Tue
Dec 7 2010 10:02am
Dark ages and doubt: Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.So after re-reading 1959’s Hugo winner A Case of Conscience (post), I couldn’t resist picking up 1961’s Hugo winner A Canticle For Leibowitz. It may not be the only other explicitly religious Hugo winner, but it’s certainly an interesting contrast.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is about a world that has been through a flood of fire—a nuclear war that has left survivors to grope through a new dark age. It’s set in the barbarous ruins of the U.S., and it’s explicitly reminiscent of the period after the fall of Rome when the Church kept learning alive. It’s a clearly cyclic history, with civilization rising and destroying itself again. You’d think this would be a terrible downer, but in fact it’s light and funny and clever as well as moving and effective and having a message. It treads some very strange ground—between fantasy and science fiction (the wandering Jew wanders through), between science and religion, between faith and reason, between humour and pathos. It’s an amazing book, covering a thousand years of future history, making me laugh and making me care. It’s hard to think of anything with the same kind of scope and scale.

Walter M. Miller was an absolutely wonderful short story writer. In short form he managed to produce a lot of poignant memorable clever science fiction. A Canticle For Leibowitz is a fixup of three shorter works, and he never wrote another novel. There’s a sequel of sorts, St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which he worked at for years and which was finished for him by Terry Bisson. Despite loving Bisson I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. For me, A Canticle for Leibowitz is complete and perfect and doesn’t need any supplementary material, sequels or prequels or inquels.

The three sections of A Canticle for Leibowitz were published in SF magazines in the late fifties, and then the novel came out in 1960, winning the 1961 Hugo award. The concerns about nuclear war, and the particular form of nuclear war, are very much of that time. This is a rain of fire that destroys civilization and leaves mutants but doesn’t destroy the planet—that waits for the end of the book and the final destruction. This is the survivable nuclear war of the fifties and sixties, the war of The Chrysalids and Farnham’s Freehold. But this isn’t a survivalist novel, or a mutant novel—although there are mutants. This is a novel about a monastery preserving science through a dark age. Almost all the characters are monks.

The central question is that of knowledge—both the knowledge the monks preserve, hiding the books, and then copying and recopying them without comprehension, and the question of what knowledge is and what it is for. There’s the irony that Leibowitz, the sainted founder of their order, was himself Jewish, which the reader knows but the monks do not. There’s the wandering Jew—and the question of whether he’s really the wandering Jew. When I think about the book I keep coming back to the illuminated blueprint, done in gold leaf with beautiful lettering and absolutely no idea what it is that it describes and decorates.

We see three time periods of the monastery of St. Leibowitz, and we can deduce a third, the foundation, from what we know and what they know. There’s a nuclear war, with awful consequences, followed by a hysterical turning on scientists, who are considered responsible, and on anyone educated—the “simpleton” movement. In response, Leibowitz and others became bookleggers and memorizers, using the church as a means of preserving science. The story starts several generations later, when simpleton is a polite form of address to a stranger, like “sport” to a mutant. The first section is about Brother Francis and the canonization of St. Leibowitz. The middle section is set at a time secular civilization is just beginning to get science organized, a new renaissance. And the third section is set just before the new apocalypse, with a few monks escaping to the stars and God’s new promise.

I want to repeat: it’s delightful to read. It’s easy to forget just how much sheer fun it is. I thoroughly enjoyed it—even the perspective of the buzzards and the hungry shark. It’s a surprisingly positive book.

The details of the monastery are pretty good. The Catholic Church was in the process of abandoning Latin at the time he was writing, and had renounced it entirely by the time the novel was published in book form, but he has them using it. (I have no problem with this. Of course, they’d have gone back to Latin in the event of a global catastrophe. I mean, it’s obvious. I’d do the same myself.) The preservation of science and knowledge generally is very well done. I love the scientist reading a fragment of RUR and deducing from it that humanity as he knew it was a created servant race of the original masters who destroyed themselves. There’s no dark age direct equivalent of bookleggers, but that doesn’t matter.

Spoilers:

Theologically though, looking at the fantasy aspects, I find it odd. To start with, there’s the wandering Jew, who appears in the first and second parts but not in the third. In the first part he leads Brother Francis to the hidden fallout chamber. In the second he’s known as Benjamin and claims to be Lazarus, explicitly waiting for the second coming. He doesn’t appear in the third part and there’s no reference to him—has he gone to the stars? If Rachel is the messiah, he misses her. And is she? I think we’re supposed to believe she is—and I like the weirdness of it, the science-fictionality. I don’t know that it’s orthodox Catholicism—and I gather from Wikipedia that Miller was a Catholic, and was involved in bombing Monte Cassino in WWII and then thought better of it. If this is true, he certainly made something to set against that destruction.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden says that if something contains spaceships, it’s SF, unless it contains the Holy Grail, which makes it fantasy. I don’t know whether the Wandering Jew (and potentially a new female mutant messiah) counts as the Holy Grail or not in this context. There are certainly spaceships, the monks are taking off in them as the new flood of fire falls at the end of the book. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s science fiction or fantasy or both. Hugo votes have never had much problem with mysticism, and they certainly noticed that this really is a brilliant book.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

24 comments
John Ginsberg-Stevens
1. eruditeogre
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I love Miller's book and all of the questions it raises, and I find the inconsistencies as alluring to explore as the book's implications.

