Book 29 on my list is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Published in 1959, this sci-fi classic is an expansive multi-generational story centered around science, religion, and a post-apocalyptic world. Like A Case of Conscience, this story merges science and religion and illustrates what might happen at their intersection.
In this review I’m going to try something new. Usually in my book reviews, I give a quick summary of the plot, then outline what I thought the main themes of the story were as well as its strengths and weaknesses. In this review, I’ll still discuss all of that, but I’m going to frame it in a way that centers what I liked about the story. I’m going to call it The Good, The Bad, The Great.
I want to focus more on the good because I realized a bit ago that it’s really easy to criticize and a lot harder to create. And while I hope I’ve been fair in all my reviews, even when I really didn’t like a story, or didn’t finish it, I want to intentionally move forward with a view to the good. I’ll still do my best to be objective, but I don’t think those two goals (objectivity and positivity) are mutually exclusive.
With that out of the way, let’s get to this review! But first, what the heck is a “canticle”?
Definition of Canticle
Before we can begin discussing this book, we should try to understand its title first. What is a canticle? According to dictionary.com, a canticle is:
1. one of the nonmetrical hymns or chants, chiefly from the Bible, used in church services.
2. a song, poem, or hymn especially of praise.
So a canticle is a song of praise whose lyrics or words are taken from the Bible. What does this mean for our story? To answer that, let’s go to our…
Plot Summary & Analysis
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a novel in three parts that illustrates the rise and fall of mankind. If that sounds like a lofty goal for a book, it’s because it is! The first section, titled Fiat Homo, which is Latin for “Become a Man” (according to Google Translate), centers around Brother Francis Gerard of the Order of Saint Leibowitz. Brother Francis lives in a post-apocalyptic world in which the “Fire Deluge” destroyed civilization a millennia ago, sinking mankind into a new Dark Age in which science is actively scorned, tribes and kingdoms rule, there’s no electricity, etc.
I won’t go into detail about who Saint Leibowitz is (you’ll have to read it for yourself!), but suffice it to say he was the founder of the Order. One day, Brother Francis finds a fallout shelter, but, unable to speak English and with only a limited knowledge of ancient history, he has no idea what it is. Inside, he finds blueprints, also from the time of the Deluge, which he proceeds to call “blessed documents” since they seem to be holy relics from Saint Leibowitz himself (!).
The Order of Saint Leibowitz are a booklegging order, meaning they are charged with preserving historical books and documents, known as the Memorabilia, from before the Deluge. Unfortunately, because all scientific knowledge has been culturally banned, nobody knows what these documents mean. All such knowledge has been lost. So the order can only study the documents and put forth their best guess.
The second part of the novel, called Fiat Lux, “Let There Be Light”, fast forwards hundreds of years to when monks in the Order have pieced together the scientific meaning behind some of the documents they’ve preserved and (re)create electricity! This is a huge advancement for mankind! And it came from a tiny little monastery in the desert.
In the final section of the novel, titled Fiat Voluntas Tua, “Thy Will Be Done”, we fast forward hundreds of years again to a time of spaceships. The Dark Age is over, science reigns again, and all seems to be well. Except…geopolitical wars between countries cause another atomic war (we assume that’s what the Fire Deluge was from the start of the novel). The Order of Saint Leibowitz sends some of its monks to take the Memorabilia/holy relics to another planet, since the war is impending and they know Earth will be ruined once again.
This is a high level summary of the novel. Each section of the novel focuses on various characters from within and without the Order, and how external political forces affect the monastery as well, resulting in a sweeping timeline of, as mentioned above, the rise and fall of mankind. This is a story on the scale of thousands of years, and you can definitely feel that while reading it, and not just because each section skips forwards hundreds of years. The writing style, the exposition, all lends itself to this grand scale.
“The years flowed smoothly by, seaming the faces of the young and adding gray to their temples. The perpetual labor of the monastery continued, daily storming heaven with the ever-recurring hymn of the Divine Office, daily supplying the world with a slow trickle of copied and recopied manuscript, occasionally renting clerks and scribes to the episcopate, to ecclesiastical tribunals, and to such few secular powers as would hire them. Brother Jeris developed ambitions of building a printing press, but Arkos quashed the plan when he heard of it. There was neither sufficient paper no proper ink available, nor any demand for inexpensive books in a world smug in its illiteracy. The copyroom continued with pot and quill.”
If A Canticle for Leibowitz were a movie, it would be directed by Denis Villeneuve, with wide panoramic shots that show the true scale of things. (I’m picturing a small monastery that’s just a tiny speck in an otherwise endless, barren dessert.) With booming music composed by Hans Zimmer that overtakes your senses.
The Strength & Fragility of Knowledge
Anyhoo, I digress. Back to the term canticle. On one level, we can view the novel itself as a literal canticle for Leibowitz. A poem or song of praise for the man Isaac Edward Leibowitz, since it’s about an order of monks who live by his mission to preserve knowledge for posterity, in the hopes that one day civilization will be ready for that knowledge again.
By extension, the story is a song of praise for knowledge itself. The monks go through painstaking labour to preserve the documents they have. Copying them as a means of preservation, or memorizing entire texts outright. Brother Gerard himself painstakingly makes a copy of the blessed blueprint by hand, a project that takes him 15 years to complete. The grand scale of the story is juxtaposed with the detailed labour that goes into preserving knowledge.
