A Canticle For Leibowitz
by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Winner of the 1961 Hugo for Best Novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz has an interesting history. The publication date in the overview column to the right is only partially correct. That year did see the first release of the novel length version of the story, even though the copyright date is listed as 1959. Several years prior to that (1955-57), Miller had three different novellas printed in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, all of which were heavily revised for book publication. I haven't read the early stories, but research tells me that several characters were added, deleted or renamed for the novel, along with locations changed for parts of the narrative.
The story is told in three parts, covering nearly two millennia of a future history following a nuclear holocaust. The first part, Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), is set approximately six hundred years after the war, and the location is a Catholic monastery in the American Southwest. No specifics are given, but I have always assumed it to be in New Mexico, but possibly southeastern Utah. An early passage mentions the road that passes the monastery is "a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso." Isaac Edward Leibowitz had been a physicist working for the U.S. military, possibly stationed at the White Sands Proving Grounds near Alamogordo or similar facility. Following the war, the few survivors reacted violently against anyone perceived to be part of the technology that created the disaster, leading to the Simplification, an era where books and knowledge were shunned, and even literacy denounced as work of the Devil. Leibowitz was able to escape the mobs and took refuge in a nearby monastery, where he convinced the monks that not all knowledge was evil, and that it was necessary to preserve portions of it for posterity. He is eventually discovered by the "Simpletons" and killed, the monks considering him a martyr for the cause of knowledge. They become "book-leggers" and "memorizers." Six hundred years later, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz still labors at studying and preserving the "Memorabilia," as well as advocating canonization for their namesake.
Novice Francis Gerard is on a solitary vigil in the desert when he encounters a refugee who claims he is on his way to the abbey. Through a fortuitous bit of luck (or fate), an action by the refugee enables Francis to discover an underground vault containing documents he identifies as having been written by Leibowitz himself. When he reports these findings to his abbot, the story is expanded and exaggerated by his fellow novitiates, leading some to conjecture the refugee was the spirit of Leibowitz himself. The fact that the refugee never appeared at the abbey leads Abbot Arkos to assume Francis had imagined him. While Francis refuses to deny the encounter, he is unable to convince his superior that he does not believe the wanderer was anything more that what he seemed, a poor soul looking for refuge. More on this character later. Several years pass. Francis' discovery leads to an investigation by emmissaries from the Pope in New Rome (St. Louis I think), and Leibowitz is eventually declared a Saint.
Part two, Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), jumps forward another six hundred years. The Order of Saint Leibowitz still protects and studies the ancient knowledge, while the outside world is experiencing the end of the dark age and the beginnings of a new interest in technology. Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott travels to the abbey to study the Memorabilia himself, but he is accompanied by soldiers loyal to his cousin Hannegan, Mayor of Texarkana. "Thon" seems to be used as a title, not part of his name, but I've been unable to deduce what it might mean, but he is a scholar at the "collegium," so it may confer some academic achievement. Taddeo enters an uneasy alliance with the current abbot, Dom Paulo. He respects the religious order for the preservation work they have done, but he yearns for the knowledge to be made available to more people so that any inherent technologies discovered can be put to good use in the resurgence of civilization. He finds a like-minded associate in Brother Kornhoer, who has constructed a dynamo that powers an arc light which illuminates the basement storeroom where Taddeo labors over the ancient documents. While he is at this task, the soldiers survey the abbey and make notes and diagrams, with the possible intent of using the facilities as a fort when Hannegan moves against the Laredo Territory and other foes. This is something Dom Paulo cannot allow, and even though he has multiple confrontations and arguments with Taddeo concerning the Leibowitz documents, the latter is sympathetic and able to destroy those notes and diagrams before he departs for Texarkana.
