Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Genre

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Genre

Science Fiction, Comedy, Magical Realism

To Boldly Go

…where every man has gone before. Yeah, this is not Star Trek. The novel has no phasers set to stun and no alien races in need of rescue and/or seduction. There's barely even a spaceship, and no main character ever leaves Earth.

But A Canticle for Leibowitz remains science fiction all the same. The novel invests much of its time, plot, and thematic energy in debating the importance of science. The novel questions whether or not science is necessary for human progress, who should control the technological output, and whether or not science will inevitably destroy our society.

These questions start off small, when the cutting-edge innovation of the story is nothing but a light bulb. But they become really important in the final section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, when technology has finally produced nuclear weapons, spaceships, and the dreaded Autoscribe.

In this way, A Canticle is like all great science fiction stories. It's less about the science of the future, and more about the society of the present.

Laughing in the Face of Death

A Canticle is a comedy. Sure, it's filled with death, its cup brims with what Hobbes would call that "short, brutish, and nasty" life, and if you don't cry by the end, double check to make sure you aren't a machine sent back to kill and/or protect John Connor.

But that doesn't mean we can't have a good time, right? The novel employs what those in the know call gallows or black humor. That is, the humor derives from the treatment of the story's dark, disturbing, and sometimes downright violent subject matter.

We laugh when the monks need to scoot on their treadmills to get a single light working, even though it's pretty sad at the same time (18.30). Similarly, we chuckle at the sermon that tells of the nuclear holocaust in a style similar to the Book of Job, never mind that it describes a frightfully awful event (18.9). And let's not forget when Taddeo mistakes a play with robots in it for a historical tract, even though the implications of such mistakes can have lasting consequences when made by influential men like the thon (22.83).

The subject matter may be dead serious (pun intended), but then again, so are the laughs.

I Have the Power

Finally, A Canticle is magical realism. Maybe. See, magical realism exists when a story has a few magical elements in an otherwise possible and realistic narrative. Depending on how you read A Canticle, it may or may not qualify as such.

You have that power.

But before you start power-tripping on us, let's discuss what you're committing to. For the novel to be magical realism, it needs some supernatural elements. So, you've got to decide whether or not Benjamin is immortal, and whether or not Rachel really visits the dying Zerchi.

In both instances, we are given reasons to believe these things might not be true. Benjamin could just be a crazy old coot living too long under a maddeningly hot desert sun. Rachel could be a figment of Zerchi's imagination made extra potent thanks to blood loss.

But these incidents could be real. We don't know for sure.

Either way, remember that your choice isn't set in stone or writ in blood or anything like that. You can totally change your mind if you feel like it. That's one of the best parts of literary interpretation, if you ask us.