A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller Jr.

Rating: 3 stars

Structured in three distinct parts, this book tackles the slow reconstruction of society after the “flame deluge”, when nuclear warheads fall across the world like rain. Knowledge and science are blamed for the deluge, and those burning the books and bearers of knowledge proudly proclaiming themselves “simpletons”. In amongst this, an engineer by the name of Leibowitz starts an underground network for the preservation of books and knowledge. Six hundred years later, America has retreated to a new dark age, and the Church once again finds itself with the responsibility for preserving the knowledge of the past, specifically through the Blessed Order of Leibowitz. Another six hundred years after that, an Enlightenment is happening, with secular scholars rediscovering the knowledge that had been lost, and the Order of St Leibowitz gaze upon the first electric light for over a thousand years. But with the coming of the Enlightenment, once again there comes strife between the ancient Church and the emerging state. And finally another six hundred years pass and the heavens are once again opened to mankind, as colonies spread amongst the stars. But back on earth, global tensions are high and rumours are rife of construction of forbidden nuclear weapons…

This is a difficult book to discuss. Miller was a convert to Catholicism and the Catholic church is portrayed very sympathetically, as the preservers of knowledge that the secular world would otherwise have completely burned. For the first section of the book, you’re unequivocally on their side. The second section reintroduces the tensions between emerging nation states and the Church, and the age old question of whether knowledge should just be preserved for the sake of it or whether it should be brought into the light and used. The final section is more difficult, as the abbot of the abbey of St Leibowitz of that time takes a very hard line stance on euthanasia even in the face of the immense suffering through radiation poisoning that he sees around him: crystallised in one woman and her child who are dying anyway and want to go to the state-sponsored clinics.

The abbot espouses the age-old doctrines of the church, but in the face of immense suffering, I saw it as nothing more than the ancient fact of a bully trying to hold power over the powerless. But then you’ve got the final few chapters which may be just the ravings of a dying man, or may be something else entirely.

The themes of the book seem to be about the inevitability of the cycle of history; about how man will raise himself up to be like a god, but can never sustain himself and lose his feet of clay. It’s quite a depressing message: after the first two sections in which (despite the inevitable death and destruction at the human level) civilisation is on an upwards trajectory, the final one seems to suggest that we’ll never be able to overcome our animal natures, and may even spread the cycle to other worlds.

There is a seam of mysticism that runs throughout the book that I’m not entirely sure what to make of, with Rachel in the last section, and the old hermit (or something like him) showing up in all three. Miller does seem to be clearly hinting towards a conclusion that God definitely exists and is an interventionist God.

Finally, for those, like me, whose Latin is restricted to the odd phrase here and there, the wonderful Wikipedia has a handy translation of each Latin phrase in the novel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552094740
Publisher: Corgi Books
Year of publication: 1959

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