In Service to God and Science: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Occasionally in the annals of science fiction, there have been books that broke out of the confines of the science fiction genre and gained the attention of a wider audience and respect from mainstream critics. One of these books is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s touching tale A Canticle for Leibowitz. It is a beautifully written story that takes a dark view of humanity, but has at its center a lot of heart and hope.

Sometimes I pick up a book that for some reason defeated me in my younger days in order to give it another try, especially when that book is critically acclaimed, and something I feel a well-rounded person should read. I gave A Canticle for Leibowitz a couple of chances in my younger days, but never got past the first 20 or 30 pages. I think that had something to do with how subdued and introspective the narrative is. Compared to another book I dearly loved back in those days, Sterling E. Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey (which I reviewed here), A Canticle for Leibowitz has little in the way of action and adventure. The protagonist of Hiero’s Journey is a post-apocalyptic warrior priest with telepathic powers and a machete who rides a giant moose into battle, and because the church had given up on the whole celibacy thing, is able to rescue and woo a beautiful young princess. Next to Hiero, A Canticle for Leibowitz’s timid and humble Brother Francis, though also a post-apocalyptic religious figure, never had a chance.

I also think my lack of understanding of the Catholic faith and monastic life also held me back from enjoying the book on my first attempts. I had an aunt who had converted to Catholicism and become a nun, spending her life working in the public works departments of a variety of Catholic hospitals. But despite the example of her life of faith, and her patient explanations of Catholic beliefs, my youthful mind could simply not wrap itself around the concept of life as a monk.

The copy I’m reviewing is a first-edition Bantam Books paperback copy published in 1961, which does not anywhere on the cover use the words “science fiction,” and touts the book as being “In the great tradition of Brave New World and 1984…” In other words, a serious book—not like those juvenile space operas the kids love. To prove how serious the subject matter is, the cover (uncredited, but reminding me of the work of artists like Paul Lehr and John Schoenherr), portrays a hooded monk on a reddish post-apocalyptic background, holding a piece of paper. Definitely not space cadet stuff.

I’m not sure the copy I read is the copy I attempted to read as a youth, or if I bought it at a used book shop sometime over the years. But it has been in my possession long enough for me to have forgotten where I acquired it. I’m pretty sure the gap between my first attempt, and my recently completed reading of the whole thing, covers about fifty years, making this a book that stayed in the To-Be-Read pile for quite a while (and in case you missed it, you can find a fun recent article and discussion on TBR piles here).


About the Author

Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1923-1996) was a rather prolific science fiction author in the middle of the 20th century. An engineer and World War II veteran, his stories were known for their technical detail, but they also often featured Judeo-Christian themes. Though he published a number of short stories, his work beyond A Canticle for Leibowitz is not as widely known, probably because at the age of 36, at the height of his career, he stopped publishing fiction. He apparently struggled with depression in his later years, and died by his own hand.

A Canticle for Leibowitz first appeared in installments from April 1955 to February 1957 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and was published as a “fix-up” novel in 1960. It won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1961. A parallel novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman—set in the same world but taking place between some of the events of the original novel—was left unfinished at Miller’s death, completed by Terry Bisson, and published in 1997.

Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th Century, you can find a number of Miller’s stories on Project Gutenberg.


Religion in Science Fiction

Reading Analog magazine as a teenager in the late 1960s, it seemed to me that most science fiction writers must be agnostics who expected humanity to outgrow the superstitions of religion—but I suspect that has more to do with the editorial influence of John W. Campbell than anything else. One exception to that general rule was the serial publication of the story that became the novel Dune. I suspect its inclusion in Analog had less to do with the many mythic and religious overtones of the story, and more on the fact the story centered on paranormal powers, a favorite topic of Campbell’s.

Other magazines frequently published stories featuring religious themes, often with premises and ideas that a young and sheltered Christian like me found unsettling. One was Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star, a tale where (spoiler ahead…) scientists found that the nova that created the Christmas star had destroyed an alien civilization. And even more unsettling was the book Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock, which centered on (more spoilers ahead…) a time traveler finding that the central tenets of Christianity were wrong, and taking it upon himself to lay the foundations of the modern religion. Much more comfortable because of its engaging protagonist, and enlightening in its introduction of concepts from other religions, was Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I remember several stories from Robert A. Heinlein that touched on religious topics, including “If This Goes On—”, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Job: A Comedy of Justice.

