A Canticle for Leibowitz is Catholic science fiction, clearly written in the aftermath of Hiroshima and the shadow of the Cold War. It is mesmerizing, drawing on history and speculating on the future, focused around a small monastery in the American Southwest. It is also profoundly pessimistic about the fate of man and the inevitability of nuclear war. At the core of the world that Miller explores over thousands of years are some of the following assumptions:
1. In the wake of a nuclear war, the world will be plunged back into a new Dark Age.
as with the previous Dark Age, Catholic monasteries will take on the
role of guarding and copying knowledge that would otherwise have been
lost. Miller himself took part in the bombing of the Monte Cassino
monastery during the Second World War, and later converted to
Catholicism. This part of his future mimics the past, where the
monasteries of the Middle Ages were the keepers and disseminators of
knowledge in the West. (Though as much or more of the knowledge that had
been lost was kept, studied, and cultivated in the Middle East and
other parts of the non-Christian world.)
It is interesting that
within the world Miller creates, Catholicism is not an unrivalled power,
and indeed, it goes through many different permutations and positions
through the book. The papacy is at times powerful, and at times
powerless. But although the position of the papacy may affect the
ultimate fates of the monks at the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, the story
focuses on the abbey, far from the centres of power, and is more
concerned with how this contemplative order survives than with the
changes the world undergoes.
(The abbey is consecrated to a man
who appears to have been a nuclear scientist, who himself converted from
Judaism to Catholicism, and died a martyr at the hands of an
2. The knowledge that the monasteries have kept safe will inevitably be resdiscovered.
thousands of years, secular scientists will rediscover the secrets of
electricity and the dynamo (and, eventually, nuclear weapons), and will
argue that they must be used at the hands of the rulers of the time, as
it is in any case inevitable. They will argue that they should not be
concerned if the knowledge is used for good or evil, only that it is
This obviously is one of the cores of Miller's belief, that the use of any power without consideration of the ethical
implications will be turned, eventually, to death and destruction. This
is the most obviously Catholic part of his argument, not that he really
claims that the Church would have the power or will to do better. The
Church is remarkably powerless in the face of progress. They can only
endure, not influence.
3. Man is fallible.
extends to the Catholic monks as well as to the secular scientists and
doctors that the various priors interact with. But the benefit of the
doubt falls heavier on the monks - they are always seen as trying to do
the right thing, although they too can be blinded by prejudice or
inflexibility. For that matter, most of the secular characters are also
trying to do the right thing, although their lack of a moral compass
(all non-Catholic characters lack a moral compass) means that they
justify doing evil in the name of doing good, with the best intentions.
4. Nuclear weapons, once discovered, will inevitably be used.
third act of the book takes place in a world that has recovered from
the Deluge of Fire thousands of years before, and repeats the same
mistakes. As before, the Church is remarkably powerless (and there are
no suggestions of how it could act better or differently). They are left
with the sole option of merely making sure the church continues and
continues to safeguard knowledge, as the world dies for a second time.
why I say this is a deeply pessimistic book? His view of human nature,
the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, and the powerlessness of what he
sees as the true faith to do anything about it are the persistent
companions of these pages. Scattered throughout are figures from
Catholic mythology - the Wandering Jew, for example, and at the end, a
second Immaculate Conception. (Whether that leads to the conception and
birth of another Christ-figure is left hanging in the air.)
not share Miller's faith, nor his pessimism about the state of the world
or its eventual end, but there is no denying that A Canticle for
Leibowitz is a powerful (if depressing) look at the world as it was and
as it could be.
I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees