A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Rating: ★★★★

A Canticle for Leibowitz picks up after the fall of man, in the wake of the first great nuclear war and the 'Simplification' that followed. The novice Francis is trying to build a shelter to protect himself from wolves when he encounters a Wanderer who, after a few misunderstandings, points him at a rock that eventually leads Francis to discover some lost relics of St. Leibowitz, a Jewish nuclear engineer who founded the nearby Abbey and the 'booklegging' movement to preserve knowledge from before the Simplification. From there, we follow three critical periods in the history of the Leibowitzian order: the canonisation of Leibowitz, the academic contact with the order's mass of preserved knowledge, and the minor role it plays at the time of the next nuclear war, many centuries later.

This is a very nuanced story about the role of the church. Miller lays out the case for the church as a peaceful body, preserving the knowledge and temperance of mankind through periods of great turmoil. While he does so, he also acknowledges the unavoidable politicisation of such an institution, the infighting and the conflict with secular powers, and the great evils that even kindly doctrine can lead to. A Canticle summarises in snapshot a grand cycle which repeats in outline the history of the Church from the fall of Rome to the modern day.

For all this, the book is very human, engaging with this historical sweep from the perspective of small players, with their own small problems and very real emotion. The novel is profoundly agnostic. Events of theological significance take place, from the role of the Wanderer to the claims of the Old Jew to the final delirious events where the tomato-seller's second head awakens. Yet in each case no divine action is necessarily discernible, God is left unevidenced and his will is unclear.

A science-fiction classic, and with good reason, A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of those rare books that I think is suitable both for churchgoers and atheists.