A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: October 1959
Printing: October 1997
ISBN: 0-553-37926-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 338

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I've heard many good things about this book. It tends to crop up in favorite book discussions at conventions, people comment that it blew them away, and it seems to evoke a lot of fond memories. I've been looking forward to reading it for a while, and was hoping to like it far more than I did.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is another post-apocalyptic novel, this time starting some time after the apocalypse. Mankind has had its great war, civilization was devastated, and in the aftermath a vicious backlash on all form of science and, by extension, learning has left the world nearly devoid of literacy or pre-war information. An order of Catholic monks remains devoted to preserving knowledge, however, and maintains stashes of pre-war information that they themselves largely don't understand, protecting it in the hopes that it will be useful when man's curiosity and capacity reassert themselves.

I don't really understand where Miller was trying to go with this book. At the beginning, I was pretty sure it was intended to be dark humor; the story of the bumbling and not terribly bright brother who rediscovers ancient relics from before the war provoked a few chuckles. But then, the middle section of the book, several hundred years later, seems to be trying more for a straight story of the rediscovery of technology. And then the final part, hundreds of years later still, went off in a completely different direction towards a cautionary tale of man's mistakes and a questioning of religion, euthanasia, and the value of life. Each of these sections features very different characters, making it hard to build up a lot of attachment to the protagonists.

The last two parts of the book are the strongest. I found the bumbling of Brother Francis to be more annoying than amusing, and nothing really happens in his section. My favorite parts of the book are the memorable Dom Paulo, abbot when science finally begins to rise again, and the remarkably blunt confrontation of the ethics of euthanasia in the last section. I also liked the character of the Wandering Jew, who shows up most notably in the first two parts to poke some pointed holes in everyone's self-importance (although I wish more would have been done with that subplot). But overall, I was left rather unsatisfied.

I've read several reviews of A Canticle for Leibowitz that say it addresses fundamental questions about religion or technology, or that it is a serious examination of the issues surrounding knowledge and power. It does touch on those issues some (on euthanasia and the perils of nuclear war more strongly and directly than on anything else), and the book is riddled with Catholicism. However, this attention seems skin deep, more liturgical Latin than Catholic philosophy, more inevitable apocalypse than deep struggles over the nature of human power. Faith, knowledge, power, and technology are present in form, but few questions are asked about substance, let alone directly addressed. For a book seriously tackling the question of how Catholic philosophy combines with science fiction, I would read The Sparrow instead.

It's a bad sign when you finish a book and are left wondering what the point was in writing it. Nothing that the characters do in this book ends up being particularly important or influential, and eventually the work of the monks feels like an exercise in futility. There is some glimmer of significance at the end, but far too late for it to be explored. The characterization, while good, isn't enough to carry the book without help from the plot, particularly since one doesn't get to follow a single character through the whole book.

Miller isn't a bad writer, but the only reason why I'd recommend this one is for its historical significance to the subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Followed many years later by Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which was never published in Miller's lifetime.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-10-06

Last modified and spun 2014-12-28