Mar 28, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A man in monk's garb surrounded by stone ruins
Image from

A Canticle for Leibowitz, first published in 1960, is a post-apocalyptic novel telling the story of an order of monks (the Order of Leibowitz) trying to save what's left of mankind's scientific knowledge and history after a nuclear holocaust referred to as the "flame deluge." The book spans thousands of years, and has many viewpoint characters, which isn't surprising as it started out as three short stories.
The one character that connects the stories is the Wandering Jew, cursed to walk the earth until the second coming.

Canticle won the Hugo award for best novel in 1961. It's the only novel Miller published in his lifetime. The sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, was left unfinished. Author Terry Bisson finished it after Miller's suicide in 1996. It received mixed reviews.    

Oh yeah, spoilers ahead, in case you haven't read the novel.

I liked this book a lot. The writing is clear (except for the Latin bits) and flows well, the world-building is detailed and believable, and the characters relatable. I loved the idea of "booklegging," monks smuggling books and burying them in the desert for better days while the angry masses lynched the leaders and the scientists and burned all the books so nuclear war could never happen again, launching the world into another dark age. Humanity's rise from the darkness is well described, and the parallel to the knowledge of antiquity being lost and how the monks in medieval times toiled to preserve it is clear. It makes you think: is this a cycle humanity is caught in? Is there hope of escape, or will we continue the cycle of destruction and rebuilding over and over again?

I'm a bit tired of the dystopia fad that's been going on for years now. I get where it comes from: the future is grim, we're destroying the planet, and we'll probably all die horribly of nuclear war/an unforeseen epidemic/global warming. War rages, refugees pour into Europe, and there's a new killer virus found every year. Some days it feels like we're just waiting for the inevitable.

Miller fought in World War II and then lived under the shadow of the Cold War, and that influenced the kind of book he wrote, just like the state of the world today influences modern writers. The difference to modern dystopias is that Canticle has moments of humour and hope, something to brighten the darkness (I especially liked the bit about the electric light in the library of the monastery). Even the ending, which is quite grim in its way, has a bit of hope mixed in there. The characters in Miller's world are seeking ways to make the world better, not only wallowing in despair or trying to survive.

There is one thing that stuck out to me: there are very few women in the book, and they're minor characters at best. Okay, the story takes place in a monastery, so that is a legitimate reason for having mostly male characters. And the book was written in 1960, so one can't judge it by modern standards. All the same, a few female characters would have been nice.

Miller was a religious man, and it shows in the book, but at no point does it become preachy. He handles moral dilemmas with a delicate hand, letting the characters act as they see fit. On the subject of euthanasia, for example, the monk and the doctor both believe they're doing the right thing, and the reader is left to make her own conclusions. The symbolism and themes are there, but they're never heavy-handed.

 Dystopia is a tool to point out the flaws in the world, but there are many ways of doing that. I feel Canticle ends with a message of hope, even if mankind is doomed to repeat its mistakes.

This book has aged well and feels very relevant in today's political climate. If you haven't read Canticle yet, I highly recommend it.

Science fiction classics read: 38/193.


  1. Is it just me, or is the first section of this book absolutely timeless? It was written in 1959, but it may as well have been 2009, in my opinion. As for the second part, I'm half convinced that it was the inspiration for "Fallout: New Vegas," or at least a very significant influence. The third section, I was a bit more ambivalent about, as the age of the piece really began to show when we got to a more futuristic situation.

    1. I agree, it feels timeless, and I really enjoyed Miller's style. I liked that the ending was hopeful. It didn't leave that bleak feeling you get with modern stuff. I think B5 did an episode inspired by this. Going through the list makes me realize just how much they utilised genre clasics.


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