“But there was in that time a man whose name was Leibowitz, who, in his youth like the holy Augustine, had loved the wisdom of the world more than the wisdom of God. But now seeing that great knowledge, while good, had not saved the world, he turned in penance to the Lord.”
Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is basically three interconnected novellas that jump six hundred years in time between each story. The constants between the three are a Catholic monastic order called the Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz (well, sort of–Leibowitz isn’t actually canonized until the end of section one), a “Wandering Jew” character, the theme of cyclical history, and the tension between church and state. ACFL is Miller’s only novel…again, sort of. He did work for years on a sequel to ACFL called Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, but he committed suicide before finishing it. That book is in publication, however, because Terry Bisson completed the novel for him. I still haven’t read it. Anyone else?
The philosophical undercurrent of ACFL is that there are cyclical patterns in human society. The novel begins six hundred years after a massive nuclear war, which is referred to as the “Flame Deluge.” Human society has returned to a period akin to the early Middle Ages. Most knowledge has been lost or forgotten, in part because of a violent rebellion against learning and the learned in the period of “Simplification” that followed near nuclear annihilation. Scientists were lynched, books were burned, and the Catholic Church became a refuge to those persecuted. One of those refugees was an engineer named I.E. Leibowitz, a Jewish scientist who converted to the religion after the “Flame Deluge.” Leibowitz went on to start his own order, named in part for Albertus Magnus, a 13th-century saint associated with science. Leibowitz’s Order took to smuggling books (“booklegging”) and hiding them in the desert. Others in the Order put books to memory (a la Fahrenheit 451) or copied them. Leibowitz himself was martyred for the cause. And now six hundred years later, books are still being copied and knowledge is still being preserved by this Order at an abbey located in the desert. Among these monastics is a sympathetic, if not all that bright, character named Brother Francis Gerard of Utah, who unwittingly discovers the cache of a lifetime…a store of Leibowitz’s writings, as well as mechanical blueprints, in a fallout shelter revealed to him by a Jewish pilgrim (perhaps Leibowitz himself?). A lengthy period of authentification follows, and Francis finds himself a key player in the safety of the documents.
Six hundred years later, in section two, a Renaissance period is unfolding, and the Order is still a major center of knowledge. But now the secular world has turned to the Order for its holdings. In particular, a well-connected scholar named Thon Taddeo comes to the Leibowitz abbey to examine the documents Brother Francis found and discern their wealth. This situation does not come without its tension and repercussions for scientific and societal advancement.
And finally, after another six hundred years has passed, section three takes place in a time when the world has advanced to the point of interstellar travel, and off-Earth colonies have been formed. But a Cold War is in place, and the tension between humanity’s two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy, is beginning to escalate. The Church begins to make plans for the worst-case scenario by assembling a team of capable believers, clergy, and monastics that will take a microfilm copy of “the Memorabilia” (the collection of writings and documents from St. Francis’ find) safely off planet.
While clearly a positive portrayal of the Catholic Church (and it’s unusual for sf literature from this time being positive about religion at all), there are few moments of outright apologism in the book. Though perhaps the most blatant comes in the third section when the Abbot of the Leibowitz abbey physically advances the belief that euthanasia for nuclear fallout victims is abominable. And as for myself, I find the suggestion that the Catholic Church is a vessel of scientific knowledge–whether in the future or the real past of the Middle Ages and Western Renaissance–more complex than Miller portrays in this novel. Nonetheless, this is one of the great books of speculative fiction–I believe this is the fourth time I’ve read it–and it deserves to be read by everyone. Everyone! So get to it.
Should be in print for a long, long time to come.
PS There’s a couple of good guides to the Latin found in the book. Here’s one.