A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, by Walter M. Miller Jr., A No Spoiler Review
This morning, I finished reading the classic science fiction novel, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ. I rate this novel PG for violence.
First, the short review…
To purchase the novel, click A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.
5 Reasons I Recommend A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ
- If you are a science fiction fan and want to be fluent in the genre’s history, Leibowitz is on many lists of must read sci-fi.
- The novel’s world is depicted plainly and purposefully, capturing the tragedy of a post nuclear holocaust world without sentimentality. The prose is often lovely and the story becomes more and more gripping as it unfolds.
- Especially for the philosopher and the theologian, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ puts forward some of the most profound ideas around human evil and our propensity for self-destruction.
- Even if you’re not a philosopher, the characters and ideas come together in a way that does not allow the reader to ignore our society’s seeming dance toward self-destruction.
- In a similar vein as On The Beach, by Nevil Shute, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a story that has the capacity to change our minds about nuclear arms and warfare.
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ was originally published in three parts.
Fiat Homo…Let there be man
Fiat Lux…Let there be light
Fiat Voluntas Tua…Let thy will be done
The first two section titles refer to the Biblical account of creation, when God spoke the earth and humankind into being. The third section’s title refers to the Christian New Testament. Not that the idea lacks foundation in the Hebrew Bible, but the phrase itself is taken from The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before his death. “And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
A fair amount of Latin is spoken in this novel and I did not understand all of it, but most phrases are translated within the story or the context makes the meaning clear. All of the main characters and narrators are associated with a religious order, the monks of The Leibowitzian Order, that was established following what the novel calls The Flame Deluge.
The monks, much like Irish monks during the Dark Ages, copy, preserve and make available ancient knowledge to those who will have it. For the most part, the barbarians who dwell around the monastic fortress, whose setting is the old American West, hate this knowledge and see it as the reason destruction came to the planet.
An excerpt from the novel:
“After the bombs and the Fallout came the plagues and the madness. Then, in the bloodletting known as the Age of Simplification, the people – those few who remained – rose up against their teachers, their scientists and their rulers, those they held responsible for turning the world into a barren desert…”
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, published in 1959, channels the zeitgeist of an era when people were genuinely terrified of and preparing for nuclear war. For many readers, especially, younger readers, that period of history can feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…but given Covid19, the economic shock that has hit the globe through the shutdown as well as the rise of a belligerent Communist China and a perpetually divided United States, war and/or chaotic one-upsmanship between two superpowers seems less far distant than it has since 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed. If World War III were to happen today, what would be the fallout?
Many of the questions posed by Miller in A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ are relevant today. There is wisdom and a degree of sobriety that can be gained by our society paying closer attention to stories like this one.
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Well done. I’m glad to see that you caught the parallels between the Leibowitz monks and the Irish and others who preserved much of European knowledge and high culture during the dark centuries following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. I myself was well into adulthood before I learned about this. I first read Canticle when I was in high school, almost 40 years ago. Until I developed a fascination with history in college, I didn’t realize that the monks of the Leibowitz order were historically relevant. Of course, having read the book I instantly understood the significance of the real- world religious orders who preserved so much classical knowledge.
Without spoilers, and without giving too much of the plot away (utterly naive and clueless about the story is the best way to approach it for it to have its greatest impact) to me the most profound and staggering feature of the story is how much the story changes from beginning to end. If all you’d ever read was Fiat Homo (the first third of the story) then you could be forgiven for thinking that Canticle was a comedy. And a really clever one at that. It’s still one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read. But then by the end of the story, good God almighty, it’s one of the most savagely effective, horrifying and grim depictions of human violence against their own kind it’s possible to experience. That’s what still hits me the hardest about the novel. The transformation. How that ever-present chuckling undercurrent of comedy present through Fiat Homo has transformed into an unrelenting undercurrent of dread of the horror impending. And just like the characters in the story, the reader sees what’s coming but is just as powerless to prevent it or turn away from it. In that sense it’s not possible to truly spoil the ending of the novel. I could tell you every bit of it right here, and I still guarantee when you read it for yourself, your guts will still be twisted into knots by the end.
Fate arrives for everyone and it’s a grim fate indeed. That’s not to say it’s a horror story for horror’s sake. It certainly is not. It provides plenty of reasons to hope, if you will only pay attention to them. I guess you could say that about life in general.
I hope more scifi people (and others) pick this book up during the era we now live in. Understanding the human propensity to repeat history may lead to a smarter and more humble approach to all things, especially politics!