Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibwitz - Book CoverTitleA Canticle for Leibowitz
AuthorWalter M Miller, Jr 
Paperback: 368 pages

A wholly remarkable book but not for the reasons usually trotted out by its fans:

  • it is not about Catholicism or the benefits bestowed by religion,
  • it is not about trite clichés such as ‘those who do not listen to history are doomed to repeat it’ or ‘with great power comes great responsibility’,
  • it is not about power of faith in the face of destruction.

The novel outlines a thesis which describes humanity as fundamentally and irredeemably broken. Humanity, after global nuclear war brought it to the brink of extinction, has been given a second chance to get it right this time, to develop a peaceful society which respects humanity and, by extension, the rest of the planet. Even with the full knowledge of the consequences, we can’t do it. One of the characters opines that the first near extinction event could be the result of ignorance. Perhaps the “ancients” simply didn’t understand or couldn’t comprehend the destruction they could cause. That humanity would put itself in the same situation for the same reasons, he says, beggars belief. While playing nuclear brinksmanship for a second time in humanity’s history, the government’s enactment of a law allowing euthanasia only in the event of terminal radiation poisoning is used to show that the world’s leaders are both fully aware of the consequences of their proposed actions but intend to carry them out anyway. That a colonisation mission is sent secretly to the stars is the final proof that no one in this world still holds onto the hope that reason or the human spirit (whatever that is) will triumph. Humanity is a job-lot whose consignment to the dustbin of history is inevitable and perhaps the option to be preferred.

The second of the three parts of the novel outlines the core of the argument. This is a point that is missed by most fan reviewers who usually get caught up in the imagery of the first (the monastery in the wastelands) and the emotion of the last (euthanasia and the impeding second nuclear war) parts. The middle section asks whether “to know” is sufficient motivation for the newly emerging secular scientific renaissance. What responsibility does the discoverer bear for how the discovery is used by others? Miller refuses to fall into the trap of simplistically preferring the good life to the technologically easy life. He very pointedly states that each individual has a moral responsibility to uphold the moral law of helping and protecting each and every individual. It is the duty off each individual to hold themselves and others to account for their actions. Shirking this responsibility or abrogating it to others is the true evil in the world of the novel and technological development without a moral compass to guide it is the tool Miller uses to make his case.

Is it the great work of art the fans claim? No, definitely not. There’s a lot about it that’s just plain clumsy. The figure of the Wandering Jew makes for a good (not so private) in-joke but is ultimately pointless. Miller’s rather heavy-handed treatment of the monks gathering and making rituals of the scraps of shopping lists that survived the first apocalypse lacks any subtlety. That the much vaunted scene between the doctor and the priest over the mercy-killing of a mother and baby with terminal radiation poisoning refuses to devolve into moralising is not a sign of brilliance, so claimed by so many fans, but of mere competence as a writer. The fact that it stands out from the common run of sci-fi is an indictment of moderns writers rather than a sign of Miller’s genius. One could be easily forgiven for seeing this book as nothing more than an expression of Miller’s guilt at his role as part of a bomber crew in World War II which, among other actions, destroyed the first monastery in western Europe, the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino, Italy.

(If you want to see someone struggling with his conscience, watch Fog of War, a documentary/interview with Robert McNamara consumed by the guilt of his involvement in World War II, Vietnam and the Cold War.)

Is it a good read? Definitely yes. The world Miller creates (in all it’s incarnations) is fascinating and Miller shows wonderfully well the flow and progression of the characters’ internal debates and quandaries. Don’t expect to find the gun-toting action or political intrigue of the standard run of post-apocalyptic novels. This book is not one of them. This book is a well told, well argued, bleak but at times very funny future history of the world and a look at how a bunch of very ordinary people live and deal with the consequences of the actions of their ancestors.