on 30 June 2003
Canticle is one of the best post-holocaust stories ever written. Told in three separate sections that were originally published as separate stories, it details a post-nuclear war society where (once more) the Catholic church has become the repository for what little learning there still is, complete with monk scribes happily copying by hand the few remaining books. But at least for the first section of the book, the scribes don't understand what they're copying. When they uncover some ancient relics of Saint Leibowitz (a twentieth century engineer who tried to stop the book burnings and other atrocities) they end up enshrining one of his grocery lists and venerate a common blue-print as rare and sacred. Later portions of the book detail the resurgence of science, fueled by the church's repositories of knowledge, but as becomes increasingly obvious as you go further in the book, there is still no change in mankind's basic human nature, and war enters the picture again (and again) - covering almost a two-thousand year span.
There is a large amount of ironical humor suffused throughout this book, which makes its prime message that man is doomed to continuously repeat his mistakes, leavened only by the love of a distant God, much easier to take. In many ways this book is a hard look at both the ultimate value of religion and at basic human nature, couched alongside some heavy symbolism (the Wandering Jew makes multiple appearances) and some very sharp satire. The story itself is told with such emotional power that I found myself both plumbing the depths of despair and laughing uproariously, while the moral and ethical questions raised kept poking sharp daggers into my under-brain, just waiting for the chance to come to the fore of my consciousness and force me to re-live this book again and again.
Within each section of the book, characterization is excellent, from the young initiate Francis in the first section to the Caesar-like Hannegan and Brother Taddeo of the middle section to Abbot Zerchi of the final section. But the very fact that it is told as three separate stories leads to a little disjointedness, as the characters you have come to know and love in one section disappear in the next and a whole new set make their appearance. The unifying force between these sections is obviously the church, the one constant across all the years, and this provides the foundation for not only the story, but a framework for all the philosophical questions to reverberate against. Questions of is man inherently evil, what role God should play in an individual's life and his surrounding society, when does pride become hubris, what constitutes sin and can an earthly representative of God truly provide forgiveness, why do good deeds so often seem to lead to bad consequences, and many more. Miller does not really provide any answers to these questions - nor should he, as these questions are really only answerable at the individual level, but his story provides some powerful illumination of these questions, and his ending does leave some room for possibly the most enduring of human emotions, hope.
This book is what science fiction should be, a book that enlightens what the human condition is within a context of an all-too believable future world, literate and profound without hammering the reader on the head. Winner of the 1961 Hugo award, it clearly out-classed all the other contenders for that year, and ranks as one of the best the field has to offer.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on 24 June 2007
This post-apocalyptic tale is narrated by the survivors of a 20th century "Flame Deluge" (nuclear war). Modern civilisation is decimated and the world's population largely annihilated. The anger of the few survivors is channelled toward the remaining scientists and politicians, leading to a cull of the inteligencia which culminates in book burning and the slaughter of anyone who can read. The novel is set mostly within the walls of an abbey constructed to preserve the remaining knowledge until the population is ready to understand it and rebuild. The author revisits the abbey three times over the next two thousand years, charting the technological and philosophical development of civilisation at each point in history. The subsequent emergence and renaissance of this fictional civilisation parallels that of our own and the author uses this as a plot device to discuss the failings of humanity and the propensity of society to make the same mistakes throughout history. Is history destined to repeat itself?
So the cold war brought the world to the brink of the apocalypse, this may be so, but this period instilled a level of fear and paranoia in the mind that can germinate great creative ideas, and this book is full of them, I can't recommend it highly enough! The prose is beautifully written and incredibly readable, although at points intensely depressing I was surprised how richly comic I found this novel given the subject matter.
