13 May 2012

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
1961 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Hardcover from my library
320 Pages

Their freshly painted signs read:


Centuries after nuclear holocaust devastates the entire globe, humanity is still trying to recuperate.  When A Canticle for Leibowitz begins, we are struggling through a second Dark Age.   Much like the original Dark Ages, it is the monks and priests who are preserving what intellectual and scientific remnants are left.  While secular knowledge and social structures have diminished, the Church remains.

Brother Francis is an unassuming novice in an order occupying the desert southwest, lobbying for the canonization of the beatified Leibowitz of the ancient times and after uncovering a relic of Leibowitz’s own hands, finds himself in a pivotal role that he’s not sure he can fulfill.  The rest of the book takes leaps and bounds through millennia of this post-apocalyptic world from the second dark ages to another enlightenment and then space age.

Enter the Dungeon
My copy began with an introduction by Norman Spinrad which told of Miller’s conversion to Catholicism after taking part in a mission to bomb a monastery in WWII.  I found this history and his conception of the book as a kind of replay of the historical dialogue of science and reason with faith to be mostly in the ball park and in that way helpful in placing a fairly dense novel within a familiar context.  Spinrad’s explanation I think does a pretty good job of picking out those major themes which made this book so great in the 1960's and why it is still relevant today.  Also it’s a gigantically huge spoiler and was yet another example of the type of introduction which might be better placed at the end of the book.  Let me have my take and then I’ll listen to yours!

Personally, most poignant to me was the abbots and other monastic leaders.  Their attitudes were not quite expected for religious leaders and teachers and their responses to some of the tough questions were so human and so desperate that it hurt!  These men had absolute faith in God and their vocation and had spent their entire lives in study of religious doctrines.  The absurdity (in the existential sense) of humanity knows no bounds though and their exasperation and frustration oozed from the pages of the book.  I actually have a jar of it on my desk.  I canned it.

Actually, there is so much about this book that I wanted to talk about this week, but to try to hit everything that was as great as the personal demons of a post-apocalyptic monastery would be impossible and probably less fun than just reading the book.  The analogy of the onion and it’s layers is a trite one, and in this case not quite accurate enough.  ACL is like a spiraling staircase through some dark, wet and musty torture chamber of theological and spiritual quandaries.  I guess you could say that it was a lot like an onion in that it is really good for you (exploring your spirituality can be healthy :-) ) and also has the potential to make your eyes water.  But really though, what makes this book great is the depth and many levels of meaning and significance.

Fool me twice – shame on me
If you look at the line-up of the Hugo winners between 1958 and 1966 only 2 or 3 of those titles don’t include or center on war or a post-apocalyptic dystopia.   That includes ACL.  Certainly, these are all very distinct novels but reading though this time period I find myself hoping for something that will stand out from the crowd.  While I wouldn’t say this was the best of the Hugo Winners from that period, I will say that the dystopia of ACL is the most philosophically intriquing/depressing and in that way makes a name for itself. 

…“Brothers, let us not assume that there is going to be war.  Let’s remind ourselves that Lucifer has been with us—this time—for nearly two centuries.  And was dropped only twice, in sizes smaller than megaton.  We all know what could happen, if there’s war.  The genetic festering is still with us from the last time Man tried to eradicate himself.  Back then, in the Saint Leibowitz’ time, maybe they didn’t know what would happen.  Or perhaps they did know, but could not quite believe it until they tried it—like a child who knows what a loaded pistol is supposed to do but who never pulled a trigger before.  They had not yet seen a billion corpses.  They had not seen the still-born, the monstrous, the dehumanized, the blind.  They had not yet seen the madness and the murder and the blotting out of reason.  Then they did it, and then they saw it.
“Now—now the princes, the presidents, the praesidiums, not they know—with dead certainty.  They can know it by the children they beget and send to asylums for the deformed.  They know it, and they’ve kept the peace.  Not Christ’s peace, certainly, but peace, until lately—with only two warlike incidents in as many centuries.  Now they have the bitter certainty.  My sons, they cannot do it again.  Only a race of madmen could do it again—”
Chapter 25

So hard to watch :-(
Even outside of SF, The Bomb has featured prominently in literature, especially during this time and Nuclear Holocaust is always frightening.  To this day, the movies that haunt me most thoroughly are Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen (these movies literally make me want to just die).  ACL is right up there with the best of them for creating a sense of despair about pending apocalypse, human frailty and disappointment about the bleakness of the human condition in general.

Where ACL goes above and beyond though is in the notion that after recovering from a world-wide nuclear holocaust that brought the entire planet back to the Dark Ages, the very same threat, looms again.  Is there no hope for humanity?  I can’t explain well enough to you the potency of the anxiety that this book gave me at times.   Definitely on par with people melting in Barefoot Gen.

If this is your sub-genre, you need to be reading this.  The book is split into three parts and while I’m not sure they’re as cohesive as I’d like them to be, they also can’t really exist on their own.  Kinda strange.  The first and third parts are really great and the middle was  a little tough, but for those that like the post-nuclear holocaust literature.  This is for you.  Deep, dense and dark.  The Three D’s – the essentials!  Oh, I’m gonna use that again…  I should also mention that the theological quandaries throughout the entire book are great and if that floats your boat than this one is for you too.  It's one of those stories that grows and grows and grows on you.

Oh, and since I mentioned a couple of movies (Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen), make sure to see these two if you haven’t already.  I think they are two of the best anti-war films in the history of cinema.  Hands down.  Fair warning though, they will ruin you.  Check this terribly graphic clip from Barefoot Gen if you can handle it.  It will be the most unsettling thing you will ever see in your life.


Universe 3/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 3/5
Scientific Wonders 4/5 (A lady with two heads anyone?)
Characters 4/5 (Brother Francis was GREAT!)

Overall 19/25

The roll of the die
This week’s book is Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.  Though I’ve only read one Zelazny title, I am a pretty huge fan.  Excitement is building folks.

Next week’s book is Way Station by Clifford Simak.  Simak is one of the grandmasters of Science Fiction.  This will review will also get posted to the GMRC review challenge so that’s wuts up.


  1. I read this back when I was in college, and I remember liking it, but I think at the time I was too young to get it.

    Should really give it a try again, thanks for putting it back on my radar!

  2. This is one of those books that keeps coming back to me at odd times, years after I read it. Sure, it may be too dense for some people to get through, and the constant Latin quotes are a put off to others (I'm told), but I always recommend it to people who want to get into sci-fi, but aren't too keen on aliens and ray-guns.

    1. Yeah, I'm having the same experience. This one pops into my head pretty frequently. Looking at the HEP score now makes me think I undervalued a great one.


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