A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ – Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

A Canticle For LeibowitzWhat to write about this one? A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of science fiction’s most classic texts, and as a result it’s on the 4th place of the cumulative Classics of Science Fiction list, right behind The Left Hand of Darkness, Dune & The Dispossessed.

It is also widely read outside the science fiction community, and that gets you long articles in The New Yorker over 50 years after it was first published. This isn’t just sci fi, dear readers, but serious Literature too!

I’ve reviewed two other post-apocalyptic books the last few months – The Wild Shore & The Day of The Triffids. A Canticle has a wider scope in time than those novels, chronicling events after a 20th century nuclear holocaust in the 26th century, in 3174 and in 3781. At the same time, it feels just as provincial – even in the third part, when humanity is trying to colonize space. This is because Miller focuses on one community, in an American abbey founded to preserve the few scraps of knowledge that survived the Simplification – a purging revenge against science, scientists & literacy.

For those of you not familiar with the book, I’ll first write up a few basic facts and zoom in a bit on Walter Miller Jr.’s tragic life story.

Miller’s book is actually three novellas. They were published separately in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the first one in 1955. While he was writing the third story, he realized they formed a book. As Wikipedia has it: “For the fixup, Miller did not just collate the three short stories. He changed the title and the names of some characters, added new characters, changed the nature and prominence of existing characters, and added Latin passages. These revisions affected the religious and recurrence themes of the story, improving it from the magazine version.”

These changes don’t change the fact that A Canticle indeed reads as 3 separate yet connected novellas, resulting in a reading experience that is fragmented, having to start over 2 times in the novel. The new characters and the new settings are no big deal, and Miller manages to get the reader up to speed fairly quickly – it’s clear he had experience as a short story writer.

Author biographies can be important, and I think that’s the case for Miller too. A radio man and a tail gunner in World War 2, he participated in over 50 bombings over Italy, one of which destroyed the Abbey at Monte Cassino, the first Benedictine monastery – the one where the extremely seminal Rule of Saint Benedict was composed in the 6th century.

His war experience proved to be traumatic, and that other famous sci fi author with war experience, Joe Haldeman, said that Miller “had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for 30 years before it had a name”. Miller became very reclusive – his literary agent never met him – and didn’t publish anything else after the success of A Canticle. He had trouble with alcohol, and not long after his wife died, Miller shot himself in the head, a few days shy of his 73rd birthday.

A 600-page follow up to A Canticle was published posthumously. Miller started writing it in 1978, and it details events some 80 years after the 2nd part of A Canticle. The book was nearly finished when he died, and Miller himself arranged for Terry Bisson to wrap things up. Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published in 1997, getting mixed reviews.

Miller’s life was tragic, and so is A Canticle for Leibowitz. At the same time – not unlike that other WW2 alumnus, Vonnegut – there is humor in the book. Ultimately A Canticle is bleak, but feels funny and even pulpy at times.

Recurrence is a clear theme, but not necessarily in a Nietzschean manner. I will not dive into that matter – I’ve written extensively about it in my review of Dune Messiah, and Miller’s use of the idea is pretty straight forward and obvious. It does not bode well for humanity, as Miller implies we will never be capable of escaping our violent tendencies as a society – and with increased technological power comes increased doom.

The fear for a nuclear holocaust took root firmly in the 50ies, and it was one of the main themes of science fiction. It still is, when one takes all of human technology into account. Climate change fiction, novels about overpopulation or some evil AI taking control: it is all cut of the same cloth.

A Canticle asks lots of questions: some of a moral nature – who is responsible for human suffering, is euthanasia justified, what is the religious value of pain, what about people who design bombs – others are more epistemological.

Miller converted to Catholicism after the war, and the novel is drenched in religion. I would not be surprised if that conversion was a failed attempt to escape his own cynicism – given the grim message of the book. Aside from that general cynicism, it’s unclear what Miller’s own moral stances are – and the fact that it is never preachy is one of the book’s enduring powers.

At the same time, much of these questions are only interesting for readers that adhere to a belief in a personal god yet struggle with injustice & sorrow. If you don’t believe in god – or if your particular belief system manages to explain human sorrow to your satisfaction – most of the questions the book puts forward are moot. As such, the book has not aged very well – the number of people that embrace a traditional theistic world view has dwindled and will continue to dwindle.

That absolutely doesn’t mean the book has no merit left, as even without the moral-religious questions, A Canticle works as a character study. It is about (religious) men trying to make sense of their world, trying to hold or improve their positions, amidst conflict, degeneration, revival and looming extinction. Scenes like the one in which a mutant, double headed woman forgives god himself are powerful, whatever your religious inclinations are.

A Canticle for Leibowitz remains very readable – I’ve read someone describe it as “breezy” – and its message hasn’t lost any of its power: the Doomsday Clock keeps on ticking.

Given its historical importance, it is mandatory for any serious fan of science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. However, those that look for ‘serious Literature’ might better read something more contemporary – Aurora, Anathem, Radiance & Version Control spring to mind.

