"Wheel in the sky keeps on turning, I don't know where I'll be tomorrow." Hey, far be it from us to correct Journey, but if they'd read their Miller, then they'd know the answer to this meditation: the same place they are today. In A Canticle, time is cyclical. The years pass, dates grow, but these futuristic eras are all equal to periods humanity has already visited in the past. The story of Fiat Homo takes place in a future society equivalent to the Dark Ages. Fiat Lux takes place in a repeat Renaissance, and Fiat Voluntas Tua occurs in a new modern age very much like the mid-20th century. Can humanity escape this recurrent nightmare of history already lived? Maybe. But don't bet on it.
Miller's concept of repeating history isn't the same as destiny. The struggles of characters such as Dom Paulo and Zerchi suggest free will could potentially break the cycle.
Time in A Canticle of Leibowitz counters the idea of time in most science fiction novels. Instead of A Canticle's cyclical time, most sci-fi novels portray time as a linear form of uninterrupted progress.
In his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett created a figure of Death who is unintentionally hilarious, cares for humanity, and enjoys a tasty curry. In A Canticle, death cares neither for humanity nor has much of a taste for curry. But he remains pretty humorless all the same. More than any other aspect of life, death pervades the trials and conflicts of A Canticle's characters. Their past and present are shaped by a worldwide holocaust, and their future seems bent on sweeping them toward even more tragedies. In short, death is as pervasive in this novel as it is in our own reality. Wow, depressing. If you'll excuse us, we need a Discworld chaser.
The relationship between Rachel and Mrs. Grales represents the relationship between life and death—all on a single pair of shoulders.
The novel never portrays the death of any political figures or advocates of violence (like the robber, Mad Bear, Hannegan, and the Defense Minister), only those who oppose it or are neutral toward it.
Like The Legend of Zelda, A Canticle for Leibowitz has a thematic Triforce and it's composed of religion, scientific knowledge, and primitivity. Both religion and science are positioned to counter humanity's primitive, violent tendencies, but do they succeed? If you've finished the book, you'll know the answer is a big fat nope. When religion, here represented by the Catholic Church, succeeds, it does so because it's a centuries-old institution. When the Flame Deluge hits, it remains the sole vestige of civilization. It must survive to preserve both moral teachings and scientific knowledge. But its strength is its ultimate weakness. Religious ideals do not change to meet the times, which results in a church that cannot properly grasp the Memorabilia's content. If the Memorabilia will not assimilate their teachings to the new world, they will continue to be outmaneuvered by ever-evolving political forces. What a crazy game of chess. And what high stakes.
A Canticle has elements of magical realism, but it is careful to present possible explanations for the magical stuff it contains. The author provides these explanations in order to keep the question of religion and God's existence open for debate.
The character of Abbot Arkos represents what happens when politics and religion mix—and no, he's not a decent guy.
Like religion, scientific knowledge is one of the Forces of Good that oppose the violent aspects of human nature in A Canticle. And also like religion, knowledge doesn't really succeed in this battle. It's not that science is depicted as a bad thing in the book. Far from it. Particularly in Fiat Homo, science represents an invaluable resource to humanity, and its near-total loss is a tragic event. But scientific knowledge alone, the novel seems to argue, will never be enough. Science without a guiding light—perhaps religious morality—will unwittingly lend a hand to our primitive impulses. Like war. This argument stands in stark contrast to the majority of science fiction written during Miller's time. In Asimov's Foundation, for example, science is the de facto savior of the human race. Here, science is a powerful tool, but one that can be used to destroy as well as to create. Oh boy.
Brother Kornhoer is A Canticle's critique of the archetypal science fiction scientist. He's not so quick to use his invention to change the world (though it totally will).
Hannegan's plan to use diseased cows to destroy Mad Bear's tribe is a play on chemical warfare, the first subtle hints of science's destructive capabilities in the novel.
Aw yeah, the final part in our thematic Triforce. Primitivity pervades the novel in all three of its eras. Even though they are separated by six hundred years, each one sees humanity wallowing in its primitive nature. People start wars. They kill each other. And when the politics get all primeval, watch out. Although both religion and science seem poised to counter people's inner bent for destruction, neither of them succeeds. The novel might be suggesting that this aspect of human nature—not love or industry or civilization—is what makes us who we are. Perhaps humans and buzzards are not as far apart on the evolutionary tree as we thought.
The Pope's children from Fiat Homo are characterized as the most primitive beings in the novel, but they are also the only characters who seem incapable of understanding ideas like ethics and morals.
Primitive behavior appears more often in politically minded characters than in scientifically or religiously minded characters.
Who controls your life? Excluding perhaps parental control, your immediate answer might be you. But the deeper you dig, the muddier things become. Are you religious? If so, does the Church control your life? What about the government? That social institution certainly has its say on many aspects of your life, but control? Yes or no? And we haven't even really gotten to the most important question: who should have control, and to what degree? Although A Canticle considers these questions, it never reaches a definitive conclusion. We're left to argue about how we should spend our lives (Fiat Homo), who should own knowledge and where it should reside (Fiat Lux), or on issues such as euthanasia (Fiat Voluntas Tua). Yippee, we love a good intellectual debate. Bring. It. On.
In Fiat Homo, the Church is the most powerful institution because it holds the power of science and technology simultaneously. But in Fiat Voluntas Tua, the state has surpassed the Church because it now controls technology.
The Memorabilia contain only worldly sources of knowledge (scientific, historical, and literary). Works of a religious manner, such as the Bible or canticles, are considered separately.
When you think of science fiction, you probably imagine flying saucers, faster-than-light travel, and maybe a robot or two. In other words, you think of technology. What you don't think of is a bunch of monks stuck in the middle of nowhere showing up all the tech savvy of troglodytes (totally a real word). But while A Canticle might not be brimming with the hi-tech marvels, it does use its technological imagery in a unique way. Science fiction stories tend to revolve around plots in which technology saves us all. Have a Godzilla problem? Build some tech. Aliens invading Earth? Hit 'em with a computer virus. But Miller's novel questions this notion. Does our technology really better our lives, or is it merely another bone we can bonk ourselves over the heads with?
In A Canticle, science is viewed as benign knowledge. It is only when science takes a physical form in technology—or the manipulation of nature—that it can be used to hurt others.
Almost every example of technology in the novel is shown to cause pain in one form or another. Possible exceptions might include the pen, paper and the printing press. Because who doesn't love the printing press?
The past directly influences who we are in the present. Well, either that's true, or we wasted a ton of time studying history. Just kidding, of course it's true. But A Canticle takes the idea of historical influences and gives it an ironic twist. The present and future are shaped by the past, but many of the characters' views on the past are terribly distorted. Why? Because they superimpose their own worldviews and beliefs onto history. So it can be hard to tell whether what we're being told in the book is actually world history or just a bunch of made-up baloney. So this is actually one of the funnier themes in the novel. It prompts us to chuckle at a character's faulty memory—and perhaps a bit at our own.
Rachel seems to lack any memory of the past, which hints to us that the cycle of history has finally been broken on Earth. But the same cannot be said for those spaceward monks and their Memorabilia.
Whether or not the pilgrim and Benjamin are the same character, they still share the same character trait: they are both bound to a particular understanding of the past.