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Review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

August 26, 2010

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a bit out of line with the sort of books I usually read. Every now and again, though, I feel the urge to read a book one of my co-workers has selected as a “staff pick” for the store.  The novel, published in 1960, is a major piece of classic science fiction.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is broken into three parts: Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, and Fiat Voluntas Tua. As you move from one section to the next, the book moves ahead by about six centuries so that, by the time you reach Fiat Voluntas Tua, you are over a thousand years beyond Fiat Homo. The novel is set in the future, yet most of it reads like it’s set in years past. Throughout the book, the primary perspective comes from Leibowitz Abbey, where the monks of the Order if Saint Leibowitz have been quietly minding “the Memorabilia” for centuries.

We learn that, shortly after our own time, a massive human-initiated disaster–known as the Flame Deluge–and the ensuing chaos wiped out most of the world’s learned men and women, along with the records and examples of their work. Essentially, by its own choice, humankind has been brought into a new Dark Age. The Memorabilia, then, is a collection of pre-Deluge documents which the brothers of the Order carefully squirreled away while the Deluge raged. Though no one can understand what the documents are, much less what they mean, the monks sense that this important piece of civilization must be preserved, and they have made it their mission to ensure its survival.

The book opens as novice Brother Francis of the Order of Saint Leibowitz is performing his Lenten fast out in the desert that surrounds the abbey. Half delirious from heat and lack of food, Brother Francis meets a strange pilgrim, who rather casually leads him to the location of an old fallout shelter. The shelter, it is later discovered, contains papers that very likely belonged to the great Leibowitz himself. The entire episode — pilgrim, rock, shelter — becomes the cornerstone in the abbey’s push for Leibowitz’s official canonization, and the papers are added to the abbey’s collection.

Jumping ahead to Fiat Lux, we meet Dom Paulo, the abbot. Centuries after Brother Francis’s ordeal, the tales of his doings have faded into myth as the world begins to rediscover the knowledge it once possessed. Only recently has word of the Memorabilia’s existence reached beyond the abbey’s walls. Dom Paulo’s time as abbot sees the arrival of scholar Thon Taddeo, which forces faith and science to work side by side.

Finally, in Fiat Voluntas Tua, Dom Zerchi is facing nuclear holocaust. In an age mimics the Flame Deluge, cities and countries have turned against one another with the goal of mutual annihilation. Faith and science clash full force as the world collapses again.

I enjoyed A Canticle for Leibowitz. Where it could have been preachy, predictable, and blatantly allegorical, I found it to be none of those things. Miller lets his characters work through major issues without himself choosing sides, which allows fascinating insight into their various arguments.  Pieces of the story are given in small doses, so that the reader is left to piece history together. Miller writes, especially in the initial Brother Francis section, with a subtle sense of humor, all the while maintaining the seriousness of his plot. This step outside my usually reading comfort zone was one worth taking.

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