“A Canticle for Leibowitz” Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Why hadn’t I got round to reading A Canticle for Leibowitz before? Not only is it one of the classics of the genre, it’s also right up my street – a post-apocalyptic novel written in the late 1950s about the recovery of society after a nuclear holocaust. And I’ve no idea why I’ve only just got round to reading it, should’ve done so long ago.

The narrative is centred on a Catholic monastery in the southwest of the USA (although by the time the story opens this is an anachronistic description of its location). It’s told in three sections (originally published separately then put together and modified into this novel). The first one is set about 600 years after the Flame Deluge, the nuclear holocaust which happened in the 20th Century. A backlash against technology and learning in the aftermath of the Deluge had left monasteries once again the storehouses of knowledge in a Dark Age. The story here centres round a novice who discovers relics of the blessed Isaac Leibowitz, beatified for his role in saving the knowledge of the world after the Deluge. His canonisation is being considered by the Church and there’s a tension between joy at the discovery of the relics and fear that this might jeopardise the canonisation if the Pope in New Rome thinks they’re faked. The protagonist for this part (the novice) is a sort of Holy Fool character – he believes, and he copies the knowledge of the ancients, and even understands some tiny part of it, but it’s all in a mystical way and he’d no more fake relics than fly in the air. Other monks are much more cynical, as you’d expect. And no-one really understands the knowledge they’re keeping, they are keeping it because that is their sacred trust.

The second part is around 500 years after that. New states are growing, and in conflict with each other – and the Church is no longer the only place for people who want to learn about the knowledge of the ancients. The story centres round a man who’s trying to rediscover the lost knowledge (in particular physics & electricity), and his visit to the monastery where he reads the books, debates philosophy with the monks. And meets a monk who has a knack for engineering and built a generator to power a lightbulb – the first since the Deluge. If the first part is the Dark Ages, this is the Renaissance or the early Englightenment – reading the old works and doing experiments and new work. Understanding not just preserving.

The last part is another 600 years later – the world has changed again, they have had space travel for over a hundred years and the spectre of nuclear weapons and nuclear war is rising. The world is organised into two superpowers, bristling at each other, and there have been “weapon tests” or maybe they’ve been fired in anger. Both sides have propaganda about how they didn’t do anything wrong, but the other side did and so retaliation etc etc. The story is partly about the Abbot sending out a group (with all the knowledge of the world) on a starship to join one of the colonies – to keep the Church and knowledge alive in the worst case scenario. And quite a lot of it is taken up with the Abbot’s fight against the secular authority’s regulations about permitting euthanasia for those who’ve been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. Suicide is a sin, you see, so the Abbot is against ending one’s suffering early because he believes that will consign the soul to eternal damnation. The book ends with a hint that the escaping monks made it off planet in time, and a hint that much of life on Earth has been killed in the conflagration. Just enough of a glimmer of hope to stop it being completely bleak, but that’s all.

The book isn’t just a “what might happen next” it’s also about knowledge and history. About how what we know now affects how we interpret the past, and about how chance and politics and circumstance affect what we have of the past to even interpret in the first place. How the events of one era can become the history of the next and the fables of the one after. And about faith (in this case in the particular form of the Catholic Church) and science – neither of which is shown as the One True Way and neither of which is without flaw. It’s also about cycles – and I guess about the question of is some knowledge just too dangerous for humankind. Miller is asking are we doomed to nuke ourselves back to barbarism or worse every couple of thousand years. That specific worry has retreated somewhat, but the more general form of it is still a disturbing one to contemplate. Are we just too curious and too prone to meddling for our own good?

One other thing I wanted to talk about was how much I appreciated the way Miller’s three parts show not only great changes over this large sweep of time (a thousand years between parts 1 & 3), but also continuity. And while the three eras were clearly analagous to periods in our own past & present, it wasn’t a case of recapitulating history exactly the same all over again. Basically the history felt real and solid, and plausible.

There was also a mystical thread running through the story – someone who is strongly implied to be the Wandering Jew of our own legend shows up in all three parts, and is even involved in nudging events at times. Knowingly? Is it really the same man? There are even hints this might be Leibowitz tho he himself denies it. I have a thought I’m struggling to articulate about how including this is intended to remind the reader that we aren’t all knowing gods – some things are still beyond our ken and who are we to say “impossible”.

I sort of think I might like to read a commentary on the book, if such a thing exists – I’m sure I’ve missed allusions to things both inside and outside the book.