Winner of the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel and widely considered one of the most accomplished, powerful, and enduring classics of modern speculative fiction, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a true landmark of 20th-century literature - a chilling and still-provocative look at a postapocalyptic future.
In a nightmarish, ruined world, slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infantile rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From there, the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes.
Seriously funny, stunning, tragic, eternally fresh, imaginative, and altogether remarkable, A Canticle for Leibowitz retains its ability to enthrall and amaze. It is now, as it always has been, a masterpiece.
©1959 Walter M. Miller, Jr. (P)2011 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“Chillingly effective.” (Time)
In fairness, I am not a big science fiction fan, so those who are may justifiably discount my opinion. I guess this book is supposed to be profound and perhaps it was when it was written, when the apocalypse was upon us. The premise is profound but the execution is just not to my taste - too dark and cynical for me.
My favorite post-apocalyptic book, and indeed one of my favorites of any genre, is Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, also written when the apocalypse was chillingly near. It is hopeful, which is to my taste.
I tried, I really did. I think it might be a better book to read. I did not like the narrator, but usually I can get over that. it was just dull.
While the premise of this book, humanity destroying itself with nuclear war, has been rehashed many times, it was probably novel when this book first came out. The added aspect of Catholic monks preserving ancient scientific knowledge after the apocalypse is a delightful nod to the work of medieval monasteries. However, the author uses some portions of the story as thinly veiled Christian evangelism, and that gets tiresome after the third of fourth time.
I recently listened to “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller. I read it as a teenager, but I’ve noticed I get a lot more out of everything I read now than I did when my system was awash with raging hormones. (For example, I discovered that Thomas Hardy, far from being an incredible drag, was a funny, vivid and poignant writer.)
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” has been called a classic of science fiction. It’s also a classic in post-apocalyptic fiction, equal to George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” (which has held up remarkably well), “The Death of Grass” by John Christopher or “Malevil” by French writer Robert Merle. It has all the elements I look for in a great read: well-delineated characters, drama, mystery, humor and sorrow.
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” was published in 1960, at the height of the terror of nuclear annihilation. I remember “duck and cover” quite well; while crouching under my desk in my middle-school classroom, I was fairly certain that a blackout curtain and a wooden desk were not going to preserve me from frying to a crisp if an atomic bomb landed on, say, Los Angeles. At the time, nuclear catastrophe was a chill breath on the back of everyone’s vulnerable neck.
Miller’s opus opens after a nuclear apocalypse has literally bombed all of mankind back to the Stone Age. There’s a backlash against science, knowledge, and everything associated with the catastrophe buy anti-intellectuals who proudly call themselves “Simpletons.” Those perceived as intellectuals or scientists are murdered. Books are burned. Mankind descends into another Dark Age. Mutated humans, called “Children of the Pope,” are more or less accepted, because there are so many of them.
But there is one beacon of intellectual light left in the world: the Catholic Church, which resumes its ancient tradition of preserving past knowledge. The story opens with Brother Francis, a young postulant in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, somewhere in the Southwestern desert of the United States. Leibowitz was one of the scientists murdered by the Simpletons, and after his martyrdom, miracles are said to have happened under Leibowitz’s aegis. The monks of the monastery want to canonize Leibowitz as a saint, but there hasn’t been enough evidence of his sanctity to satisfy New Rome. Brother Francis stumbles upon a cache of ancient papers, some of which appear to be pre-apocalyptic shopping lists—but others are blueprints. It becomes obvious to the reader (but not to the monks) that Leibowitz was an engineer, a designer of electronic circuits.
Poor Brother Francis meets his end as the first section of the book closes, having delivered his copy of one of the blueprints (suitably adorned with fanciful illuminations) to the Pope in New Rome.
The second section of the book takes place a few centuries later. An esteemed scholar visits the abbey to study the Leibowitzian relics and is able to tease out some of the technology from the ancient manuscripts. Technology is clearly in a renaissance as one of the monks has succeeded in building a generator to power an arc light. The scholar departs to New Rome to share his new-found insights and to recommend the canonization of Leibowitz.
The third section takes us another six or seven centuries into the future. Technology—much of it based on the study of old documents like the Leibowitzian relics—has developed to the point where space flight is practical. But nuclear weapons have been reinvented, as well—in all likelihood directly due to the knowledge preserved by the Order of St. Leibowitz—and nuclear war is imminent. The last abbot of the order perishes after an atomic blast brings his church down in ruins as he tries to save the consecrated hosts. But a ship commissioned by the Order launches into space, looking for a new home for humanity.