And there were lots of short stories in the magazines and anthologies involving alien religions, aliens with godlike powers, humans mistaken for gods, religious allegories, and mythical subtexts. Over the years, science fiction exposed me to all sorts of religious, spiritualist, humanist, and atheist philosophies and worldviews. In the end, I’m glad for that exposure to all the different ideas, and I’ve found that instead of undermining my faith, being exposed to all the diversity of ideas has had a positive impact on me.

This summary of the topic has an admittedly personal slant to it, so for a broader view, I would refer you to an excellent article on the theme of religion in science fiction at the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which can be found here.


A Canticle for Leibowitz

The book opens with young Brother Francis Gerard standing a vigil in the Utah desert. He is a monk in the Order of Leibowitz, named for the founder of his abbey. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, there was a period called the Simplification in which the survivors turned on leaders and learned people, whose efforts they thought had led to the destruction. When Leibowitz was not able to find his wife in the aftermath of the war, he dedicated his life to collecting books before they could be destroyed by the Simpletons, and copying those books to preserve their knowledge. (A practice reminiscent of Irish monks in the Dark Ages, who did the same thing with works from classical antiquity.) Francis encounters an ancient wanderer, who believes himself to be the Wandering Jew—a figure from legend who taunted Christ, and is cursed to walk the Earth until Christ comes again. The wanderer leads Francis to the door of an ancient bomb shelter, where Francis finds documents apparently owned by Leibowitz himself, and remains that might be those of Leibowitz’s missing wife.

Perversely, Abbot Arkos is afraid that this trove of relics, being found just as Leibowitz is being considered for canonization, might actually delay that process as the Church takes time to verify them. Rather than being celebrated for his discovery, Francis is sent back to his vigil. But in the end, after Monsignors designated as God’s Advocate and Devil’s Advocate visit the abbey, their patron is indeed canonized. The faithful Francis, who had spent the past few years producing an illuminated copy of one of Leibowitz’s blueprints, is chosen to represent the abbey and the Order at the canonization mass in New Rome. His journey, however, is fraught with danger, and the book takes a rather jarring jump centuries into the future. We realize that the story is not about individuals, but is instead about the monastery and the Order of Leibowitz. The one continuing character is the ancient wanderer (or perhaps his successor), who appears in every era of the book. And, touchingly, in each era, Brother Francis is remembered for his devotion and piety.

In this new era, nations are beginning to expand and consolidate their territories. Learned men are no longer despised, and one of them, Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, comes to examine the works the monks have preserved. He is shocked to find that the monks, led by the clever Brother Kornhoer, have built a primitive electrical arc light based on the writings they have preserved. It is a time of political turmoil, and while there are those who would like to turn the monastery into a fortress and military base, the monastery survives.

The narrative then jumps ahead centuries further into the future, and we find ourselves in another era, where great power competition has brought the resurgent world civilization to the brink of another atomic war, and men travel to the stars. The abbot, Zerchi, must contend with the continuing challenges of preserving the Order, government programs that conflict with the faith, and ministering to people still suffering from the radiation left after the last atomic war. Abbot Zerchi designates a team of monks, led by Brother Joshua, to take the Order’s relics and knowledge, and the teachings of the Church, to human colonies on other planets. As another atomic war begins, the book ends with a touching scene that a cynic might call a hallucination, and the faithful might call a vision or miracle, which implies that God is not finished with mankind.

The book wanders from century to century, and viewpoint to viewpoint, and the picture it paints of mankind in the future feels real and lived in. The narrative is at times almost poetical, and rich in allegory. The faith and the dedication of the Order of Leibowitz, in the face of constant reminders of the fallibility and evils of mankind, is inspiring. In the end, I found the book that had defeated me in my youth to be quite wonderful.


Final Thoughts

While there is some action and adventure in this book, it is not in the foreground. Even the individual characters fall into the background as the book follows the grand sweep of history. The tale is pessimistic about humanity in general, but hopeful that, even during our darkest moments, people will still do their duty and find courage and hope in their faiths. I found it slow as a kid, but I loved it as an adult, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a thoughtful reading experience.

And I’d like to hear from you: Have you read A Canticle for Leibowitz? If so, what did you think? And what other books with religious themes might you recommend to other readers? [And please, in your comments, be respectful of the diversity of beliefs others might hold, no matter how different they are from your own.]

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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