This for me is really fantastika, a merging of genres.
JoshWimmer
2. JoshWimmer
A great book and a wonderful reminder of it, Jo -- thank you. One note: An old beggar, Lazar or Lazarus, does appear in part three -- and if he's not the same Jew as in the previous two parts, then Miller sure is doing something confusing.
JoshWimmer
4. Neville Park
This is one of those books that gives you—gave me, anyway—an impression of what science fiction should be like. Thank you for writing about it!

The Jewish presence…the wandering Jew somewhat alienated me (I mean, how successfully can you rehabilitate a stereotype?); Leibowitz felt like the better-realized character, despite remaining offstage.

The sense of deep history Miller imparts in a relatively spare way is remarkable. Imagine how long the book would be if, say, Neal Stephenson tried it—no, on second thought, don't. (Although the mental "image" is pretty funny…)
JoshWimmer
5. xi'an101
A really deep book with a profund message. My favourite SF book, for sure (and it does not even need the SF label, it is truly one of my prefered books!)
William Uniac
6. Billiac
I re-read this one myself earlier this year, then went right into The Wild Horse Woman. Big mistake. Never has a second book made me so angry had how pale it was next to the original. I advise you all to learn from the errors of my ways and avoid it all costs!

That said, Canticle is a true classic and well worth revisiting on a regular basis.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Josh: Yes, he is mentioned as being there, but he doesn't play any part and doesn't -- as far as we can see anyway -- meet Rachel. There's no resolution.
Paul Eisenberg
8. HelmHammerhand
What a fantastic book! I too have avoided the sequel, though I nearly broke down a bought it recently. I'm glad I resisted - like Jo says, "Canticle" is nearly perfect as it is.
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn
9. montsamu
It's one of my favorite books, and one I still re-read from time to time. I was lucky to have it as assigned reading in high school literature.

Also: you really should pick up Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. It fills in a depth of detail to the interstitial space between parts 1 and 2 of Canticle, and it contains so much of Miller's marvelous prose. Things like 100+ word sentences which nonetheless are beautiful and, somehow, dryly compact.
DA Ford
10. Ford75
This book has been in my "To-Read" pile for a while now. Think it's time to move it to the top.
JoshWimmer
11. Story Cottage
A friend of mine introduced me to Canticle last year. It is a must read classic. Oh for the days of sparse, thought-provoking writing.

Also, I cannot agree with Billiac more - DO NOT READ
Saint Leibowitz and The Wild Horse Woman. While it is a follow up book, it is actually a midquel taking place between the second and third Canticle books. It fleshes out the world a bit, but I felt like it actually diminishes the original. I still can't get the bitter aftertaste of that book out of my mouth.
Matthew Schmeer
13. mwschmeer
I can't let this go without mentioning John Kannenberg's "soundtrack" for the book, a complete symphonic soundscape which is both stirring and haunting:

http://www.archive.org/details/nsh087
http://www.notype.com/nishi/releases/87/index.html
JoshWimmer
14. Dr. Thanatos
An excellent book of the "it only gets more depressing" variety.

On a personal note, I owned a dozen copies as a child. People assumed that because I was Jewish and that I liked SF this was always the perfect gift for me.
JoshWimmer
15. Raskolnikov
Mostly good, but not perfect. The second two sections are notably weaker than the first, and near the end there seems some terribly loose thinking of just how history unfolds, a crude determinism of geo-political divisions inexorably leading to nuclear war. That would have been a more common-sensical approach in the '50s, but it certainly hasn't helped the book age well. Connected with this is a general issue with worldbuilding, things that happen without proper construction. For instance, in a world with virtually no travel, how are the mutant bandits able to support themselves by waiting to ambush travelers? Why do they want gold, if they're in the position of eating people and there's no real functioning economy as such?

I wouldn't dispute that Canticle is one of the strongest science fiction books on religion, and worthwhile read. The blend of humor with post-apocalyptic bleakness is striking, and the ongoing theme of building knowledge and counter-intuitive positioning of the Church remnants is striking. A Case of Conscience was better, and I do think it's a bit too dusty and uneven around the sides to count as a classic.
JoshWimmer
16. Steven Oerkfitz
I recommend reading his short fiction also. Dark Benediction is the most recent one.
Joe Romano
17. Drunes
When anyone who doesn't read science fiction asks me for a recommendation there are two books I always mention, Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz. I seldom re-read books, but I love Leibowitz so much that I re-read it about every 10 years. It's not a perfect book, by any means, but its over-arching sense of optimism for man's future (yes, even after a nuclear holocaust) define science fiction for me.
Michael Burke
18. Ludon
I love this book.