A Canticle For Leibowitz

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

53 responses to “A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ – Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

  1. Enjoyed this post, having just reread Canticle for the first time in 40 years or more. But I do have to disagree on one point. “…much of these questions are only interesting for readers that adhere to a belief in a personal god yet struggle with injustice & sorrow. If you don’t believe in god – or if your particular belief system manages to explain human sorrow to your satisfaction – most of the questions the book puts forward are moot.”

    I’m a lifelong atheist, and still find those questions both vitally important but unanswerable. Perhaps that’s why The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, is one of my favorite books. It is a worthy companion to Canticle for anyone who continues to ask questions of the universe about why and how we exist in it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I agree these questions are very interesting from a sociological stance, I just meant that if you don’t believe in god, it’s no use asking why he allows all this suffering, the same goes for questions one the divine origin of morality, etc. As such, an atheist or a religious reader will experience the book in a significant different way.

      Will look into The Sparrow & Mary Doria Russell – both the title and the name are new to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I disagree with that line as well and am with Catana on this one. Religion is downright fascinating — even as an atheist. I mean, I devoted an entire PhD to religious conceptions of history writing.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes I agree to its sociological importance. It’s just that the questions Miller asks are generally the same tired old questions: how could god allow such suffering,… It’s interesting how different people answer this question, but the question in itself isn’t interesting to me.

          If you’re field is history writing, do check out the Alex Rosenberg I reviewed a few months ago, ‘How history gets things wrong: the neuroscience of our addiction to stories’.


          • That article sounds exactly like something I want to avoid.

            But those are not tired old questions for people who adhere to these religions — and to expect them to be transposed to a future world is to be expected and well-done on Miller’s part…

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’m not interested in philosophical takes on l history written by non-historians. While it probably brings up some intriguing philosophical points, it’s not my cup of tea. And to be clear, he is complaining about a very specific type of historical writing: popular history and grand narratives written for popular consumption….. And boy does that book sound downright obvious! Of course grand narratives of history are harmful! DUH! Gah, looks lame.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Rosenberg is a philosopher of science & biologist, and his take is more a scientific than a merely philosophical one/ His point is actually broader, he talks about any history that talks too much about agency & volition. But indeed, as a critique of popular history he makes an obvious point. Anyhow, if you’re not interested in the neurobiology of behavior, the book isn’t for you.


              • Oh, I know who he is! I am interested in theories of history written by historians. And, again, his overarching point seems to be a very obvious one: causes are seldom easy to identify (survey courses and popular history and national narratives are all about easy causes of things), individuals are overrated as agents of change (again, standard in current academic history writing but trumpeted in popular history writing), etc.

                It seems, not having read it, to be a survey of many problems historians have long identified and current debate. And as more and more popular history is crafted by non-historians (this is different than in the past) due to increasingly intense tenure requirements of academic publication vs. popular publication, this problem is perpetuated.

                Liked by 1 person

              • True. In that case, you won’t get anything from the book, except for the neurobiology I mentioned, and a thorough discussion of representation/mental states in the brain. In a way, the book is marketing is off, as these two areas are its main core.


              • Yeah, it’s definitely approaching the argument from a unique angle — and perhaps gives historians basis to make the arguments about causation etc. that they have been making in more recent scholarship.

                To give you an idea, biographies have fallen out of fashion in academia due to the move away from “single person caused blank” type arguments. While the number of biographies in a bookstore is still immense — so many are not written by journalists and other non-historians.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yes, he basically says biographies etc are invalid because they are based on wrong assumptions on how our brains work – and that’s not with mental representations as most people assume.

                At the end of the book he acknowledges that most academic historians have moved beyond, btw.

                Liked by 1 person

              • In my excitement I didn’t edit my comment. I’m sorry! *most are written by journalists and other non-historians.

                Liked by 1 person

            • Agreed, Miller’s approach is very effective.


      • The question, for an atheist, isn’t about why god permits suffering, but why, in the face of that “permission,” people continue to believe. It’s the psychology of belief that endlessly fascinates me.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Like Catana, I’m also an atheist, but love A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Sparrow. I haven’t reread A Canticle for Leibowitz in years, and I need to find time to do so. Maybe I could squeeze in listening to just the first section, which is my favorite.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The first section seems to be the most loved one by most. I think it is also the most developed, and it has the most original voice, and the vibe is the most satire of the three. I guess it should work for you as a standalone without any problems.

      I do think the most powerful scenes are at the end of the third part – even though that is overall the weakest.


  3. I‘ve read this a couple of years ago, and think that it really is a masterwork. Review’s here: https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/a-canticle-for-leibowitz-%e2%80%a2-1959-%e2%80%a2-sf-novel-by-walter-m-miller/

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not sure it is a masterwork, as you say in your reviews, some parts are a bit boring too (especially in the 3rd part). I also don’t think the question about Rachel are so interesting: she clearly has her own brain, and a different personality, so I guess it’s fairly easy to debate she has a separate soul. Even if one would argue against that, it boils down to semantics: what is the definition of a soul? I think her role is more metaphoric as a grotesque character signifying the effects of nuclear war, and not so much a theological conundrum – except than for the question whether god can and should be forgiven. I’ve read interpretations of her as a kind of virgin Mary, devoid of the original sin. Could be that Miller intended her a such, but there’s not much to go by, and ultimately, for me, it doesn’t really matter.

