Saturday, February 14, 2009

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten feast in the desert. Never before had Brother Francis actually seen a pilgrim with girded loins, but that this one was the bona fide article he was convinced as soon as he had recovered from the spine-chilling effect of the pilgrim’s advent on the far horizon, as a wiggling iota of black caught in shimmering haze of heat.”

Thus begins the first section, “Fiat Homo,” or “Let there be Man,” of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s classic science-fiction tale “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” first published in 1960. After winning the Hugo Award in 1961 and a flurry of subsequent honors it went through several printings and has never been out of print – for almost 50 years. Miller’s vision of a world torn asunder by nuclear war and embroiled in a struggle between the forces of religion and science is as relevant for our time as it was at the height of the Cold War when it was first published.

Brother Francis is a monk in the Order of St. Leibowitz, a monastery in a ruined southwestern desert six centuries after humankind has nearly, but not quite, blown itself from the face of the earth in a nuclear holocaust. The monks of the Leibowitz order have devoted themselves to preservation of “The Memorabilia,” scraps of documents preserved for centuries and pointing to the existence of a once-great civilization which had apparently existed prior to The Simplification. This purge had targeted those the masses held responsible for the destruction of the earth—namely scientists, engineers and other learned folk.

As Francis gazes upon the holy relics the John-the-Baptist-like figure has just led him to, he murmurs, hands trembling, afraid his shaking will destroy the fragile fragments of paper, “Beate Leibowitz, ora pro me!” First there is the Holy Circuit Design attributed to one I. E. Leibowitz. Next is the Holy Shopping List: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” The relics Francis holds in his violently-trembling hand appear to be written in the blessed Leibowitz’ own handwriting.

The pages which Francis has just discovered will be added to The Memorabilia and incorporated into the litanies and rituals of the monastery: “From the place of ground zero, O Lord, deliver us; From the rain of the cobalt, O Lord, deliver us…From the curse of the Fallout, O Lord deliver us.” The monks will work tirelessly to translate and understand the Leibowitz documents they have so lovingly protected until, one day, centuries later, in a story recounted in the book’s second section, “Fiat Lux,” or “Let there be Light,” they manage to re-invent the electric lightbulb. News of their discovery spreads to the surrounding world, struggling its way back to civilization, and to one Thon Taddeo, Scientist.

The novel is engaging, funny, horrifying, entertaining and deeply profound. I was in tears after the account of the first meeting between the Thon and the monastery’s current Abbot. The Abbot greets the visiting scholar: “’Welcome in the name of Saint Leibowitz, Thon Taddeo. Welcome in the name of his abbey, in the name of forty generations who’ve waited for you to come. Be at home. We serve you.’…For a moment his glance locked with the scholar’s. He felt the warmth quickly fade. Those icy eyes—cold and searching gray. Skeptical, hungry, and proud. They studied him as one might study a lifeless curio.” It turns out that the Thon is not so much angry that the monks have worked for centuries to preserve the beatified Jewish engineer’s knowledge but that they have beat the Thon, a real scientist, to the discovery he has long sought. Scientists, it seems, have not changed much in this imagined future world.

The final section of the book, “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” or “Thy Will be Done,” haunted me for weeks after finishing the book. The savior of the world that emerges in this last section will surprise and, perhaps, horrify you. It will certainly give you much to think about as Miller forces us to ponder what makes us human, what it is about Life that impels itself into existence and where God might be in all of this. “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” is fully deserving of its three-time designation as the best science-fiction novel of all time. It is, in short, a masterpiece, and one fully relevant to our own turbulent time.


  1. It's been years since I read it, and I don't remember many of the details, but I get the shivers just thinking about it. It was one of the most disturbing science fiction books I ever read.

  2. Thanks for your comment, David. And I totally agree - a haunting story that sticks with you for a long, long time.

  3. I just finished the book, mostly to see what the fuss was about. Far from being the "best science fiction of all time", it really let me down. I think this book mainly just plays to your interest in monastic culture. Maybe it was new and relevant back when the book was written, but a nuclear holocaust just doesn't do much for me. After a juicy epic adventure like "Anathem", this just sort of leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Fatalist and preachy to the end.

    After they fumbled the true purpose of Liebowitz so badly (to preserve science and technology for humanity) how are we supposed to accept that they got the teachings of Christ right? I kept hoping they'd let Francis go inspect what he had found, but basically the church wasted his life on purpose. The only person with any character or backbone was the insane drunk poet. Who were we supposed to be rooting for?

    1. It's just a story. Signifying nothing. Choose (or fabricate) a meaning. Or not. :)

  4. (Late I know ☺) The book remains one of my favorite science fiction novels for its stylistic economy, humor, and ambition. Miller deftly creates an epic story from non-heroic just trying to survive characters. I enjoyed Canticle so much that when I saw it at I bought it agaain. My only regret is the follow up book was so ordinary.

  5. a haunting story that sticks with you for a long, long time. - I have to read this