Science fiction and fantasy                                            

A Canticle For Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller Jr.


The prospect of nuclear war weighed on the minds of many science fiction writers during the 1950s. In A Canticle For Leibowitz the author explores the devastating impact it might have on our learning and civilisation with his depiction of a society that has regressed to a state of ignorance.

The story focuses on the monks of Leibowitz Abbey, who are living in a new dark age whilst trying to keep the prospect of a better world alive. They're carefully preserving the scraps of knowledge that have survived the Fallout and the subsequent purge of intellectuals who were blamed for the disaster. When Brother Francis stumbles on papers in a hidden bunker he's initially met with scepticism from the rest of the monks, who think his judgement has been impaired by his recent fast. But eventually they realise the value of his discovery and slowly and cautiously they begin to experiment with what they've found.

Brother Francis is a few pieces short of the full set, and he takes years to pick up on the most obvious hints. So he's not a particularly engaging character, but his simplicity demonstrates how far humanity is supposed to have fallen. However the narrative doesn't dwell very much on any single character, so Brother Francis' obtuseness doesn't ruin the story. Instead the tale unfolds over centuries, with snapshots of different characters and times. This is the kind of science fiction that's more concerned about making a point than it is with manipulating the readers' emotions. A Canticle For Leibowitz is dry and unsentimental, and even a little cold in the way it documents the lives of a host of characters.

This is the kind of novel that lends itself to study, because what it lacks in emotion it makes up for in ideas. The author has imagined a journey to a new Renaissance that's painfully slow in coming about, and fraught with obstacles and misunderstandings. People fear civilisation, and some of the characters would rather not have it at all. It depends on written records, but those records are useless if the language to interpret them is lost. Walter M. Miller Jr. highlights the fragility of technology, and some of the ways a lack of understanding can stand in the way of progress. But he's also questioning whether advanced civilisation is desirable at all.

This story is a lucid exploration of the apocalyptic fears surrounding the bomb. Although this preoccupation with nuclear Armageddon dates it, the author's vision of a stunted civilisation is always going to be relevant to the human condition. It's an excellent book if you're looking for something intellectual and stimulating.

9th June 2010

Book Details

Decade: 1950s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction


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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson