Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Introduction

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…

Just to be clear: we aren't talking about Mad Max: The Road Warrior here. We're actually describing the plot of A Canticle for Leibowitz, a novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

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.

Miller committed suicide not long after his wife's death in 1996. The novel was still published after his death, thanks to efforts of his friend and fellow science fiction scribe, Terry Bisson

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.

What is A Canticle for Leibowitz About and 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.

A Canticle for Leibowitz Resources

Websites

All of the Data
NNDB wants to catalogue the whole world. While still beta, the site has at least made it as far as one Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Encyclopedia Brown (Er, Greenwood)
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy gives Leibowitz some love.

Latin Smahtin
Paul Brians was kind enough to put his notes for Leibowitz online. If you need a go-to place for translating that Latin—and most of us will—then here you are. Don't thank us; thank Professor Brians.

Hopes for Tropes
TV Tropes takes a break from the normal TV fodder to focus on Leibowitz.

References Galore
A reference page for all things Walter M. Miller, Jr. and his novel.

Illumination Nation
A site dedicated to the art and history of the illuminated manuscript. Did you know that animal skins had to be soaked in lime and water for three to ten days in preparation to be parchment? You will if you visit this website. Well, we guess you already know that one factoid. But you'll know a whole lot more if you visit this website.

Speaks for Itself
The Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscript is just what it sounds like.

Articles and Interviews

Leibowitz ≠ Science Fiction
Think that's true? Guess you'll just have to read this article at io9 to find out.

Canonization
David Samuelson looks at Miller's short stories and novellas in search of the thematic glue that holds this author's personal canon together.

On That Post-Apocalyptic Road Again
Guardian blogger Sam Jordison compares Miller's Leibowitz to McCarthy's The Road to discuss why both are excellent reads—regardless of what genre box you squeeze them into.

Retro Review
SF Reviews takes on Leibowitz forty years after its initial release. Unsurprisingly, they love it.

Chart Topper
Find out where Leibowitz lands on Time's Top Ten Best Post-Apocalyptic Novels. While you're there, you might as well hit up the other nine.

History Only Fictional
A history of atomic war in fiction. It's like glimpsing into history's nightmares.

Mindset
A website dedicated to 1950s propaganda on nuclear war. Just a little something to get you into the mindset of the era when A Canticle for Leibowitz was written.

Video

Rumble in the Religious Jungle
The Cambridge Union Society holds a debate on the value of religion in the scientific age. The dulcet tones of so many British accents keep the proceedings from becoming too heated.

Presentation
A presentation on community and individuality that uses A Canticle of Leibowitz as its catalyst.

Nuclear Espresso Please
Atomic Café is a documentary that'll show you both the horrors and the hilarity of 1950s nuclear war hysteria in the U.S. At the time, people were preparing for what they thought would be an inevitable nuclear war. Like in A Canticle. Only in the book, one actually happens…

Making Illuminated Manuscripts
Dr. Sally Dormer tours the making of Medieval illuminated manuscripts. The only thing more fabulous than the lecture is her hairstyle.

For Whom the Kells Tolls
A documentary on the Book of Kells, which is probably the most famous illuminated manuscript in all of world history. Just saying: you might want to check it out.

Audio

Achieved Audio
An audiobook version of Leibowitz made free by the folks at the Internet Archive. And yes, they totally misspelled Leibowitz in the URL, but, hey, it's free, so take it or leave it.

BBC Radio
The BBC gives Leibowitz the radio treatment, and we think it's kind of cute how they believe people still listen to radio. (Aw, just kidding. We love the radio.)

Jazz Hands
A twisty musical piece by Jorge Lima Barreto and Saheb Sarbib titled, "A Canticle for Leibowitz." Naturally.

Images

Up-to-Date
One of Leibowitz's more contemporary covers in all of its mushroom cloud-y glory.

Say Cheese
You've published one of the best science fiction novels of all time, Walter Miller. Time to have your picture taken.

Shining Bright in the History of the Night
An illuminated manuscript from the 15th century. 500+ years have not dulled its artistic awesomeness.

Scriptorium
A monk paints his illuminated manuscript in this Medieval work of art. In case you were wondering what those illuminated manuscript thingies were all about.

#1 with a Big Foam Finger
The 1st edition cover. Believe it or not, there's a science fiction novel hiding beneath that unassuming cover art.

We Love the '90s
Readers of the 1990s got to enjoy Leibowitz with this wonderfully crazy cover.

We Love the '80s
A cover from the 1980s edition of Leibowitz. Got to give the 80s some lovin' too.

Re-covering
Karen Hanmer created a fantastic book cover for her copy of Leibowitz. You feel that? That's envy, dear Shmooper.

Not Spoiler Free
Bob Eggleton's art depicting Leibowitz's explosive finale.