Monday, January 19, 2015

"A Canticle for Leibowitz" (review)

When I am pregnant, I find that I read fiction almost exclusively. Then for two years, I read non-fiction almost exclusively. I'm pretty sure it is because pregnancy places me in a mental fog, perhaps all my energy going into growing a baby instead of fueling my brain cells, and I just can't manage the mental acuity needed for serious non-fiction.

Reading "Lord of the World" whet my appetite for post-apocalyptic science fiction, so I read "A Canticle for Leibowitz," which I read about once yearly.

The author, Walter M. Miller, Jr., spent World War II as an Army Air Corpsman, participating in more than 55 combat sorties. Interestingly, in his three-sentence biography inside the book, he chooses to mention that he participated in "the controversial destruction of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Casino, the oldest monastery in the Western World." This is a meaningful piece of information to consider when one reads the book which is geographically based in an abbey which lasts for 1,800 years. I spend time wondering at the confessional nature of the author revealing this fact about himself.

We can learn a bit more about the author on Wikipedia, including that he was indeed a Catholic (it seems impossible that a non-Catholic could write "Canticle"). He became a recluse and his life ended absolutely tragically.

"A Canticle for Leibowitz" is "a powerful meditation on the cycles of world history and Roman Catholicism as a force of stability during history's dark times" (source).

The book is divided into three parts:

Part One occurs around the year 2,600 and tells the history of the prior 600 years. Around 2,000 (people must have been fascinated with the approaching turn of the millennium), nuclear war had broken out among all the nations and destroyed most of the people and infrastructure on earth. Among the few survivors, a hatred grew for all science and intellectuals, such that many survivors adopted the title Simpletons and murdered anyone with any learning or even literacy. (This reminds me of a common characteristic of Communist governments.) For hundreds of years, any literate person had to live in fear of his life and literacy rates were something like one in one hundred.

On the physical level, humans now come in many forms because the nuclear blasts so damaged our DNA. Many children are born deformed or unable to survive, and many people who survive birth suffer terrific malformations. This perpetuates through the entire book, 1,800 years of humankind.

One scientist who survived the nuclear holocaust was Leibowitz who ended up founding an order whose mission would be to protect any intellectual knowledge for centuries in the future when the world would begin to take interest in it again. The monks were "bookleggers and memorizers." Any books (really, fragments of writing on paper) they could find were smuggled back to the abbey and hidden, transcribed, and memorized in whole. After hundreds of years, the monks nor anybody else has any frame of reference for what they are reading in "Old English." But they save, transcribe, and memorize nonetheless.

Imagine . . .

If all Scripture had been burned to a crisp, how much of the Bible could you recreate accurately?

If every scientist were dead, all inventions gone, the world was blasted back to the Stone Age, how soon would the most basic scientific concepts be lost to mythology or forgotten utterly?

How does one even maintain literacy in a culture with no access to the written word anywhere?

For hundreds of years . . .

Part Two jumps us ahead about 600 years to the early 3,000s. There is now a marked discrepancy in cultures within the world. The most sophisticated civilization has religion (the Catholic Church survives it all), buildings, civility among men, philosophical thought, and nascent science. The most barbaric parts of the world are nomadic, viciously violent, cannibalistic, and pantheistic. People cannot travel through vast parts of the world because murder is guaranteed.

In Part Two, electricity and the arc lamp are invented. Will this lead to an renaissance of scientific inventions?

Part Three leaps ahead another 600 years to around 3,700. Man's technological achievements are as advanced as they were before the  Demon Fallout ever visited Earth. Man travels to space, has populated colonies on other planets, and has possessed nuclear weapons for 200 years.

The order of Leibowitz remains, but what is its role? Is it still to "preserve the Memorabilia" even now?

Is man capable of possessing this technology, this godlike power, without developing concomitant hubris leading to self-destruction? This is the ultimate question for the reader to consider.

Meanwhile, there is a character who lives throughout the arc of the story: Benjamin or Lazarus . . . the "Old Jew." He claims to have been born, I calculated, about 35 years before Jesus. He lives to the end . . . and he is waiting. For who (and it is a Who), we are never explicitly told. As a Catholic and knowing the author was Catholic, I ponder: Is the Old Jew waiting for the Messiah? Did he believe Jesus was the Messiah and is waiting for his return? At the end of the book, we meet Someone Who is likely He for whom Benjamin has been waiting and you won't hardly believe Who it is. I wish I could tell you!

I enjoy "A Canticle for Leibowitz" so much that I have never read Miller's only other novel ever written (and written 40 years later, published posthumously), "Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse  Woman" because I am honestly anxious that it can't live up to "Canticle."

Because I will be asked . . . is this book appropriate for younger readers?

No romance or intimacy is discussed, no coarse language used. One time a female walks in on a male in the bathtub and the scene is handled with humor. Euthanasia is a strong theme in Part Three of the book and would lead to deep discussion on this very difficult subject from a Catholic perspective. This book does contain some scenes of brutal violence, such as an arrow to the brain, but I do not think it is described gruesomely. The effects of the nuclear bomb is a major theme of the whole book and could cause strong anxiety; children of the Cold War era (1950s through 80s) were probably much more aware of these fears than I suspect children are now. In this book, no priests or clergy perpetrate any evil, but they are shown as human, with failings in anger, patience, hope, and other virtues.

Honestly, I am not very familiar with what young adults are like because I don't have any yet, but I would imagine this book would be a better fit for particularly mature readers of 12, 13, 14 or perhaps not till the later teens.


  1. One of my favorite books, and one of the two (!) science fiction books I like. I usually read fiction in the summer, when heat equals brain torpor. But then I don't have 4 children 8 years old and under. Thank you for the review. I wish there was a book review blog of Catholic books.

  2. One of my favorite books, and one of the two (!) science fiction books I like. I usually read fiction in the summer, when heat equals brain torpor. But then I don't have 4 children 8 years old and under. Thank you for the review. I wish there was a book review blog of Catholic books.

  3. Great review! Once again, this one sounds fascinating. Oh, and thanks for the little disclaimer at the end! :) -Emiliann W.

  4. Meem: What is the second science fiction book you like?