Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)


Summer is nearing its inevitable end, and so the time has come to review a second book from my summer reading list, a very famous, classic SF novel, which had inspired countless readers and writers. Its huge intellectual impact and popularity was increased by the Hugo Award for 1960.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is the debut, and the only completed novel by Miller, Jr. (a sequel to A Canticle…, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, had been published posthumously), although he was a prolific writer of short stories. Come to think of it, even A Canticle… can be read as three separate novelettes. It had been originally written this way, as three separate parts, and the division is clear even now. The completed novel consists of three fairly independent parts, closely connected to each other by the main themes and the place of action, but still each part stands firmly on its own.

The novel of Walter M. Miller, Jr. shows us a world after a nuclear war. The first part, Fiat Homo, starts about 600 years after an event known as Flame Deluge, in which the whole human civilization was destroyed. 600 years later the world is still a hostile place, full of mutated half-people who regressed to the level of feral animals and angry, almost Mad Max-like tribes fighting against each other for rare resources. During the long mad period of Simplification almost all of the knowledge had been destroyed, parts of it accidentally, in the aftermath of the nuclear attacks, parts of it willingly, by the angry mobs who found their scapegoats and punished them for the destruction of the world they knew. The advanced science and culture were blamed for the annihilation of the civilized world, and the science and culture, along with their representatives, had to bear the brunt of the survivors’ fear and fury. Books had been burnt, scientists and artists and, in the end, even literate people were hung or stoned or crucified, the knowledge of the past seemed inevitably lost. In this feral new world a small order of Roman Catholic monks quietly fights a lost fight, preserving the Memorabilia: remnants of the old knowledge, hiding and smuggling books, memorizing and copying them. The Albertian Order of Leibowitz, founded by a converted military electrical engineer, martyr and would-be saint, resides in the middle of a southwestern desert in the North America, somewhere between Great Salt Lake and what had been El Paso.

The first part of the book is loaded with irony. From the benevolent befuddlement of the protagonist, Brother Francis, a young novice on his desert vigil who imagines the Flame Deluge as some terrible fiery monster prowling the night in search for new victims, through the impatient exasperation of Abbot Arcos, desperately fighting for sanctification of a converted ex-military engineer who might have – or might not have – deserted his wife, to the New Rome of threadbare beauty and the terrible mutated children, results of the lethal radiation. The deceptively light, distant tone continues throughout the whole first part, right to the end when you sit, looking disbelievingly at the pages and refusing to accept the conclusion. Because, were it only for the irony, the novel wouldn’t have its staggering impact. But there is also compassion, understanding, sadness, hope. And the mix makes for a heart-rending read.

The second part, entitled Fiat Lux, describes the Renaissance flowering in the Western world almost 600 years after the events of the first part. It concentrates more on the eternal conflict between the Church and the state, and the stand of the scientists caught between a rock and a hard place ;). The tone of this part grows more serious, as if tired, and the erudite, emotional discussions would perfectly fit books such as The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.

The third part, Fiat Voluntas Tua, taking place over 600 years after Fiat Lux, is the most depressing of them all. We are nearing the world’s end, even though – or exactly because of the fact that the civilization seems finally at its peak. The technology has advanced much further than it had before the first collapse. Colonization of other planets is finally possible. But at the same time, there is as much suffering and iniquity as ever – and a deep undercurrent of animosity and rivalry between the almost all-powerful states. The Church had become a power of its own, but only symbolically, fighting for what is seen one point of view among many. I’m not going to put any spoilers here; suffice to say that I read those last pages with real anxiety, a feat not easy to achieve in the middle of relaxing sailing cruise through Mazury district ;).

A Canticle… is not an easy read. I have read a few opening pages and was already sure of that. Well, a post-nuclear world is never a lightweight topic, so no surprise there. Alas, this time it was more than just a heavy main theme. There is something peculiar in the prose of writers who had been soldiers, something that binds many of those authors who had seen the war. A sort of biting irony and clinical distance mixed with deep, hidden anguish, of a way with words that strain from the page to shout and spit in the world’s face. And if this book had a voice, it would do all those things. It would laugh through tears, it would beg and accuse, it would scream and whisper and cry.

Miller Jr. had been a part of bomber crew during WWII – and participated in the battle of Monte Cassino. This war experience was key in the writing of A Canticle… The prose is succinct, even sparse, aiming not for flourish or aesthetical values but for communicativeness. That said, Miller does engage in a bit of wordplay and symbolism – between the Abbot Arcos from the first part to Abbot Zerchi in the last, through the fates of Brother Francis, the legend of the Wandering Jew, and the two-headed tomato woman. But simplicity is a great strength of this novel, and Miller knew extremely well how to write simply and powerfully.

A Canticle for Leibowitz grabs you by the throat from the first sentences and doesn’t let go till the very end. It’s a very philosophical, deeply religious book (it even contains numerous Latin passages of Catholic prayers), but its main strength lies in its universal description of human nature. Not very flattering, granted, but still in effect, almost seventy years after the publication date.

Score: 10/10

7 thoughts on “Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

  1. piotrek

    Oh yes, a very powerful, and sad, book. Maybe the best post-apocalyptic s/f, definitely highly recommended for serious readers.


  2. Pingback: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014) | Re-enchantment Of The World

  3. Pingback: Charles A. Fletcher, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World (2019) | Re-enchantment Of The World

  4. Pingback: Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008) – Re-enchantment Of The World

  5. Pingback: Real Neat Blog Award – Re-enchantment Of The World

  6. Pingback: Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (2020) – Re-enchantment Of The World

  7. Pingback: Keith Roberts, Pavane (1966) – Re-enchantment Of The World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s