or on screen – uses the future as a mirror to reflect back on us our own failures and foibles of character. By putting modern concerns in the distance, and dressing up our present in the clothing of tomorrow, it allows us to consider our current situation and imagine a better future for ourselves.

This book is spread over a period of a few hundred years time and sectioned off into three parts: “Let There Be Man”, “Let There Be Light” and “They Will Be Done”. In each of the three sections we are told the story of mankind after the first nuclear devastation nearly obliterates mankind. Man’s greatest knowledge is scavenged and cataloged by the monks at what will soon become the abbey of Saint Leibowitz. While most of the survivors, self-proclaimed as “Simpletons”, rage against any sort of wisdom from before the nuclear holocaust, the monks must protect the “Memorabilia” from those who are dedicated to its destruction.

But the novel, a Hugo Award Winning work of masterfully written fiction, is about so much more than this. Here we have a book that hints at the wasteland we have come to know from films like “Road Warrior” and games like “Fallout 3”, but instead gives us ordinary people who simply try to live their lives and fulfill their vows to God, and to humanity.

Miller deals with the conflicts between faith and politics, science and religion, suffering and euthanasia, survival and compassion – all without ever losing sight of his ultimate storyline which is about mankind itself.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, is easily comparable to a handful of other great science fiction novels, including “Fahrenheit 451”, “Brave New World”, and “1984”. It is thoughtful, poignant, and subtle, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks, and consider the future, in sobering visions of what could be, and what we hope might never be.

From the review:

Walter M. Miller's acclaimed SF classic A Canticle for Leibowitz opens with the accidental excavation of a holy artifact: a creased, brittle memo scrawled by the hand of the blessed Saint Leibowitz, that reads: "Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels--bring home for Emma." To the Brothers of Saint Leibowitz, this sacred shopping list penned by an obscure, 20th-century engineer is a symbol of hope from the distant past, from before the Simplification, the fiery atomic holocaust that plunged the earth into darkness and ignorance. As 1984 cautioned against Stalinism, so 1959's A Canticle for Leibowitz warns of the threat and implications of nuclear annihilation. Following a cloister of monks in their Utah abbey over some six or seven hundred years, the funny but bleak Canticle tackles the sociological and religious implications of the cyclical rise and fall of civilization, questioning whether humanity can hope for more than repeating its own history. Divided into three sections--Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will Be Done)--Canticle is steeped in Catholicism and Latin, exploring the fascinating, seemingly capricious process of how and why a person is canonized.

--Paul Hughes


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