A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller Jr
EOS, 2006 (orig. pub. 1959)
I read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization when I was an undergrad minoring in history. In this fairly straightforward and easily accessible book Cahill outlines the efforts of Irish monks preserving texts after the fall of Rome. Definitely not the most scholarly of works but it was a volume that was called to mind while reading Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Published in 1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz went on to win the Hugo in 1961 and widely recognized, even by non-genre readers, as a classic.
Much like the Irish monks in Europe during the years following the fall Rome the Albertian Order of Leibowtiz, founded by a Jewish electrical engineer who converted to Catholicism after the world has been all but destroyed by nuclear war, preserves and protects texts from the now distant past. The novel opens six centuries after the world has been destroyed and in that time much has been lost. While monks of Leibowitz have worked to preserve the past society has yet to return to a time and place where that preserved knowledge is of any use. Further complicating matters the fact that while knowledge has been preserved understanding of that knowledge has eroded over the centuries. Broken into three sections each taking place centuries apart the novel details humanity’s slow crawl out of the dark ages and the sad tragedy of our fall back into darkness.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is not a hard science fiction novel. The intricacies and details surrounding man’s self-destruction are left by the wayside; the how and why unnecessary for the examination of the novel’s theme. A Canticle for Leibowitz is social science fiction distilled to its very core; a novel that takes a simple “what if” and extrapolates its corresponding ripples across time. As we progress through each of the sections we watch, as helpless as the Monk’s of Leibowitz, as humanity constantly demonstrates our willingness, almost fervent zeal, to move towards self-destruction. Miller’s primary conceit seems to be that time and human nature are cyclical, that the events that lead to our inevitable destruction trap humankind in an inescapable loop.
Perhaps one of the more fascinating aspects of A Canticle for Leibowitz is the role of religion in the story. Miller, a Catholic, paints the Roman Catholic Church of the novel as a stabilizing force, almost an outside party when it comes to the political decisions depicted in the novel, constantly trying to talk humanity back from the edge. There is a slight tongue-in-cheek tone to the “miracles” depicted or mentioned in the novel, but is a tone predicated more on the influence of time on perception rather than outright mockery. It displays a certain level of skepticism on Miller’s part yet the constant vigilance of the monks over the course of the novel also reveal a certain amount of hope. The role religion plays in this novel is even more fascinating particularly given the rise of fundamentalist sects and radical religions over the course of the 21st; or at least their visibility in the public eye. I suspect, maybe incorrectly, that a novel similar to A Canticle for Leibowitz written today might paint the role of religion in humanity’s future in a far less hopeful light.
Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 would make an excellent companion piece for A Canticle for Leibowitz. Roshwald’s book, published two years before Miller’s novel, offers a more straightforward look about nuclear destruction and is far more grounded in the specific fears of the Cold War era. It is easy to imagine that the world portrayed by Level 7 as the one glimpsed briefly at the end of A Canticle for Leibowitz. For those of us who grew up in a particular era the fears and anxieties envisioned in A Canticle for Leibowitz are a relatively new. There are certain similarities to the perceived level of fear and anxiety in the last decade when one examines the cultural products of the Cold War era. As a child and teen the notion of “mutually assured destruction” meant almost nothing to me; the Cold War to me was more about Rocky IV than the threat of nuclear destruction. In the present day that notion of mutually assured destruction isn’t quite so foreign an idea. That sort of makes A Canticle for Leibowtiz’s message just a little bit darker but perhaps even more relevant now than it has been ever been.