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|A Canticle for Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Published by Lippincott, 1959
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Suggested by: Ross Pavlac
A Canticle for Leibowitz was published the year before I was born, to much acclaim (including a Hugo award for best novel.) I remember reading it in high school, but decided to re-read it before reviewing it here.
It was said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell, and that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince, "Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike. See to it, m'Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought."
But the princes, putting the words of their wise men to naught, thought each to himself, If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine.
Such was the folly of princes, and there followed the Flame Deluge. (p. 62)
In terms of plot, A Canticle for Leibowitz is essentially an extended riff on the theme that "those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." Miller posits a new Dark Age following a nuclear war which destroys most of civilisation (made even worse when the few survivors indulge in "the Simplification", a massacre of anybody having anything to do with the military-industrial complex which brought about the war, and finally anybody who's literate, or, for that matter, too much of a smart-aleck.) Just as the Roman Catholic church maintained a portion of the knowledge gained by classical civilisation after the fall of the Roman Empire, Miller has Catholic monks making illustrated manuscripts of blueprints and technical journals predating the war. In fact, the "Leibowitz" of the title is an engineer who is martyred for his attempt to preserve at least some of the technical knowledge of the pre-war civilisation.
Like many science fiction authors writing in the 50s, Miller raises questions about the moral responsibility of scientists for how their discoveries are used. Can scientists who develop weapons of mass destruction avoid the responsibility for the consequences of the use of those weapons, or are they responsible for putting such weapons in the hands of political leaders of questionable judgement? (This is not necessarily a dead question these days, with all the fears of the proliferation of nuclear weapons among "rogue" states which might succumb to the temptation to use them.)
In my first time reading this book, I missed some of the humour and symbolism which Miller worked into it. For instance, having been raised to be "blind" to people's ethnic backgrounds, I didn't get the humour in a Catholic saint with a name like "Leibowitz." Nor had I heard of the legend of the Wandering Jew. Some jokes, of course, anybody should get, like when a secular scientist responds with scorn when a monk raises the possibility of evolution.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of those titles which invariably get mentioned whenever the subject of Christianity and science fiction is discussed. Certainly, Miller does portray the Catholic church as preserving some of the knowledge of pre-war civilisation, and the assorted monks and priests are portrayed as sympathetic characters, if not exactly flawless. And, in fact, Miller uses different monks to raise the questions he wants to address. However, I take issue with those who claim that A Canticle for Leibowitz is some kind of Catholic "tract", and is therefore not worth reading. The story does not presume that the beliefs of the Catholic church (or, indeed, any other) are true. Still less does God Himself appear anywhere in the story. Miller's Catholic church seems to be a well-drawn thematic device, but no more than that. That is not to say that the portrayal of Catholicism is unsympathetic, or even inaccurate. In fact, Miller accurately portrays a number of details about Catholicism which any number of other authors (and especially those who write for Hollywood) consistently get "wrong." However, acceptance of Catholic doctrine, or even the existence of God, is certainly not necessary for appreciation of this work. Greg Slade (April, 2004)
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