What 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.