Wednesday, November 10, 2010


A Canticle for Leibowitz is a 1959 science fiction novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; it won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel. In the centuries after a nuclear holocaust, a monastic order works to preserve the remnants of scientific knowledge as civilization rebuilds. The book is comprised of three parts, essentially novellas, which take place in the 26th, 32nd, and 38th centuries, respectively.

Miller’s themes are prominent, and will be obvious to even the casual reader. Primarily, there is recurrence: Miller’s novel spans so many hundreds of years because he is setting up a cyclical history for humanity, and the periods of his story reflect the focus and worldview of different historical eras. And there is the timeless issue of church versus state and faith versus reason: Miller’s future generations explore the same theological and moral issues humanity has wrestled with all along.

Many books in the postapocalyptic genre, when confronted with the issue of religion, dismiss, punt, or avoid entirely. But Miller addresses religion thoughtfully, respectfully, and satisfyingly. He focuses specifically on Catholicism, but his issues and points are applicable to Christianity broadly.  

Miller’s story unfolds rather slowly, and the casual reader may wonder what the point is, exactly, of the book’s first two sections in particular. Admittedly, they aren’t always interesting on their own (particularly part two). But they are necessary to set up the book’s finale, and they are a key part of the Miller’s bigger picture.

A Canticle for Leibowitz’s third section is superior, not only because it features the culmination of Miller’s buildup, but because it has an excellent protagonist. In part one, “Fiat Homo,” the bumbling Brother Francis is carried along by circumstances that develop the story with little force of his own. Part two, “Fiat Lux,” neglects character focus and is instead a rather obvious struggle between the church and secular science. But in “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” Abbot Zerchi is both a principal actor upon the story and a grounded, strong and well-rounded Christian figure, and he is eminently realistic. He is Miller’s best character, and gives the book’s conclusion some vital punch.

In the end, A Canticle for Leibowitz is an always thoughtful and occasionally poignant look at the history, struggles and prospects of humanity.