Thursday, 14 January 1999

Walter M. Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

Edition: Corgi, 1974
Review number: 187

Walter M. Miller's 1960 novel is really the classic of post holocaust science fiction. It contains three interrelated stories, set hundreds of years apart, as mankind slowly recovers from an atomic war, rebuilding the knowledge lost in the conflict and in the subsequent reaction against the scientists and intellectuals who had made a nuclear catastrophe possible.

The guardian of knowledge during mankind's lapse into pre-industrial technology is the Roman Catholic Church, and much of the book's background is based on Catholic ritual and symbols, including the titles of the three sections, which are quotations from the Vulgate - Fiat Lux ("let there be light"), Fiat Homo ("let [us] make man") and Fiat Voluntuas Tuas ("your will be done"). The action of each section takes place in a monastery in the Texan desert where large amounts of pre-deluge material (the holocaust is referred to as "the deluge", after Noah's flood) survives, most of which is completely incomprehensible to the monks to begin with (they copy it again and again by rote). In each section, the general level of civilisation increases and with it the understanding of the clues provided by the repository of knowledge. As the book progresses, the reader begins to realise that the renaissance of technology is going to lead inevitably to another holocaust. In fact, this is a large part of what I think Miller is saying; the point of the book is to make the pessimistic point that the evil side of human nature will win out over the good.

Throughout the book, Miller throws in symbolic characters: the wandering Jew, the Poet-Fool (a sort of medieval jester figure), an innocent who is thought to be the incarnation of the returning Christ. These characters interact with the more mundane groups of monks at the abbey, who form a sort of chorus through the changing circumstances of centuries.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a complex novel which well deserves its classic status.

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