On a deeper level, we can view this song of praise for Leibowitz/knowledge as not just a love letter to science, but as a reminder of how fragile knowledge is. The story illustrates how easy it is for civilization to collapse, for a people to lose everything, for man to be plunged back into darkness.
“For twelve centuries, a small flame of knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries…Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible-that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense…There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s…For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth recede, and truth and meaning resided unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified.”
“The Memorabilia was full of ancient words, ancient formulae, ancient reflections of meaning, detached from minds that had died long ago…There was little of it that could still be understood. Certain papers seemed as meaningless as a Breviary would seem to a shaman of the nomad tribes. Others retained a certain ornamental beauty or an orderliness that hinted of meaning, as a rosary might suggest a necklace to a nomad.”
Knowledge is also fragile not just because it can be lost easily, which is what the story illustrates, but also because it can be used to destroy mankind and itself (also shown in the story)! Knowledge, in the wrong hands, can destroy itself. In the case of the story, a nuclear war (the height of knowledge) literally destroyed books and texts and then even the cultural memory of knowledge because those who survived then rebelled against any kind of literacy. Knowledge may be a neutral thing that can be used for good and bad depending on who’s wielding it, but it is fragile.
So a canticle for Leibowitz is a song or poem of praise to the man Leibowitz, and to the beauty and fragility of knowledge, which once gained can certainly be lost, and which can both illuminate the darkness and snuff itself out.
Religion Preserving Science
Perhaps the most interesting theme in the novel, at least for me, is the idea of religion preserving science. While the Order didn’t only preserve scientific knowledge, this aspect struck me most since religion and science are so often pitted against each other in our culture today.
The Order knows that the previous civilization had flying machines and all sorts of mechanical wonders, and hopes that by preserving the texts it does have, perhaps one day all of that knowledge can be re-made. And, it’s a monk of the Order who rediscovers electricity.
I’m of the mind that religion and science don’t need to conflict. If there is a God who created the universe, wouldn’t it stand to reason that all of our scientific knowledge and mechanical wonders were a result of that creation? Certainly that argument can be made, and I’m sure it’s been made many times before. I just wanted to point out this aspect of the novel as something I found interesitng.
History Repeats Itself
Another interesting theme of the novel is the idea of history repeating itself. This is a personal area of exploration for me, and something I’ve written about in previous posts, such as in my review of Science Fiction: A Literary History. The more you read about history, the more you realize that people and events never really change. For example, in that post, I discuss how back during the Industrial Revolution and onwards, the introduction of new technologies that compressed space and time generated anxiety about the new, hectic, frenetic pace of life. This sentiment still reigns supreme today. We’re still worried about the hectic, frenetic pace of life, except now the culprits are smartphones, email, and social media, rather than (old-timey) telephones, trains, and telegrams.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, through the lens of the monastery, shows history repeating itself when humanity engages in yet another nuclear war, just when it had finally recovered and gotten past the previous nuclear war. It’s a message not just to learn from history so that we don’t repeat it, but also to recognize that like the knowledge we revere, we too are fragile, we too can rise and fall if we’re not careful. Or perhaps, we are simply doomed to repeat these cycles since the time scales are so far apart, so vast, that we can’t actually learn from the past because we have no cultural memory of the civilizations who lived millennia ago.
Now onto the Good, the Bad, and the Great of A Canticle for Leibowitz. A definite strength of the novel is the writing. Miller Jr. is a beautiful writer, as you can see from the passages I quoted above. His writing style and prose really flow and has this sometimes ethereal quality about it that lends itself to the tone of the story.
The story itself is also really good! There’s still so much to think about an unpack here, but this might already be one of the longest book reviews I’ve ever written! It was a very captivating, interesting story.
Personally, I prefer stories that have the same characters the whole way through. Like Foundation, Canticle introduces new characters in each section, which doesn’t really give too much time for character development. My favourite character was definitely Brother Francis from the first section, so I was sad to leave him behind. Is there any character development at all? Not really. Maybe only for Brother Francis.
At the same time, character development is not really what the book is about, so I’m not sure how much I can knock it for that reason if that wasn’t the intention. Canticle is about the characters but it’s really about the Order, the Memorabilia, and how humanity can rise from the ashes only to return to the ashes again. It’s trying to make a bigger point.
This is truly an epic novel. In 337 pages Miller Jr. spans millennia, with each section of the book jumping forward hundreds of years into the future of the Order. And as illustrated with the quotations above, Miller Jr.’s writing also does a great job of showing the reader this vast span of time. When you’re reading the book, you really get a sense of the timescale and it’s actually quite beautiful. And I think this timescale is the point of the story.
All in all, I’d say A Canticle for Leibowitz is a must-read in the sci-fi canon. Personally, I enjoyed it more than Foundation, which is a similar type of plot in that it’s not really the characters per se that we get to know but rather the expounded idea as a whole. I also think the interplay between science and religion is important and interesting and Miller Jr. really dives deep into that aspect of the story (being as it is about an order of monks). If you like science fiction for its ideas, then I think you’ll like the ideas in Canticle. And if you think you don’t need to read it because I just told you what it’s about, think again! There is a lot to read, unpack, and discuss in this novel.
Miller Jr., Walter M. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Bantam Dell, 1959.