Another six hundred years pass. It is 3781, and man has once again risen to the heights (and depths) of the previous civilization. Nuclear energy is once again utilized, and space exploration has resumed and has advanced even farther than our current situation. There are colonies on the Moon and other planets, with plans for extra-solar expeditions. Global tensions are high following a fifty year Cold War between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition. Even though nuclear weapons testing is banned on Earth, it is allowed on the Moon and Mars, and both political adversaries are conducting secret tests in Earth orbit. Of course, accidents do happen, or maybe they aren't accidents after all, and a large city in each territory is destroyed. Millions are killed, other millions are displaced, many suffering from radiation sickness. Some seek refuge at the Leibowitz Abbey, where Abbot Zerchi endeavors to minister to them both physically and spiritually. He is adamantly opposed to the government's edict of "voluntary" euthanasia for those deemed likely to die a horrible and painful death. At the same time, he sets plans in motion for both the preservation of the Memorabilia and the Apostolic Succession if the worst happens and there is another all-out nuclear war.
Something that verges on fantasy is the inclusion of the refugee who helped Francis in the first part of the novel. He, or someone just like him, reappears in both of the other parts, even though all of these appearances could be hallucinations, and of course they span over twelve hundred years. He never revealed his name, but the way he talks about himself would lead one to think he is the fabled Wandering Jew, a man who mocked Jesus and is doomed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming. There are children in the third segment that refer to him as Lazur (Lazurus), saying "What Jesus raises up stays raised up." It's hard for me to decide what Miller's intention was for this character. He appears to Francis but no one else sees him then, and he isn't seen again until Dom Paulo (alone) visits him in the desert outside the abbey in Part Two. Even though several children talk about him to Abbot Zerchi, when he sees him it is briefly in the refectory, but he can't find anyone else who remembers seeing him. Perhaps he just symbolizes man's continuing search for truth that is constantly thwarted by various obstacles. I can accept this as allegory, certainly easier that I can accept something toward the end of the book which Zerchi perceives as a miracle.
Those are the bare bones of the story, but there is so much more going on under the surface. Miller altered his writing style in the different parts, with the initial segment more methodical and serene, echoing the contemplative nature of the monks' lives. In the second part, the narrative is rougher and the emotions expressed more volatile, since it deals with the new emerging search for knowledge and the raw ambition of Hannegan and others. Part Three, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done), resembles a Socratic dialogue, with the tenets of Abbot Zerchi and Doctor Cors the opposing viewpoints. This was not the first story Miller wrote that encompasses the cyclical nature of human experience. He seems to have a fascination with how many civilizations have risen out the ashes of another, reaching great heights only to end in tragedies of conquest or natural disaster. I am sure it is not coincidence that the name of the first abbot mentioned begins with the letter A and the final one with a Z. It is fitting that the Catholic Church figures so prominently here, just as they did in preserving knowledge during the Middle Ages after the fall of Rome. An Albertian Order is designated as such since it refers to one of the first true scientists, Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar, Catholic bishop, and eventual Saint. Another prominent Catholic scientist was Monseigneur Georges Lemaître, the originator of the Big Bang theory of universal origin and expansion. As non-religious a person as I am, I still have great respect for those and other theologians who do not let their faith interfere with their understanding of the physical universe, and their efforts should always be recognized and applauded.
Miller was a devout Catholic, and while the Church is presented mostly in reverent terms, and the abbots and several of the other priests in the story are memorable, they are presented as totally human, with all the frailites that entails, including doubt and uncertainty. There have been several books I have read that have presented at least one unique idea that transcends the narrative. Here, it is the notion that there is, and always has been, an accurate truth about the nature of existence, although we can never be certain anyone can experience the full essence of what that might be. We still must make the effort though, and that is what the Church has always been about, trying to understand where Man fits into the fabric of the cosmos. A Canticle For Leibowitz carries on that tradition, asking some hard questions about humanity and why we always seem to be our own worst enemy. It is not only a great science fiction novel, it is a great book, period, well deserving of its Hugo as well as positive responses from many mainstream critics. It has never been out of print since its first publication, and let's hope that stays true for the future, because it is a story well told about a very important subject. Highly recommended.
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