Classic Geek Lit: A Canticle For Leibowitz

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Geek culture is huge these days, but it certainly isn’t anything new.  Foundations were laid in the past and many times those foundations are worth a look of their own.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Walter M. Miller Jr’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.  Some SPOILERS after the cut for a novel that is over half a century old.

Miller’s novel is perhaps one more of ideas than plot.  To be sure, there is a plot.  To be specific, there are in a sense of three of them.  Miller divided his text into three distinct sections, each with a Latin title:  “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man.”),  “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light.”), and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let they will be done.”).  Each section ends with the death of a prominent character, while a glimpse into nearby animals implies that no matter what humanity does, life on Earth goes on.

Each section is set in a different time period with a different monk as a protagonist.  Twice the monk is the abbot.  In the first section, the protagonist is a novice.  Each section corresponds roughly with a post nuclear war Dark Ages, Renaissance, and an advanced technological setting respectively.

The monks all belong to the Order of St. Leibowitz.  Leibowitz, actually implied to be Jewish, was a scientist of some sort in a period before a nuclear war had almost wiped out the human race.  At the time of the first section, Leibowitz has been dead and gone for ages.  Paperwork of his is found in an old bunker near the monastery that include some electrical blueprints.  Gradually, with help from these documents, called the Memorabilia, humanity digs itself out of its post fallout squalor and goes beyond what existed before…only to have history seem to repeat itself.

That’s the overall theme of the book.   History repeats itself.  Great civilizations rise and fall, leaving devastation in their wake when they collapse, but humanity keeps finding a way to survive.  One constant is the Church.  Now, despite the fact the protagonists are, by and large, Catholic monks, Miller’s book is not what I would call a pro-Catholic work, since many monks featured in the book are hardly saints.  Indeed, the ethical argument between one abbot and a lay doctor on the subject of euthanasia could easily point out weaknesses in Church dogma depending on the reader’s point of view.

Likewise, there is a strong respect for the Jewish faith in the book.  Leibowitz himself, as stated above, appears to be Jewish.  Each section features an old man who may or may not always be the same man.  In the second and third section, the man is undeniably Jewish.  Most prominently featured in the second section under the name of Benjamin, the man claims to be hundreds or alternately thousands of years old, and tells a story that suggests he could be the old man from the first section.  The old man character appears only briefly in the final section, claiming his name is Lazarus.  Miller keeps his work vague enough that the reader could infer that the old man is always the same man evoking the myth of the Wandering Jew, a different man where insanity is a possibility, or even in some readings Leibowitz himself.  Miller never says.  Likewise, the final visions of the last section could all be illusions brought on by a dying man’s frantic mind or legitimate miraculous moments occurring at what could be the end of most life on Earth.

And given the length of the novel (mine was under 300 pages), there may not be much of a chance to really get to know many of Miller’s characters.  Instead, we’re left with a book of ideas on the nature of power, politics, religion, science, and civilization.  I’m actually not sure what to say about the book without potentially spoiling it for the uninitiated.  It really is more of a book of ideas than of plot, but the ideas are big ones that science fiction has been exploring since its inception and will continue to explore for some time to come.

Let’s say, seven mushroom clouds out of ten.

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