Visions of Paradise

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A Canticle for Leibowitz

In the decades immediately following the end of World War II American was gripped by fear of impending nuclear war, sparked by our government and the Soviet Union possessing nuclear arsenals capable of wiping all life off the face of the Earth. One result of this paranoia was the popularity of post-apocalyptic science fiction. That particular sub-genre was seemingly as popular as cyberpunk SF would be in the 1980s. It ran the gamut of paranoia from John Wyndham’s Rebirth (1955), whose emphasis was how so-called “normal” humans would fear and destroy mutated humans; George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949) was a considerably more optimistic work about heartiness and survival; perhaps most pessimistic was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) which saw the ultimate fate of post-apocalyptic humanity as a group of bloodthirsty vampires.

Perhaps the highpoint of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre was a series of three novellas by Walter M. Miller, Jr published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (1955), “And the Light is Risen” (1956), and “The Last Canticle” (1957). At the time Miller was one of the new stars in the science fiction firmament, having written a series of wondrous, poetic short stories and novelettes for the genre magazines, notably “Crucifixus Etiam”, “Conditionally Human”, and the Hugo-winning “Darfstellar”. His stories were superior examples of what true character-driven science fiction could be, tackling such concerns as what it meant to be human and what was the worth of a man.

But even the most devoted Miller fan could not have been prepared for the elegance of A Canticle For Leibowitz. When collected in book form a few years later, it won a richly-deserved Hugo Award as Best Novel and has maintained its reputation as one of SF’s true masterpieces ever since. Ironically, Miller abandoned writing after the success of that novel, finally returning thirty years later to spend the waning years of his life on a companion volume entitled St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, a novel which upon Miller’s death was completed by Terry Bisson.

It has been nearly thirty years since I’ve read A Canticle For Leibowitz, so it seemed logical to reread the novel in preparation for reading its highly-regarded companion. I was a bit apprehensive, since novels that thrilled me as a youngster don’t necessarily maintain their status when I reread them as an adult. I need not have worried, since before I finished reading the first novella I realized this is one novel that, if anything, offers even more pleasures now because of the increased sophistication in my taste in literature. Canticle is basically a character study, but it also contains philosophical depths and sense of wonder aplenty, providing equal parts thoughtfulness and excitement. And unusually for a story that fit firmly in a scientific genre usually geared towards agnosticism, if not downright atheism, the story was not merely about religion, but was deeply religious itself.

The first novella “ Canticle For Leibowitz”(called “Fiat Homo” in book form) was set 600 years after Armageddon, and told the story of a small order of Roman Catholic monks–no matter if the aftermath of the atomic war had caused the church’s home to relocate from Rome, Italy, to New Rome, somewhere in the former United States–devoted to their founder, the Blessed Leibowitz. Leibowitz was a nuclear scientist, one of the developers of the weapons of destruction, who embraced Catholicism after his wife died in the nuclear holocaust. The order’s seeming raison d’etre, besides recovering as much of the lost ancient knowledge as possible, is finding sufficient evidence to convince the pope that the Blessed Leibowitz is truly deserving of becoming Saint Leibowitz. While that might not mean much to non-Catholics, I spent 17 years of my education in Catholic schools and learned fully how important it is to some true believers that their icons achieve the lofty status of sainthood.

The monks’ quest is shown through the story of Brother Francis, a poorly-educated novice who, while undergoing his regular penance in the desert, encounters a strange wanderer who leads him to an underground fallout shelter containing important relics of Blessed Leibowitz himself. No matter that none of the monks understand the relics–although the reader quickly recognizes them as blueprints of some technological facility–or that the wanderer bears a suspicious likeness to the centuries’ deceased Leibowitz himself.

What follows is a rich multi-layered tale: poor Brother Francis’ ill treatment by the order’s abbot who suspects him of fabricating a ludicrous tale that is apt to discredit the entire Leibowitz sainthood movement more than forward it; Francis’ rising reputation among his fellow monks who are convinced he was chosen by God himself and that the wanderer was indeed Leibowitz sent down from heaven; The arrival at the abbey of two powerful delegates from New Rome, one sent to the abbey to take Francis' evidence, the other sent there to discredit it; Francis' journey to New Rome where he meets the pope himself–one of the best scenes in the entire novel as Miller effortlessly combines politics with a true believer’s view of how a well-meaning pope can maintain dignity amidst a setting of near-poverty.

The novella’s ending is both traumatic and appropriate, leaving no surprise that it was selected as the 2nd best novella ever written by the Science Fiction Writers of America for their Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1973.