I'm a massive Sci-fi fan but must concede that although some of the great literary ideas are produced in this genera, the quality of the writing and characterisation frequently falls short of the mark. I would often tar even the `greats' such as Azimov and Clark with this brush, although don't get me wrong, I hugely enjoyed some of their books. This novel, alongside precious few others, including Frank Herbert's Dune and John Wyndham's, "The Day of the Triffids" is in my opinion an exception to this rule. The opening is reminiscent of John Wyndham's post-apocalyptic classic, "The Chrysalides" and the subtext and social commentary of these two novels is similar. "Ignorance and failure to communicate are potent sources of bigotry and prejudice which frequently lead to conflict and war." The multilayered ideas and deep philosophical content of Canticle is reminiscent Kurt Vonneget's "Slaughterhouse 5", despite the contrasting style of these authors. Contemporary works of post apocalyptic fiction such as the excellent "The Road" by Cormack Mccarthy owe a great debt to this highly original and thought provoking novel.
Although an atheist, I much enjoyed the religious symbolism in Canticle, indeed the "Wandering Jew" makes several appearances throughout a two millennia time span, and thus the reader witnesses the failure of humanity again and again through his eyes; make no mistake, this is a deeply pessimistic novel. The catholic doctrine is fervently espoused by various characters, particularly in the context of euthanasia and suicide; however, a passionate secular counter argument is also put forward and this makes for compelling reading, it's as though the author is wrestling with his conscience and thrashing out these ideas in his mind. I found this aspect to be very interesting, indeed, the strength of the catholic arguments put forward in this novel adds to the deep irony as well as the monumental tragedy of the author's suicide.
I don't usually give books 5 stars so you'll understand that I thought this book to be exceptional. Yet it's a little hard to say why. Possibly it's the combination of religion and SF, which happens very rarely and even more rarely succeeds.
A little about the plot. This is a post-apocalyptic novel as is obvious in the first chapter when a monk of the order of St. Leibowitz is wodering why metal cores are found so often in rocks - said rocks being concrete rubble. The Catholic church has relocated to New Rome, somewhere in the American southwest, and the main setting is the monastery of St. Leibowitz, somewhere in the desert in the American southwest. The main characters are the monks. The action of the story takes place over around 1,000 years, consisting of three stories, each one hundereds of years apart from the others.
The order of St. Leibowitz is dedicated to preserving knowledge in the Memorabilia, a collection of pre-apocalyptic writings and documents. For this, they were persecuted in the immediate post apocalyptic period as the survivors of a nuclear war rose up, enraged, against technology. The first story takes place a few hundred years after this, when civilisation is just starting to be even thought about again. The Church of New Rome is a repository of knowledge (especially the Order of St. Leibowitz) and a force for social cohesion. There are obvious (and, I'm sure, intentional) parallels with the European Dark Ages after the fall of Rome here. As there are in the second part, which deals with the rise of an empire (perhaps based on Charlemagne?) that looks like it might unify the American southwest but, perhaps inevitably, comes into conflict with the Church. Again, historical parallels can be seen.
But the three stories should be taken as one and the underlying theme of the nature of man and the conflicts between politics and ethics go through all three stories. At the end of the third story, Man has again achieved civilisation, and with it, nuclear weapons. Are we fated to repeat history? Or will the sure knowledge of what happened last time act as a restraint?
There is far more to the book than this, but i don't want to spoil the plot or the ending. I will say that in every way this book forces you to think about what you may beleive. And few books can do that.
Do you know many science-fiction books that quote Latin? Where the heroes are monks and abbots? Where the protagonists argue over illuminated manuscripts? A Canticle for Leibowitz has an appeal well beyond science-fiction fans.
Too much of it shouldn't be given away, but the story takes place after a nuclear war and concerns the fight to preserve what is left of human literacy and knowledge. Of course, this is about the need for spirituality and wisdom to balance progress in scientific pyrotechnics. But A Canticle for Leibowitz is first and foremost an utterly convincing political fable, interwoven with a host of private adventures and tribulations. And while nuclear holocaust may sound less likely today than in the 1950s, what is astonishing is that this book hasn't aged a bit, that it has none of the technological and contextual faux pas that makes so much of science fiction dated.
