A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

a-canticle-for-leibowitz-by-walter-m-miller-jrGenre: Apocalyptic
Publisher: Bantam
Published: 1959
Reviewer Rating: fourhalfstars
Book Review by Paul S. Jenkins

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I approached Canticle with trepidation; the Catholic Church is, in my opinion, an unlikely subject for science fiction. But the novel is often cited as a classic, and I was eager to find out for myself what it was like, especially following the publicity surrounding its posthumously published sequel.

Canticle is a fix-up of three novellas, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction during the fifties. The first, Fiat Homo, concerns Brother Francis, who at the opening is attempting to find his vocation in the Utah desert. An itinerant beggar — whose identity remains a conundrum throughout the book — guides him towards an underground shelter, wherein Francis discovers the ‘blessed documents’. I should point out that this takes place in a post-apocalypse third millennium, at a time when the technology of the late twentieth century has been lost, and that the shelter was built to protect its occupants from radioactive fallout. Of course Brother Francis has no idea of its purpose, and neither have his superiors in the Order.

Francis is our naive observer; it’s his religious comrades and superiors who put a momentous interpretation on his findings. There are some genuinely comic moments during this first third of the novel, many to do with the quaint — not to say medieval — practices of the monks. Francis is given leave to embark on a fifteen-year rendering of one of the sacred relics: a blueprint of a circuit design produced by the great Leibowitz himself. Eventually Francis is commissioned to take the relic — and his illuminated copy of it — to New Rome, and present it to the Pope. Certain events befall him on his journeys, but it would be unfair of me to say what these are.

The second part, Fiat Lux, takes place many decades later, at a time when there are rumblings of war. Some members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz are experimenting with constructing the devices depicted in the relics, and they achieve some success. The insular character of the Order pervades the novel, and this gives credence to the idea that the abbey would be, to some extent, isolated from external influences.

There’s a good deal of Latin chanting sprinkled throughout the novel, and though it’s often translated in a fairly transparent way, readers like myself who don’t “have the Latin” may feel excluded. At the time the novel was first published the Latin Mass was still being said in Catholic churches, so contemporary readers wouldn’t have been at such disadvantage.

The final third, Fiat Voluntas Tua, is set a further jump into the future, when technology is on the rise again, but with such rise comes a new threat of apocalyptic destruction to echo the first — the one that precipitated the technological dark-age with which the story opens. Miller’s thesis appears to be that civilization follows cycles of development: growth, catastrophe, stagnation and rebirth.

To see the development of civilization through the eyes of a strict religious order is to see it from a narrowly blinkered viewpoint. The novel is well written but slow, paralleling the inch-by-inch progress from the medieval to the technological. It’s essentially a character-driven story, but the characters are fundamentally similar. A short interlude in the middle of the novel is told from the point of view of one of the tribal chieftains, but that’s no more than light relief in a dense narrative.

I don’t wish to disparage A Canticle for Leibowitz. It has style and wit, and a vision of the future — albeit narrow. The novel’s classic status derives, in my opinion, from its originality. Those readers who like gung-ho space opera, or science fiction full of biotechnology and virtual reality, will find nothing like that here. Instead, Miller has given us a novel of character and vision, set in an almost fantasy-like milieu, depicting a future that could yet come to pass.

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