Where the first novella was set in the depths of the Dark Ages, the second novella “Let There Be Light” (“Fiat Lux” in book form) is the story of the coming of the Renaissance. In the minds of many modern people the Renaissance was a glorious time, the era when European civilization shed its feudal skin and experienced the rebirth of learning and culture. It was the age of Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the apex of the city-states when the middle classes asserted their independence from lords and vassals.

That may be the popular view of the Renaissance, but in truth it was an era as wrought with strife as any era in history, a time when Church struggled for supremacy with the State, when numerous petty rulers waged wars to extend their hegemony, when the value of life was no higher than it had been during the Dark Ages. This is the Renaissance that Walter M. Miller describes. The novella takes place in the same abbey as “A Canticle For Leibowitz” did, but now that abbey is hosting a renowned scholar who is studying their ages’ old artifacts for signs of the learning buried within them. We see the struggle between tradition and advancement in the abbey itself, but more importantly we see deadly struggles all around the abbey. Rulers are making pacts and warfare with equal aplumb while challenging the power of New Rome. While the monks welcome the renewed interest in the learning they have protected so jealously for so many centuries, they fear the materialism that seems to be accompanying the rebirth of knowledge, and how scholarship seems to have bedded itself with materialism rather than with Holy Mother Church.

Where “A Canticle For Leibowitz” was poetic and religious, “Let There Be Light” is darker and more philosophical. Where most similar novellas would have sludged their way to a resolution of the warring forces, Miller is more concerned with making his readers think about what is happening than explaining it for them. Is the rebirth of scholarship so worthwhile to civilization that humanity should accept the support of petty dictators rather than oppose them in favor of the more moralistic Church? Is there a natural antipathy between Church and State, or can they support each other with compromise and selflessness?

The concluding novella “The Last Canticle” (“Fiat Voluntas Tua”) leaps forward again to an era akin to modern times, an era of high technology, spacecraft, and splitting the atom. Except this is civilization’s second time around, so does it not seem likely humanity would have finally learned their lesson from the first atomic war? Not according to Miller who, it seems, is incredibly cynical about the nature of humanity. For in this novella the world is on the verge of worldwide war again. Two nuclear bombs have already been dropped, and the foreign ministers of the world’s leading powers are meeting, desperately trying to stave off total annihilation.

As in the first two novellas, the story is centered around the abbey of St. Leibowitz. One subplot is the emotional trauma of a young monk selected as the leader of a group of religious being sent secretly on an interstellar ship whose mission is to save Holy Mother Church in case of total annihilation on Earth. The major focus is the philosophical battle between the abbot and a medical official treating victims of radiation, many of whom are experiencing immense suffering and whose life expectancy can be measured in days, or even hours. While the abbot insists in prolonging life as long as possible while offering one’s suffering to God, the official wants to counsel the dying to seek out government suicide centers.

This third novella reeks of despair. The coming war is inevitable, as is the second demise of human civilization. Yet one cannot help but wonder: how can the world choose death after having escaped centuries of near-death? Are humans so selfish and arrogant that they would relegate the entire world population to destruction yet again? The simple, optimistic answer would be “No! Humanity would learn from its mistakes”, but hasn’t the history of modern times proven that is definitely not the case? Miller certainly makes you understand why holocaust follows holocaust in these supposed enlightened times.

The Last Canticle” features one of the most striking characters in all of science fiction, Mrs. Grales, the two-headed tomato lady. She figures prominently in the novella’s climactic scene about which I will say nothing for the sake of those readers who have not read it yet. Suffice it to say the scene will stay with you for a long, long time.

Next time I will discuss the sequel St Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.


  • you speak of Brother Benjamin in the first novella - it is actually Brother Francis - Benjamin was the Wandering Jew aka Lazarus.

    i agree that this book is fantastic.

    By Blogger Jasonic, At 9:52 PM  

  • I read "A Canticle for Leibowitz" (ACFL) over 30 years ago while in college. It was one of those stories that uniquly captured my imagination, and was one of the books I choose to keep in my library all these years, though through all those years I did not re-read it again.

    ..Until just a few days ago. I was amazed at how much of the detail I had forgotten, but I was and am amazed at how much more striking and impacting I find ACFL reading it the second time through after 30 some years.

    Of all Post-nuculer apocolyptics written back in the late 1950's and 1960's that I read. ACFL was and remains the most compelling in intensity, and in its philosophy/theology.

    There is more I could say that space will not permit in these comments. I found this post via a Google search on ACFL. I wanted to find more material before writing a review for my own blog. This is helpful and I will bookmark it.


    By Blogger ~ The Billy Goat ~, At 6:15 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home