Matt’s Reviews: A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Book Cover: A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Publisher:             PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Publication date:  02/01/1961

Book Pages:        368

ISBN:                   9780553273816

Copyright Year:  1959

Author:                Walter M. Miller, Jr.

 

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. was originally published in 1959, based on three shorter stories previously published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The book is a Hugo Award winner (1961) and one of those few classics of Science Fiction Literature that I found a way not to read until now.
The book is set (mostly) in a Catholic Monastery, The Abby of the Blessed (Saint) Leibowitz, in the Southwestern United States some centuries after a nuclear war. After the war that killed so much of humanity, the remaining populace rose up against the technical and scientific community to the point that they embraced illiteracy and destroyed whatever documents and other materials they could find. Leibowitz was an engineer who made it his calling to try to retrieve and protect whatever information (books, etc.) from the ‘simpletons’ who were trying to destroy all learning.
The Abby was formed as a place to gather and protect this ‘memorabilia’ from the earlier times until such time as it might be used to help bring the world out of its new dark ages. The book takes place a few hundred years after the ‘fire deluge’ of war and continues on in three main story lines each taking place a few hundred years after the previous one.
The first centers around a young novitiate who stumbles upon an old bomb shelter that appears to house some of the original documents from Leibowitz.
In the second story line, the world is just beginning to emerge from the dark ages and scientific ‘discoveries’ are being made. One of the leading scientists of the time travels to the monastery to review the available documentation and some of the monks other works.  This helps to jump start the fledgling scientific community.
In the final story line, science has progressed to the point that it is on a par with, or beyond, where the world was before the original nuclear war.
Miller does an amazing job of world building in all three story lines. He relies heavily on Catholic traditions when dealing with the residents of the Abby, even to the point of including large amounts of Latin text for church ceremonies, etc. I do not speak Latin, but the passages are either translated or understandable from the context of the stories. I was raised Catholic and after twelve years of indoctrination in that religion, the ceremonies and attitudes of the characters rang true to me. I could definitely see a world such as this evolving from the circumstances.
Often stories from the mid-20th century seem dated and stuck in the 1950’s morality and society. Miller makes his story more timeless by giving it almost a 10th century societal feel. It feels almost as an allegory for Europe after the fall of Rome and the black plague and before the Renaissance.  Much of humanity has been lost, most of humanity is illiterate and struggling just to survive and the church is one of the few places where learning and information and literacy are preserved. Perhaps also like that time, the information is not necessarily understood by the preservers, but they manage it as a duty rather than as a source of education.
As I said before, I was raised in the Catholic religion so this universe was something I could understand and slip into fairly easily. I think just about anyone will enjoy this book, but it might take a little more energy to understand the mindset of some of the characters along the way for folks without the religious indoctrination in their past. It’s a classic story and worth the effort you might need to make to immerse yourself in this world.
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Book Cover: Plastivore by Matt Truxaw

 

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