Looking Back: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A_Canticle_For_LebowitzI have decided to write a few book reviews from time to time. I don’t intend to turn this into a book review blog, but I’d like to be able to set down my musings on random books as the fancy strikes me.

I recently re-read (listened to an audiobook version of) “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller. I read it as a teenager, but I’ve noticed I get a lot more out of everything I read now than I did when my system was awash with raging hormones. (For example, I discovered that Thomas Hardy, far from being an incredible drag, was a funny, vivid and poignant writer.)

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” has been called a classic of science fiction. It’s also a classic in post-apocalyptic fiction, equal to George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” (which has held up remarkably well), “The Death of Grass” by John Christopher or “Malevil” by French writer Robert Merle. It has all the elements I look for in a great read: well-delineated characters, drama, mystery, humor and sorrow.

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” was published in 1960, at the height of the terror of nuclear annihilation. I remember “duck and cover” quite well; while crouching under my desk in my middle-school classroom, I was fairly certain that a blackout curtain and a wooden desk were not going to preserve me from frying to a crisp if an atomic bomb landed on, say, Los Angeles. At the time, nuclear catastrophe was a chill breath on the back of everyone’s vulnerable neck.

Miller’s opus opens after a nuclear apocalypse has literally bombed all of mankind back to the Stone Age. There’s a backlash against science, knowledge, and everything associated with the catastrophe buy anti-intellectuals who proudly call themselves “Simpletons.” Those perceived as intellectuals or scientists are murdered. Books are burned. Mankind descends into another Dark Age. Mutated humans, called “Children of the Pope,” are more or less accepted, because there are so many of them.

But there is one beacon of intellectual light left in the world: the Catholic Church, which resumes its ancient tradition of preserving past knowledge. The story opens with Brother Francis, a young postulant in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, somewhere in the Southwestern desert of the United States. Leibowitz was one of the scientists murdered by the Simpletons, and after his martyrdom, miracles are said to have happened under Leibowitz’s aegis. The monks of the monastery want to canonize Leibowitz as a saint, but there hasn’t been enough evidence of his sanctity to satisfy New Rome. Brother Francis stumbles upon a cache of ancient papers, some of which appear to be pre-apocalyptic shopping lists—but others are blueprints. It becomes obvious to the reader (but not to the monks) that Leibowitz was an engineer, a designer of electronic circuits.

Poor Brother Francis meets his end as the first section of the book closes, having delivered his copy of one of the blueprints (suitably adorned with fanciful illuminations) to the Pope in New Rome.

The second section of the book takes place a few centuries later. An esteemed scholar visits the abbey to study the Leibowitzian relics and is able to tease out some of the technology from the ancient manuscripts. Technology is clearly in a renaissance as one of the monks has succeeded in building a generator to power an arc light. The scholar departs to New Rome to share his new-found insights and to recommend the canonization of Leibowitz.

The third section takes us another six or seven centuries into the future. Technology—much of it based on the study of old documents like the Leibowitzian relics—has developed to the point where space flight is practical. But nuclear weapons have been reinvented, as well—in all likelihood directly due to the knowledge preserved by the Order of St. Leibowitz—and nuclear war is imminent. The last abbot of the order perishes after an atomic blast brings his church down in ruins as he tries to save the consecrated hosts. But a ship commissioned by the Order launches into space, looking for a new home for humanity.

Well, sure, we destroy ourselves all over again, but maybe that rocket ship full of devout Catholics will colonize a new world that will never see an atomic mushroom cloud. Yet the reader is left with the impression that the human race is ultimately doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.

Sadly, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” was the only novel published during Miller’s lifetime. His last work, a follow-up novel called “St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman,” was published after his suicide in 1996. He must have seen that his ability to continue was in doubt, because he asked author Terry Bisson to finish it for him if he were unable to do so. Bisson did finish the book after Miller’s suicide. It’s thought that Miller’s traumatic experiences in WWII—including the bombing of an ancient abbey at Monte Casino—contributed to his depression and eventual suicide. That may be the case, but it also contributed to the creation of a science fiction masterpiece. Some people write to exorcise their demons, but even St. Leibowitz couldn’t exorcise the dark demons of Walter M. Miller’s haunted spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

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