Walter Miller wrote with authority, conviction and humour. His dialogue between churchmen is jaw-dropping in its veracity; I couldn't believe afterwards that he was never a priest or a novice. The novel's politics are as credible as they are subtle. Miller creates a reality in which you will find yourself completely immersed without wanting to leave it, however harsh it may be. My only quibble, in fact a major disappointment is that, incredibly, Walter Miller never wrote anything else.
on 2 June 2014
This is one that I've been meaning to read for some time. It shows up on a lot of "best sci-fi" lists, and I've always thought the premise was intriguing - that a monastery has dedicated itself to preserving pre-apocalypse information, whatever form it may take, and however irrelevant it might be in reality.
The execution though - I thought - left something to be desired, and came across as rather dry. There was also a strange mix of mysticism and science that I found hard to reconcile - who was the old man that lived for centuries and showed up in all three acts. I wasn't really sure what the book was aiming at here.
Then there's the 3 act cycle. The first act introduces the concept, then the second act picks up quite neatly from there a few hundred years in the future, where the discoverer of the Liebowitz documents has been canonised. The 3rd act though, I thought, came rather abruptly, and shook me out of the story I thought I was listening to, which made it rather difficult to actually finish this book. Since I had this as an audiobook for my daily commute I did finish it, but I can imagine that, had it been a print/ebook copy, I may well have put it down and picked up something more interesting.
On the whole, I'm glad I read it - it's certainly an interesting take on the apocalypse - but it certainly hasn't made me want to read anything else in the "Saint Liebowitz" series.
on 19 February 2013
Humanity is recovering from the flame deluge, a nuclear mass extinction event that demolished all on earth, including knowledge man had built up prior to this. These monks of the order Leibowitz set about their god given purpose, collecting, recording and copying scraps of data salvaged from the land and begin the formation of an archive of pre-deluge knowledge.
Drawing on a broad range of topics from religion to the fallibility of man, Miller provides a novel which does not disappoint. Covering the actions of the order over such and extended time frame is done well, and each section is comprehensive enough to provide a backbone for the writers ideas.
I must admit I found the first hundred pages a bit of a slog, but as I got through the wall, and deeper into the novel the intricacies of the story more than made up for the difficult start. Despite being written is the 60's the warnings contained within are still as relevant today.
A novel packed to the brim with musings on religion, existence, society and much more. A novel with broad scope for deep thought and contemplation of the themes contained within. A must read for every Sci-Fi fan.
The very best science fiction uses imagined worlds as a laboratory for exploring human nature and our contemporary world. The names which come to mind when making that statement are ones like Philip K Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula K LeGuin. With a Canticle for Leibovitz, Walter M Miller earns himself a place at that table, and his novel rightly appears in many lists of the greatest works of science fiction.
A Canticle for Leibovitz consists of three linked novellas set in a catholic monastery over a period of hundreds of years. The first is set in a world plunged into a new dark age in the aftermath of a nuclear war. The cataclysmic conflict was followed by a reaction against learning and a burning of books. In the monastery of the Blessed Leibovitz, monks preserve and copy relics written by a repentant weapons scientist, I E Leibovitz, with no understanding of their meaning or purpose.
In the second section, both a renaissance and a reformation are occurring with a tyrannical ruler displacing the pope as the head of the church, and natural philosophers seeking to mine the archives of the Abbey. In the outside world rulers of disparate small states fight each other in both political and military arenas.
In the final section, humankind has returned to and surpassed the pre holocaust level of technology with spaceflight now a reality, but nuclear weapons have also been reinvented and a familiar shadow hangs over the world.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is very much a novel of its time. It is a very clear child of the 1950s and the immediate threat of nuclear apocalypse. In its portrayal of a rejection of science by the mob, it is informed by growing anti-intellectualism of the Eisenhower/McCarthy era. However, unlike much older science fiction, it has not become dated. Firstly this is because there is not a great deal of technical foresight. There doesn't need to be, this is primarily about a society which has regressed. In the last section there are one or two things which don't ring true (an electrical rather than electronic translator), but these are unimportant in the overall picture. The second reason it hasn't dated is that the themes of nuclear destruction and anti-intellectualism remain completely relevant today. If the former became a less immediate fear with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is surely only a temporary reduction, the danger is still there and likely to grow again.
