Home > Books > Walter M. Miller Jr – A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

Walter M. Miller Jr – A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

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After a nuclear apocalypse, Catholic monks are Earth’s only hope for rebuilding a technological civilization in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Well, not really, since humanity eventually recovers, but you get the idea. The subject matter, along with my recent reading, does mean I have trouble not comparing this one to recent Neal Stephenson (and it’s always possible there was a direct influence). However, since Miller’s work predates what I have in mind by about 50 years…

This book is organized into three short novellas, each separated by hundreds of years, and each one was initially published separately. Emphasis is ultimately placed on the Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz, holed up somewhere around what was once Utah and dedicated both to spreading Catholicism and preserving technological knowledge from before the apocalypse. We get a few glimpses into the progress of the outside world as well, from the restored Catholic Church in New Rome, to the nomadic hordes of the Great Plains, to hints of what’s been going on in Eurasia since the war. The actual worldbuilding is fairly light, but if someone devoted enough (and insane) wanted to flesh the settings out, there’s more than enough to get started.

Despite this, it’s actually the later sections of the book that pay off most effectively. The first section of the book (“Fiat Homo”) is honestly kind of a slog. The main character of this section spends much of his time fasting or fretting in a desert landscape that is apparently still overrun with mutants and reactionaries before eventually devoting himself to a megaproject involving a fortuitous find in a nuclear fallout shelter. By the eras of later sections, though, the Order of Saint Leibowitz interacts more with the world Miller has built in the distance, as their goals of spreading knowledge and piety come into conflict with temporal powers. By those points in the book, it might simply be a matter of the subject matter appealing more to my interests; if you’ve been reading my scattered book reviews (and reading some of my literature), you’ll know that I’m something of a history nerd and understand why I latched onto the parts of the book I did.

Needless to say, this book deserves its status as a classic of the genre, at least for the latter half, which gets quite poignant at times, especially in the climax of the third section. To explain why would spoil it, but the buildup to that point is worth your time as a reader. This isn’t something I can say about much media; never underestimate the power of a poor beginning to sour an entire experience, although I would argue that the alternative (a strong introduction that leads to a weak conclusion) is more depressing in the long run.

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