      Masterwork or not, I think it is a good book for sure: a solid, recommended read, and that in itself is no mean feat for a book over 70 years old.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Golantz has published it as a SF Masterwork, and that was what I referred to. I had a reading project of reading through that imprint but never made it very far.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah yes, of course!

          If I’m allowed to make a superficial remark: the color scheme of that series is awful, that bleak yellow-white really is ugly on a bookshelve. I really think they are among the worst designed books ever, and also their coverpicks weren’t always a success. I get it they wanted to refer to their old yellow covers, but that still doesn’t excuse it. It is recognizable however, so maybe from a marketing point of view it works.

          Liked by 3 people

  4. This remains one of the accepted SF classics that I didn’t get round to reading before my interest skewed much more heavily into Golden Age detective fiction. You’ve made it sound terrific, however, and it, like Dune, will go to the top of the What to Read When You Next Have Time for An Extended Genre Break list. That, though, may not be for a loooong time…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember this one as being very good

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read this, but long enough ago that my impressions are pretty hazy. Looks like it was ’03. I wasn’t a 7th Day Adventist yet, but even then, I mention how disturbing the Catholic church angle was. I did give it 3 stars, but was never tempted to read the sequel or re-read this.

    I don’t remember it dealing, well, with the issue of Evil and how it can exist with a Perfect God. I’ve turned to non-fiction for that 😉

    Do you think you’ll ever bother to read the sequel?

    Liked by 1 person

    • No I don’t think I’ll read the sequel, the reviews are too mixed for that. Maybe I’m missing something out, as some think it is genius too, but the ratio is a bit off it seems.

      On the other hand, it might be interesting to see what Miller came up with, seemingly being even more tormented, and struggling with the manuscript. But then again I don’t really see what could be added in between part 2 and 3 that’s would really add to the overall story & message.

      I’m not sure if I asked already, but was there a specific reason to become a 7th Day Adventist? Do you think today you’d have less patience with the stuff Miller wrote because of it?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I never really looked at it as a deeply religious novel; I felt that the angle dealing with religion, especially considering Leibowitz himself as the origin of this institutional belief, is rather critical than apologetic; it is a spiritual novel, but not very religious 😉 I’m an agnostic and yet I found Miller’s struggle with fundamental concepts here very intriguing. I’d go as far as theorize that Miller didn’t found his solace in Catholicism, and I believe my point is validated in his life history.

    I agree that the first part is the strongest, from a literary perspective, but for me it’s the ending that makes it so outstanding; it takes my breath away every time. I’d also like to point out something you probably know very well, that this is the novel in which the likes of Anathem are rooted – and Stephenson openly acknowledges his inspiration and his debt 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes I agree with your assessment – all things considered Miller seems critical indeed. In that light, it’s paradoxical he joined Catholicism after the war. I guess Miller struggled with all suffering he witnessed and was part in, and tried to frame it through the lens that was most available in the 50ies, namely Christianity, and at the same time tried to be critical of that frame.

      The ending of the first part and the ending of part 3 are the stand-out parts of the novel for me.

      Viz. Anathem, it was your Anathem review that prompted me to read this, somehow this book never appealed to me beforehand – as I said, I don’t think these religious questions are that interesting anymore by themselves, I feel like I’ve moved on beyond them. It will be interesting to reread Anathem someday with Leibowitz in mind.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I reviewed this back in December 2015 and enjoyed it. I remember being surprised at how funny it was in parts. I also found it quite moving. Thanks for the biographical info and the link to that New Yorker article. Both you and Ola have made me want to read Anathem. I’ll try to make it my first read in November after the Halloween scares are over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good that you touch on the fact that it is moving too, as I did think some parts were indeed moving – not that that moods dominated the storytelling for me, but worth mentioning nonetheless,

      As for Anathem: it’s fantastic, but I should warn you, it’s also a doorstopper of over 900 pages. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yeah, the sheer length of Anathem is what put me off before now. He doesn’t seem to write short books…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Funny you should lament the ‘fix-up’ nature of this book. I didn’t find it to be that jarring here. I just moaned about it in my review for Keith Robert’s Pavane, and there it really felt like a group of stories with very little holding them together except a common setting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I don’t lament the fix-up nature of the book, as I said, I think Miller actually does very well in immersing people in the new settings. I just think it is something potential readers should know, as it might put some off.

      You’re very right that this book is much more than a group of stories with a common setting – Miller makes interesting & effective links between them.


  11. As usual, a very compelling review: this is one of the classics I never managed to read, and it’s comforting to know – now that you have rekindled my interest – that it has aged well, which is hardly a given for these older works. Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I am at a bit of a crossroads at the moment when it comes to reading older ‘classic’ scifi … I have read a couple of truly horrendous books by a guy called Richard Avery recently (they were lent to me) and am feeling … doubtful … that I can get anything out of older works now.
    That said, this sounds fascinating. Maybe I just need to be a lot more discerning about what I agree to read! 😆
    As always Bormgans, thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking review.

    Liked by 1 person

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