Review of “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter Miller

It is amazing that I have not read A Canticle for Leibowitz until recently. I enjoy classic Science Fiction, and Canticle won the Hugo Award in 1961 (placing it between 1960’s Starship Troopers and 1962’s Stranger in a Strange Land). I enjoy reading about the Dark Ages (Before France and Germany and Muhammad and Charlemagne being two of my favorite histories), and this is a retelling of the rise of Europe from the Dark Ages to the modern era. I’ve had tremendous luck with books recommended to me by my favorite high school teachers (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Quinn’s Ishmael, etc.), but I ignored this recommendation.

But I’m glad I read it now. What a book!.

Canticle can be thought of as a play on a Latin phrase that appears in Chapter 26, in the section “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Thy Will Be Done):

Reminiscentur et convertentur ad Dominum universi fines terrae. Et adorabunt in conspectu universae familiae gentium. Quoniam Domini est regnum; et ipse dominabitur…

Which is translated as:

All the ends of the earth shall remember, and shall be converted to the Lord: And all the kindreds of the Gentiles shall adore in his sight. For the kingdom is the Lord’s; and he shall have dominion

Canticle takes place largely in the American southwest, and primarily at four different times: following the collapse of literate society after a nuclear war, later, during the redawn of science, and still later, in a technological society. The fourth time is our own, expressed largely in the notes and recollections of “Leibowitz,” an electrical engineer whose writings are rediscovered in the first pages of the book.

Miller has a unique gift for building empathy for characters who are very different from the reader. In the first chapter a monk discovers a “Fallout Shelter,” with a maximum capacity of 50. After slowly reading the inscription, he is terrified: everyone knows that “Fallouts” were dragon-like incubi (because they were born in fire, and lead to deformed children), so this must have been a home to 50 of them! Throughout the book an inventor, a scholar, and many others are introduced to the reader, and always with humanizing descriptions and writing.

Miller’s view of the relationship with science and religion is wry. In one scene monks (who have read St. Augustine) ask a visiting scholar if it is possible that humans had evolved from earlier creatures, in accordance with Augustine’s theory of natural development. That is impossible, the scientists retorts — the oldest surviving pieces of paper describe a world merely centuries old! (It’s implied the most ancient physical manuscripts is an awful science fiction story about a robot uprising!)

Canticle is hard science fiction with epistemological, scientific, and religious overtones. An amazing book, I received my copy from a friend, and quickly mailed it to my brother. This is one of those books you “can’t put down,” and need to share. Read it!

4 thoughts on “Review of “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter Miller”

  1. It’s extremely good — I still think of it often. It’s hard to get into other science fiction after having reading something so deep and human and heartfelt…

  2. >>>Miller has a unique gift for building empathy for characters who are very different from the reader.

    This.

    I did not feel myself as similar to any characters, but I missed them when they were gone.

  3. Absolutely. You said it much better than I. :-)

    I read on Wikipedia the manner of his death. I was flabbergasted, especially given some of the scenes in Fiat Voluntas Tua.

    I missed them all. After reading that on Wiki, I missed him too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>