Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1960)

a_canticle_for_leibowitz.large***Warning I tried to keep this as spoiler free as possible, so there shouldn’t really be any***

For years I heard recommendations for Walter M. Miller Jr.’s classic Science Fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz but it took me far too long to actually pick it up. Post-Apocalyptic novels seem to be all the rage these days, and after reading the Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven I wasn’t too eager to delve into another. While both Atwood and St. John Mandel approach the apocalypse in a more conventional manner, Miller presents the post-apocalypse in a unique and interesting fashion. When picking up a novel of this sort, one would expect a character study examining the hardships of life after the fall. They of course present these fictional futures as a warning to the present, but the focus is on individuals coping in a difficult world. Miller’s view of the post-apocalypse far less personal but equally cautionary, and he paints a much more lighthearted picture from a fascinating new perspective.

The story is broken into three parts at three distinct times after the fall. His presentation in three parts gives the reader the opportunity to see the advancement of the world back from brink of destruction. Where the first story presents a rugged and simple world wrought with danger and stupidity, the second grows to something more comparable to medieval Europe, and the final and third part present a world even more advanced than our own. The book tells the story of an order of monks in the American Southwest fighting to preserve the past. They copy schematics they don’t understand and build a library of knowledge that hopefully someone in the future will understand. It advances and tells different tales focusing on different monks at different times, only clearly linking with a passing reference to the events of the previous story. The reader witnesses the growth and sees the impact that those in past have had on the present, the explicit impact might be slight but Miller seems to hint that the unseen impact could be great and far reaching.

As time progresses in the story, we might see a decrease in blatant violence upon individuals, but Miller seems to hint that the threat is far less personal but equally dangerous. With the entirety of the story taking place after society’s destruction the world seems cyclical and destined to repeat the past. Maybe this was a point that Miller was attempting to make. Maybe mankind’s growth in knowledge and technology goes hand and hang with its inevitable destruction. By developing the story from the perspectives of monks, he places the threat and burden on inactive participants, as we all likely would be when the fall of man comes. The individuals in the story have no part in the wars or dangers in the society in which they live, but still they find themselves victims of the times. War and violence will affect us all regardless of our participation. Though the faithfully religious in the story me be presented as a sort of foolish group, Miller presents them as a resource that is incredibly important to the future well-being of man. The issue arises that as technology and knowledge increases the religion becomes less necessary. If the religious dogma is followed too zealously a new war may begin, one battling between religion as law and the well-being of people. Science vs. faith seems to be a theme throughout the story, friend early on but if given enough time that will change; just as the monks where the suffering bystanders of the violence of the past, when faith and science are at each other’s throats it will be the bystanders who suffer.

Miller doesn’t present religion in a wholly negative light, it seems the opposite. In his world while the clear value of religion might dissipate as technology and science develop, the time make come when it is needed. The faithful are good, well meaning people that are mislead by outdated ideals, but those who ascribe more to science and technology seem to be equally ignorant of the potential value of religion. Ascribing too strictly to any ideal is a recipe for disaster, as each has a time and place of value. Miller does a masterful job of presenting parties on all sides that are incredibly sympathetic and real, his story is engaging and thought provoking and I would argue one of the best Post-Apocalyptic novels I’ve ever read. Each story is interesting and unique, at times funny and at others heartbreaking. It is a book that enjoyed when I read it, but when I look back I love it. I’d give it 5 out of 5 stars.

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