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A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.


This was the 7th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1961 at the 19th Worldcon, Seacon, in Seattle, WA.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in August 2019.



Walter M. Miller, Jr. only published one novel during his lifetime but it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1961 and has never since been out of print. It's really three novellas, each originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, rendered into novel form through the time honoured fix-up process, though they're still very distinct in the finished work. The three were published in 1955, 1956 and 1957; the novel in 1959.

While A Canticle for Leibowitz was his only novel, he wasn't new, having seen over thirty short stories published in the usual magazines. In 1955, a story of his from Astounding, The Darfsteller, won the first Hugo for Best Novelette. I haven't read it, or any of Miller's other short work, but I did read A Canticle for Leibowitz as a youth, so long ago that my sole vivid memory of it turns out to be false, something that's oddly appropriate given where the story takes us.

It's a post apocalyptic novel, but one that's rather unique. It's not about what caused the apocalypse, here a nuclear winter caused by global war, or indeed about the mutants who occupy the radioactive wasteland that used to be the United States. There are no zombies and it's not about survival, at least not in the way that you're imagining. It's about cycles in history, a pitting of church against state and about the preservation of knowledge.

What makes this work so well is that the latter is not presented as a good thing or a bad one, just something that must be done, even though the cycles mean that it'll eventually lead to an unhappy ending. The monks of the Order of Leibowitz, who are the primary characters, are bookleggers and copyists, dedicated to keeping knowledge alive in a new dark age prompted by fear and hatred of scientists, who after all made the apocalypse possible.

As we join them, in the 26th century, they've lost enough knowledge already that they don't have any understanding left as to what they're copying, but they continue to do so regardless. Brother Francis, a novice, spends fifteen years creating an illuminated version of a blueprint that is ultimately lost to a violent act. It's important because it may have belonged to Leibowitz, the founder of their order, having been discovered in a fallout shelter.

It's loss is disappointing to the reader, not just because it's still more lost knowledge but because Miller writes as if it's going to be important to the story. He builds up both Brother Francis and his manuscript in the first part of the novel, only to steal them both away from us. It's annoying and I didn't appreciate it as a reader, but it makes sense. It's really the novel in microcosm: the world had all sorts of people and documents and the global war that destroyed it took them all away. Everything here is a cycle.

I much preferred this first section, Fiat Homo, to the other two. While the wider story, which spans over a millennium, is enticing, interesting and an easy target for discussion, I struggled to get through it.

The first section is vibrant, as we see things both from the perspective of our young novice, Brother Francis, who has made a wonderful discovery and is apparently punished for it, and his abbot who is doing so only because such a wealth of new material will inevitably delay the nearly completed process to have the order's founder canonised. The initial discovery is made during a tantalising enocunter with a character who we later realise is surely the Wandering Jew. The hope in this section is palpable and it reads quickly.

Fiat Lux, set five hundred years later as the long dark age is ending and a new renaissance is beginning, benefitting from the Memorabilia preserved by the order, ought to be hopeful but isn't because the rise of secular power feels threatening. We're too busy worrying to keep hoping. And then, Fiat Voluntas Tua, six hundred years on again, is acutely pessimistic because it suggests that everything has been in vain.

I've long had a mixed philosophy of optimism and pessimism. I believe that, if there's a way for mankind to screw something up, it will, but there will be someone who manages to find a fix. A Canticle for Leibowitz, written in the atomic era, reverses my philosophy. It suggests that individuals have a great and abiding power to do great things, but then mankind will use their work to screw everything up. I think it was that negativity that made this a hard slog for me, along with the overuse of Latin (and Hebrew and whatever else).

I get that Miller was exploring the cyclical nature of things, extrapolating his time in history into the harbinger of a new dark age. Looking backwards to the end of the Roman Empire, he has the church preserve knowledge until society at large is ready to look at it again, at which point a renaissance will spark vast progress. But, playing to cycles, such a newly enlightened world is inevitably doomed to failure. His end is both optimistic, positing that maybe we can survive this cycle, and pessimistic, suggesting that maybe we'll take it with us wherever we go.

While I had to force myself through this, taking three weeks to read it when I usually review seven or eight books a month, I can appreciate its strength and power and different approach. I'm finding these Hugo Best Novel winners from the late fifties and early sixties fascinating, because all of them are looking at the world around them and wondering if it's broken. The optimism of the pulp era was gone and deep introspection about our lot was in.

Blish looked at religion with A Case of Conscience and Heinlein looked at society in Starship Troopers. Here, Miller looks at both and, one year on, Heinlein would look at everything in Stranger in a Strange Land. The times they were definitely a-changin'.


Starship Troopers | Stranger in a Strange Land

Next month: another book I read decades ago but haven't read since, Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

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Last update: 17th November, 2019