The third reason why Canticle for Leibowitz remains relevant is that it isn't really about the future, it is about the present. The central question it asks is whether the human race learn from past mistakes, or is destined by its very nature to repeat them? The answer it gives is, on the surface, a fairly dark one, but not one without hope, in the spark of light kept alive by the monks, and in a potential escape from the cycle of destruction at the end of the novel.
Alongside the central theme, Miller also explores other ethical dilemmas. Is the role of science simply to expand knowledge with no thought for how that knowledge is used by other, or should the scientist take responsibility for the technological uses to which discoveries are put? Very near the end of the book, there is a heartbreaking conflict between a very catholic espousal of the unequivocal protection of life and the use of euthanasia to prevent/end hopeless suffering.
I suspect that a lack of understanding of Catholic doctrine meant that I didn't get as much out of the book as a might have done. There are probably subtleties in the ways in which Miller modifies the monks' practices which I missed. There is also a Lazarus-like figure (is he indeed Lazarus?) whose significance I am still trying to come to terms with. At the end there is also a suggestion of a Second Coming.
This all possibly makes "A Canticle for Leibowitz" sound like a heavy and depressing work. Certainly it is dark, but it is told in smooth flowing prose, and with a constant wry humour, which make it eminently readable.
In conclusion, I am in full agreement with those who have listed this as a classic.
on 26 November 2014
Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch
It may be strange for a professor and policy advisor to reread this book after having done so soon after its first publication in 1959, 55 years ago. But in the meantime humanity has moved deeper into a new epoch in which it has constantly increasing capabilities to destroy itself, thanks to instruments supplied by science and technology, such as mutated viruses likely to be producible in "kitchen laboratories" by mass-killing fanatic "true believers," or accidentally by scientists seeking to heal cancer.
These developments pose harshly the fundamental issue at the core of this book by Miller, which is also at the core of my recent book: what is the likelihood of humanity terminating, or at least seriously damaging itself with the tools for doing so increasingly supplied, paradoxically, by human scientific and technological ingenuity?
Miller puts this fateful question most starkly on pages 183-185, which make the point that even if the vast majority of scientists will be careful not to produce humanity-killing instruments and the vast majority of leaders will not use such instruments even if available, there will always be some scientists and rulers who will produce and use them. And then "madness was upon mankind" with dire consequences (p. 185).
Miller was relatively optimistic, because he describes a historic cycle in which humanity does not destroy itself completely. Instead science and technology based civilization is destroyed. But some knowledge is preserved in oases till humanity again achieves the ability to nearly destroy itself and does so again, and so on - somewhat on line with classical stoic belief in an eternal cycle of conflagration of the world and its recreation.
To move to emerging reality, the fateful question whether humanity is on the way to eliminate or at least seriously damage itself with the tools that it increasingly produces becomes more and more acute. My own answer is that there is a growing likelihood that indeed humanity will destroy itself or at least its civilization unless a decisive global regime lead by a new type of avant-garde politicians will take stern countermeasures. Thus, inter alias, limiting world-wide the development and availability of very dangerous science and technology knowledge; and restraining, and if necessary destroying dangerous "prophets" and leaders.
Miller's social science fiction does not consider such a possibility, making rather the case than some fatal flaw in human nature, metaphorically on line with "original sin" without the possibility of grace, makes it unavoidable that our species cannot maintain for long a high technology civilization which provides self-destruction knowledge the use of which is unavoidable. It is impossible to prove this view wrong, but neither can it be proven correct, this being a matter for a contingent future. But the very feasibility of human self-destruction thanks to its scientific-technological creativity should be a main concern for humanity and especially scientists and political leaders, as well as policy thinkers. It is at the center of my recent book.
Therefore I reread Miller's work and recommend it for careful pondering by the relatively few who shape the future of humanity as a whole. And therefore I add this review to the many but different ones already published.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Walter Miller's classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, has been one of my favourite books since the first days I read it (I read it in three days, one day for each of the three parts of the triptych). The premise is one that we have come to recognise as a familiar theme -- post-nuclear-holocaust earth. However, this was a relatively new theme in the early 1950s, when this novel first appeared as a serialised story in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Remarkably, for an early work, this remains one of the standards by which subsequent efforts have been judged.
