Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Canticle for Leibowitz

I've got a good one for you.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. is a real treat for the grey matter. If you're looking for book to really sink your teeth into, this book might be next for you, ahead of all of those other books on the pile next to your bed.

Written in 1961, Canticle is shockingly current and provocative. Let me tell you a bit about the story. It is starts out set a few hundred years after our current day politicians did the unthinkable: unleashed an apocalypse of nuclear weapons that decimated most of the population of the plane, an event now known as The Conflict. 

The survivors in the bleakness of the 26th century were (will be?) pissed. At the scientists.

It was the scientists and thinkers who created the bombs that made the devastation possible at the time of the nuclear holocaust. So for hundreds of years, generations upon generations of people burned and destroyed every single book, paper, written document, and every stored record of knowledge. They call this The Simplification. Everyone is illiterate. Everything scientific is deliberately expunged except for those rare, undiscovered bits of flotsam paper. Many people are physically deformed from the high levels of radiation. Somewhere in Utah the monks who live at the monastery are devoted to honoring the memory of Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a Jewish scientist at Los Alamos who was martyred for his efforts to safeguard scientific knowledge in the aftermath of the conflict. They collect and transcribe the “Leibowitz Memorabilia,” including shopping lists, technical documents, and circuit diagrams that they cannot even begin to understand.

The monks secret away the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz for centuries, occasionally attempting to fill in the blanks on some missing words or phrases, studying the words and phrases, often memorizing texts in case there is another burning of paper. All of the protected pages are kept in total secrecy as all knowledge is suspect.

Although this Dark Ages replica time period is bleak and...well, dark, the continuation of the Catholic church is interesting. The church is fairly barbaric and, somehow, funny. Always there are people attempting to do the right thing for the right reasons and discovering that religious dogma and the institution of the church will always find ways to undermine one's humanity. Humans are a weak species. Many people are born with unusual deformities and these deformities become quite normal to see among the sparsely-populated towns and villages.

As the centuries pass and knowledge is slowly being rediscovered, we observe three distinct periods of time in Canticle, time periods that might be akin to Medieval times, a Renaissance time, and a Scientific time. Time periods where the human race progresses through rediscovery of technology and knowledge so very deliberately destroyed in centuries prior. Centuries where the darkness of ignorance slowly dies to the light of knowledge.

About eighteen centuries pass in the book! Each new epoch of time brings about greater and greater scientific discoveries by mankind and new challenges to the Abbey of St. Leibowicz that seeks to protect the knowledge that is archived there in the Utah cloister. The development of political climate, the evolution of Catholicism, and the development of technology plays an active character in this novel and definitely kept me turning the pages. Superstition and ignorance is generally celebrated during times of fear and anger while technology begins to appear during times of plenty.

Again, in the final epoch mentioned in the book, the human race is again on the edge of nuclear Armageddon. It is the year 3781 and civilization has not only recovered but has developed beyond the level it was at in the mid-twentieth century. Nation-states once again have nuclear arsenals. Space travel between earth and distant colonies has become common.

A war is threatening. Will we have learned from our past? Can we humans avoid repeating our appalling and flagrant mistakes of the past? Only the bicephalic woman with the lolling tomato-like second head knows as The Tomater Woman knows for sure.


There were times I literally laughed out loud because this book is surprisingly funny and times I had to shake my head at the ridiculous rules and human foibles of both the church and of the people in power. I find it amazing that a book written in 1961 could be so very modern, thought-provoking, humorous, and fresh. I've not traditionally been a scifi reader, though I have devoured several excellent scifi books within the last year or so. 

This book? This book I recommend. You might lose your interest a bit in the beginning, but stick with it.
I give it an honorable eight stars.

1 comment:

  1. I read this book quite a few years ago for a philosophy. This was during my first time in college. Good book and I wish I had kept it. I went through a massive book purge before we went to Korea and that was one of them. *sigh*