Well, sure, we destroy ourselves all over again, but maybe that rocket ship full of devout Catholics will colonize a new world that will never see an atomic mushroom cloud. Yet the reader is left with the impression that the human race is ultimately doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.
Sadly, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” was the only novel published during Miller’s lifetime. His last work, a follow-up novel called “St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman,” was published after his suicide in 1996. He must have seen that his ability to continue was in doubt, because he asked author Terry Bisson to finish it for him if he were unable to do so. Bisson did finish the book after Miller’s suicide. It’s thought that Miller’s traumatic experiences in WWII—including the bombing of an ancient abbey at Monte Casino—contributed to his depression and eventual suicide. That may be the case, but it also contributed to the creation of a science fiction masterpiece. Some people write to exorcise their demons, but even St. Leibowitz couldn’t exorcise the dark demons of Walter M. Miller’s haunted spirit.
A Canticle For Leibowitz is a profound and haunting look at a future after a "flame deluge". The story takes place over the course of several centuries and focuses mainly on events which occur in an American Southwest abbey. The book is divided into three sections, which basically equate to new Dark Ages, Renaissance, and Modern Age. Walter Miller weaves intricate imagery, ideology, perceptions, and even characters throughout the three sections, drawing stark parallels and variations down through the ages. He even maintains a wry and sophisticated sense of humor throughout the book by at once painting a character as an idiot and then later as a prophet.
Miller's prose is dense, intelligent, and rich without being flowery. He won't explain every detail to you, but he conveys much by how he draws and colors a scene. Although this book is surely not a light read (or listen), it never gets bogged down, and the pace is always reasonable. Tom Weiner's reading is excellent, and his tongue-in-cheek gravitas conveys the tone of the book well, Once in a while I found myself losing track of which character was speaking, but not often enough to be seriously distracted.
Beware that this novel is a product of its time -- today we may look back at the Cold War and snicker -- but really it's less about war than it is about the human condition which makes us feel the need to destroy or create, serve or exploit. Some other themes include: man's inventiveness and inability to control what he makes; how time distorts truth; how willingly people discard their immortal souls or how fervently they maintain them (the point of either being...?); decay in the midst of opulence; innocence manipulated by the powers that be; repetition of mistakes throughout history; and so on. Many books that present large ideas like these fall flat and fail to deliver. Not this book. And though many of Miller's ideas have been covered before and since by other authors, very few present them with such intermingled force and subtlety.
Also note that there is a good deal of religion discussed in Canticle (you're in a monastery, after all!) and Miller doesn't skimp on the traditional Latin. Only rarely does it help to understand the Latin, as it is mostly confined to incantations and such which have little impact on the story. But being familiar with Catholicism or Latin doesn't hurt.
Photographer, Traveler, Ponderer, Philosopher, Blogger
One of the first SF novels recommended to my by my wife before we were married. Walter M Miller weaves a tale of political intrigue into the fiction.
Set in a post nuclear apocalypse, the book follows the Albertean order of Leibowitz during three different time periods as the world tries to rebuild itself. The knowledge the brothers have kept in their "Memorabilia" being vitally important to the effort. I found the structure of the book to be one of its greatest strengths, allowing the author to span a great amount of time (essentially a new stone age to the space age) without slowing the story. The juxtaposition of religion and science was also very engaging and thought-provoking. The performance given by Tom Weiner was superb. He impressed me with his narration of "Farnham's Freehold" and with this book, has become one of my favorite narrators. This was one of those rare audio books that made me want to start it all over again when it was finished. Highly recommend.
A Sci Fi junkie who occasionally goes slumming to read other literature.
A little shaky in places and I got lost a couple of times, but for an end-of-the-world story this was well crafted. I especially liked the characters and dialogue. Still thinking about the ending.
I hadn't read this book for over 20 years and ordered it, expecting to be disappointed. Often the "classics" of yesteryear fail to impress on later readings. This is an exception. It sets the standard for all works featuring the cyclical way that civilizations rise fall and rise again scenarios (see Toynbee). Some humour (not easy in SciFi), some pathos but basically a great story (novel at the time, not so now), good characterisations and a large dollop of cynicism. The narrator does a great job of making the characters come alive and is not afraid to "ham it up" a bit in order to help us get an insight into the character. Thank you for doing a wonderful version of this book.
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