In the first part of the story, we are introduced to Brother Francis, a member of the order of St. Leibowitz (well, not yet a saint, but considered one by his order), who, as it turns out, was an early survivor of the nuclear conflagration (later described as the Deluge, in biblical tones that recalls the flood of Genesis). Leibowitz, we discover, was looking for a way to help society maintain order in the destruction--being an historian, even though he was Jewish, he remembered the relative stability of society in the Dark Ages being guided and enhanced in the aftermath of fall of Rome by the Church in general, and monastic orders in particular. So, he founded a house, which continues.
Brother Francis, on a desert retreat, happens upon a scrap of paper that bears a possible signature of Leibowitz. Becoming ecstatic, he devotes his life to preserving and illuminating this document. Eventually he takes a doomed trip to New Rome (which we discover is in the heart of the North American continent). He is killed on his way back to the monastery, but not before delivering the Leibowitz document to New Rome and aiding the order in its quest for sainthood for Leibowitz.
In the second frame of the triptych, we come upon a political situation several hundred years later, much like the middle ages (Hannegan II under papal interdict while claiming title as Defender of the Faith) -- yet there are new discoveries both among philosopher/scientists of the present and researchers looking back into the past. There is to be to the order a visit from Thon Taddeo, a noted scholar and poet, and politically important person, and the monastery is concerned in many ways to make a good showing. Brother Kornhoer, figuring out texts on ancient electricity, contrived an electric light to the amazement and consternation of Thon Taddeo.
The poet, too, ends up dying on a journey, out in the desert.
--Fiat voluntas tua--
Again hundreds of years have passed, and mankind has once again reached the space age. Genetic purity is a concern (as mutations continue among many of the people due to the fallout of the Deluge). Warfare continues to grow in intensity and severity, and politics remains as ever ineffectual in containing the ambitions and greed of potential dictators. We have come into the nuclear age once again, and illegal nuclear testing has been detected. The world has become a much more secular place. But, once again, the monastery is at involved in the tensions, and more importantly, toward planning for life after another Deluge.
Visionaries at the monastery prepare to send brothers into space to survive what seems a sure collapse and nuclear war, so that they might once again be able to help rebuild society, preserving knowledge and the order of the Church.
* * *
This story is filled with small details of great insight -- how a Dark Ages person might interpret finding scraps of the modern world; how rediscoveries might be welcomed and not welcomed variously; how human personality is, alas, unlikely to change despite much pain and effort.
We are introduced to a man called 'the Old Jew of the Mountains' -- I at first thought this was the apostle John (who is referred to in legendary lore as the apostle who wasn't martyred, or the apostle who wouldn't die until the return of Christ); later I realised that it was Lazarus -- he who was raised from the dead by Christ, and because of this power, could not himself die, but remained outside society awaiting the return.
There are so many philosophical points which remain alive for those of us in the post-Cold War world, that this is a work of vision akin to Verne or Wells (though without their higher literary ability). This is a great story, and one that stays in the mind ever after.
on 4 July 2015
This had me from page one. It is beautifully written and each key character intimately drawn. It's a story in three parts, all set in the same location but spanning three time periods. Opening sometime after a catastrophic nuclear holocaust, a reduced and scattered population have descended into a new dark age but where organised religion has managed to survive in a form. In religious orders a few custodians of the old technology are quite ignorant of its applications but have been sworn to keep it's secrets safe. The second part follows after another time interval and we join a new set of characters who have now begun to unlock the secrets they have guarded for so long. Finally, we enter the final age where technology has been restored but men are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
There is a spiritual element which is satisfyingly undefined, so you can make of it what you will. God, ghost or other? A mysterious figure is the only character to appear in all three parts.
It's a depressing story in the sense that humanity seems doomed to cyclical self destruction and can never hope shake off tribalism or superstition. It's also a story which although set in the future is forever framed by the period it was written in, the late 1950's.
That said, it feels fresh and is thoroughly engaging. Recommend.
Kindle copy is good.