Published during the height of the Cold War, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. imagines the U.S. after nuclear devastation. Learning is feared and punished, defended only by small groups of religious brethren in the wilderness. Grotesque deformities, the results of radiation poisoning, are common. Set in the “wild west,” the book follows a monastery dedicated to St. Leibowitz, a martyr for knowledge. In the first third of the book, an innocent postulate stumbles upon a treasure-trove of Leibowitz’ writings. In the second third, set decades later, New Rome sends scholars to study the scientific work being done at the monastery. In the third and most powerful section, the monastery reacts to the renewal of nuclear hostilities.
I found the disconnect between the three parts of the book fairly disconcerting. Miller did publish the sections separately before he pulled them together into a book, and I wasn’t surprised to discover that. The second section was the most difficult for me—it seemed over-long and a bit pointless. The first section was entertaining and quite funny. The third section, however, really makes the book worth reading as it wrestles with theology, ethics, and suffering. This isn’t really a character-driven book; since decades pass between the three sections, each section has to establish brand-new characters, with the exception of the Wandering Jew character who pops in and out of the story.
Miller writes with a good deal of humor, which doesn’t quite mask a real fear of what humans can and may do to one another. I’m not sure if the book was written primarily as a cautionary tale, but it certainly serves that purpose. I was also impressed by the theology included in the book; apparently Miller converted to Catholicism; here he writes thoughtfully and well about faith. Ironically and tragically, Miller later committed suicide. The book has been marketed as science fiction; it would be a shame, though, to limit its readership to science fiction fans. Since the post-Apocalypse genre seems to be making somewhat of a comeback, anyone interested in questions of faith, ethics, the value of learning, and the nature of humanity should read the book.