I have to share something that happened the first time I read this one. I made the mistake of reading it the same semester that I had a Medieval art history course. The instructor gave a surprise quiz and I bombed it by confusing characters from the book with historical figures.

It's getting to be time for me to read it again.
JoshWimmer
19. afterthefallofnight
I agree with everyone who thinks this is a wonderful book. I have been reading science fiction for over 40 years and only read Canticle last year. It was one of those books that I somehow, just never seemed to get around to reading. I can't remember why I finally picked it up. I admit I expected to be disappointed but it was great read.

This is one of those books that deserves *classic* status.
William S. Higgins
20. higgins
I have always loved Brother Francis's illuminated reproduction of St. Leibowitz's circuit diagram. In 1979, I was rooming with Todd Johnson, a young electronics whiz. At a fan gathering, we met Mary Lynn Skirvin, a talented artist. I was intrigued to learn that she knew how to do calligraphy.

"Wouldn't it be cool," I told Todd, "if Mary Lynn could draw the circuit diagram from A Canticle for Leibowitz?"

Todd provided a plausible diagram for Transistorized Control System for Unit 6-B-- some kind of servo driver, if memory serves. I dug out the book and loaned it to Mary Lynn, who hadn't yet read it.

The result was wonderful. Vines grow up the wires. Hovering cherubs unroll blueprints. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost gaze benignly upon the Schmitt Modulator. St. Leibowitz himself, carrying a bundle of smuggled books, raises his hand in blessing. Radiation symbols and resistor color codes serve as decoration.

Mary Lynn made 600 prints and, over the years, she sold them all to delighted members of the technoculture. Her diagram hung over many a workbench, many a computer terminal.

I have Print Number One on my own wall.

The original she gave to the man she loved.

When Mary Lynn married Todd, I was their best man. Saint Leibowitz must have interceded, for they are still making amazing art together.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Bill, that is literally awesome. I'd like to see that next time I'm in Chicago.
JoshWimmer
22. Larry J Lennhoff
I loved Canticle, until I read Steve Simmon's Usenet review and discovered I had missed the entire point of the book. Then I got to love it all over again. This is one of my favorite reviews of all time - I don't think I've ever had my understanding of book increased so much by a review.
JoshWimmer
24. Patricia Mathews
Yes, it's a classic. Loved the snarky comment about the length Neil Stephenson would have turned this in at, since I also own a much-read copy of the book in which he did exactly that, quite recently. Which also gives you a long, long view on cyclical crashes of civilization and recovery. (Arbre being back to the technology of about our year 2000, but visibly undergoing an unraveling, recession, and Heinlein's 2012 election of Nehemiah Scudder.)

As for bookleggers in the Dark Ages - I also own and love a copy of Thomas Cahill's lovely bit of special pleading, "How the Irish Saved Civilization."

As for no Dark Ages equivalent of the bookleggers -
JoshWimmer
25. thewanderingcashew
Dude, the Wandering Jew is in Fiat Voluntas Tua. He's the strange old man at the table, whom Zerchi goes over to personally meet, because he seemed so familiar.
JoshWimmer
26. Afalstein
Someone has mentioned already that actually, the Jew is in the third part also, as the cynically smilng old man that Zerichi meets. Given that he seems to be immortal--as the Wandering Jew of legend certainly is--I don't think he dies. That's part of his curse, he has to wander and can't die.

He's not waiting for Rachel, though. He's waiting for a... connector of sorts, a person to mesh science and religion, to join both the knowledge and the responsibility to use it. That's why he's so excited about Thon Thadeo, but becomes disappointed once he realizes that he, too, will simply give his knowledge to the politicians.

Rachel is a messianic figure, though, perhaps the Holy Grail. She's a child birthed by calamity, but more importantly, a child not technically "born" at all. She's not subject to original sin at all, and thus she's a sort of new "perfect" humanity free from sin. Some of Walter Miller's other work reflects this idea. It's not traditional Catholicism, but it is a sort of Christian humanism.
JoshWimmer
27. Reed1265
Yes, the Wandering Jew appears in "Fiat Voluntas Tua," but not only at the beggar's table in the refectory scene. Look carefully at the imagery and details when Br. Joshua (a Christ figure - consider his name and hair color - and a parallel to Leibowitz - consider his profession) prays in the graden, asking for a sign. He hears a "slithering," feels a "touch," and then nothing. From Chapter 1, Bejamin is associated with "snake" imagery. The Wandering Jew has found in Br. Joshua the one he was waiting for - the Integrator, the one who will very soon ascend into the heavens. There is resolution. At least, more than 40 years of reading and teaching this book have led me to these conclusions.

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