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Originally published as 3 short stories based on Miller’s own experiences as a World War II bomber pilot, this science fiction thriller is an epic prediction of the biggest dangers of the nuclear age and human history of violence. And, it’s definitely one of the most beloved post-apocalyptic fiction novels of all time.
The setting for A Canticle for Leibowitz is a Catholic monastery in the southwestern US right after the nuclear war. The post-apocalyptic fiction thriller covers millennia of rebuilding as civilization attempts to reappear.
But in a world almost decimated by nuclear war, survivors are not too keen on reviving technology. In fact, they viciously renounce and battle people who may want to reconstruct society using technologies that destroyed it in the first place. Of course, not everyone is content with this umbrella refusal.
One of the biggest proponents of the preservation of technology was the Albertan Order of Leibowitz, a Catholic order that felt that salvaged scientific knowledge, documentation, and technology should be preserved until when the new world is ready to use it responsibly once again. The original version of this novel won the 1961 Hugo Award as the best science fiction book.
A Canticle for Leibowitz follows the tale of this Catholic monastery and its citizens over millennia as society pulls back to isolated city-states and the globe recovers from the apocalypse. The monks at the monastery choose to keep the ancient, half-understood scientific knowledge until such time when people are ready to use it once more.
After several hundreds of years, the whole world has gone back to the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life, which is not great news for the Catholic Church. It has been losing its luster and status across the new world. In the 26th century, a “stranger” in the desert shows Francis Gerard, a 17-year-old, a hidden shelter where the ancient knowledge and relics were stored.
Among the treasured relics in the storage, the young man finds several documents authored by the Catholic monastery many centuries ago during the “Simplification” period. The finding results in a heated debate at the monastery, during which Francis’s meeting with the stranger is exaggerated. And some of them even go to the lengths of claiming that the stranger was the spirit of deceased Monastery leader, Leibowitz.
Some, of course, doubted if Francis ever met the stranger because there was no eyewitness. Fearing that a quick emergence of relics may end up delaying the canonization of Leibowitz, the head of the monastery sends Francis back to the desert to finish his vocational retreat and to distract people’s attention.
Francis is eventually professed and chooses to become a copyist for the Catholic Church. For a decade and a half, Francis copies most of the manuscripts he discovered at the shelter and gets invited to Rome to witness the canonization. Unfortunately, he’s robbed of the illumination along the way, but the original manuscript makes it to Rome. On his way back, Francis is shot dead with an arrow and is being buried by the same “stranger” that showed him the shelter.
Walter M. Miller Jr. closes the story in the year 3781. At this point in time in the post-apocalyptic world, people have reverted to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, alongside space colonies and space travel. Needless to say, there’s a lot of tension as the world is once again on the verge of intergalactic nuclear war.
Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a swift-witted assessment of humankind’s love for violence, war, and religion. From cover to cover, the novel is endlessly imaginative, provocative, and chilling – no question one of the best science fiction classics. The author’s writing is eloquent, exciting, and richly comic, plus a touch of grim and terror. You can feel the anger, sense of betrayal, and human resilience popping out of the pages.
If you’re after a science fiction novel with an abundance of lessons, look no further. A Canticle for Leibowitz packs a deeper purpose, too. Miller uses it as a mirror of a futuristic world that helps us examine our lives today.
The central theme here is the vicious cycle of human history and the role of technology and scientific knowledge in our downfall. Whereas the book is intended to make these lessons shine through, it still manages to be convincingly quirky and amusing, with eccentric and irreverent humor that makes it one of the most enjoyable reads.