A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
A Canticle for Leibowitz Introduction
In A Nutshell
A post-apocalyptic desert. Hordes of wild, vicious men stalking the wasteland. Mutated children born in the shadows of civilization's remains. A monastery housing the fragments of a culture's scientific knowledge lost to—wait a minute…
To be fair though, A Canticle is a lot like a Mad Max movie. It just substitutes a supercharged V-8 Interceptor for a Catholic monastery and sawed-off shotguns for illuminated manuscripts. Believe it or not, we think these elements improve the story.
Published in 1960, Miller's novel is set against the now-familiar backdrop of a world annihilated by nuclear war. In this 26th-century wasteland, the Abbey of Saint Leibowitz copies and chronicles the scientific and cultural knowledge of the 20th century. He hopes there will come a day when humanity might benefit from such knowledge once again.
Divided into three novellas, the story follows the abbey's struggles through a futuristic Dark Ages, Renaissance, and re-modernization. (See, each novella is separated by the passing of six hundred years.) And we know what you're thinking. 1,800 years is a lot of time to cover.
But Mr. Miller knows his futuristic worlds. His readers couldn't get enough of him. They were like, "Eh, 1,800 years? Why not 18,000?" The novel became a huge hit within the science fiction community, and even drew mainstream attention in a way few science fiction works had at the time.
Canticle received the Hugo award in 1961. It has also consistently placed in the top ten of the Locus Poll Award's best science fiction novels, and hasn't been out of print since its initial publication over 50 years ago.
Sadly, Canticle was the only novel Miller published in his lifetime. Over the next thirty years, he work almost exclusively on Canticle's midquel, Leibowitz and the White Horse Woman, set between Fiat Lux and Fiat Voluntas Tua. But he never finished it.
Although we wish Mr. Miller could have lived a much longer—and, selfishly, more prolific—life, he did leave us with one amazing novel. If you were to only publish one book in your lifetime, you'd be lucky if it had half the love and literary significance as A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Why Should I Care?
Do you like all of your questions answered quickly, easily, and without too much effort on your part, Sesame Street-style? Are you the type of person who sees complicated issues in black and white? Then you should stay far, far away from A Canticle for Leibowitz.
But you aren't that type of person, are you? You're a true literary trooper—we mean, Shmooper. Which means you'll agree with us that A Canticle is a great read precisely because its characters and events are hard to pin down as totally good or totally bad.
Miller's always challenging the reader to consider ideas from different angles. And even if you walk away from the book with the same ideas about science, knowledge, and morality as when you began, you still probably had to put them to the test while you were reading.
Let's consider an example from Fiat Voluntas Tua. A woman and her child suffer severe radiation sickness and flash burns. Doctor Cors suggests to the girl that assisted suicide would be the most humane option for them both. Father Zerchi argues that the child's life should not be offered "in sacrifice to a false god of expedient mercy" (28.119).
You probably know that suicide is considered a sin, and that doctors make a pledge to "do no harm." Assisted suicide is illegal, and could land Dr. Cors in jail (if he were real and all). But what's the greater "harm" here: letting a girl and her child suffer until they die, or helping to relieve their suffering?
Plus, is assisted suicide largely considered illegal because suicide is a sin, or because it's a dicey grey area where people could easily be murdered against their will? Because if it's the former, that's breaching the constitutional separation of church and state…
And that's an issue we see come up again and again in our modern world, in debates about euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school, evolution, and more.
We appreciate, then, that A Canticle doesn't just hand us easy answers. In fact, it raises more questions than it answers, just like our real lives do.
Father Zerchi and Doctor Cors each argue eloquently for his side of the assisted suicide controversy. Neither character is painted in good-guy white or bad-guy black. And this is just one instance of high-falutin' philosophizin' in the whole novel.
Perhaps W. Warren Wagar said it best when he wrote, "A Canticle is a critic's dream-book, rich with symbols and metaphors, open to many conflicting interpretations." Oh, and don't forget the mutant horde traversing a nuclear wasteland. This is a scifi nerd's dream-book too, friends.